‘Inventing the Individual’

I remember asking my history teacher at school why the Board of Studies created syllabuses in Ancient and Modern European History but not the period in between.

As an adult I came to understand that the Renaissance was supposed to mark the start of a new era of anti-clericalism, personal freedom and, ultimately, empirical science. Thus the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ were a period when Christian theology ‘butted-in’ to the progress in thinking that had shown every sign of flourishing under the Greeks and Romans but wasn’t ‘resumed fully’ until the days of Hume and Kant and Bentham.

In my own home my father held both a high view of the importance of studying the natural world in a systematic manner, but also, of the Christian Church. I was brought up surrounded by aviaries of finches – my father had every species of Australian finch – and looking through books that described in detail the importance of observation and hypothesis making. Whilst my family were members of no church, there was an assumption that there were positive connections between faith, learning and personal freedom . My father spoke of a Bishop of Salisbury in the family tree and of the importance of the Magna Carta.

My own Christian commitment in my teenage years led me to read the Bible voraciously. In Jesus’ direct teachings, in the parables, and in the letters of Paul I found underlying assumptions about the dignity of humanity (we are made in God’s image), our shared humanity (God has gifted us all and He will judge us all justly) and our shared need for God’s grace as found in Jesus. Much that we value in the West regarding personal freedom and moral responsibility seemed to me clearly connected to the New Testament.

My own experience of Church was as a place of great freedom and community. The secondary state school I attended had many students who spoke in derogatory ways about refugees and immigrants, but not my church. There people were looking for ways to be hospitable to the recently arrived from Vietnam.

And yet, both my classmates at school and many peers in my adult life, viewed belief in God with suspicion or skepticism.

In my latter teenage years I read a lot of C S Lewis, including books that provided a much greater insight into the diversity and complexity of the medieval mind. Further reading in my adulthood on the periods of the plagues, witch-hunts and the Spanish Inquisition did not quash a growing belief that the view that the Renaissance marked a clear break with the past did not tell the whole story.

These many years later I have at last read a book that articulates the relationship between Christian faith, the Ancient World, the medieval and Middle Ages extremely effectively. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual is a remarkable piece of scholarship. It links clearly the teachings of the apostle Paul with the modern Western understanding that each of us is individual. My own ‘intuition’ that Christianity has profoundly impacted a great deal of what we value now has a well articulated history to link some of our assumptions to the epistles and gospels. Augustine is given a proper place. Whilst he barely touches on the Reformation, I see how the Reformation itself ties in to earlier attempts at change. And his arguments that secularism is an outworking of the voluntarism that is the basis of Christian faith is very powerful.

Of course there are still questions. I have a higher view of the historicity of the gospels than Siedentop. Yet this is a far more nuanced and reasonable history than that provided by those who wish to depict Christian faith as an interruption to ‘progress’.

I recommend it to you.