Part of being a postmodern conservative is being open to the truth of the distinctively personal LOGOS of Christianity, to the possibility that the Christian understanding of being a person is most in accord with what we really know about who we are. Here is my appreciative but critical account of David Bentley Hart’s wonderfully erudite attack of the delusions of the so-called “new atheists,” those who believe that the definitive scientific rufutation of Biblical religion is what’s required to live truthfully and humanely these days. Hart writes from a distinctively [Greek] Orthodox point of view. Some of my particularly appreciative comments follow:
This book 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.
Here’s a bit of my criticism:
Hart says in one place that the genius of Christianity lies in its extremism. Christians contrast the intractable selfishness, cruelty, violence, and melancholic hopelessness of our merely biological natures with the unconditioned personal love that can govern our divinized nature. Hart sometimes seems to say that Aristotle was right, in his time, about our ultimate enslavement to an impersonal logos that negates every aspiration for personal significance; then, Christ transformed us—changing our natures. But surely Christians believe that, from the beginning, the world and each of us was a divine gift. And, from the beginning, human experience was, finally, that logos is only present in persons. Only persons are open to the truth about being and human being. The Christian insight opened our eyes more fully to what we can see for ourselves about the ground for personal freedom in being itself. The personal logos affirmed by the church fathers was always more true than the impersonal logos affirmed by Aristotle and Darwin.
That’s why we can say with some confidence that both Nietzsche and Hart exaggerate by describing persons today as Last Men or beings without human content or nothing—emotionally puerile and flat-souled mere consumers. And that’s why we can be more hopeful about the political and cultural future of the human person than Hart seems to be. That our world is inescapably Christian or post-Christian is more good news than not about our inescapably human future. We know we are all equally not nothing, and it’s not in our power to negate that truth. Still, we can and will, as Hart rightly shows, make ourselves (and others) miserable trying.