Remaking the World: In Conversation with Andrew Wilson

I was delighted to be joined recently by theologian, historian, author and pastor Andrew Wilson to discuss his new book: Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West.

GJM: Hi Andrew, it’s good to speak to you. Tell us first of all, what’s the ‘big idea’ in your new book?

Andrew Wilson: Well, the big idea is that we are the product of seven transformations which have shaped the modern West, and all seven of them are to be found in miniature in events that took place in 1776 which have formed us far more than we know. To make that point I use the acronym WEIRDER which is an adaptation of something that psychologists have used for a while to refer to us being ‘Western’, ‘Educated’, ‘Industrialised’, ‘Rich’, ‘Democratic’, ‘Ex-Christian’ and ‘Romantic’. Those seven things make us very distinctive, and blend material, economic, technological, ideological, philosophical and religious factors to describe the world we live in. You are here because of this series of transformations we can trace back to 1776 which was a really crucial year in our development. In fact, I would say that it was the most significant year in the last thousand years for making us the kind of society we are, through developments like globalisation, the Enlightenment, industrialisation, Romanticism and so on. That’s really the idea.

GJM: And where did you pick up the trail that led to ‘1776 and all that’? How did the ‘all roads lead to 1776’ idea start to form in your mind? How did that idea start to coalesce for you?

Andrew Wilson: Well, there were two threads really. The first is that I was on holiday in France reading a book by Ian Morris called Why The West Rules For Now, and he made the point that the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and the invention of the steam engine both occurred in the same year. I also realised that it was the same year that the American Revolution happened. I thought that it was amazing that this one year was a key date in political, industrial and economic history. So I became very interested in this particularly intense period of cultural and economic change.

Next, I realised that this was also a globally significant era when it comes to Romanticism and the pushback against Christianity, as their key thinkers like Diderot, Voltaire, Hume, Franklyn, Gibbon were all writing influential texts at this time. So it is of theological as well as historical importance too. That was one thread, and the other was that around the same time I was reading Jonathan Haidt’s work. He uses the acronym “WEIRD”, and I remember thinking that that was a very good description of the world. Then those two ideas collided (probably when I was in the shower!) and I thought that the way of tracing these developments was through that acronym. That’s where the idea as a whole came together. It’s difficult though, because ideas are odd, you can’t always pinpoint when and how they came together.

GJM: So Martin Luther on the toilet, and you in the shower, is when great ideas arrive!

So, let’s dive into the book. Tell me about the most (in)famous edit in history!? When Ben Franklin edited Thomas Jefferson … They both assumed the equality of all men, but Jefferson wrote “We hold these truths to be sacred”, but Franklin changed that to the very different “We hold these truths to be self-evident”. So the idea that we just assume in the modern world, of the equality of all people, becomes no longer something which is sacred, but instead is merely “self-evident”. Tell me why you focussed on that edit, and how that has unfolded. Because it seems to me that that is like something that you throw into the pond which ripples and ripples out throughout the book.

Andrew Wilson: Yes it does, but you say ”most famous edit”, but although it occurs in some biographies of Franklin, it is still remarkably unknown given how important it is. The simple version is that a few days before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Jefferson wrote to Franklin and said, ‘here’s my draft, what do you think?’, and when Franklin wrote back he had crossed out ‘We find these truths to be sacred and undeniable’ and replaced that with the word ‘self-evident’. On its own that might not seem to be particularly portentous, as his arguments appealed to good old-fashioned common sense. But in it I think there is much more of a significant, almost tectonic shift, in Western culture. It is a very good parable of what is going on in Western Enlightenment thought at the time. But Jefferson is actually right; the idea that we are all created equal and are endowed by our creator with inalienable rights is clearly a theological idea, it is not self-evident at all – it is not remotely obvious to all people everywhere. In fact, it wasn’t always obvious to the people who wrote it. So it is not at all self-evident, which is why they use that unusual phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident”, because if it was actually self-evident you wouldn’t need to “hold it” in the first place! So it is quite a paradoxical statement when you start to probe it.

