On four ways that Christianity shaped the West

Rowan Williams covers the individual, power, environmentalism, history, and science.



Rowan Williams covers the individual, power, environmentalism, history, and science.


If you ask about the ways in which Christianity shaped the West as we know it, very broadly, I think there are probably three or four areas where you could really pin down something that has survived.
First is this notion of the individual, the person – something about every human individual that is rather resistant to being controlled, understood, managed, reduced, exploited. Something there, a sort of solid base of dignity in every single unique individual. And the uniqueness matters; everybody has some absolutely particular way of reflecting the life of God, and that’s why everybody needs everybody else in a sense, because there’s something you would not understand about God if it were not for that particular person in front of you. So that notion of the surprising scope and depth of the individual, that’s one of the legacies.

Second thing, I think, is a kind of longstanding unsettlement about political power. In the ancient world, political power and religious power belonged together. So it made perfect sense to worship the emperor, that is, to treat the political status quo as sacred, unchallengeable. Christianity comes along and says, well, actually, we belong to another kind of society, another kind of community. We’ll do our bit for the society around us, but don’t expect us to regard that as “sacred”. We won’t worship the emperor, because we have a King of Kings. The martyrs before their judges in the arena will say things like that – we worship the King of Kings, we don’t worship the second-in-command (which is the emperor).

So all through especially Western Christian history, there’s that slightly uneasy relationship between the religious community and the political community. Sometimes that – as in the Middle Ages – that means just that you’ve got two big powers in a kind of standoff, the emperor and the pope, two big systems, like two rival states. Sometimes, as in Germany in the 1930s, you have a passionate religious minority resisting totalitarian claims at the cost of everything, really. And between those two ends of the spectrum you have all sorts of different ways in which religious communities relate to politics but always in a way that needles; it asks awkward questions and says, “We’re not taking this for granted. We’re not taking this order of society for granted.” And that can be … it can be the monks withdrawing from society to form a kind of community structure of their own alongside the rest of society. It can be the reformers moving into society and making a difference, the Martin Luther King figures. But however you express it, the point’s the same: society doesn’t actually have to be like this. There might be other ways of doing it.

Then you could think of a third area where Christianity has made a difference – but not as much of a difference as it might have. And that is, if you believe not only that the world is created by God but that the world is still pervaded by divine action, then the stuff around us means something. It’s not just dead matter. That’s shown in the way in which, throughout Christian history, there have been sacraments in the church’s life, the use of the things of this world to symbolise where we’re going with God, a tradition of Christian art and iconography and so on. But, even more deeply that, a notion that there’s something about the very structure of creation that shows us God and therefore deserves an intense reverence and attention – St Francis of Assisi and his Canticle of the Sun, which of course gave Pope Francis the title of his encyclical about the environment recently.

Now Christianity is only rather recently woken up I think to the environmental crisis. But what’s fascinating to see is how many Christians, especially from the Eastern Christian tradition, have picked up some of these very ancient, very deep convictions about how the world can mean and speak for God, and applied that to the environmental crisis. If you take creation seriously, you can’t just treat it as dead matter. You can’t just treat it as a supermarket shelf of stuff that you can use to keep yourself comfortable and happy. So that’s another slightly less marked but very real legacy of the Christian impact, the Christian imprint on western society.

And I suppose one last thing – and it’s a point that many people have made – is just the sense of history, the sense that we do grow, we move in history. Not inevitable progress unfolding, but that actions make a difference, that we are constantly moving either towards or further away from where we need to be in relation with the sacred and one another; and therefore that the study of history, the awareness of how we got to where we are, how we’ve learned who and what we are, that that really matters.

And that borders just a little bit also on a subject which as it were crosses over between the third and the fourth area, and that’s the scientific worldview. It sounds very odd to say that, but the scientific worldview rests on the assumption that the world works in a consistent, intelligent way, and therefore merits attention; that that attention, that truthful close attention to the way the world goes, is actually part of our own humanity, it’s how we grow as human beings.