So I’m reading the brilliant and provocative ATHEISTIC DELUSIONS: THE CHRISTIAN REVOLUTION AND ITS FASHIONABLE ENEMIES by David Bentley Hart. It begins as a criticism of the naive stupidity of the “new atheists” such as Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett from the perspective of the older atheist Nietzsche. The new atheists criticize religion (or basically Christianity) from an anti-cruelty, pro-dignity, pro-rights, pro-enlightenment perspective. They don’t realize that their humane values are, in fact, parasitic on Christianity and make no sense outside the Christian insight—completely unsupported by modern or Darwinian science—concerning the uniqueness and irreplacability of every human person. Nietzsche was right that secular Christianity or Christianity without Christ is unsustainable, and that the sentimental preferences of the new atheists are no more than that.
But Hart also suggests that the Christian insight persists in our claims for autonomy or liberty or unlimited willfulness and even in our nihilism (or our view that what we’re given by nature and tradition is nothing if not transformed or unredeemed). Those claims, too, are unsupported by contemporary evolutionary science or neuroscience. So what amount to our empirical claims about who we are as free beings remain decisively Christian and in opposition to what we think we know through natural science. Modern science characteristically has nothing to say about the free, loving, relational being who is capable of being a scientist. The being with logos, we can see with our own eyes, is a person.
So Hart is right to hit the new atheists hard with the Heideggerian criticism of the vulgarity of their materialism. They cowardly avoid the question of being, of why is there is being rather than nothing at all, or of even why scientists or other free persons could come into being in a world eternally and wholly explained by an impersonal materialism (even or especially the evolutionists assume that this sort of explain has been and will always be true). Our creation by a personal Creator explains better human freedom, love, and creativity—especially artistic (in the broadest sense) creativity—better than assuming the eternity of matter and material causation or, of course, just begging off what might be the most important question for beings open to the truth about who they are. Atheistic materialists can’t explain the Christian revolution in our self-understanding about who we are and its effects on human history. Even the Nietzschean theory that Christianity was little more than expression of resentment about who we are (and the other animals don’t resent who they are!) can’t explain the marvelous and unprecedented monuments to the loving creativity of Christians.
Nietzsche wanted to get us over Christianity, and one criticism of his thought is that he wasn’t anti-Christian enough. Certainly he couldn’t purge himself of his whiny side about the abyss and all, and he, too, arguably attributed too much significance to human creativity. There might be some philosophers—such as Strauss and the later and more Buddhist Heidegger—who worked harder or more consistently in getting us beyond our claims for autonomy and/or being unique and irreplaceable. Are they engaged in mission impossible? Or are they our true scientists? What would be the moral and political consequences of their triumph?
Hart’s view is actually that our true alternatives are orthodox (meaning Orthodox) Christianity or nothing.I actually think he’s wrong on this, because the ground of our freedom in our (merely human) natures is evident to anyone who sees with his or her own eyes. (The openness and longing of the natural human person for a personal God is fact we can perceive without revelation, in my view.) And Hart’s idea that Christ divinized us or made us like him—somehow both human and divine in a wholly reconciled way—misconceives who we are even from a Christian—meaning Augustinian and especially Thomistic—view. Nietzsche, radically orthodox Christian thinkers of a certain kind (including most MacIntryreans), and our fundamentalists all agree on this Christianity or nothing theme. There must be a lot to it, although, again, I finally don’t agree.
Hart’s view seems to be the Aristotelian, impersonal, fatalistic, melancholic natural account of who we are was true until Christ transformed but divinizing us. My view is that it never was completely true, and that the personal logos of the early church fathers has been more true as long as there have been human beings around on this planet. Hart speculates, I thnk with good reason, that the Christian insight that we are meant to be more than slaves informed the emergence of modern, liberating, unsterile or not merely contemplative science. For that reason alone, our Porcher friends might be open to the thought that modern science is about more than nihilistic “mastery.” There might be something unironically charitable about the impetus of modern science, although it goes wrong, of course, with the thought that we need to be liberated from who we are our loving, relational beings.
It’s easy to connect these thoughts to Ivan the K’s fine WEEKLY STANDARD article linked below. Our technocrats are all sentimental Christians without Christ, but unlike our true Savior they’re focused primarily on using their freedom to alleviate their own suffering. Our cultural libertarianism is turning out to be terrible for the unique and irreplaceable beings who are genuinely most vulnerable.
These thoughs are also crucial for pro-lifers: Robert George, for example, takes the uniqueness and irreplaceability of every human person as a rational being according to nature as being scientific self-evident or not depending on a distinctively Christian insight. Both Hart and I disagree, although for somewhat different reasons. My view is that the Christian insight about our personal freedom doesn’t depend on orthodox (or Orthodox) Christianity to be empirically validated, although the whole truth and significance about that insight is best explained by reflection on Christian revelation. So Robby ought to be more about criticizing Locke, Kant, and even Lincoln for distorting or not properly understanding the freedom they describe—the freedom of the loving, relational being. And he ought not to think that Aristotle helps him out much at all.