Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Modernity must recognise the source of its values" David Bentley Hart

One of the most stimulating of modern thinkers is American Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart (b. 1965), who in 2011 won the coveted Michael Ramsey Prize for his book “Atheist Delusions.” In presenting the prize, then Archbishop Rowan Williams described Hart as “a theologian of exceptional quality, but also a brilliant stylist . . .” who “shows how the most treasured principles and values of compassionate humanism are rooted in the detail of Christian doctrine.” This is true of all Hart’s work including “The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami?” I previously shared on this blog an interview with David Bentley Hart about evil and its place in the world that God created and loves was published in The Christian Century, (January 10, 2006, pp. 26-29.) 

Today I am recycling a penetrating interview Hart gave to Kay Parris of Reform Magazine, July/August 2011. It is from their website HERE.

David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian, philosopher and cultural commentator whose remarkable breadth of knowledge and understanding is widely recognised – not only in his expert areas of theology and the Western philosophical tradition, but also in the fields of world literature, art, history, and culture.

His writings are characterised by a combination of erudition, elegance and wit; and he has an intimidating reputation as a debater and speaker. Prominent scholars in Europe and America describe him as “brilliant”, “exceptional” and “a master theologian”. Yet despite all this, mercifully, he comes across in conversation as gentle, good-humoured and even a little self-deprecating at times.

Atheist Delusions, his most recent book, constitutes not only a scorching attack on the ignorance of much “New Atheist” literature, but an appeal for popular reappraisal of how Christian ideas impacted on the ancient world; and for proper understanding of the historical development of the Christian tradition.

Our interview took place shortly after Atheist Delusions was awarded the prestigious biennial Michael Ramsey prize for theological writing.

In praising your book, Atheist Delusions, Rowan Williams pointed to its illumination of “how the most treasured principles and values of compassionate humanism are rooted in the detail of Christian doctrine.” Is that what you set out to show?

Well in part, yes I think so. One of the odd things about a great deal of the New Atheist literature and the literature that has cropped up in its margins is an unawareness of the contingency of cultural values – it’s peculiar. People like Richard Dawkins – asked, if the world was purged of all religious belief, what would it be like, he says, it would be a paradise.

And as he goes on to explain why he thinks this, it’s obvious he believes that there are, just out there in the world, a set of values that are independent of any historical tradition; that are recognisable and available to every reasoning mind; and that society would naturally happen upon if it weren’t distracted by the idiocies of religion and dogmatism.

Yet if the cultural experience of late modernity has proven anything, it has proven that this sort of bland moral optimism rests upon nothing at all. And many of the moral truths people like Dawkins take for granted are available to them because they happen to live in a society whose history was shaped by beliefs that they now abominate.

Your view is that modernity – Western modernity anyway – believes in nothing. Is that right?

Modernity always means Western modernity, at least as a technical term academically – it means the specific culture of late western civilisation – and yes I think it is true. It is not wild, empty nihilism, but it is the belief that the source of values and truth no longer can be presumed to be some transcendent source irreducible to anything else. There is no ultimate ground or meaning to the world, there is just the world.

But can’t a society hold on to and believe in values, including some Christian values, without accepting Christianity wholesale, and still move forward?

Once you acknowledge the cultural contingency of values, you also have to accept that there is nothing necessary about their persistence and nothing inevitable about it either. You have to start asking yourself what sort of values take shape when the horizon of the good ceases to be that transcendent truth that Christians believe is revealed in history, and becomes something else – what, we can’t as yet say, because modernity is a period without any ultimate answers.

I would not argue that one is obliged to be a Christian in order to continue to hold these values. But much of the point of the book is to make people aware that they can’t separate these values from Christian history. What makes much of the New Atheist literature rather intellectually crude is not that it rejects Christianity, but that it rejects a willfully absurd, historically awfully distorted picture of Christianity. Once you know the history, you realise this is a much more serious issue. It’s not a matter of simply casting off ludicrous beliefs about purgatory or sexual practice – it really is a question about the meaning of one’s life in the world and the shape the social good should take. And as long as this literature insists on attacking straw men, it wins very easy victories, but it blinds those who take these books seriously to deeper questions about what is to come.

Your book bases its rebuttal of atheistic thinking very intricately within history. A lot of the historical points you make confront commonly perceived truths that even a lot of Christians would have accepted – like witch-burning for example, which many people have put down to Christian repression and intolerance, but you suggest the picture is much more complex.

