I can think of no better theologian to respond to the New Atheists than David Bentley Hart, except that is not really what Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies is about. True, he begins with a lambasting of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens et al. for their incapacity for philosophy and careless use of logic and rhetoric. Yes, his snarky wit weaves a path through their deceit that brings to light the regurgitated nature of their arguments and the inherent failures of any true critique since the time of Friedrich Nietzsche. But the title, as well as the first and last parts of the book, masks Hart’s true intention.
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The detour is evident from the title of Part Two of the book: The Mythology of the Secular Age: Modernity’s Rewriting of the Christian Past. There is here no indication of entering into the arguments of the New Atheists on their own terms. There is no argument concerning the existence of God, theodicy or dismantling of the creation vs. evolution debate. While he claims that an undergrad halfway through a logic course could raze the argument of Richard Dawkins, he never actually goes about the task of doing such thing. Instead, he uses his erudite knowledge of the history of the Church to dismantle false claims regarding history, which he admits are bolstered by the worst historians being the popular ones. Hart argues against the claim that Christianity was simply the dark interlude between the classical world of Greece and Rome and the world of modernity following the Enlightenment, and does this by correcting a number of false understandings.
One of the most poignant examples of this, at least for my generation, is in his discussion of Galileo. In recent history books Galileo’s career has been painted as a battle of scientific discovery versus the power of the Church, which resulted in Galileo being forced to renounce his beliefs and live under house arrest. Yet Hart shows that it has been forgotten that the scientific method as we now know it was developed, for better or worse, within Christendom, and overturned a pagan cosmology and physics to arrive at conclusions unimaginable within Hellenistic confines. This was largely due to the Bible being read by the early Church allegorically, and able to encompass empirical beliefs concerning the world and universe. Hart notes the house arrest as embarrassing and partly a result of a backsliding of the allegorical understanding, but in greater degree was a result of Galileo’s brash attitude and personal battle with the equally proud (but perhaps even unbelieving) Pope Urban VIII.
Hart continues to dismantle false claims regarding Christianity through discussions regarding intolerance, persecution, and war. He shows that to become a Christian was a complete transformation of the person through an elaborate catechesis process culminating in baptism, and that Christianity did not enter a world of joy and vitality but rather offered a joyless world of religious yearning and spiritual despondency the hope of new life, where the principal gift was liberation from spiritual anxiety and the hopeless longing to escape. He attempts to show that Christianity posed something impractical but fabulous, which is a humanism that insisted on the infinite dignity of every soul and the value of every life.
Hart writes that there was nothing in pagan society comparable to the willingness of Christians to provide for persons in need, regardless of social position, and that there was an openness toward women (his main example) that exemplifies the contribution made to the dispossessed. This counters the modern idea that Christianity did little for the amelioration of these groups, but it fails to answer Nietzsche’s case against the church, that it appeals to the weak and resentful, which ultimately bred catastrophic social and cultural consequences. But Nietzsche hated Christianity for regarding charity as the highest virtue, and the subversive nature of believing in God’s universal love that went beyond place or nation. Hart traces the subversive aspect of this through history, one that is hindered in the acceptance of the religion by Constantine but that retains the subversive nature until the Church becomes subordinate to the monarchies in France and Spain during the Enlightenment that ushered in a new world of violence.
The current situation for Hart is a post-Christian one, but after tracing the genealogy of “human” developing as a positive invention of Christianity, the post-Christian culture may also be post-human. This is seen, for Hart, in the effort to build a new reality for humans amidst the ruins of the ‘age of faith’ that promises liberty, justice, and equality accompanied by a willingness to kill without measure to reach that distant dawn. The freedom of the will became our supreme value, and as such, we transcended the obsolete superstition of Christianity that every life is of equal, and infinite, value.
Just as the story of the crucified God took all to itself, Hart writes that in departing it takes everything with it, such as habits of reverence and awe, restraint, and the command of the Good within us. What is left? Only the will, set before an abyss (Pit?) of limitless possibility. What arises from such a situation for Hart is banality and fundamentalism (religious as well as scientific). What is needed, then, is a reeducation of what it means for us to be humans as defined by what our aesthetic and moral imaginations are capable of. He writes that we must recognize the story we inherit as Christians, and recognize that while for a long time the Christian story shaped civilization, it is no longer doing so. He notes that the desert fathers and mothers went into the desert as Christianity was on the verge of political and social power, an act of rebellion against its own success. If, as Hart says, the Western culture has become something of a desert for believers, what are we to do now?
While Hart believes that Christendom will develop in other lands, he fails to acknowledge that perhaps there is an opportunity for Christianity to produce an act of rebellion against its own defeat. Not in an attempt to reclaim the ability to shape the story of civilization, but in alleviating the anxiety caused by political and social success through history, perhaps now Christians will be able to act out the story of Christianity in a way that has been impossible since the fourth century. Even though the title of the book may be misleading, by tracing the misunderstandings of history and the way that the early Church functioned, David Bentley Hart begins to give us the ability and confidence to reclaim our story in a more faithful way.