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1776: The Year That Shaped the Post-Christian West

Why are things the way they are?

The world often seems strange to us, and it isn’t always clear why. The most pressing questions are the most challenging, with many perspectives needed to help illuminate the bigger picture.

There are several key texts from recent decades that offer partial explanations for the strangeness of the world.

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explains how secularism became the intellectual “default factory setting” in Western culture. Tom Holland in Dominion describes how the West is animated by symbols, institutions, and ideas that reflect the pervasive influence of Christianity. In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman narrates the development of expressive individualism and its effect on modern concepts of sexual identity.

Andrew Wilson’s book Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West ties many of these existing threads together and moves the discussion forward.

Remaking the World is an origin story of our culture. It’s an intellectual history of the modern world wherein so many contemporary believers live and move and have our being.

You Say You Want a Revolution

In the English-speaking world, 1776 is best known for the start of the American Revolution, a topic Wilson discusses in his book at length. But the origins of the United States of America are only one part of a much larger story.

According to Wilson, “1776, more than any other year in the last millennium, is the year that made us who we are” (7). He argues that various events, figures, and ideas that came of age in 1776 and the years that followed informed seven trends that now define the modern world.

Using the acronym WEIRDER, Wilson says our world is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic, Ex-Christian, and Romantic. This concept is not entirely original to Wilson, who draws on first five letters of the acronym (WEIRD) from Joseph Henrich’s 2020 book, The WEIRDest People in the World.

Wilson, who is the teaching pastor at King’s Church London (read TGC’s profile), suggests many of our baseline assumptions about ourselves and our place in the world are the product of these seven trends—including our commitment to liberal democracy, our appreciation for religious liberty, our individualist emphasis on morality, the expressive nature of so much of our art, and the content of our cultural tensions and debates over personal identity. The shadow of expressive individualism, coupled with greater accessibility to education and affluence, looms large.

How the West Became WEIRDER

Most of Remaking the World is dedicated to recounting the historical origins of the seven WEIRDER trends. Wilson’s metanarrative is persuasive and offers significant explanatory power in describing the world as we now know it. While his chapters don’t strictly follow the acronym, I’ll summarize their content along those lines.

Many of our baseline assumptions about ourselves and our place in the world are the product of these seven trends.

Wilson argues the world became Western (W) because James Cook circumnavigated the globe, clarifying that there was a West (at least from the perspective of European cartographers). The values of Europe, which had traveled further and endured longer because of certain geographic advantages, increasingly shaped the values of the East and eventually the Global South.

We became more Educated (E) because of the rise of what’s often called the Enlightenment. While the name is somewhat misleading, in this period pioneering intellectuals such as Immanuel Kant and Edward Gibbon were transforming how many of us think. Gradually, the subversive ideas of the Paris salon or the London pub became the secular norms of the modern West, though the latter still echoes Christian assumptions more than is typically conceded.

Today, we’re Industrialized (I) because of inventions such as the steam engine, innovations such as factories, and economic priorities such as free markets. The pioneers of the Industrial Revolution could hardly have imagined the pace of innovation that characterizes our ongoing technological revolution.

This trend helped create the next one, as the world became Richer (R) due to what Wilson and others have called the Great Enrichment. Gross domestic product and personal wealth have accumulated at a far greater pace, and to a far greater degree, than in any previous period in history. Wilson attributes aspects of the Great Enrichment to the influence of Christianity while warning against how greed and other vices have fueled enrichment in the modern world.

The West is certainly more Democratic (D), in large part because of the American Revolution and similar movements it inspired in other nations. However, democracy has taken deepest root in nations whose soils remain nurtured by Christian assumptions, even if unacknowledged or commingled with Enlightenment ideas.

But one facet of many democracies, an emphasis on religious disestablishment, has contributed to the Ex-Christian (E) posture of the West. In the 1770s, the seeds of secularism were evident in the skepticism of many leading philosophers, including some American founding fathers, whose skepticism informed their advocacy for religious freedom. The seeds of post-Christian sexual ethics were also evident, epitomized by the depraved writings (and actions) of Marquis de Sade.

Art is both informed by culture and creates culture, and the Romantic (R) movement profoundly shaped the modern West. Wilson discusses several writers who were precursors of expressive individualism and in some cases devotees of the revolution in sexual morality.

Wilson’s narrative, though necessarily general, is nuanced. In every case, he demonstrates the dynamic interplay between Christian ideas and rival worldviews in shaping our current intellectual milieu. The upshot is that some of our assumptions are deeply Christian (even among many unbelievers), while others are sub-Christian or even anti-Christian (even among many believers). The West today isn’t so much Christian or non-Christian as it is simply WEIRDER.

How Then Should We Live?

Wilson’s stated motivation in expounding the intellectual legacy of 1776 is “to help the church thrive in a WEIRDER world” (12). To that end, he spends the final two chapters reflecting on how evangelicals navigated the mid to late 18th century and what that means for us today. His synthesis of intellectual history and pastoral sensibilities is both refreshing and commendable.

The West today is not so much Christian or non-Christian as it is simply WEIRDER.

Remaking the World focuses on three themes: grace, freedom, and truth. Wilson recounts the flowering of evangelical hymnody in the era of John Newton, Augustus Toplady, and Charles Wesley, with their emphasis on God’s free grace available to sinful humans. He discusses the campaign to abolish slavery in England and New England, which was led largely by evangelicals. And he discusses the apologetic for truth (including religious truth) undertaken by the little-known German evangelical philosopher Johann Georg Hamann during the height of the Enlightenment. These classical evangelical emphases are evergreen.

Today, we should remember that the same century that gave rise to our modern world also gave rise to the modern evangelical movement. The earliest generations of evangelicals flourished in the dawning days of the world in which contemporary evangelicals now live.

We can flourish similarly, though not by revising evangelicalism to jell with the assumptions of our culture. Rather, evangelicalism will thrive to the degree we offer a faithful, courageous, and winsome witness to evangelical truth in ways that connect contextually with those whose lives are shaped by the trends Wilson has so helpfully defined and described in Remaking the World.

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