Book Review

From the Economist, via Tim Furnish, a review of Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values.

IN THE early years of the Enlightenment, a few brave philosophers challenged the Christian order—an apparently hopeless task. But their efforts paid off, and tomes have since been written, by authors from Diderot to Richard Dawkins, about the triumph of secular man. What, after all, has Christianity ever done for us?

Rather a lot, argues Nick Spencer in an excellent new book, “The Evolution of the West”. Mr Spencer, who is research director at Theos, a religious think-tank in London, picks up from Larry Siedentop’s epic work from 2014, “Inventing the Individual”—a reassertion of how much the Western world owes to Christianity. It is not a popular thesis but, like a prophet crying in the post-modern wilderness, Mr Spencer provokes reflection that goes far beyond the shallow ding-dongs of the modern culture wars. He wants to make sure Westerners know where they came from as a way to illuminate where they are going.

Starting with the ancient world, he takes the reader on an extravagant journey to meet, among many others, Augustine of Hippo and John Locke as well as Thomas Piketty. The author believes that the fact that Christianity became the religion of the European establishment has blinded people to what a revolutionary doctrine it was (and is). And he clearly believes it can still play a role. The Christianisation of Europe, he says, was not a bunch of reactionary clerics trying to shut down a noble, free, secular ancient world, but a new idea of “a voluntary basis for human association in which people joined together through will and love rather than blood or shared material objectives”. Christianity declared that humans “have access to the deepest reality as individuals rather than merely as members of a group”.

Out of this, with a reinjection at the Reformation, came the origins of the modern world: a belief in equality of status as the proper basis for a legal system and the assertion of natural rights leading to individual liberty, as well as the notion that a society built on the assumption of moral equality should have a representative form of government.

More at the link.