Among historians, nothing I have said would be considered provocative or original to be honest. But to this day you will find people saying things like: “During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church burned nine million women as witches” – when the actual number is zero. There were witch trials and burnings, from the very late Middle Ages into early modernity – but they were usually, almost exclusively, prosecuted by secular authority, by the power of the state. It was not a great period in terms of social justice for Western society generally, but if we look at the record of all the powerful institutions of that period, at who took the most skeptical view of this new mania for destroying witches, it was actually the church.

You suggest that where the church did show intolerance, in many instances this might have been something to do with its inability to tolerate pagan practices of human sacrifice, cannibalism and so on.

I’m not trying to exaggerate the virtue of all the early Christians; I think I’m fairly honest about the violence on all sides. But it is curious that quite often when we talk now – and this is part of the current fashionable mythology – about the historical intolerance of Christianity, two things should be kept in mind.

One is that it is a false picture of pagan society to imagine that it was expansive, open and welcoming of every mutation of religious faith. That’s simply not true. The other is that, while granted you cannot approve of all the behaviour of Christians towards pagans in those first three centuries, there were realities of pagan culture that from a Christian point of view were rightly regarded as abhorrent. When we talk about intolerance, we should remember that there are things that are intolerable.

Let’s talk about the nature of belief today. You’ve said that there is no reason for modernists like us to feel superior – that the advances we have made do not make us wiser than those who believe in miracles or other supposedly outdated beliefs. Do you not accept that society does generally advance in its understanding?

Unfortunately this is very much part of the underlying myth and ideology of modernity – that we are on the way to ever-better things – because our high definition televisions are getting better every year and therefore so is our morality.

There is a tacit contempt for those whose experience and beliefs don’t fit in to the modern world as neatly as they ought to. And that includes not just people of the past, but people of other cultures who haven’t embraced western modernity, either because of material privation or because of cultural resistance.

It is an odd belief, that somehow we know more about reality and that therefore we realise there is no spiritual dimension to reality – because, what? Because we have functioning capitalist societies that are only occasionally on the verge of complete collapse? Or because we understand the molecular architecture of cells better?

And at the same time, there is a failure to question, to ask whether the way we live might in some ways blinker us or limit the scope of our understanding. As I think I pointed out in the book, I have friends in Africa who approach the world with a very different set of presuppositions, and whose personal experience, as far as they’re concerned, bears out quite concretely the reality of the spiritual world.

If you read a lot of the New Atheist literature – which is going to be fairly careful on this, because they don’t want to come across as cultural supremacists or racists – well nonetheless there is a tacit suggestion that those cultures are more primitive, not only in water sanitation but in everything, because they don’t all have complete cell [mobile phone] coverage or whatever.

I think it would be wiser perhaps to ask if a life lived where most of us can’t go through a whole day without the television or surfing the net – if perhaps we’re the ones who have declined into a kind of barbarism where the spiritual senses are concerned. Maybe we’re the ones who are farther removed from reality, even though we have a society where scientists have provided us with such a rich and wonderful sense of certain physical truths.

It is your view isn’t it, that nothing is ultimately reducible to zero, to mechanical explanation, and so you can never get away from that question of existence?

Yes. The question of existence is something that can’t be reduced to the question of the physical origins of the universe. There’s a question of being, which is a much more radical question, which is prior to the physical reality, it is prior to physical possibility. At the philosophical level it’s a question that probably renders any straightforward materialism logically incoherent, but that’s an argument for another time.

To draw from an “extra-Christian” source, Martin Heidegger [the 20th century German philosopher] thought it was very much the particular pathology of the modern age that we have done everything possible to forget that question – to forget the question of being, and mistake it for something else, for a question about say mechanical causes. He thought that that peculiar pathology, that indifference to, or ignorance of, or failure to understand the radical nature of the question of existence in many ways makes modernity a rather barbarous condition.

In contrast, there was the metaphysical impact of the Christian story on human consciousness. How radical was it, do you think, given that we already had Judaism and its imperative for good behaviour in relationship with one God?

What was being said by Christians was that there had been a real rupture in the course of cosmic time – that things had changed, that the powers that had once held creation in thrall had been defeated. And so the story of salvation really was a matter of turning away from those powers that at one time were the spiritual and cosmic principalities all people supposedly were subject to, and committing oneself completely to this new reality.

