We remember what we want to remember
Every age necessarily reinterprets and rewrites the past in accord with its own interests, ideals, and illusions (33) The past is always to some extent a fiction of the present (129).
Hart is disgusted. The tale that modernity is wishing to call history has gotten entirely out of hand, most notably in its recollections of Christianity.
The story that modernity wants to remember
- Once upon a time, there was a late Roman Hellenistic culture that cherished the power of reason and pursued science and high philosophy. Then came Christianity, which valued only blind obedience and irrational dogma, and which maliciously extinguished the light of pagan wisdom. Then, thanks to Islam, thirteenth-century Christendom suddenly rediscovered reason and began to chafe against the bondage of witless fideism. And then, as if by magic, Copernicus discovered heliocentrism, and reason began its inexorable charge toward victory through the massed and hostile legions of faith.
- The emergence of the secular state rescued Western humanity from the rule of religious intolerance.
- Secularism is the exuberant adventure into the adulthood of the race so long delayed by priestcraft, superstition and intolerance. Secularism is the great revolution that liberated society and the individual alike from the crushing weight of tradition and doctrine.
What does Hart think of this story?
Utter bilge. Hart criticizes Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Kirsch, Gibbon, MacMullen, and Freeman to name a few. To Christopher Hitchens subtitle on his bestseller “How religion poisons everything” He directs particular malice. What precisely is meant by everything? Hart wonders, then he lists an entire page of wonderful things that would not exist were it not for Christianity, things like the abolition movement, the golden rule and hospitals. He concludes with the comment “It borders upon willful imbecility to lament the rise of Christendom.” One example of the “selective memory” of modernity comes to us through Edward Gibbon’s majestical work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In it, Gibbon argues that Pagan polytheism was more “tolerant” than Christianity because of the plethora of pagan deities to choose from. This “tolerance” is pure fiction. Pagans slaughtered with “extravagant violence” says Hart, Jews and Christians alike. Anyone who denied the god’s existence was in mortal danger. Adding to pagan “tolerance” was the reality of human sacrifices both on alters, and more prevalently in the coliseums. Pagan systems of belief cared nothing for the homeless, the gladiatorial spectacle, crucifixions, the disposal of unwanted infants, or the brutal slaughter of war captives or criminals. Paganisms “tolerance” was completely ambivalent towards tyranny, injustice, depravity or cruelty. In Gibbons over-reaching bid to prove paganism more tolerant than Christianity, he leaves all these considerations out these items out. Hart is not about to let him or anyone else get away with it.
“Vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness. — Their rantings are as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism.”
Christianity not perfect but…
“It is true” is the single most used phrase in the entire book. Hart uses it to acknowledge that Christians were not perfect. For example,
“It is true that Christianity’s greatest historical triumph was also its most calamitous defeat”. Hart admits that when Christianity became a politically dominate force unfortunate tragedies happened. “It is true that Christendom in many respects was hardly Christian. Even so, the gospel has at best flickered through the history of the West, working upon hard and intractable natures—the frank brutality of barbarians, the refined cruelty of the civilized— producing prodigies of sanctity and charity in every age.”
Critics of Christianity point out that slavery and the abuse of women continued on into Christendom. Hart acknowledges that “it is true” but then takes us on a fascinating journey where the norms of abuse accepted without question in paganism gradually fell prey to the corrosive influence of Christian thought. Hart concludes
Christianity has been the single most creative cultural, ethical, aesthetic, social, political, and spiritual force in the history of the West, to be sure; but it has also been a profoundly destructive force; and one should perhaps praise it as much for the latter attitude as for the former, for there are many things worthy of destruction.
The extinction of Paganism was a good thing.
Pagans became Christians to such a degree that paganism became extinct because paganism was terrible.
“It was time for the gods of that age to withdraw: for too long they had served as the terrible and beautiful guardians of an order of majestic cruelty and pitiless power.”
- Pagan thought did not embrace science and reason: Christianity upended the progression of science we are told. According to Hart, science as we understand it, didn’t even exist in pagan times, “all its methods, controls, and guiding principles, its desire to unite theory to empirical discovery, its trust in a unified set of physical laws and so on—came into existence only within Christendom, and specifically under the hands of believing Christians.” The “so-called” dark ages of Christendom brought about the university, the first real steps in medicine, and the devolvement of incredible new science-based technology. The same cannot be said for the Hellenistic world or the Muslim world for that matter. They remained technologically static in part because they never developed science beyond theory and they remained committed to a slave culture. The church muting Galileo always comes up as evidence that the church and science were not friends. Hart is not buying it. What’s the story then? “That story demonstrates nothing of Christianity’s aversion to Science but only how idiotic a conflict between men of titanic egotism can become.”
- Paganism was depressing: Harts assessment of paganism is particularly bleak:
“In any event, to return to my principal point, the Christianity of the early centuries did not invade a world of noonday joy, vitality, mirth, and cheerful earthiness, and darken it with malicious slanders of the senses, or chill it with a severe and bloodless otherworldliness. Rather, it entered into a twilight world of pervasive spiritual despondency and religious yearning….It was a pagan society that had become ever more otherworldly and joyless, ever wearier of the burden of itself, and ever more resentful of the soul’s incarceration in the closed system of a universe governed by fate.
