Yes, I borrowed the title from the well-known Month Python sketch from Life of Brian.
Knowing my interest in religions and history, Electra got me The Evolution Of The West by Nick Spencer, based on a recent review by The Economist (from which I’m quoting below). A book that is doubly appropriate, as it examines the effect of Christianity on Western values, and argues that, to understand our present and shape our future, we really need to examine the past. And Christianity is a formative part of that past – surprisingly so for our secular times, when authors from Diderot to Richard Dawkins have raved about the triumph of secular man. What, after all, has Christianity ever done for us?
Rather a lot, argues Nick Spencer. 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. 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.
Now, I may be a Christian, but I’m not an idiot. All churches have been responsible for deplorable actions (see below). Thankfully, the book is not a tragic lament for lost Christendom, and Spencer is frank about the sins of the church. But too often, he says, they blind people to the communal, psychological, educational and creative benefits that have flowed from Christian belief. And he worries about how the absence of deep cultural norms will play out in the West. Can secular creeds bind people together now that there is plenty of pluribus but not much unum?
Shorn of its establishment baggage, Spencer argues, Christianity still has much to say to an amnesiac world about human dignity, political freedom, and economic inequality. And, quoting William Wilberforce, he warns that Christian values are inseparable from Christianity itself. That is why the author argues that the end of religion is no nearer than Francis Fukuyama’s end of history. Lurking everywhere in the secularized West is what he calls a “disenchantment with disenchantment”. People still want more than just freedom and choice. They want to belong, they want a community rooted in something shared, they thirst for an identity, and they want to find meaning beyond themselves. “Having arrived at the secular self,” says Mr Spencer, “we kept on searching.”
All readers, whatever their religious, non-religious or political persuasions, should read this [book].
Sughra Ahmed, Chair, Islamic Society of Britain
Sins of the Church
If Mr. Spencer explains how Christianity is relevant today, Stephen Tomkins’ A Short History Of Christianity describes its chequered past, warts and all. Tomkins was a writer for the Monty Pythons, but also has strong credentials as a religious scholar. His presentation displays his dry wit, making the reading a—historically accurate—pleasure. Where else can you read about the time when the Catholic church, in a desperate attempt to clean up the Vatican elected a saint for Pope; a monk whose only aspiration was to be in a monastery cell and pray? The man resigned after a few months, because an angel was telling him to do so at nights, and nominated the cardinal this angel was urging him to make Pope. Sadly, it turned out this Cardinal had used some heating pipes that led to the Pope’s room to talk to the Pope at nights, impersonating an angel. As might be expected, the new Pope’s first act was to imprison his predecessor—who died in a prison cell a couple of years later.
And who nowadays remembers how the church selected a man who was an excellent manager by all accounts to clean up its affairs, shortly before the Reformation? A task he fulfilled admirably until he lay on his deathbed and made his dying wish: to make his 17-year-old son a Pope. Out of respect, the cardinals followed his wish, and the young lad did everything one might expect from someone his age who had grown up with a (now dead) overbearing, strict father: he opened up a brothel in the Vatican, castrated a bishop who dared criticize him, and generally did everything he could to undo his father’s work. His end was rather ignominious: he fled the Vatican when the people of Rome revolted against him, disgusted at his excesses, and died from a stroke in the arms of his mistress. He was still in his 20s.
What I particularly enjoyed about these books? That they offer an unblinkered, honest account of our past, helping us better understand our present. A present that Christianity has played a crucial part in shaping.
“a voluntary basis for human association in which people joined together through will and love rather than blood or shared material objectives”
… tragic thing is the world had this long before the Christians came along, thinking they had invented it.
Interesting point, but, actually, antiquity had pretty rigid rules until Christianity broke them. Wives belonged (literally) to their husbands, and their duty was to procreate. Masters had power of life and death over their slaves. The head of the family (the paterfamilias) had absolute rule over family members. And the clan leader ruled over all.
For example, the 2nd-century jurist Gaius explicitly relied on 3 tests to establish a person’s status (and worth): Were they free or slaves? A citizen of Rome or foreign-born? A paterfamilias or in the power of an ancestor?
Even in supposedly progressive Athens, women were treated as objects in the service of the family interests. Marriages were prearranged and their own emotions mattered but little. You can read more about this in my own post, https://nicholasrossis.me/2014/09/02/the-real-women-of-pearseus/
I appreciate your blog and look forward to Spencer’s book. My list of books is long and ever-growing. As secularization has grown, so has the degeneration of society. Religions are not flawless, but at their root is the idea to assist their followers to search out their higher selves and contribute to the greater good. Bashing religion, mostly Christianity, has become a parlor game of comedians, intellectual elites, and politicians. It’s a game that robs humanity of it’s better self.
Thank you, Kelly! I’m not against secularization, actually, as it forms a useful bulwark against the Church’s (any church’s, really) more authoritarian tendencies. It’s mostly polemics (from either side) I frown upon. Bashing Christianity is, indeed, distasteful, to put it mildly. And it robs us of our past, therefore of our present and future as well.
Faith is entirely personal. I have issues with organized religions, which are often more about power than teaching you practices to be generous and kind. Sometimes when writing I find religious themes coming forward. The early years of Catholic training runs very deep! “Pope Joan, a Novel” is another fascinating book based on a true story even though the Catholics would never admit to a woman pope in their history. Great post today.
I have read Pope Joan. Sounds plausible, for sure. The Church’s stance towards women has been ambiguous, to say the least. Which is of particular shame, since (as Spencer explains), part of Christianity’s revolutionary thinking was that everyone, including women and slaves, should be treated as equals, as they’re all God’s children and equal in His eyes.
Absolutely fascinating post – thanks for my new reading material for the coming year, Nicholas 🙂
Aw, you 🙂
I have no religion, and I am not impressed by the many things done in the name of various religions over the years. However, if these books present an unbiased view, then they are undoubtedly good recommendations.
Best wishes, Pete.
Thank you, Pete. I know what you mean. I’m now finishing Spencer’s book, and he does make a convincing argument that Christianity has largely shaped our secular beliefs.
Interesting as always, Nicholas. I’m not well versed in religion but do see the historical and present day impact on our society, that’s for sure. These books appeal to me for their “unblinkered” view. Great recommendations.
Thank you, D! I’m now finishing Spencer’s book, and he does make a convincing argument.