So in that sense it was just as exclusive a creed as Judaism was, in that you couldn’t be a good Jew and also a worshipper of other gods; but its proclamation had far greater urgency, because it made a claim of universalism – that in Christ there was not really any distinction any more between peoples.

In addition to that, the story of the incarnation of God required successive centuries-long consideration of what it was to be human. What does it mean to say someone is completely God and completely human? It turns out that is a very difficult philosophical problem in some sense, and it requires an ever deeper and deeper definition, not only of the relationship of human beings to God, but of what humanity is in its essence – and that creates a metaphysical picture of the person that is really something novel when compared to ancient philosophies.

And the beginning of that process is represented in the human stories of the Gospel – where for the first time, you believe, attention is paid to the emotions and pain of an individual as lowly in stature as Peter.

I don’t think that can be denied. Anyone who knows ancient literature – and I suppose I started in some ways as a classicist – knows that something is going on in the depictions in the Gospels that is new. I don’t mean there is great dramatic exploration of character as there is in a fully developed piece of literary art – these are very simple books in some ways, with the exception of John’s Gospel – but I mean that where these books are willing to find the fullness of our humanity expressed even through someone of low social station – this is something without precedent.

It is something the pagan critics attacked – there was something almost loathsome in their eyes about a creed that placed so much emphasis on a person of such extraordinary low degree and importance.

It wouldn’t have been such a scandal in Jewish circles.

In Jewish circles no, because obviously there is a long prophetic history there. And even in the pagan world there are glimmers of awareness. Stoicism has a very lovely and elevated ethical view of the “city of humanity” – but it is a strangely passive view. It’s not one that really has the power on a social scale to transform the way we see humanity as a whole and it’s not nearly as radical as Christianity.

What about instinct – the human instinct for a “moral law”? Young children in any age or kind of society have an instinct for what’s cruel and what’s dishonest – we might hope it is divine in its origins, but it’s not based on history, or cultural influence. It’s just part of being human.

Of course, but that’s a completely Christian claim as well.

Yes, but it’s a Christian claim that doesn’t rely on history or learning.

That is true. But if we look at the reality of cultural history, we can see that the good as we know it is not the good as all persons have naturally seen it, despite that instinctive desire for the good. I believe absolutely in a natural desire for the good. But human societies can take shape in which the desire for the good means the desire for the preservation of my tribe or class over and against all others. So feeding the sun every day with the sacrifice of a human victim is an expression of my desire for the good. There are any number of quite dastardly and monstrous expressions of the desire for the good. I fully grant and insist that there is a human desire for goodness, but that in itself doesn’t explain why we believe what we believe about who is human, who deserves our mercy, what mercy is.

But the Christian response to humanity at the time the Gospels were written doesn’t overturn all of what we would now see as evils.

No, at the end of the day, the stuff of human nature is fairly intractable. I hope I didn't suggest in the book that Christianity actually created a Christian culture – I was trying to be very careful. Christianity created the values by which a Christian culture should live but it didn’t create the culture itself.

You seem in the book to be calling us back to the Gospel texts themselves, to focusing on the details of their messages, rather than perhaps focusing too exclusively on our Christian institutions.

I hope so. I do think Christians throughout history have not always been fully aware of how radical the nature of what’s going on in much of the New Testament is. Paul has been historically badly read, I think, even in the great traditions of Christian thought. The Augustine understanding of grace I think is a misreading of Paul in many respects. The more we get to grips with the content of the New Testament, the more uncanny and disturbing it can be, if we understand it in the context of its time.

Your book is written partly to alert us to the danger that Christianity will lose its influence, and that a post-Christian culture could turn out to be “post-human”. How gloomy or otherwise are you about the future?

Well I have a formidable capacity for gloom. It’s not really a matter of prognostication, so much as just looking around. I do think, especially if you live in the academic world at all, which I do by fits and starts, that it’s depressing the sorts of ideas that are now granted legitimacy in some circles, for example in bioethics.

There is good and bad in every age, but I do think there are aspects of modern society that could gravitate, through sheer inertia, towards fairly inhumane ultimate expressions. I have no concrete picture of the future. My real concern is to say to those who just imagine that we will naturally – through the vigorous application of secular reasoning – advance towards greater humanity, a more expansive embrace of the humanity of others, and towards social justice. I simply say: that may be nice, if it’s true, but there are reasons to doubt it. I would say that moral optimism is not warranted from a secular standpoint.


Post a Comment