I think it is then very easy to show the genealogy of those ideas; they grow out of a religious history rather than an Enlightenment one, regardless of the fact that the American Founding Fathers believed them to be self-evident. These ideas go back to John Locke, who goes back to Richard Hooker, to the Code of Justinian, and back into Matthew’s Gospel. That’s where the ideas actually come from, and I think it is quite easy to show that these ideas are not self-evident but are in fact sacred.

But over the last quarter of a century the post-Christian West has taken a whole lot of our Christian inheritance and said that it is all just staringly obvious. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a classic example of something which is based upon the premise that we ‘just know this’. But the reason you know it is because you got it from Christianity! Things such as human rights are simply not self-evident in many societies even today, let alone in history. Because most of those assertions grow out of Christian convictions about the nature of creation, the image of God and the goodness of God, and the fact that there is one God, and all sorts of other things that you cannot prove from any self-evident human reasoning, because they are Christian convictions.

So, I tell the Franklin/Jefferson story because it is very interesting in its own right, but also because I think it represents a much wider shift in the post-Christian West.

GJM: I was also intrigued when you wrote that “the WEIRDER transition is itself a product of Christian influence. It would never have happened without it. Christendom, in effect, was hoisted by its own petard!” Did Christianity therefore produce a world in which it couldn’t flourish?

Andrew Wilson: Well that might be going a bit far, I don’t think we can say that Christians can’t flourish in this world, but I definitely think that the kinds of developments that most Christians would look to and say ‘this has made practicing Christianity more difficult’, that all of those developments have something to do with Christianity! The most obvious one would be wealth. The history of why and how the world got so much richer is complex – but Christianity is definitely part of why it did. The ideology that drove invention, intellectual property rights, the economic expansion in Protestant nations, which were doing most of the inventing and industrialising … all of these things have grown in Christian, specifically Protestant, ground.

But I think it is also easy to show that enrichment makes practising Christianity harder. Christ said “it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”, and we observe that as nations get richer that that is associated with a decline in Christian influence. It’s not that they get richer and then they secularise, it’s more that they get richer and then over time things for which they have relied on the church to provide become things that individuals access themselves. Societies individualise as they get wealthier! Families get smaller, societies become privatised and church attendance drops, that’s the pattern.

Therefore, you could say that Christianity made the world richer, but richness made the world less Christian! And you can plot a similar course for Romanticism, industrialisation, and democracy too. Those things grow out of Christian soil, but then make practising Christianity harder. That is one of the paradoxes at work in the Western world. Peter Berger’s phrase is that “Christianity has been its own gravedigger.” And this process in which Christianity gives rise to things which are then a problem for it, is a cycle we can see going right back to the Roman Empire and Constantinianism. In one sense what made Christianity so fresh, original, transformative and dynamic, changed the Empire so much that Christianity became the state religion. That led to the ‘edge’ that made Christianity so compelling becoming dimmed, and then very nearly lost all as a result of changes that it had itself engendered. I think we are seeing a modern version of that.

GJM: Another phrase you used in the book that struck me was that “Ex-Christianity exists in the West because we have become Protestant Pagans!”. You use it in reference to Protestant Northern Europe, where the economy took off – the Reformers allowed usury (lending with interest), which kick-started capitalism, which also fuelled individualism. So why do you use this term “Protestant paganism” and what do you mean?

Andrew Wilson: I’m glad that resonated because you are one of the first people I have spoken to who has actually read the book, and it’s fun to see which bits land! I really like that phrase and prefer it to some of the alternatives. ‘Secularism’, for example, is a limited term and doesn’t indicate how Christian western convictions remain. I think that ‘post-Christianity’ is a phrase with problems too because it implies that Christianity is a phase of history that is now over and that we are now in a new kind of world. However, any Bible-believing Christian has a different eschatology than that – which is that the world is actually ‘pre-Christian’ – so I don’t like that word either.

