Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
by David Bentley Hart
Yale, 249 pages, $28
At the center of David Bentley Hart’s brilliant new book is an account of the Christian revolution, by which he means the gradual but radical and dramatic replacement of the classical pagan vision of the world by a Christian one. The book’s occasion, it seems, is the recent murky trickle of atheist polemics from such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. And its purpose—well, as to that things are a little unclear. Rebuttal of Christianity’s cultured despisers? Comfort to the faithful? Bulwark against the posthuman future already upon us? Requiem for something irretrievably lost, with Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue lurking in the background? Display of Hart’s own brilliance?
All the above, I suspect, and perhaps more. I should at once remove one likely misapprehension. The book is not, despite the publisher’s marketing efforts, a counterblast to “Ditchkins” (Terry Eagleton’s apt collective authorial name, Dawkins + Hitchens, for the authors of the new atheist literature). Ditchkins is simply not interesting enough to get Hart’s concentrated attention, and although the book is filigreed with dismissive and ironical swatting of this or that Ditchkins howler or non sequitur or crass ideological idiocy, such argument is really not what drives Hart in Atheist Delusions.
That’s a good thing. Hart is after something much larger and more interesting. He wants to narrate the revolutionary place of Christianity in what he calls the “imaginary” of the West and, in doing so, show what we will lose if the gospel ceases to be a living influence on our civilization.
Hart is no friend to understatement (except when he’s being ironical). He says, for instance, that the Christian revolution was “a truly massive and epochal revision of humanity’s prevailing vision of reality, so pervasive in its influence and so vast in its consequences as actually to have created a new conception of the world, of human nature, of time, and of the moral good.” And “the rise of Christianity produced consequences so immense that it can almost be said to have begun the world anew: to have ‘invented’ the human, to have bequeathed to us our most basic concepts of nature, to have determined our vision of the cosmos and our place in it.”
Hart’s rhetorical engine, once it gets rolling, often produces such long and sonorous sentences. And to what effect? According to Hart, what lies at the heart of this revolution of the imagination is, first, an understanding of the world: the place into which we humans find ourselves thrown. The prevailing pagan imaginaries had a grim view of this place. For them—and here Hart includes the endless varieties of gnosticism and the late-antique Platonism that provided their fundamental grammar, even when that grammar was ornamented by Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and much else—the world was to be escaped. Salvation was to be found in renouncing its surface beauties, and this was to be done by disciplining desires for them toward erasure.
Sexual desire provides one sample. A set of pagan views, for example, advocated that everyone should just stop having sex, and if they couldn’t stop they should have it in such a way as to ensure that no babies were conceived, and if they couldn’t manage that then they should kill any babies that might be born. Such views sit easily with a relaxed attitude to sexual license: If it’s all bad then there’s no sense in discriminating the more from the less bad. If you’re going to have sex, then any kind is as good as any other, just so long as you don’t make the mistake of thinking sex intrinsically valuable.
Overturning this altogether is the Christian understanding of creation as having occurred ex nihilo and of God—the triune Lord—as the one who has become incarnate. The world becomes the theatre of God’s prevenient love; its history becomes the story of that love; the flesh becomes a delight; and the gorgeousness of the world—its variety, its harmonies, its order—becomes something to attend to with passion. Where the pagan imagination is irremediably and constitutively sad, the Christian one, Hart writes, has threaded through it a “deep and imperturbable joy.”
It is not that Christians (and Jews) do not weep. They are, in fact, virtuosos of mourning for the damage done to the world and for the rivers of violently shed blood that constantly scour it. But Christian mourning is hope inflected, a response to the world’s groaning as though it mattered. The pagan equivalent is only a sigh of resignation. Christian mourning needs tears: Peter’s when he comes to understand the depths of his betrayal of Jesus (Hart treats these tears in virtuoso fashion, showing how the gospel’s depiction of them would have made no sense in pagan literature), Jesus’ tears for Lazarus, Mary’s for her dead son. Pagan sadness has the premeditated world-weary acknowledgment of inevitability as its sublimity: Anaxagoras responds to the news of his son’s death by saying that he already knew he had begotten a mortal.
