Responding But Not Replying: David Bentley Hart and the ‘New Atheism’
The so-called “new atheists” (e.g., Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens) have captured the attention of many of us. Various Christian writers have attempted to reply to these authors either by taking on their arguments in a direct fashion, seeking to point out specific errors in fact, reasoning, argumentation and so on. The purpose of this essay is not to rehearse such arguments, but to provide an extended review of another approach to the “new atheists,” an approach which responds substantively without reverting to direct refutation of some specific line of argument.
We are heirs, Hart says, of a culture that sprang from Peter’s tears.
American Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart contends that these atheistic writings are based on profound conceptual confusions and facile simplifications of history. In his recent book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 1 he attends to many issues that the “new atheists” address, seeking to bring into focus the truth about the most radical revolution in Western history. Considered by some to be one of the most brilliant scholars in the Christian world, Hart is nothing short of prolific, writing for the popular press and for theological journals, and also producing a steady stream of books, both short and long. 2 Even the blurbs on the back cover are given by a veritable Who’s Who of the theological/intellectual elite, commenting on things such as “impressive erudition, polemical panache; devastating dissection; one of America’s sharpest minds; learned, provocative and sophisticated; original and intellectually impressive.” All of these lofty compliments combine with John Milbank’s assessment that the “new atheists” “would never have dared put pen to paper had they known of the existence of David Bentley Hart. After this demolition job all that is left for them to do is to repent and rejoice at the discreditation of their erstwhile selves.” Indeed, it almost seems as though the people asked to provide these promotional blurbs have suddenly taken on Hart’s own written communication patterns.
If theology is a blood sport, as it is sometimes described, then this book is a fine example of just that dynamic. What we have here, according to reviewer Matthew Feldman, is a “hyperventilating apologia for Christian humanism that might leave more mild-mannered readers somewhat uncomfortable.” 3 And Hart starts quickly with the “new atheists” in his sights, describing them variously as “manifestly moral idiots, extravagantly callow, borderline illiterate, guilty of intellectual caricature, failure of consecutive logic,” and accusing Richard Dawkins of being a “tireless tractarian with an incapacity for philosophical reasoning” (3, 4).
THE TRUE STORY OF CHRISTENDOM
However, my point is that despite such rhetorically incendiary material, which to some extent has come to be expected by readers of Hart, the new atheists are not at the center of the book. That is, the new atheists and their writings are not its main topic—at most, they are the occasion for it. So, as a response of sorts that does not consist in a point by point refutation of any particular writer’s case, Hart writes a book that centrally “concerns the history of the early church, of roughly the first four or five centuries, and the story of how Christendom was born out of the culture of late antiquity” (x). This central concern provides the material for Hart to argue
that among all the many great transitions that have marked the evolution of Western Civilization, whether convulsive or gradual, political or philosophical, social or scientific, material or spiritual, there has been only one—the triumph of Christianity—that can be called in the fullest sense a “revolution”: a truly massive and epochal revision of humanity’s prevailing vision of reality, so pervasive in its influence and so vast in its consequences as actually to have created a new conception of the world, of history, of human nature, of time, and of moral good. (xiii)
The negative side of his argument consists in his rejection of the myth or ideology of modernity, of the Enlightenment. That is, he wants to shine a light on the grand narrative of the Enlightenment and replace it with a different narrative.
Here Hart puts on display not only the content that he will deal with, but perhaps more significantly, brings to view the way in which he understands theology ought to be pursued. In The Beauty of the Infinite, his earlier tour de force, Hart asserts that “Christian theology has no stake in the myth of disinterested rationality: the church has no arguments for its faith more convincing than the form of Christ; enjoined by Christ to preach the gospel, Christians must proclaim, exhort, bear witness, persuade—before other forms of reason can be marshaled.” 4 Therefore, theology in its original condition is that of a story,
thoroughly dependent upon a sequence of historical events to which the only access is the report and practice of believers, a story whose truthfulness may be urged—even enacted—but never proved simply by the processes of scrupulous dialectic. What Christian thought offers the world is not a set of “rational” arguments . . . rather, it stands before the world principally with the story it tells concerning God and creation, the form of Christ, the loveliness of the practice of Christian charity—and the rhetorical richness of its idiom. 5
For Hart, this earlier framing of the condition of theology, the way theology ought to be pursued, now functions without much comment or explicit defense as the impetus of the form of his response to the “new atheists.”
The overall structure of the book is simple enough—it begins with a brief description of the current situation, explores the way modernity has the story wrong, and then explicates the true nature of the Christian Revolution, which is the advent of Christian humanism, or, as Hart puts it, “the Christian invention of the human,” the section that he declares to be the heart of this book (xiii).
