Sunday, June 21, 2009

Christianity's revolution in social ethics and culture

Read this book!

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
by David Bentley Hart

The title does not do justice to the book. Hart, a brilliant Eastern Orthodox theologian, treats the popular atheist writers of our day with scathing wit, but the book is really about something far more important. Drawing especially on his deep understanding of the early centuries of the Church and its cultural context, Hart offers an erudite essay that takes on the view--pervasive since the Enlightenment--that Christianity was a violent and irrational interlude between the cultured classical world and a modernity of reason and science.

Hart accepts that Christianity was an interruption, or irruption, but sees it as one that revolutionized our understanding of what it means to be human. It was the most profound revolution in human history. Hart points out that, unlike today's evangelical atheists, Nietzsche hated Christianity for what it actually was, a religion the God of which is Love and which regards charity as the highest virtue. It was unique and subversive in its insistence on God's universal love--beyond ties to place, tribe, nation, or ruler--and the duty of Christians to help the sick, poor, weak and oppressed, to visit prisoners, and to respect the intrinsic dignity and worth of all human life. Its adherents often disappoint, like all other human individuals and institutions in our fallen world. But in developing a (highly sophisticated) understanding of the God-man in which God became human so that humans may become divine, Christians of the early centuries overthrew older views of the infinite distance between God and humanity and the arbitrariness and immorality of the pagan gods. Christians established a world-view that saw the world as law-governed and humans as subject to a natural law "written on their hearts" and--in great contrast to pagan religions--a social ethic. This made scientific discovery--initially largely the work of churchmen and, like Galileo and Newton, devout Christians--a reading of the book of nature that God had written. No longer could we say, except in the depths of despair like the brutally blinded Gloucester in King Lear, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport." Christianity is a religion of joy and hope, as opposed to the prevailing pagan sadness and resignation.

So Hart's argument takes us from the pagan world, with its lack of a sense of the arrow of time and hence of the future and of the purpose and direction of life, its moral callousness toward the weak and oppressed, through the Christian revolution in which king and slave, aristocrat and worker, were of equal worth as sharing in the divinity of the God-man. The Church--again unique in its separation of religion from the state--suffers (what Hart sees as) the catastrophe of being adopted as the religion of the Roman Empire. But unlike the pagan cults, the Church retains its subversive aspect. It insists on the submission even of emperors and kings to God.

The long struggle (as well as collusion) between church and state ends in defeat for the Church as Protestant rulers place themselves at the head of their national churches and Catholic states like France and Spain completely subordinate the church to the monarchy--even in Spain's case insisting on the Inquisition as an instrument of "nation-building." The long march of the hypertrophied state culminates in the secularist horrors of the 20th century. Indeed, Hart argues, the modern secular state has a unique penchant or drive to violence on a vast scale that makes the violence attributed (much of it wrongly) to Christianity appear minuscule by comparison.

Hart's view of our present cultural situation is exceedingly--and for a Christian one might say excessively--bleak. He sees a post-Christian world no longer restrained by any conception of the equal dignity and worth of the individual. The moral restraints that are rooted in the Christian social ethic but have no solid basis in secularist ideologies, survive as memories for awhile but then fade. A foretaste of this world appears in the enthusiasm with which progressives and liberals of all kinds took up the eugenics movement in the U.S., which the Nazis adopted and learned from. The twentieth century, with its court-mandated sterilizations, lobotomies, scientific experiments on prisoners and denial of treatment to poor Black men in the interests of science in the U.S. as well as the the unrestrainedly murderous anti-Christian regimes (atheist or neo-pagan) of Russia and Germany, shows us the post-Christian future. It is a world in which the God who is Love is dead, science is freed from moral restraint and humans become objects of manipulation.

Fortunately, there are developments that might make us want to temper such pessimism, not in the sense that Hart is in any way wrong about the dehumanizing implications of a loss of the social ethics and spiritual depth and beauty of Christianity, but in the sense that secularization is not a done deal, not beyond academia and elite opinion anyway. Christianity is growing rapidly in Africa, Asia, and Russia, has not succumbed (except in its liberal forms) to secularization in the U.S. and is on the rise even in London.

But this is a profound and serious book that invites us to confront what is at stake in the secularist trends that the latest, crudest, most vulgar and, well, deluded atheist writers of our day reflect. A beautifully written and well argued essay that takes us well above and beyond the level of the new evangelical atheists.

(Adapted from the review I posted on

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