So I have tried to synthesise the two most compelling narratives which explain why the world has become ‘post-Christian’ or ‘secular’ to the extent that it has. One is that paganism never really went away, and what we have now is ‘pagan’ in the technical sense that it is the belief that the transcendent is located within the world, rather than outside it or beyond it. So we regard the sacred or the spiritual as existing within, not beyond, the created order – which is a pagan view. The Protestant bit comes in because I think it’s hard to refute the idea that ( Protestantism has not in some way contributed to the eventual collapse of Christendom … I say that despite being a Protestant myself! So to the extent that we are now post-Christian and secular, Protestantism has had a lot to do with that. It caused division within Christendom, weaponised doubt, and contributed towards the phenomenon we know as disenchantment and so on. Now those two things came together and are like two parents that created a child that they weren’t really expecting! Protestantism and paganism coming together, in the way that we can observe in the 1770s, is significant in forming what we now know as this post-Christian and secular world.

To me “Protestant paganism” is a good way of describing what happens today when you go into a coffee shop and observe the following things. Maybe there’s a sign on the wall that says something like “In this house we believe that Black Lives Matter, Love is love, Kindness is everything and that Women’s Rights are Human Rights” – it’s a very creedal ‘Protestant-like’ set of convictions. Meanwhile you’ll also see signs inviting you to join them for Wicca, or Yogic meditation, mindfulness, or even something Christian. Spiritually it might be incredibly diverse, and yet the moral convictions can be extremely tight and quite well-policed. And that fusion of pagan spirituality and a Protestant sense of moral conviction is a pretty good description of the way the world is right now.

GJM: Well it is a striking phrase which brings us then to Romanticism, which takes the ‘inward turn’ to the next level. If medievals were invited to participate in the collective faith of Catholicism, and the Reformation called them to a more individual faith, then Romanticism extrapolates that even further, to people increasingly looking within themselves for truth and meaning etc. You tease that Romantic era out in what I think is a most significant chapter of the book. I was particularly struck by your illustration about Puritan John Owen who never wrote about his personal bereavements in all his works, because he saw the external work of Christ as more significant and interesting than his internal world. That would be unthinkable after the Romantics. It maps onto what Carl Trueman says about great poetry, which pre-Romanticism was about conquests and voyages, but became about revealing the inner self post-Romanticism. So tell us more about the inward turn of Romanticism and why it continues to be so important for us today?

Andrew Wilson: Well it is significant, as you say. But where do you want to begin to trace the story? You could begin with Paul in Romans 7, because the way in which he explores the inner agency of a person there, and the way he experiences a conflict of desires, is quite unprecedented. Or you could begin with Augustine as his Confessions were a unique and transformative book in the ancient world. Or the Reformation as you mentioned. But what I think is happening in the late 18th century is that this gains currency as the means by which meaningful art, music and literature is produced. What happens is that art begins to be conceptualised as being primarily ‘inside-out’ rather than ‘outside-in’. In trivial ways that is still true of art today, but I think that the values behind that development go much deeper into what is effectively a form of Gnosticism. What people think really matters is what is going on inside a person rather than on the outside. That can be mapped onto more of the highly contentious developments in modern society, for instance the claim that your body is not the ultimate arbiter of what sex or gender you are, because ultimately that is something for you to determine within yourself. It’s related to the ‘Disney idea’, that if you dream a dream enough, and believe it enough – it will become true. It’s almost that if I will something inside me enough, it will be reality. However, no matter how much I want to, I will never be able to run the 100 metres as fast as Ussain Bolt! But the narrative that what is inside me matters more than external realities is a problem because I am 5ft11”, I’m not built like a sprinter, and no matter what I believe, I can’t do that. Now human beings can indeed achieve a lot by committing their minds to it, but the Romantic suggestion that has become commonplace is that what is within you is ultimately the truest and most meaningful thing about you.

