The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 29, 2014

JOURNAL ARCHIVE
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Honesty in the Face of Delusion
Mihail Neamtu

Mihail Neamtu is a Romanian historian of ideas, who currently lives in Bucharest.

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

An intellectual born in America and educated in England, and a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, theologian David Bentley Hart has an unusual method of challenging the enemies of Christianity. He knows too well that, in sociological terms, he belongs to a religious minority, while intellectually he inherits the great legacy of Christendom. Hart mocks the agitprop of the new atheist movements, and yet he does not give in to the widespread paranoia suggesting that the Gospel is the victim of a global conspiracy. Such a strategy would be not just rhetorically inappropriate but also historically inaccurate, since the Church is constantly growing in many hidden corners of the world. Every year, hundreds of Christians give their share of martyrdom and sacrifice. Westerners cannot appropriate this reality as a pretext for their own loss of faith.

This is why Hart sets out a rather different approach in the field of apologetics: he avoids emotional arguments, acknowledges the weaker points of his own tradition, and neatly contextualizes the arguments of his opponents. Apart from some mild ad hominem attacks (which remind one of the patristic gems exemplified by Gregory of Nyssa’s spat with Eunomius in the late fourth century), Hart wants to assess the logical and hermeneutical consistency of different writers, ranging from popular essayists such as Christopher Hitchens to the more systematic minds of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Fortunately, the Christian trenches are filled not only with fideists but also with people who know by temperament, spiritual insight, and intellectual training the importance of patience and humor in the process of contesting any fixed agnostic Weltanschauung—as opposed to mere preaching or easy lambasting against the newest crowd of unbelievers coming to town (or campus). Hart’s greatest achievement is his depiction of a type of Christianity that celebrates not only the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity but also the world’s infinite horizon of intelligibility opened up by God’s promise of recapitulation and re-creation of all meanings in the eschaton. This generosity of God, revealed by the incarnate logos and constantly renewed in history by the Holy Spirit, lies at the core of Hart’s defense of the Nicene Creed.

Hart, therefore, does not proceed to an a priori rejection of atheism and to an a priori plea for Christianity. Though very rich in speculative digressions, this book is very much influenced by what Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) called the wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein (that is, a “historically effected consciousness”). This was not the kind of apologetics that the early Alexandrian theologians could have afforded against the pagan polytheists or the Neo-Platonic philosophers. A historical argument against militant atheism has not made its way into the Christian literature until very late, after modern theologians came to witness the political barbarism endorsed by a supposedly enlightened intelligentsia during the French and the Bolshevik revolutions. Hart does not merely offer a list of plausible counterarguments against the cynical reason of our day and age. He does not limit himself simply to showing the aesthetic perfection of a propositional system—which still would be only one among many others in the history of metaphysics. Hart aims to provide his readers with a persuasive evocation of historical facts, moral judgments, philosophical principles, and theological musings, which may persuade them of the beauty of Christian truth. Without ever lapsing into sentimentality or vagueness, this brilliant mind seeks to restore our “dissociated sensibility” (as T. S. Eliot would have put it).

Atheist Delusions is divided into four parts. The introduction exposes the vulgar skepticism of Sam Harris et eiusdem farinae. Hart challenges and ridicules the alleged moral progress which these champions of the new atheism claim for themselves, as against the intellectual and technological backwardness of the old theological regimes. The illusion that contemporary people can ever pretend to have a higher ethical stand as opposed to the ancient world is immediately torn to pieces. Despite the genuine richness and brilliance of the secular European culture at the beginning of the twentieth century, nothing has stopped the military and political production of hecatombs, ranging from the Turkish nationalist genocide against the Armenians on through the gulag experiments and the horrors of the Shoah. As the philosopher Eric Voegelin and British historian Michael Burleigh have convincingly argued, it is hardly a coincidence that the two political religions of totalitarian persuasion—communism and fascism—emerged within a context of general disenchantment with the sacred. The innate human need for redemption has been channeled through the dark corridors of utopia. Collectivism and mass hysteria have supplanted our desire for community and sacramental participation in the unseen world. A series of dictators, thugs, and mercenaries started to speak the völkisch language, invoking either blood and soil or an abstract and delusional fraternity among the members of the proletariat.

Until the late 1980s, some of these characters—such as Nicolae Ceauşescu (1918–1989) in Romania and Enver Hoxha (1908–1985) in Albania—continued to spread the atheistic convictions of Marxism-Leninism by demolishing churches, torturing dissidents, and imprisoning priests who dared to give an honest homily about the Sermon on the Mount. An Eastern European reader might think that Hart could have written more about the dismal legacy of communism in social, economic, ecological, or spiritual terms. Historical experiments in programmatic atheism have shown the barren fruits of the land of the godless. A Christian apologist could have much to say about the political conversion of ideological atheism into the vast specters of ugliness which still haunt so many former socialist cities, from Bucharest to Ulan Bator, and from Minsk to Novosibirsk. Moreover, there is the mutual correlation between militant atheism and mass murder, which cannot be treated as a matter of historical contingency.

