I read recently about a Hungarian man named Csanád Szegedi. In 2009, Csanád Szegedi was vice-president of the far-right, virulently anti-Semitic party Jobbik. He was elected to the European Parliament and wrote a book called I Believe in Hungary’s Resurrection.
Then he found out he was Jewish. His maternal grandparents were both Auschwitz survivors.
Szegedi’s life, along with all his certainties, collapsed. He was forced to resign from Jobbik; he began to meet with a Lubavitch rabbi. He became an Orthodox Jew; he adopted the name Dovid, wore a kippah, grew a beard, learned Hebrew, and had himself circumcised. He burned thousands of copies of his book, and became an activist against anti-Semitism in Europe. Now he’s making aliyah, migrating to Israel with his wife and two children.
Where we come from matters for who we are, sometimes in unexpected and inconvenient ways
As with our biology, so with our history: where we come from matters for who we are, sometimes in unexpected and inconvenient ways. “History writes historians just as much as historians write history,” notes Nick Spencer in his new book, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values. “The presuppositions of an age, the shadows it lives under, the light it thinks it grows towards: all inform how it narrates its past.”
It also, Spencer shows, informs the path it takes forwards. Spencer, who is Research Director at Theos think tank in London, does an admirable job of demonstrating our collective amnesia about the Christian roots of everything from human rights to the Scientific Revolution, to the rule of law and (surprise!) atheism itself. His rich, complex origin stories also make it clear why that forgetfulness matters.
Spencer’s (appealingly slender) volume has many strengths, but perhaps the most important is its even-handedness. He neatly deflates the popular secularist myth of a glorious Enlightenment that liberated us from religious orthodoxy into political and personal freedom and the light of science (as defended, for example, in philosopher A.C. Grayling’s recent book The Age of Genius). But he also cautions Christians against an overly triumphal account of Western history that steamrolls over the knotty, often ambiguous reality. “If Christians of the present think Christians of the past unanimously spent their time campaigning volubly for democracy, welfare, rights and the Scientific Revolution,” he writes, “they should spend some time reading the Christians of the past.”
The wrong of being right
This is a welcome public service. It’s all too common now for people on either side of a question to seize hold of the truth they have and elevate it to the whole truth – in the process scorning (and missing out on) what their opponent’s version of things gets right. Such an approach makes for poor history, and poor civics. It’s like being that spouse who escalates routine arguments to absolutes: “you always do this”, “you never do that”.
The Evolution of the West coaches us in how to think and speak about the influence of Christianity thoughtfully, temperately, and justly. Spencer’s accounts of democracy, of humanism, of the welfare state and so on, remind us that history is always more complicated than we think. He distils for us complex ideas and works – like Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs – making them accessible without being reductive. He pulls off this tip-of-the-iceberg effect partly with the help of some very good metaphors, the most important being the one in the title.
If we were to rewind the clock and “run it again”, our world would presumably look quite different.
Biological evolution is widely imagined as “a smooth, linear, even intentional progress line” – when in fact it’s circuitous, convoluted, fraught with accidents, coincidences, dead ends, unintended consequences.
Inalienable human dignity, democracy, equality before the law, the abolition of slavery, empirical science; these were not “givens” as soon as the Great Commission was set in motion. If we were to rewind the clock and “run it again”, our world would presumably look quite different.
But – a very important but – this doesn’t make the process arbitrary. Again, the evolutionary metaphor is illuminative. The idea of “convergence” – that, given the same conditions and constraints, the same things (eyes, wings, claws, brains, tool-use) evolve time and time again – suggests that certain things were probable, if not certain, from the moment those conditions were in place.
The Bible’s teaching that all are made in the image of God, for example, planted in the right soil, contains within it the seeds of contemporary attitudes towards discrimination or disability or universal education. Of course, Christian readers will agree with Spencer that there is another agency at work – an overruling providence, the God who works through but also in spite of his people.
Accidental, not arbitrary
Take William Tyndale, for example, one of the great Reformers, who was “one of the least democratically minded Christian thinkers in the English tradition” – and one of the most important figures in the development of democracy in Britain. He was an extreme political authoritarian; but he also believed that the ploughboy should have equal access to the Bible along with the most learned clergyman in the land. His ideas of spiritual democracy could not but contribute (eventually!) to the case for political democracy – though he himself would have been horrified at such a development.
“Tyndale the political theorist,” writes Spencer, “was matched – and badly undermined – by Tyndale the evangelical.” His contribution to democratic government was accidental – but not arbitrary. He could not control the outcomes of these radical ideas, set loose on the world. The Bible is not a tame lion.
Another metaphor Spencer uses for this process will be more familiar to readers of that Bible. “Christianity, or rather Christians,” he explains, “have been the vessel into which God has poured himself, but they hold that treasure badly: they leak, they spill, they contaminate. And yet, somehow, what they carry persists and preserves and heals and hopes.”
However many wrong turns Christians take – and the essays in The Evolution of the West show that Christians have had a profoundly ambiguous relationship with some of the demonstrable human goods we now take for granted – the treasure that they purport to bear remains.
Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.