THR Web Features   /   October 12, 2023

Living in a WEIRDER World

Protestant pagans in a post-Christian West.

Brad East

( William Blake’s illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy reflected the artist’s critical views of the Industrial Revolution. Minos, c.1824–27, by William Blake (1757–1827), for Dante’s Inferno; Wikimedia Commons, public domain, {{PD-US-expired}}.)

Reviewed Here  

Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West
Andrew Wilson
Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2023.

One of the surest signs of Christianity’s lingering influence on the West is its stubborn commitment to telling metanarratives of its own decline. Historicism cannot save us—cannot provide either moral direction or spiritual significance—but in the absence of a better alternative, we stick with it. As theologian Robert Jenson wrote about a decade ago, “It has become apparent that the method of interpreting events by placing them in history cannot interpret its own appearance in history and so cannot itself guarantee the meanings it claims to establish. Some external source of meaning is being relied on in a hidden way, or indeed openly recruited. We know that we are inventing our stories and the meanings they conjure, yet we cannot stop relying on them.”

The political valence of these inventions is flexible. Major theorists on the left admit the groundlessness of “Western values” such as liberty, equality, and human rights but see nothing following from it: as if the branch sawed off the tree continued to float in midair. Reviewing a book on modern atheism, in response to the claim that so much left-liberal moral and political thought is effectively Christianity without faith, essayist George Scialabba replied: “So what?”

As for the right, a philosopher like Roger Scruton does not blush to admit that “the conservative…cannot return to an innocence which his own thinking has destroyed.… The reasons that he observes for sustaining the myths of society are reasons which he cannot propagate.” With Plato, conservatives must defend the noble lie; or with Strauss, they can hide their views in plain sight; or with Wittgenstein, they may lapse into silence. What they cannot do is speak the simple truth aloud, lest an order built on fiction crumble as a result, unleashing greater evil in the process.

Explicitly Christian historiography in this vein usually comes in either of two forms. One is to observe the ruins with resignation. Neither Alasdair MacIntyre nor Carl Trueman inspires much hope in the reader. We live in a wasteland—the branch crashed to the ground the moment the saw was finished—and while despair is not an option, neither is optimism. Whether we lament or celebrate, Christendom is well and truly gone.

Another form is triumphalist. John Milbank represents this route. He certainly does not see the corpse of Christendom as anything but dead. But if Christians believe anything, it is that corpses can return to life. And if the truth of Christian faith is the hope of the world, if nothing else has the transcendent power to order our goods in common to our ultimate good, then the church should not be bashful in her politics or public presence. The gospel doesn’t call for false modesty. It calls for evangelists.

Andrew Wilson’s new book, Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West, is the latest entry in this genre. But it doesn’t follow any of these well-worn tracks. Wilson is a Christian pastor, so he’s not shilling for a secular regime built on religious lies. Yet he avoids both melancholy and bravado. His tale is not a declension per se. Nor does he offer his fellow believers a path back to social and cultural power. He holds open the possibility of revival, but his guiding light is belief in divine providence. Wedded to a global perspective that undercuts Western parochialism, this belief leads Wilson to suppose that it is neither the best nor the worst of times, but simply the time we have been given. 

Two big ideas define the book. The first is that the year 1776 explains, or contains in nuce, every major feature of the modern world as we know it. The second is Wilson’s expansion of Harvard anthropologist Joseph Henrich’s label for Westerners: not just WEIRD but WEIRDER. The acronym stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic, Ex-Christian, and Romantic. These are the seven facets that define the unique, historically contingent character of “Western” societies today (Wilson does not like the W-word; he either avoids it, puts it in scare quotes, or replaces it with WEIRDER). Most of the book consists of recounting how each of these traits appeared, took hold, or otherwise began to be disseminated in and around the year 1776.

The story that unfolds is wonderful to read. Wilson has a light touch and an enviable ability to interweave telling vignettes with major events and countless names, dates, and locations without overwhelming the reader. More than two-thirds of the book is straight narrative. Commentary is present throughout, but Wilson clearly wants the work to be accessible to lay readers; his primary audience is not scholars.

The narrative, for its part, is a mix of material history and engagement with ideas. Wilson takes seriously the economic, geographic, and institutional elements that transformed the late medieval and early modern worlds into the one we take for granted today. Having said that, Wilson’s approach hews closely to the late historian John Lukacs’s contrarian methodology about which he wrote in A Short History of the Twentieth Century:

The current, often deemed “scientific” belief is that history, perhaps especially in the democratic age, is the result of great material and economic factors, of which the lives, acts, and thoughts of people are largely the consequences. That is less than a half-truth.… What people thought (and think), what they believe, what they choose to think, what they prefer to believe—that is the main essence of their lives, of which their material conditions and economics desires are most often the outcomes, and not the other way around.