As you say, that has an effect on autobiography. John Owen is one example in that chapter, as a counterpoint to people like Cassanova, Gibbon, or Rousseau particularly who write autobiographies in which the most important thing are their own inner journeys. ’This is what I found out about myself’ and ’this is how I became me’ are what they think makes a person interesting. These kinds of biographies fill our bookshops today, but nothing like that existed prior to the Romantics. Today people are not writing about themselves as a way of exploring theology, or exploring the world like an adventure story, but are writing primarily as an exploration of themselves. Today “I am the subject” –  not just the means – for exploring a subject outside myself, like Augustine did. Today everyone assumes that the most interesting thing to talk about is a person’s inner experience. Every time you watch a Disney movie you will see some variant of that, and in some ways that goes back to Augustine, but I think you can see a significant inflection around this period. It’s in Cassanova, Gibbon and Rousseau, in the early Romantics, the Sturm und Drang, in poetry and music. It changed everything, and now it is just assumed. You look inside, find what is there and then project that out into the world, live your truth, and project your identity. That is what people today assume it means to be a flourishing human, and that is a very significant change and development that takes place in the period we are discussing.

GJM: And it creates a dilemma for us in the church doesn’t it? In terms of how we contextualise the gospel in a world in which people think that the most important story is their own. Some Christians respond by going down the ‘your best life now’ route, in which the gospel becomes ‘God wants to help you become the real you and make you authentic’. While other people pull right back in the opposite direction and want to say that the gospel is all about God’s story and you get to be part of that, but you have to die to self. So how do you pitch the gospel faithfully in a way that grips people, when they think that their own personal narrative is the centre of history?

Andrew Wilson: I think that there are a lot of ways of answering that, but I think you are navigating twin poles. And where does contextualisation become capitulation!? If you simply state ‘your story doesn’t matter, God’s story is the only thing that does’, then you might disciple some people effectively but huge numbers of people will simply not listen at all because there is not enough in there for them to engage with. At the other end if you say to people that God does want to make them into better versions of themselves (which is true by the way), but if that’s all you say – then you won’t actually disciple anyone! What you end up with there is syncretism, in which God’s main project in the world is the transformation of you as an individual! That might contextualise well, and get people to engage, but unless you also subvert that story and form them and shape them in Christ-like character, you won’t achieve anything useful. So you are navigating those two poles, in exactly the same way as you are any other contextual challenge in our culture.

In practice most of us have a deep end and a shallow end in the way that we present these things to the world. At one end you have a very soft pitch, because you are trying to make a connection to what the person you are speaking to already knows they are seeking. They may not be ready for the bigger truth that God wants to lead them into, but there is that little connection, for someone to think ’I need to understand that’ or ’I want to know more about this’. In fact, a bit like they do in Acts 17 where they say to Paul “We’ll hear you again on this.” And that is a win, if that’s all that happens. Recently I got talking to another parent at a kids football game, and we ended up discussing Blaise Pascal and it was a fruitful introductory conversation. It was obviously not enough to completely subvert a whole worldview, but useful nevertheless.

But then clearly if your regular preaching in church, catechesis, or discipleship class, is only doing that, then you will not be forming people in the Lord. Then there are courses, like Alpha, Christianity Explored and so forth, for people who have expressed an initial interest to come in and over time get taken a couple of steps further. Sunday preaching is important too. In our church lots of unbelievers come on Sundays so that is still shallower, yet we try to bring people into the depths of the gospel by the end of each message. Then there can be discipleship classes and catechesis which take things even deeper. So it is the same thing that we have with every other contextual issue, but we are doing it quite specifically with the issue of ‘self’ (our story) and God’s big story.

GJM: Absolutely! Towards the end of the book you look at three of the ways that the church responded most helpfully to the changes coming out of the 1770s. And you focus our attention on three of the most important: grace, freedom and truth. I wonder if we can look at these three very briefly …

On grace you wrote: “The point here is not that we should be nostalgic for a simpler time, when our station in life, occupation, and role in society were all settled for us at birth. That world is gone, and few of us would like it back. The point is that for all its many benefits—life expectancy, wealth, safety, education, health, choice, and the rest—the WEIRDER world is one that amplifies our cries for grace.” That’s a terrific quote! So how is our world crying for grace and how can the church speak into that?

