The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 31, 2014

FEATURE ARTICLES
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Equally Not Nothing
Peter Augustine Lawler (from IR 45 1-2) - 11/12/10

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009)

This brilliant, stunningly erudite, and powerfully provocative work begins as a tough criticism of the naive stupidity of the books of our popularizing “new atheists”—the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. Those best-selling authors have made atheism newly fashionable by spinning it shamelessly to appeal to our “sophisticated” prejudices. They criticize the immoral effects of Christianity from an anti-cruelty, pro-freedom, pro-Enlightenment perspective. They paint a historical picture of the scientifically advanced civilizations of the ancient Greeks and Romans, reasonably adorned with an easygoing polytheism. That admirable world was ruined, they explain, by the repressive disruption occasioned by the superstitious belief that there is only one, true, personal God.

Hart's “governing conviction” is that what our new atheists regard as modern progress in the direction of rational liberation is itself a reactionary superstition. The modern Enlightenment has actually been a rebellion against the whole truth about our natures, about who we are, and about the true source of our freedom and dignity. And that rebellion has been not so much radical as selective and self-indulgent. By compassionately privileging personal freedom and human rights over what they believe they know through science, the new atheists remain parasitic on the key Christian insight about who we are. Their attachment to the humane virtues makes no sense outside the Christian claim for the unique and irreplaceable dignity of every human person. That claim is completely unsupported by either ancient (Aristotelian) or modern (Darwinian) science. The sentimental preferences of our atheists are really those of a Christianity without Christ.

Hart repeatedly highlights, and shares, the contempt of the old atheist Nietzsche for the cowardly unsustainability of such groundless preferences. It was Nietzsche who prophesied that our fading, subjective experiences of dignity, freedom, and love have a very limited future as merely beneficial illusions. It was Nietzsche, “the most prescient philosopher of nihilism,” who predicted the coming of a world full of Last Men lacking the great aspirations or profound longings that are the foundation of cultural creativity. For Hart, what follows Christianity is inevitably a post-Christian world that's all about nothing. Still, much more than Nietzsche, Hart sees the pre-Christian world as also, in a different way, being all about nothing.

Hart describes for us a pre-Christian world that was cruel and capricious—reminding us forcefully of the torture and murder that ancient paganism tolerated as a matter of course, precisely because it regarded particular persons as unreal. The truth was best seen by the philosopher who became dead to himself, who resigned himself to the ephemeral insignificance of his particular existence. Christianity was, in a way, the slave revolt Nietzsche described, a “cosmic rebellion” against the enslavement of each of us to natural and political necessity. Christ, the Christians claimed, freed us from the limitations of our merely biological natures through his perfect reconciliation of God's nature and man's nature. He was, the Nicene fathers concluded, fully God and fully man, and his redemption was to divinize every man. Christ freed each of us for unlimited love for every other person made in God's image; Christ was the foundation of a virtuous way of life based on a vision of the good that has no pagan counterpart. Charity to all became the virtue most in accord with the truth about who we are. For Hart, the wonder is that anyone could have imagined the ideals of the Christian faith in the first place, given that those ideals had so little support in any pre-Christian conception of who we are.

It is barely too strong to say that, for Hart, Christ transformed each of us from being nobody to being somebody—indeed, a somebody of infinite value. None of us is destined to be a slave, and death has been overcome. We are no longer defined by our merely biological natures, because our nature is now to be both human and divine. From one view, there is no empirical evidence that death has been overcome for each particular human being. From another, the evidence is the unprecedented virtue flowing from the unconditional love present among the early Christians and that virtue's indirect, historical transformation of the broader social and political world. The change in who we are is the result of a deepened human inwardness or self-consciousness: Christ made each of us irreducibly deeper by infusing divinity into every nook and cranny of our natures.

Every feature of the personal liberation praised by our new atheists and our egalitarian autonomy boosters generally came into the world in Christian communities. Even the Stoics didn't approach the Christians in their indifference to a person's social status. The Christians were the first to be completely opposed to slavery; the first for raising women to equality in marriage and elsewhere; the first for faithfulness in monogamous marriage; the first for the egalitarian brotherhood of all men. For the Christians, the community of personal love wasn't some otherworldly hope. Rather, that community was formed by obligations given to divinized beings here and now. Our divinization through Christ includes what is called life after death, but we can live lovingly liberated from death even before we die.

A big difference between Hart and Nietzsche, it should go without saying, is that Hart doesn't hate the modern world insofar as it is a Christian accomplishment. There is ennobling truth in the egalitarianism of secular Christianity; our secularism is not simply the emptying out of all human content from our lives. Nevertheless, Hart should make clearer than he does that he actually affirms much of what's called modern social progress in the direction of the liberation of women, the technological liberation of many from mere subsistence, the erosion of unjust conventional hierarchies, and even the affirmation of universal human rights. The modern abolitionists and the fervent partisans of civil rights, Hart repeatedly observes, were either Christians or consciously inspired by Christianity. Liberty without love is an illusion, or at least a distortion, and there's no denying that modern political liberation was often inspired by a love for free beings, as well as by the love of being free.

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