As Wilson writes early in his opening chapter, 1776 “was a year in which the things that were done—battles, retreats, river crossings, and so forth—were not nearly as important as the things that were said and written.” Caveat lector to all Marxists, materialists, and other skeptics of the adage that ideas have consequences.

Some of Wilson’s capital letters have obvious correlates: “Democratic” connects to the American Revolution, “Educated” to the Enlightenment, “Rich” to free markets. The use of 1776 is less gimmick than heuristic. It really is remarkable that, in the same year, Benjamin Franklin revised Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, Edward Gibbon published volume one of Decline and Fall, Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations, Thomas Paine published Common Sense, David Hume finished writing Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and Immanuel Kant was busy outlining his first Critique. Wilson goes so far as to claim that “we could make a good case that there was more intellectual firepower sitting down for Sunday lunch in Europe on February 11, 1776, than at any time before or since,” followed by a laundry list of leading figures in every major branch of knowledge, from chemistry and sociology to geology and mathematics. Something was in the air.

Other initials in the acronym may be less obvious. Wilson uses “Western” to talk about globalization, symbolized by Captain James Cook’s third voyage around the world. “Romantic” is clear, though Wilson admits that Romanticism blossoms only a generation later. He locates its antecedents in Casanova, Goethe, Rousseau, Blake, and Sturm und Drang. As for “Industrialized,” so many of the inventions that made that revolution possible were built or invented or distributed in 1776.

The heart of the book, however, is “Ex-Christian.” After all, 1776 isn’t just “the year that made us who we are.” It “provides us with an origin story for the post-Christian West.” Wilson is a Western Christian who wants fellow believers to know how to navigate a world that has rejected their faith but not its legacy. He’s not defensive, but neither is he uncritical. He therefore also wants non-Christians to own up to the inheritance they presuppose but do not affirm. More than once he quotes T.S. Eliot, who wrote that “a society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become positively something else.” For this reason Wilson is unimpressed by the seeming omnipotence of WEIRDER culture, carrying all before it. Its contingency is its weakness. We are not yet at the end of history. Either the West will definitively disown its Christian roots (and thus mutate into something monstrous); or reverse secular trendlines and reclaim its ancient faith (in what form and to what end, who knows?); or continue to hover in midair, resting in the shade of a tree from whose living sustenance it long ago severed itself.

As Wilson notes, “The disturbing question is: What if the legacy runs out? Is there a finite amount of leftover Christian capital available, and if so, what happens when we have spent it?” In Vladimir Solovyov’s wry aphorism, “Man descended from apes, therefore we must love one another.” WEIRDER ethics come from somewhere: the faith and teaching of Christian tradition. The former cannot be utterly divorced from the latter without loss.

Here is how Wilson summarizes the matter:

The modern West is post-Christian in the same sort of way that it is postindustrial. Neither Christianity nor industrialization have been truly left behind, for all that our use of “post-” language implies they have. Their cultural footprints remain enormous, even when the churches and factories have been turned into flats. What has happened, rather, is that society has been so irrevocably shaped by their influence that we can think of their legacy as secure and begin to contemplate moving “beyond” them into a wide variety of new possibilities, according to the demands of the market.

In this sense we aren’t so much “ex-Christian” as a particular cocktail of Christian and other elements. After quoting Voltaire’s vision of a humane generic monotheism, Wilson calls it “Western ex-Christianity in miniature: hyper-Protestantism, thinly disguised.” His own argument is that the “successor ideology”—writer Wesley Yang’s term for recent movements in support of intersectionality, anti-racism, and identity politics—so powerfully marching through our institutions today, yet weirdly so difficult to name, is best understood as a sort of Protestant paganism. “Paganism, which has always seen the sacred as immanent and ultimacy as located within this world of space and time, reacted with the divisions and doubts brought by Protestantism, and produced a new entity. The result is as fascinating as it is confusing, combining disenchantment with re-enchantment, and spiritual ambiguity with moral certainty.” The combination of religious pluralism and moral zeal may strike some of us as uncanny or unwelcoming, but “it makes perfect sense in light of its origins.” Protestant pagans are everywhere in the post-Christian West.

Though Wilson ends the book with a smattering of examples and illustrations of what it might mean to live well—for Christians, to live faithfully—in a WEIRDER world, the upshot of the work is diagnostic, not prescriptive. Personally, I found the lack of a Sainted Option or programmatic plan of action refreshing. From start to finish, Wilson’s tone is the opposite of pained, angry, anxious, mournful. He’s not wearing sackcloth and ashes. He’s cheerful. The book is an explanatory invitation to all readers of good faith to find the roots of our world in an eventful year some two and a half centuries ago. The invitation is, if I may use a word that has of late fallen on bad times, winsome in the extreme. Christians will find in it much to profit them; so will Jews, Muslims, and members of other traditions. For all of us, the question is not so much “What’s next?” as “How now shall we live?” Wilson suggests that, however the wider culture replies, each of us is responsible for our own answer. If he’s right to believe in providence, then he’s right about this, too.