Hart’s purpose in Part 1, entitled “Faith, Reason, and Freedom: A View From the Present,” is to set the table, to whet our appetites for his constructive work, and so he begrudgingly acknowledges the “new atheists.” But the purpose of introducing them is not to take them seriously—because they don’t deserve to be taken seriously. Indeed, the strongest emotion that I sense in this section, especially in chapter 1, is a certain wistfulness, melancholy, a longing for the good old days when atheists were formidable opponents—when Celsus or Porphyry challenged the early church, there was a challenge of substance; when David Hume, Voltaire, Diderot, or Edward Gibbon would put pen to paper, at least there was a modicum of elegance, a dash of moral acuity. And then—Hart can hardly contain his admiration—then there’s Nietzsche, that greatest atheist of them all, who had the good manners to despise Christianity for what it actually was. Ah, those were the days, when atheists were something to be reckoned with—now all we have are “gadflies [who] seem far lazier, less insightful, less subtle, less refined, more emotional, more ethically complacent, and far more interested in facile simplifications of history than in sober and demanding investigations of what Christianity is or has been” (6).
The salient point, according to Hart, is to see if a world devoid of religious belief would be better than a world in which the Christian revolution at least has some sway. The world we currently live in, insofar as it is modern, is one that Hart characterizes as an “age of freedom,” but it’s freedom of a particular kind. We have largely embraced a nihilistic notion of freedom whose ultimate horizon is nothing—perhaps of the kind Janis Joplin sang about—where “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Thus, when religion is understood within that model of radically autonomous individualist emancipation from all things transcendent, religion itself becomes what Hart calls something that is indistinguishable from interior decoration, insofar as “spirituality” is undemanding and therapeutic, pursued by purchasing any or all religious symbols ranging from dream catchers to Andean flutes (24). That kind of freedom is much different than the sort passed on to us by Christians such as Augustine, and so much the worse for us.
STRUGGLE FOR THE PAST
The second section, entitled “The Mythology of the Secular Age: Modernity’s Rewriting of the Christian Past,” is really Hart’s entry into what he calls “a struggle for the past.” After all, as he points out in chapter 3, modernity gives an account of the past that has a so-called age of reason emerge from and overthrow the age of faith. This account, which we get from popular historians, is very misleading, Galileo’s fate being just one of the stories used to paint the Christian faith in a negative light. But this tale is too simple, embraced by too many, and promoted by people who should know better.
But who hasn’t heard this story—the one that suggests that Christianity introduced a “night of reason” into Western civilization? This story has Christianity, in an attempt to become fully dominant, plunge the world into a millennium of mental squalor, killing folks, and generally wreaking all manner of havoc in order to keep the faithful ignorant, to exert power—after all, didn’t Christians burn that big library? Hart takes notice of this way of reading history and carefully tries to reframe the story, not to refute each point. Christianity did not, in fact, violently burn anything and anyone that opposed it—it’s simply not true, says Hart. And it’s simply too simple. Allowing for some culpability on the part of Christians, Hart nevertheless argues that what we have in the ancient world was pagans versus Christians, but to a great degree they got on, conducted business, studied together and so on (44). What was not the case was some kind of binary scenario in which we had, in this corner, pluralistic pagans who were open to rational and scientific inquiry, and in that corner, irrational fideists who reveled in ignorance, indeed depended on ignorance and violence precisely in order to perpetuate their Christian religion.
And neither is it true, argues Hart, that scientific knowledge and all manner of scholarship disappeared from the Christian world, only to survive, just barely, and then only because of the Islamic religion, which meant that it survived in the Arabic language, and had to be retranslated and brought back to the West when the influence of Christianity waned sufficiently. Simply put, Christianity did not reject all of classical civilization, seek to root it out and inaugurate the “Dark Ages.”
By now Hart is on a roll—all those accounts of Christianity trying to suppress science, the Church’s “war against reason” which brought scientific inquiry and discovery to some screeching halt have been largely discredited, says Hart—discredited, but still widely embraced. He gets the amateur historian Charles Freeman in his sights, and points out that Freeman “attempts long discourses on theological disputes that he simply does not understand, continually falls prey to vulgar misconstruals of the materials he is attempting to interpret, makes large claims about early Christian belief that are simply false, offers vague assertions about philosophers he clearly has not studied, and delivers himself of opinions regarding Christian teaching that are worse than simply inaccurate (57). The case concerning faith and science rather is something like this: “Copernicus . . . was heir to a long tradition of Christian mathematical and theoretical work in astronomy and the science of motion, stretching back at least to the early thirteenth century . . .” (58). And Galileo—well, this was “one episode of asinine conflict among proud and intemperate men [which] does not exactly constitute a pattern of Christian intellectual malfeasance” (66).
