In the desert


Orchids in the arid Chaco, Paraguay (Dueck)


David Bentley Hart, in Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (see previous posts), is not  optimistic about the state of post-Christian culture, with even its “tribe of the New Atheists” unable “to produce profound unbelief.” But still, the fear is real — if post-Christian, then post-human. Banality is one thing, but “monstrosity” another: “knowledge as power — unmoored from the rule of love or simply a discipline of prudent moral tentativeness–”

“Nietzsche,” Hart writes, “was a prophetic figure precisely because he, almost alone among Christianity’s enemies, understood the implications of Christianity’s withdrawal from the culture it had haunted for so many centuries.”

How do we live in the wake of such disappearance? 

Here Hart offers a final brief “lesson” which we puzzled over a little at our discussion of the book on Wednesday evening. It was precisely when Christianity was “on the verge of assuming political and social power” (Constantine) that Christian monasticism began “to flower in the Egyptian desert,” when the desert fathers and mothers began to devote themselves to prayer, fasting, charity.

From them another current opened:

…a renunciation of power even as power was at last granted to the church, an embrace of poverty as a rebellion against plenty, a defiant refusal to forget that the Kingdom of God is not of this world. [240]

Those Christians sought out the desert “as a shelter from empire.” Today, Western culture “threatens to become something of a desert for believers.” 

So we’re  in the desert already. Can we cultivate, as the desert fathers and mothers, “the pure eye (that could see all things as gifts of God) and the pure heart (that could receive all persons with a generous love)”?

Our book club conversation

In my last post, I hinted that I might want to say a little more about Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, and something too about the book club conversation last night.

Although there was a bit of grumbling about Hart’s page-long paragraphs and 50-word sentences, there was a recognition by most of us, I think, that this is a significant and mind-changing book. One participant called it “profound,” and another said, in its praise, that it “vigorously undoes alternative narratives I’ve carried with me.” Another, who knew Hart’s earlier book, The Beauty of the Infinite, and had found it somewhat show-offish, liked this latest tome very much.

Paul Doerksen, our host and leader, is a fan as well. (He also offered critique, especially some of the points raised by Paul Griffiths’ review of the book in First Things). He told us that Hart is considered one of the most brilliant scholars in the theological world today. “Period.” And this book, he said, is going to “linger” long after people have stopped reading the “Ditchkins crowd.” Not that the new atheists are anywhere close to the central concern of this book. They’re really more the occasion for it — and for Hart’s insistence that there’s another story and that it has to be told. It was good to hear Paul go through Hart’s thesis, chapter by chapter, as he identifies the false narrative of the Enlightenment we’ve been suckered into and then unfolds the one he’s convinced is true.

One point I’d not picked up in my reading was how strongly Hart’s Eastern Orthodox affiliation comes through when he talks about salvation in his chapter (15) on “Divine Humanity.” I guess by then my Anabaptist/Protestant antennae were tingling so much over his stirring account of Christian humanism (which surely all the Christian traditions share) — this “immense dignity–this infinite capacity…the transcendent possibility and strange grandeur present within each person” — that I missed the fine points of soteriological difference. (Then again, maybe I don’t know the fine points of soteriological difference!)

The enormity of that transformation of thought, of dignity, of caring is the heart of the story, and Hart hones in on it by drawing attention to a small biblical detail in a way that both surprised and moved me, a way that Paul Doerksen pronounced “achingly beautiful” and worth the price of the book. [SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t read the book but intend to, you may want to come to this on your own and stop reading here.] 

That detail? Peter’s bitter weeping after hearing the cock crow the morning after he’d betrayed his Lord. Let me quote a little and leave it at that.

To us today, this hardly seems an extraordinary detail of the narrative, however moving we may or may not find it; we would expect Peter to weep, and we certainly would expect any narrator to think the event worth recording. But, in some ways, taken in the context of the age in which the Gospels were written, there may well be no stranger or more remarkable moment in the whole of scripture. What is obvious to us — Peter’s wounded soul, the profundity of his devotion to his teacher, the torment of his guilt, the crushing knowledge that Christ’s imminent death forever foreclosed the possibility of seeking forgiveness for his betrayal — is obvious in very large part because we are the heirs of a culture that, in a sense, sprang from Peter’s tears… To the literate classes of late antiquity, however, this tale of Peter weeping would more likely have seemed an aesthetic mistake; for Peter, as a rustic, could not possibly have been a worthy object of a well-bred man’s sympathy, nor could his grief possibly have possessed the sort of tragic dignity necessary to make it worthy of anyone’s notice… But…it is only in Peter that one sees [as literary critic Erich Auerbach noted] “the image of man in the highest and deepest and most tragic sense.” Yet Peter remains, for all that, a Galilean peasant. This is not merely a violation of good taste; it is an act of rebellion. [166-7]

“Atheist Delusions”: what I learned

I joined a book club this year — 4 books, 4 evenings with great desserts — led by Paul Doerksen, teacher at Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute, here in Winnipeg. On the menu tonight is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart.

It’s been a slog, frankly, reading this book, but that’s why one joins activities like this, I suppose — to persist in what’s good for one, not just the dessert! Hart takes on the current atheist apologists, none of whom I’ve read, and also considers in some detail the first four or five centuries of Christian history, with which I’m also not as familiar as I probably should be.

But here’s what I learned:

1. The current crop of church antagonists (Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, Pullman) are hardly worthy of the name. Theirs are “vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance.” The church used to have opponents of stature, of whom Nietzsche was the greatest, having at least had “the good manners to despise Christianity…for what it actually was — above all, for its devotion to an ethics of compassion…” 

2. The view of the past that modernity (whose “primal ideology” is nihilism) has given us — and one we’ve probably all absorbed — is just plain wrong. This false narrative, based on distorted history, tells us that the dark, confused Middle Ages gave way to “a new and revolutionary age of enlightenment and reason.” 

3. In fact, Christianity brought something entirely new and profoundly remarkable into the world (along with its single historical claim: Christ’s resurrection).  It was a “cosmic sedition” that gave “a vision…of humanity in its widest and deepest scope, one that finds the full nobility and mystery and beauty of the human countenance — the human person — in each unique instance of the common nature.” 

“For what it is to be human has been, in some real way, irrevocably altered.” 

This good news, he notes, evolving within a pagan culture of spiritual and moral decline, was “uncommonly attractive to women.” It imparted to the world “a deep and imperturbable joy.” And it started hospitals. (On the grounds of Christian charity, Hart gives not an inch — the range of Christians’ exertions on behalf of others was “astonishing.”)

Hart’s style is as vigorous and compelling as it is complex, and he has a magnificent capacity for what seems to me a kind of (usually) holy sarcasm. I’m tempted to quote him endlessly here, but first I want to hear how Paul Doerksen will pull Hart’s thesis together — he’s read the book at least twice — and what the rest of the participants of the group will have to say.