Andrew Wilson: There are a few examples I touch on. The way we form identity in the modern West is a very important category for us. It is much less about having an identity given to us or conferred upon us by society, family, nation, or religion, and much more about working, forming, and establishing an identity ourselves. And that is a kind of modern equivalent of a works righteousness, because it says we all have to find out who we are and then make the world listen to us. We need to make the world validate that identity. Now that is something that makes people cry out for grace, because all Western people need to show that they matter, that people take them seriously and that there is something interesting or compelling about them. You see this with teenagers all the time, they are trying to find the thing about themselves that other people should sit up and take notice of. And that is an exhausting way of living, which most generations didn’t face, because the question of identity didn’t arise in that way. Historically you would be known as the son of so-and-so, from the family of weavers or whatever. They had other challenges but the identity one wasn’t so pressing, but today it is which makes people more aware of their need of grace.

The question of identity and the need for grace is especially important for more privileged people like me. My parents loved each other and stayed together, I’ve been to university, I am middle-class, I have a good income and own my own house. So what do I do with these enormous privileges I have been given in the world? How do I avoid becoming overwhelmed by the crushing burden of needing to live up to them? Particularly in the discourse about men and women, race and so forth it can become a very challenging, pressing question for people: “Have I done enough with what I have been given?” And grace comes in and subverts that question! Grace says “Christ has done enough”. So the question then becomes “how can I live off the basis of his achievements and merits rather than my own?”

Or you could talk about status. All societies have ways of conferring status, but in most societies it is fairly settled by accidents of birth. And it is lovely that we don’t live in a world like that, but one of the challenges of living in a society in which status is earned is that you are continually having to fight for it, and work for it and strive. That can be exhausting too, so the idea that your status is established for you by Christ, given to you and secured on the basis of his work, is hugely liberating. We need grace as much as we ever have.

GJM: So then you look at freedom, and write: “And this brings us to the opportunity. The Christian vision of freedom is far larger, more holistic, and more genuinely liberating than its WEIRDER equivalent. In the modern understanding, oppression is fundamentally external to the person. But in the ancient understanding that is only half the picture.” So what is a Christian vision of freedom and why is it so important in this context?

Andrew Wilson: The short version is that to be free in the Christian sense is not only to be free from things that are external to you, but also free from things that are internal to you as well. The longer version would be that the modern notion of freedom is to be liberated from things which are external to you: oppression, guns and bullets, prison camps, and any ways in which society might try and constrain your choices. In the antique conception, and indeed the Christian understanding, you do need to be liberated from things like slavery, captivity and oppression outside yourself, but you also need to be freed from your own inner selfish desires because there are places where your own lack of maturity, discipline or self-control might land you. And this was something even pagan writers in the Greco-Roman world recognised; they simply did not conceive of liberty as something experienced only externally.

In the Christian sense the classic example is John 8 where the Judeans say “We’ve never been enslaved to anybody, I don’t know why you are calling us slaves?” And Jesus says, “Anyone who sins is a slave to sin, but if the son sets you free you are free indeed.” In other words, freedom is not just liberation from the obvious trappings of slavery, but being liberated to become who God made you to be -and not just free from constraint in choices. So it’s really important that we continue to teach and preach that vision of freedom, because people love freedom. But if they think that freedom is simply lack of restraint rather than freedom to become, then they have only half the picture. They won’t get a Christian picture of formation and discipleship at all.

GJM: What Lisa Fields describes as “freedom from the sin of slavery and from the slavery of sin”.

Andrew Wilson: Yes!

GJM: Which brings us to truth, where you said that Noah Yuval Harari argues that human rights don’t exist other than as a useful fiction. “But it is hard to be hopeful about the world, or motivated to change it, without committing to some account of reality that you are convinced is essentially true.” Why truth, then?