But further, “the most splendid and engrossing of modernity’s self-aggrandizing fables is that of Western humanity’s struggle for liberation, of the great emancipation of Western culture from political tyranny, and of Europe’s deliverance from the violence of religious intolerance” (75). Hart’s burden here is to show that Christianity is guilty of violence and so on, but that this is not necessarily because it is inherently violent—rather, there is plenty of evidence to show that the state is violent, and that the tragedy occurs when Christianity is assumed into temporal power, when it becomes responsible for national or imperial unity. What we see in history is a constant struggle between the power of the gospel to alter and shape society, and the power of the state to absorb that institution into itself and make it useful to the ends of the state. Hart wonders whether we really think that if the church had stepped aside and allowed a fully secular society to emerge that violence would have faded into the annals of history to be replaced by a long, soft summer of peace and safety? In fact, many of the so-called “wars of religion,” especially those of the sixteenth century, were in fact the birth pangs of the modern state, a point he takes from William Cavanaugh. 6
THE CHRISTIAN REVOLUTION
Hart’s transition into his constructive section is found in chapter nine. The burden of this chapter is to resist the temptation to be drawn into an argument that defends Christianity, but in so doing makes Christianity responsible for things such as “scientific progress,” as though scientific progress is an unmixed good that itself need not be brought into question. To fall into this trap would be to act in a similar fashion to the kinds of apologists who claim that Christianity should not be reduced to science and reason, and then use only science and reason to make that very point.
And so we turn to the heart of the book—the Christian Revolution, the Christian invention of the human—where Hart shifts gears considerably. In part 2, we have seen him involved in polemics, in apologetics of the sort that encourages people to get the story straight. If that section may be understood as apologetics, then this section should be labeled as evangelism, the spreading of the word of the gospel. Frankly, this material, while difficult to reduce to sound-bite-sized pieces, nonetheless seems to me to be much more authentic as evangelistic material than some of the tools or techniques I’ve been exposed to in the past. For my money, rather than sharing The Four Spiritual Laws, or being trained by folks like Bill Hybels to be able to share one’s testimony over coffee within the space of sixty seconds or so, when I get a chance to share the content of the Christian faith with someone, I’ll say: “Here, sit there while I read pages 11–215 of this book to you.” And when I’m done, all that will be left for that person to do is repent and embrace the truth that is theirs in the Christian revolution!
In his chapter “The Great Rebellion,” Hart attempts to do several things—to show just how outrageous the gospel was in its time and place, and further to show how the cataclysmic event of baptism initiated believers into a community that held to a gospel that was seen as an outrage. He identifies a spirit of rebellion, of sedition that we find difficult even to imagine now. We’re not seen as rebellious now, just intolerant, as though the Roman world in its day was somehow tolerant. To say that the difference between Christianity and Roman world was one of tolerance versus intolerance Hart identifies as anachronistic. The Romans, says Hart, were tolerant of what they found tolerable. The real problem was that the Roman pagan world had no social morality to speak of—it deserved to be replaced, and Hart sees in the ancient world then a gradual ascendancy of Christianity before the days of Constantine, a new faith that was seen as preferable by many. It was not just Constantine’s conversion that spread a faith that otherwise would have wallowed in obscurity only to finally disappear as a historical and ephemeral curiosity. Further, while Constantine’s conversion, along with the subsequent legislations and so on may have hastened the spread of Christianity in some ways, it is also true, argues Hart, that he retarded the growth of the authentic faith in many and real ways.
Hart’s characterization of the Roman world is that it was one of “a glorious sadness.” He sees there a “prevailing mood of cosmic disquiet,” evidenced in the rise of certain Gnostic sects, which were “a particularly acute and colorful expression of a spiritual yearning that was omnipresent in the empire” (141). As Hart puts it, Christianity
entered into a twilit world of pervasive spiritual despondency and religious yearning, not as a cult of cosmic renunciation (pagan religions and philosophical culture required no tutelage in that) but as a religion of glad tidings, of new life, and that in all abundance . . . the principal gift it offered to pagan culture was a liberation from spiritual anxiety, from the desperation born of a hopeless longing for escape, from the sadness of having to forsake all love of the world absolutely in order to find salvation, from the morbid terror of the body, and from the fear that the cosmic powers on high might prevent the spirit from reaching its heavenly home. (143, 145)
Against this prevailing mood we find the gospel message, which is a liberating one—Christianity was not just another mystery cult that happened to have the most engaging myths, nor was it simply a series of threats and promises that suckered ignorant folk into believing, but a faith in which train follows social and moral difference. For Hart, the fact that hospitals appear wherever Christians have a significant presence—or better, the way Christians have a significant presence by building hospitals, hospices, and so on—that is evidence of a revolution. And, he claims, women, slaves and the poor really feel the difference that the Christian revolution brings about—imperfectly to be sure, but the law of charity is one that cannot be swept away.