The world and its sufferings are different places for pagans and Christians, and Hart emphasizes that the Christian imagination of the world is new, a transformative force in late antiquity. Along with the transformation of the world goes the transformation of the human. For the elites of pagan antiquity, almost all human beings are faceless. The pagan imaginary is immovable from top to bottom, and just as the nonhuman world is a meat-locker to be escaped, so its human denizens, seething and pullulating as they did in the great cities of the Roman world, are nothing more than slabs in that meat locker, to be treated as such. Slaves, women, infants (especially babies), soldiers, the poor—all were in some sense necessary, but none had faces that could be looked at with the expectation that their gaze might address, challenge, transform, or give gifts to the one doing the looking. For the elite pagan man, women are at best receptacles for offspring and slaves instruments to meet material needs, while soldiers are shields from barbarian attack, and the poor—well, as to them, they are to be avoided whenever possible and certainly never to be looked at. The scented handkerchief is pressed to the nose with delicate disgust at the inconvenience of their stink.
I exaggerate, of course—as, often, does Hart. The real picture is more nuanced, and we’re dealing here with ideal types, fundamental grammars, and abstractions of a high order. Such dealing can be illuminating, however, and in Hart’s hands it certainly is. The picture of the pagan imagination of the human, just painted, permits a dramatic contrast with the Christian imagination of the same, a contrast whose clarity provokes thought. For Hart, that imagination’s grammar begins with the deep intimacy between God— the God, the high God of elite paganism, who is also the Lord of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and us, evident in the Incarnation.
From this comes a form of social organization, the Church, in which every human being is welcome and in which all together, without separation or distinction, worship the Lord who became one of them. From this, in turn, comes the aspiration to care for the material needs of all human beings—Christians certainly, but also pagans. On this Hart analyzes, to considerable effect, the Emperor Julian’s attempt in the mid-fourth century to proscribe Christianity and to reinstitute the worship of the old gods in the late Empire. He shows that Julian was aware of Christian almsgiving and encouraged pagans to imitate it. But, as Hart asks, did Julian “really imagine that the sort of charity he wished to recommend could have any compelling rationale apart from the peculiar moral grammar of Christian faith?” In Hart’s view, the pagan imagination simply lacks any such resources, and Julian’s attempted restoration is deadborn.
This Christian revolutionary reimagination of the human gave faces to the faceless, and once that gift has been given there is no looking back. The once faceless—the poor, the newborn, the widow, the sick, the imprisoned, the slave—must now be taken care of, treated as gifts of infinite value bestowed by the God who had brought each of them into being ex nihilo. This meant that, to the extent Christians abided by the grammar of their faith, they brought into being institutions largely unknown in the West before: almshouses, hospitals, and so forth.
There is a third aspect to the Christian imagination described by Hart, and that is the political. The pagan world held many gods, all with their own peoples and places. To be a Jew was, from the point of view of Greek or Roman pagans, simply to be a follower of YHWH, the local deity of Jerusalem and environs. (There were puzzles here for such people about Christianity, which did not appear to have a place but rather to aspire to be everywhere and for all.) To be a Roman was to be a follower of the gods who had the eternal city as their place. This intimate intertwining of the gods with a place and the political forms of that place meant that there was little room for appeal beyond the local political norms to the will of God; there was certainly no institution that could set itself over against the local political forms by way of challenge and call to account.
The Christian revolution changed this. The Church, the community of those who worshiped the risen Lord, was not and could not be identical with any secular political form. And so in fourth-century Milan, Ambrose, a bishop of the Church, was able to call Emperor Theodosius to account for his crimes of violence and to require public penance of him. Twenty years later, Augustine, who had been instructed and baptized by Ambrose, was able to compose the City of God, which boldly claims that human cities are and must be distinct from the divine city, which has the right to judge every human city.
This is the grammar of Hart’s Christian revolution. Hart does not argue that Christians have always abided by the grammar of their faith. Some were, as he nicely puts it, “lightly baptized” and remained pagan in disposition. Others, by their own account, knew what they should be doing but found themselves unable to do it. Yet others found their grasp on the lineaments of the revolution fragile and were often seduced into looking away from what it offered and toward the glamour of the world.