Andrew Wilson: Well, this takes us back to where we started in this conversation. Which is that the moral convictions of our culture are largely shaped by Christianity, and there are certain things that modern people believe which only hold true if they are founded on Christian premises. For example, all humans have rights and should be treated with dignity. Now that is not true in nature, that is not true in the animal kingdom; it’s true because of Christian convictions about humanity uniquely being made in the image of God. So it’s very difficult to sustain a worldview of any integrity if you believe the fruit without believing the root, when it comes to things like human rights. So, what Harari does is actually really interesting, because what he says is that the story we tell ourselves about human rights isn’t actually true, but it is necessary in order to have happy societies. But that means he is demanding a huge amount of cognitive dissonance from everyone. However, in this ’post-truth generation’, we actually need to hear things that are true. We have seen what happens when people casually or habitually lie, and it never ends well. So what we need is an account of reality in which the very important moral convictions we hold about human dignity actually are founded upon things which are metaphysically, theologically and philosophically true – about human beings, God and the world. Christianity offers that. The secular account doesn’t really, because it tries to persuade us to continue to hold these Christian-type beliefs but without the Christian metaphysic to underpin them. To which in response you just want to say, “Well, why? Because on your premises those things do not hold true!” To quote the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, “Men descended from apes and therefore we should love one another” – it just doesn’t follow! So Christianity has something very compelling to offer there, because our account of truth shows you why the things you rightly want to believe about human dignity and flourishing are actually grounded in the way the world is, rather than just arbitrary assertions of power. So we have a very strong offer to make in the public square to say to people that it’s good that they believe in human dignity – but they should only do so if it is actually the case – grounded on the knowledge that there is a God, that He is good, that He does love you and has created you in His image. Because if that is the case, all of these other things flow from it. And equally these things cannot be true, on a materialist or secular account of reality.

GJM: Absolutely! And then you end the book with a call for the church to remain faithful and to hold her nerve. You say that “Genuine revival, when it comes, is at God’s initiative, rather than ours!”, which isn’t a very modern, technological, mechanical, industrial ‘fix-it’ kind of way of looking at the world! Instead you ask us to look at God’s sovereignty over history and call us to be faithful to him. Why did you end the book on that note?

Andrew Wilson: Well a book like this has to end with a ’So What?’ The ‘So What’ has to either outline a plan that will fix everything, or admit that there is no one ‘silver bullet’ that can change history. But I didn’t want to do that in a kind of passive or fatalistic way as if to say that this is all very interesting but there is nothing you can do about it! Because clinging onto the idea that God is ultimately going to be the one to fix this – and that our job is to be faithful to Him in the meantime – is itself very revolutionary.

Sometimes not doing anything is the hardest thing to do. The easiest thing to do in our culture is to say that ‘this is the tool that is going to fix it for you – let’s all chase that.’ It’s harder to say that we are going to have to keep doing the kinds of things Christians have always done, albeit in a way that is mindful of these developments, engaging with all the new questions, possibilities and challenges of the post-Christian West. However, in adapting to that world we must never hollow out what Christianity actually is. So we will continue to do the things Christians have always done, and trust that God raises the dead. We need to remind ourselves that the onus on making the post-Christian West listen to us is not on us, because it is on Him. Now that is really hard to do when church attendance drops and when society and the public square becomes more hostile to Christian values and ethics. In some parts of the church there is almost a sense of panic about that, leading to some pretty unedifying responses. So it is important that we hold fast to what has been delivered and don’t change it when it doesn’t seem to be ’working’. That seemed like a very important application point to bring to a book like this.

GJM: Andrew, thank you so much for joining me for this hugely enjoyable and wide-ranging conversation. Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West is a terrific read. When and where can people get hold of it?

Andrew Wilson: Thanks! Well in the UK it is published on the 5th September, and is available in all the usual places online and on the high street.