The Value Olympics: A study of how the Church shaped the world neglects how the world shaped the Church
It should be obvious to everyone that Western culture—that ill-defined amalgam of beliefs and practices—and Christianity have been closely related since the birth of Jesus. Though Christianity began in what is now the non-European Mideast, it developed within the framework of an empire centered in Rome. Indeed, by the fifth century C.E., Rome had also become the center of Western, or Latin, Christianity. Medieval maps might have shown Jerusalem as the center of the world in the imagination of Christians, but in reality the center lay to the north and the west.
In the last two decades, however, these cultural “Siamese twins” have been ripped apart in the popular press, prominently by anti-Christian and antireligious controversialists, notably Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. The sweeping indictments brought by both Dawkins and Hitchens castigated Christianity and religion itself as fundamentally in opposition to the liberal values and practices of the West, particularly as defined through reference to the 18th-century movement known as the Enlightenment.
Nick Spencer’s The Evolution of the West counters the works of these two English writers—the result being a book with a very English tone. For example, chapter two is titled “A Christian nation,” but it does not mean nation in any general sense. It means Britain or England specifically, as a result of which Americans might be less engaged by the author and his subject matter. While Spencer is writing, Christianity in the West and in the United States is witnessing a steep decline in belief, particularly among young people. It would be hard to attribute this decline to any particular author, especially a couple of self-satisfied Brits. Instead, it may result from the increasing pluralism of American and European society, along with the social welfare concerns that Spencer notes in his final chapter. That last might be the most dangerous for Christian apologists—suggesting as it does that once people’s basic physical and psychological demands are met by society or the state, their need for Christianity or religion diminishes commensurately.
Launching a sweeping defense to counter a sweeping indictment, Spencer moves from the first century to the present in order to show that “Western” values are not a product of the 18th century nor even of pagan or non-Christian society, but rather are deeply embedded in Christianity itself. Spencer’s move is to argue that Christianity is the continuous formative generator of Western values and ideas. His method is to take an idea or a value presumed to be common today and then to trace its origins back to Christianity. The result is a West that would be unrecognizable without the formative influence of Christian beliefs and values. Spencer writes, “[W]omen’s rights, care for the poor, attenuated slavery, legal equality, conscience: none of these was a reality. . . . But the seeds that had been promisingly sown by Christianity were not entirely destroyed in the social and political chaos of the early Middle Ages.” Unfortunately, since all these laudable goals took another millennium or more even to become part of the serious conversation in the West (much less a reality even today), it is a little hard to give Christianity itself much credit. Surely the better argument is to ask what had entered Western life to make women’s rights suddenly desirable and slavery dubious, though this would mean that Christianity was itself altered in the process. And of course, we must deal with the fact that plenty of Christians even today deny that women’s rights are a Christian matter at all.
Spencer’s book certainly provides useful polemical material for English Christians inclined to rage at the ghost of Christopher Hitchens or to gossip at tea with the vestry, but it is not really a historical defense. To take but one example, Spencer is willing to grant atheists the possibility of believing in human rights and humanity, but his clinching argument is theological, not historical—the traditional final line of defense that atheists cannot really defend the idea of human rights, because there is no eternal verity to certify them. While that may well be true, it is a debating point rather than a fact of history—and even as a debating point it doesn’t get you very far.
The real problem with this book, however, lies in the premise, and here the problem is the same for atheist and Christian polemicists alike. If it is impossible to understand Western civilization (whatever on earth that is!) without Christianity (however you might want to define it), it is impossible to understand Christianity without the structures, ideas and philosophies of the world in which it grew. Think of Paul’s missionary journeys and the possibility of undertaking them in a world not bound by Roman law and language. Or think of the greatest theologian of the ancient and possibly the medieval world—Augustine of Hippo. By the time Augustine became a Christian, he was already a professional rhetorician steeped in some brand of Neoplatonism. A version of Augustine’s confessions based exclusively on biblical texts and ideas rather than incorporating large doses of pagan and pre-Christian philosophy is simply unimaginable.
The truth is that Spencer’s book furthers a false partisanship that at this point serves no useful purpose. Both yesterday and today, Christians and non-Christians, theists and atheists, shared in making the world in which we live. As a historian, this author has grave reservations about Spencer’s narrative. As a citizen, though, this reviewer has much in common intellectually and politically with theists and atheists alike. That is because Christianity and Western culture are mutually dependent, and even more because our common future requires us to work together. Scoring debating points is a fun leisure activity for the sophomores among us, I suppose. In the meantime, the globe keeps heating up, and women and children keep being exiled from their homelands.
The Evolution of the West. How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values
(SPCK publishing, 2016, 204 pp)
ISBN – 13: 978-0281075201