Evolution of the West: the complex relationship between Christianity and modernity
by Matthew J. Franck
Notwithstanding the unevenness observed, The Evolution of the West is a thoughtful and provocative work.
As I was finishing Nick Spencer’s The Evolution of the West, I happened to be in the same room with my mother on a Sunday afternoon. We’ve often exchanged books, so she asked what I was reading, and I showed her the cover, reading the subtitle to her, How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values. “Oh,” she said, “I always assumed that was true—that Christianity shaped how we think.” Mom is well into her ninth decade now. In her generation, Christianity’s fundamental and positive role in forming the thought and culture of western civilization was obvious to anyone. It no longer is. Spencer, the research director of Theos, a Christian think tank in the UK, has set himself the task of restoring an embattled perspective on western thought, society, and politics. The Evolution of the West, a collection of a dozen essays, can best be understood as a primer—a brief, accessible introduction to a very large subject, which succeeds on its own merit but also encourages the more curious reader to turn next to many more challenging scholarly works on which Spencer relies.
Why Christianity’s role in shaping the West should be in need of vindication is itself an interesting tale. In secularist circles, from the eighteenth-century Roman historian Edward Gibbon to the most recent popularizers of the “New Atheism,” it has long been axiomatic that everything praiseworthy in western societies was achieved by overcoming and displacing the legacy of Christianity. Equality, freedom, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, modern science and its fruits—all of these are viewed as luminous achievements brought about by an escape from the stultifying, superstitious shadows of the Christian religion. This view does not withstand serious historical scrutiny. Indeed, after reading this book, there are two things one can no longer credit. The first, which Spencer explicitly debunks, is that modernity’s highest achievements owe nothing to Christianity and everything to secularism. The second, the untenability of which he pauses repeatedly to underscore, is that everything that is good about modernity is due to Christianity in some unambiguous or univocal way. The matter is more complicated than that.
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