As a result, Christians have often been functional pagans, consigning the slaves and the poor to facelessness, indulging in violence for dubious ends, and all the other things that unregenerate human beings do. Hart’s point is not that Christians have always been good or even that they have always been better than the pagans. It is that the materials of the Christian revolution made possible the realization of goods that would have remained forever impossible under paganism—and this was achieved by a deep reconfiguration of the imagination of the West.
Hart doesn’t offer only an analysis of the Christian revolution. He also has some things to say about where we are now. The Christian revolution permitted the discovery of the world and the human, with a relativization of the totalizing tendencies of the political order. To live, then, in our current post-Christian culture is to be in danger of losing all this. And the more gloomy threads in the tapestry Hart weaves of the late-modern situation pick these losses out in red-threaded black—red for the blood of modernity’s slaughters (150 million at least during the course of the twentieth century; five million at least in the Congo alone since 1998) and black for a world subjected to and laid waste by the nation-state’s self-understanding as sole sovereign power.
Hart understands himself at this point to be offering a counternarrative to the recent atheistic accounts. According to the standard Ditchkins story, religion in general and Christianity in particular are forces of intolerance and violence, with modernity a story of liberation from those forces. Ever onward and ever upward, we move into the pure, clear light of science, democracy, and the market. Thought’s shackles are thrown off, reason rules, there are no more additions to the mountains of corpses produced by religious hatreds, and the earthly paradise is just around the corner. Hart’s narrative is bracingly opposed at every point.
It’s here that I find myself becoming a little uneasy. It’s not that I think Hart’s narrative wrong or his depictions of the violence of modernity overdrawn. Indeed, the reality is so ghastly that it’s not possible to overdraw it. From Armenia to the Gulag to the Holocaust to Cambodia to Rwanda to the Congo, the story of mass slaughter over the last hundred years is so dreadful that no narrative, no matter how highly colored (and Hart’s is pretty high on the scale), could approach the horror of what it narrates.
No, my worry is that Hart has been seduced by Ditchkins into playing a game no one should play. I mean the game of counting corpses and attributing blame. Ditchkins says that the slaughters of the Gulag and the Holocaust are attributable to a half-Christian statist eschatological utopianism and are really, therefore, to be counted as Christian kill. Hart says that, no, they’re the inevitable product of the post-Christian state’s self-agggrandizing perfectionist violence, and they are therefore pagan kill. This isn’t seemly. Better to have quietly noted the size of the corpse-piles, about which no one can reasonably disagree, to have repented of whatever degree of Christian complicity there might have been in producing them, and to mourn. That would have been a more fully Christian response, and it would also, I suspect, have been rhetorically more effective, backfooting Ditchkins and making him appear the shrill, unnuanced apologist for the delusory perfections of modernity that he is.
I have two more worries in addition to this one. The first has to do with a dissonance between Hart’s depiction of the imperturbable joy brought by the Christian revolution and his own rhetorical performance. Hart’s rhetoric is profound and darkly brilliant, sonorous and learned, witty and provocative. But it is also, often, world-weary, deeply ironic, and, not to put too fine a point upon it, pagan in flavor. The stupidity of his opponents, whether the hapless Ditchkins or the more worthy but still confused Ramsay MacMullen, prompts in Hart the heavy sigh, the weary shrug, the gathering of the rhetorical troops for yet one more encounter.
In the subtext, close to the surface, is the thought, “You mean I have to engage this idiocy yet again? Well, I will, even though I don’t expect thanks for it.” This stance is a mixture of Eeyore and Hamann, with perhaps a trace of Chrysostom, and it trails clouds of the paganism Hart rebuts. This is not far from performative incoherence: no joy here, certainly, even though some laughs.
My second worry has to do with novelty. Hart emphasizes that the Christian revolution overturns paganism, with respect to which it is new. But it comes from the Jewish people and their Scriptures, which it does not overturn but rather fulfills. Hart ought to have said more about this. The unwary reader could be led to think that Jesus Christ and his Church were unprecedented and unprepared for and that the triune Lord had found none to acknowledge and worship him before Peter’s confession.
Still, Atheist Delusions is a major work by one of the most learned, forceful, and witty Christian theologians currently writing. I suppose it is unlikely to be read by Ditchkins and his ideological epigones. (Can there be epigones of a thinker so undistinguished?) But it can be read with profit and pleasure by almost anyone else.
Paul J. Griffiths holds the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke University’s Divinity School.