One of my favorite Christian authors is David Bentley Hart. His The Doors of the Sea was a profound inspiration and help as I wrote Against Calvinism. He is a word master. Just reading him elevates your mind and soul. And, if you pay attention and learn, your vocabulary! (Anyone who has read him knows what I mean.)
Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale, 2009) is typical Hart–not easy reading but good reading in the rare sense. Not just “good” as in “pleasurable” or “inspiring” but “good” as in soul-stirring, though-provoking, faith-deepening and mind-elevating.
The book is poorly titled. I suspect (although I have no inside information) that Hart’s intended title was the subtitle. Surely the publisher slapped Atheist Delusions on it as the main title. I know of other cases where this sort of thing has happened–for marketing purposes. “The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies” is the right title for the book, but perhaps it wouldn’t sell as well.
The book is a polemic against “the new atheism.” Here’s a typical example of Hart’s biting rhetoric about the new atheists (Dawkins, Hitchins, et al.): “As I have already complained, the tribe of the New Atheists is something of a disappointment. It probably says more than it is comfortable to know about the relative vapidity of our culture that we have lost the capacity to produce profound unbelief. The best we can now hope for are arguments pursued at only the most vulgar of intellectual levels, couched in an infantile and carpingly pompous tone, and lacking all but the meagerest traces of historical erudition or syllogistic rigor.” (220)
IF you plan to read this book, I suggest you read the Introduction and Part One (“Faith, Reason, and Freedom: A View from the Present”) and then skip over the Parts Two and Three to Part Four (“Reaction and Retreat: Modernity and The Eclipse of the Human”) and read the two chapters there: “16 Secularism and Its Victims” and “17 Sorcerers and Saints.” THEN go back and read Parts Two and Three which are mostly historical in nature and explain Hart’s theses about what he calls “the Christian revolution” and why it is misrepresented by the new atheists and other secular critics of religion and especially Christianity. He demonstrates conclusively that what he calls “total humanism” is rooted in Christianity and not in secularism. He explodes numerous myths about Christian beginnings and Christian history while admitting without hesitation the abuses of Christendom (which have been betrayals of true Christianity).
I’ll just give one example of Hart’s incisive historical examination of Christianity’s (not Christendom’s!) contribution to Western civilization and especially humanism (value placed on all human beings regardless of age, race, ability, etc.). I must admit that I did not know that Gregory of Nyssa, one of the Cappadocian fathers of the church, was the first human being to condemn slavery outright as an institution and call for its abolition. Christians before and after him (and some pagans as well) called for humane treatment of slaves and even generous manumission of slaves, but Gregory, in his fourth sermon on Ecclesiastes (379) directed his anger “not at the abuse of slavery but at its use; he reproaches his parishioners…for daring to imagine they have the right to own other human beings.” (178) And his only ammunition is the gospel.
I can’t resist another fairly lengthy quote from Hart about Christianity’s “total humanism” or “personalism”: “In the light of Christianity’s absolute law of charity [that has no pagan or secular foundation], we came to see what formerly we could not: the autistic or Down syndrom or otherwise disabled child, for instance, for whom the world can remain a perpetual perplexity, which can too often cause pain but perhaps only vaguely and fleetingly charm or delight…[as] not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored, [this] is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls.” (214)
Hart goes through a laundry list of modern/contemporary secular “thinkers” who suggest that such children ought to be killed or at least bred out of existence through eugenics. He doesn’t mention her, but his argument reminds me of the very revealing answer given by a secular “genius” columnist to the question “What makes a life worth living.” She wrote “A life is worth living if it produces more than it consumes whether that be happiness, handbooks or harmonicas.” (I’ve always wondered why people think she knows the answers to metaphysical questions just because she allegedly has a very high IQ.) That is, in Hart’s opinion and mine, the correct answer for purely post-Christian, thoroughly secular person to give. Any other answer draws on the left overs from their Christian past.
Now, it’s important to clear away some of the objections that will inevitably arise from those who do not read the book. By “Christianity” Hart does NOT mean “the churches” or “Christendom” or any Christian denomination’s confession of faith or even “everything in the Bible.” He clearly (!) means “the gospel” and its direct implications. He clearly means “total humanism” or “personalism” based on the narrative of God creating humans in his own image and likeness and becoming one of us in Jesus Christ. He readily admits that the gospel has rarely been lived out faithfully by institutions. But, in his view (and mine), it is the salt and light that overcame the “melancholy” of ancient pagan culture and has always stood as judgment and hope within Western culture.
Now, much of what Hart says is not entirely new; he just says it so powerfully, courageously, directly and intelligently.
One thing I found new in Hart’s book is his tracing of the ills of modernism to nominalism. According to Hart (and I agree) the root ill of all modernism is its excessive emphasis on freedom to choose as an end in itself. The inflation of the will has become the be-all and end-all of being human in contemporary Western society. Not choosing for some good, but simply having the power to choose and acting on it is what makes us human (to many secular modernists). The Christian law of charity has been replaced with the self’s ability to choose as the summum bonum.
Many have said this before. Hart rightly traces it back to nominalism. Of course, it’s an unintended consequence. The line for him (and for me) is clear, however, and should have been seen from the beginning. For nominalism/voluntarism “God’s essence simply is will. And if this is what freedom is for God, then this must be what freedom is for us as well.” (225) (Page 225 constitutes a beautiful and frightening description of nominalism/voluntarism; read it.)
Some time ago I was browsing in a Christian bookstore and came across a published version of Luther’s Bondage of the Will (his diatribe against Erasmus) edited with an introduction by J. I. Packer. (I wondered then as now how honest it is to publish just Luther’s diatribe without at least lengthy selections from Erasmus so people can know “from the horse’s mouth” what Luther was reacting to.) Here’s the great irony. Packer, a Calvinist, agrees with Luther against Erasmus. But Erasmus’ free will was simply power to choose; it was freedom to move toward or away from the good. There is no hint in Erasmus of “freedom” in the modern sense of simply the right and power to choose whatever. His is a limited, situated power of contrary choice based on assisting grace. Luther’s diatribe contains clear, even extreme, affirmations of nominalism/voluntarism (that God is above all law even within his own eternal nature). If Hart is right, and I suspect he is, it is Luther’s view of God that led to modernity’s inflation of freedom out of all bounds! Of course, it wasn’t Luther’s alone. Nominalism/voluntarism existed and exists way beyond Luther. But the irony is still striking.
If Hart is right, the future looks dim as Christianity recedes in influence. (Again, he’s not talking about Christendom but about the gospel!) Without it, there is no ground for humanism or hope. The only thing left is power and will. The lives of those who cannot produce more than they consume are in very real danger. He concludes that “our contemporary ‘age of reason’ is in many ways an age of almost perfect unreason, one always precariously poised upon the edge of–and occasionally slipping over into–the purest barbarism.” (236) He holds out little hope for Western civilization apart from a revival of Christian, total humanism and personalism.