However, Hart wrote his book mainly for an American audience, which suffers from other temptations: consumerism, nihilism, hyperindividualism, the oblivion of being, all of which boils down to the perpetual ecstasy of the individual will celebrating its freedom of choice in the absence of even some minimal rules of discernment. Here, the author clearly indicates his sympathy with the school of traditional conservatism and takes leave of the libertarian inebriation with the language of preference, variety, difference, abundance, etc. For anyone who has read Hart’s other books and articles, however, there is no doubt that he is a friend of democracy and a defender of pluralism. He enters freely in any available room of the bibliotheca universalis, while calling for prudence and wisdom in whatever existential decision we are about to make. Political freedom and economic mobility are wonderful gifts for a society—if its members understand the importance of responsibility. The pursuit of individual happiness and the ministry to the common good must be accountable to what the ancient Romans called the summum bonum. When deprived of this moral context (with its implicit rules of transcendence), choice becomes a fetish. Consequently, individualist atomism leads to nihilism: “We believe, so saying that there is no substantial criterion by which we judge our options—a criterion above the idea of free choice, and so we tend to consider any costs outside—divine or human—as a violation of our freedom.”

From this point of view, Christianity teaches us the true value of belonging: not just to a limited circle of family and friends but also to a universal community inspired by the story of Abraham and Moses, fundamentally reshaped by Christ, and constantly rejuvenated by the Holy Spirit until the end of time. The Church exists, first and foremost, as an event that structures this friendship between countless generations across the centuries. The Christian paideia requires discipleship and an ascetic molding of one’s individual will (Romans 7 offers the best description of the contradictory nature of our inmost desires). This sense of belonging also means that past, present, and future can be mystically interwoven into the cosmic liturgy of the dead, the living, and even the unborn (who, in the words of St. Maximus the Confessor, are known to God at least as eternal logoi of his creation). On the contrary, atheism disrupts this process of homecoming and celebrates experimentalism and fragmentation. With the godless account of the universe, we come from nowhere and, despite some fleeting material progress, our lives eventually sink into the void of nothingness. There are plenty of atheist individuals who can display superb intelligence, good manners, wonderful talents, and a friendly character; but when it comes to realizing a goal that is beyond the sphere of immanence, their advice avails little.

Above all, Atheist Delusions is an honest book, which doesn’t hide the sometimes repulsive truths related to the political or social aspects of historical Christianity: the Inquisition, the story of sacred missions among the heathen being coupled with selfish projects of economic colonialism, the endemic pietistic reactions against excessive rationalism, some sluggishness in abolishing slavery or serfdom, etc. Hart shows, however, that Christian theology has always condemned murder, predatory wars, forced baptisms, intimidation, intolerance, violence against the innocent. Moreover, Christianity radically changed the sensitivity of the European peoples in late antiquity: their attitude toward infants, the poor, and unwanted or abandoned mothers. A typically male celebration of gladiatorial games, ethnic tribalism, philosophical melancholy, the imperial cult, and the deification of mere mortals (such as the Roman Caesars) were all rejected bankrupted. Instead of erotic frenzy and drunken bacchanalia, the early Christians introduced the sobriety of agape and of the Eucharistic gatherings. The stairway to heaven involved a very special type of self-denial, sub specie Crucis, as opposed to the culture of celebrity and egomania indulged by Roman aristocrats. Christ gave to the ancient world a new grammar of self-understanding and a new raison d’être, in which gratitude and joy play an essential part. Christ broadened the classical notion of dignitas by allowing every human person from whatever social background to approach the altar on equal footing. The greatest gift was thus imparted to the most humble—an act of genuine openness and humility unheard of among the elitist circles of the ancient philosophers.

The last part of the book discusses the resurgence of ancient beliefs—which include a host of superstitions, magic practices, cultic associations, or jihadist commitments to extremism. Traditional Christianity might not be fashionable in the posh intellectual circles of the West today, but atheism doesn’t hold much water for people who genuinely search for the transcendent. Neither Karl Marx, nor Slavoj Žižek for that matter, has turned any Wall Street crook into a repentant Zacchaeus. Neither Darwin nor Freud has liberated any poor soul afflicted by loneliness, despair, or shameful addictions. To those attracted to or half persuaded by the truth of the Gospel, Hart sends a clear message: Christianity cannot be predicated upon worldly comfort or easy therapy (“how to discover your authentic self in seven days”). This is why we can and should learn something from the great lesson taught by the quiet monastics of the Egyptian desert: before going out into the world with a zealous conversion plan, they understood the need for withdrawal, modesty, simplicity, and, above all, anonymity. Their move was complementary to that entertained by the Christian laity from Alexandria, where the Scriptures were passionately read, where pagan books were carefully commented upon, and where public debates were held in respect (sometimes in the presence of outstanding figures such as St. Anthony the Great). It is neither the model of Thomas Aquinas (with his five proofs for the existence of God) nor that of Bishop Butler (with his apt rejection of deism) which Hart recommends us to ponder. Rather, he encourages us to recapture the selfless drive toward Philokalia—the love for beauty which will transfigure our perception of the universe. Only by learning first to dwell in the innermost chamber of our own hearts might we, at length, hope to be able to build again magnificent churches and cathedrals, perhaps even another Hagia Sophia, ad majorem Dei gloriam.

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