Inventing the individual

There is something liberating about reading a book which explains something you had on some level always known.

“Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism”, by Larry Siedentop, has just done exactly that.

He sets out how the radical message of Christianity, that we are all of equal value before God, was built on through Paul and Augustine and many others through the ages, until it shaped the way the Catholic church reformed, with a representative structure that recognised that church authority lay with the collective membership, not just the Pope. That then informed that way in which nation states in Europe were constituted, and gave us the framework for western liberalism – equal status leads to the assertion of natural law, basic human rights, and then the case for self government.

The importance of free will and human agency in Christianity also led to secularism – because Christianity should teach us to value every individual, and individuals must choose their own faith, nation states created space for a public sphere where those who had not chosen Christianity could live freely alongside those who had. This is important because, too often, the European tolerance of others faiths is portrayed as a lack of commitment to faith. For some, it may be, but peaceful co existence with and respect for those of all faiths and none is not a compromise for Christianity, it is at its heart. Love your neighbour, who ever they are.

This book is an extraordinary account of the history of how Christian theology shapes how we live.

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About Rachael Saunders

Labour councillor in Tower Hamlets
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