And then, perhaps my favorite chapter—“The Face of the Faceless.” I love this chapter—Hart’s exposition of the significance of Peter’s tears is just achingly beautiful. We are heirs, he says, of a culture that sprang from Peter’s tears (167). This frames his moving discussion of what he calls a “total humanism,” the notion that all people have a face—slaves, handicapped, weak, poor, women—because “Christians were willing to grant full humanity to persons of every class and condition, of either sex” (169). It is precisely this humanism wrought by the Christian faith that is gazed upon with dismay by Nietzsche and complained about by Julian the Apostate. But, “the scandal of the pagans, however, was the glory of the church” (170). This view has often itself been compromised by the church, especially when the “church became that most lamentable of things—a pillar of respectable society” (171). But the Christian faith is at this point an essentially subversive movement. Alas, the radical nature of which we cannot recognize precisely because we are already Christian (173).
Chapters 14 and 15 continue to trace the development of the revolution—one that converts, reshapes, reorients, and overthrows previous understandings. The Christian revolution was gradual, subtle, small, inchoate—but real. Constantine’s work probably retarded the revolution—in fact, if Hart had his way, Constantine the Christian emperor should have been more like the emperor Julian the Apostate, and perhaps the Christian revolution would have been more radical and thorough than it was. Nonetheless, Hart soldiers on, tracing the production of a moral vision of the human that has, as he puts it, “haunted us ever since.”
As Hart traces the development of this vision, he does so by looking at some of the great theological debates. The real issue in the nasty debate between Arius and Athanasius, according to Hart, is the nature and possibility of salvation as deification. This possibility (deification) ushers in a new “grammar of faith”—all of which makes a huge difference to our personal and psychological selves, as well as the shape of our social lives. After all, this is a new metaphysics of the self—one in which our physical bodies are of utter importance; where we are gifted with immense dignity and infinite capacity. All of this is so much more than the liberal autonomous self put forward by modernity and postmodernity, wherein we essentially become walking choices—the bearer of freedom that has no horizon—the Christian view cultivates an “unimaginably exalted view of the human” (213). And so, asks, Hart, what will happen to us if we actually become post-Christian—does that mean we will in a real sense also become post-human?
I believe that Hart’s work—both in form and substance—is important theologically for the Christian church. If my assessment is correct, his work will linger, will be read in the next generation and beyond, and I’d rather read him than most of the books that pass as Christian or spiritual writing today.
Nonetheless, several cautions are in order. In a lengthy review of this book in First Things, Paul Griffiths expresses considerable worry about the possibility that Hart has been seduced into playing a game that no one should play, i.e., counting corpses and attributing blame. For example, when Hart says that Christianity is guilty of some violence, but not nearly as much as the secular state, say, Griffiths thinks this is a move that is fundamentally pagan in flavor. That is, for all of Hart’s profundity, all of his provocative and brilliant prose, Griffiths senses an author who is “world-weary, deeply ironic.” He thinks he detects the thought, “You mean I have to engage this idiocy yet again?” 7 This is a pagan flavor—a stance that Griffiths claims is a mixture of Eeyore and Hamaan, a trace of Chrysostom, and trails clouds of paganism (echoing Wordsworth’s poem). Griffiths also complains that Hart emphasizes the novelty of the Christian revolution to the detriment or disregard of the Jewish people and their scriptures. 8 In the end, Hart also veers close to a certain idealism of the sort that privileges ideas and concepts above practices or loves.
Of course, it remains to be seen if Hart’s work will have the kind of long-term influence of which I think it is capable. It seems that every time some putative threat to the Christian faith appears, there are those who are willing to challenge such challenges seriatim, and it would be churlish to dismiss such efforts out of hand. However, the kind of constructive theology on display in Hart’s book, which seeks to narrate the beauty of the story of the Christian Revolution, offers a way of responding to such threats without allowing “fashionable enemies” to set the agenda in perpetuity. Come to that, neither should “fashionable friends” be allowed to set the theological agenda.
- David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009). Specific citations from the book will be given in the parentheses throughout the rest of the paper.
- David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003); Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005).
- Hart, Beauty of the Infinite, 3.
- Ibid., 3, 4.
- See William Cavanaugh, “A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State,” Modern Theology 11, no. 4 (October 1995): 397–420; Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination: Christian Practices of Space and Time (London: T & T Clark, 2003); Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- Paul Griffiths, “The Face of Civilization: Review of Atheist Delusions,” First Things 129 (August/September 2009): 54–56.
- Ibid. Griffith’s complaint may be similar to one made by reviewers of The Beauty of the Infinite. They argue that however brilliant Hart’s work, it is not beautiful precisely insofar as he lashes out at interlocutors who don’t meet his standards.