Christianity is a better story.
In addition to the fundamental goodness of the world, Christianity taught the indispensable value of a human person. The followers of Jesus saw in persons something godlike, to be cherished and adored. Then adding to the image of the divine in all humanity comes the grand rescue story of Jesus, proving once and for all that humanity is loved by God and welcomed into a divine eternal relationship. As Hart puts it:
By contrast, Christianity taught the incorruptible goodness of the world, the original and ultimate beauty of all things, inasmuch as it understood this world to be the direct creation of the omnipotent God of love. (144) … Christianity brought a deep and imperturbable joy” (145)
The advent of Christianity unquestionably changed the world for the better. For Hart, it is unconscionable for respected historians and philosophers not to recognize this. Hart is not apologizing for Christian’s who may have misbehaved in the past. Hart quips “Humans frequently disappoint,” but this truth is not limited only to Christians. He will not accept criticism from angry, misinformed people who:
“have not even paused to acquaint themselves with, for example, the Inquisitions actual history, while at the same time completely ignoring twenty centuries of unprecedented and still unmatched moral triumphs. — its’ care of widows, and orphans, its almshouses, hospitals, foundling homes, schools, shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies, and so on.”
The secular nation-state is the problem – Hart refuses to take the blame for the “so-called” religious wars of the 15th -17th centuries. He insists that they be renamed as the first wars of the modern nation-state. “Religious allegiances, anxieties, and hatreds were used by regional princes merely as pretexts for conflicts whose causes, effects and alliances had very little to do with faith or confessional loyalties.” The protestant reformation succeeded because it served the interest of the emerging nation states. It wasn’t that the Germans became protestant and now wanted independence from the empire. They wanted independence from the empire, and so they became protestant. Hart takes us on an entertaining albeit very disturbing walk through the 15-17th centuries and concludes with a statement that hardly needed to be said. “Few would be so foolish to suggest that any side fought for religious reasons” As the common bond of Christianity decreased in Europe, so the standing armies of the future nations increased. Violence increased in proportion to the degree of sovereignty claimed by the state, and that, whenever the medieval church surrendered moral authority to the secular power, injustice and cruelty flourished. Before the shift, for example in the 10th-11th centuries, the church instituted “Peace of God” days and “Truce of God” days, making war illegal on certain days of the week, fast days, and feast days. By the time the church was finished with the calendar three-quarters of it consisted of periods of mandated tranquillity, the churches great work though not carried out perfectly was always tilted towards peace.
What came after Christianity faltered was the absolute state and total war. The “religious wars” were the moderns state’s great struggle to free itself from those institutional, moral, and sacramental allegiances that still held it even partially in check. So that it could now get on with all those mighty tasks—nationalist wars, colonial empires, universal conscriptions, mass exterminations of civilians, and so on.
Is the post-Christian world better?
First, for any people, comes its story, and then whatever is possible for those people becomes conceivable within that story — slowly and relentlessly, for centuries now, another story has been replacing the Christian one. Attempts to reverse this process are probably futile. (239)
- A New God — Freedom.
At the deepest level of their thoughts and desires, they are obedient to principles and promptings that rest upon no foundation but themselves…Freedom of the will is our supreme value. It is for all intents and purposes our god and certain kinds of god (as our pagan forebears understood) expect to be fed.
Human freedom is the thing that drives people to a passionate and often articulate hatred of belief in God. Anything that stands in the way of freedom must be destroyed. Freedom might just as well be seen — from certain more antique perspectives as a kind of slavery to untutored impulses, to empty caprice, to triviality, to dehumanizing values. Modern Freedom is nihilism. The question to ask is where does nihilism lead? Nowhere good.
- A Better Story — Knowledge. Technological mastery is not just our guiding ideal but our model of truth. Power over material reality is all that matters, that’s the better story of the post-Christian world.
Only Christianity teaches the infinite dignity of every soul and the infinite value of every life. Because of Jesus, charity became the shining sun around which all other values were made to revolve. In the Post Christian world, this is no longer the case. If there is a God of infinite love and goodness, of whom every person is an image, then certain moral conclusions must be drawn; if there is not, those conclusions have no meaning… What Nietzsche understood was that the effort to cast off Christian faith while retaining the best and most beloved elements of Christian morality was doomed to defeat…A civilization, it seems obvious, is only as great or as wonderful as the spiritual ideals that animate it…But as a cultural reality, even love requires a reason for its preeminence among the virtues. Love requires a reason, and the post-Christian world doesn’t have a reason.
Then to scare us entirely out of our minds, he quotes the ideas of Joseph Fletcher, Linus Pauling, Peter Singer, James Rachels, and Lee Silver, whose post-Christian ideals seek to manage humanity in what Hart describes as “robustly merciless terms.” When Christianity goes, so goes the sanctity of human life. Reading these guys makes this claim perfectly visible.
When the aspiring ape ceases to think himself a fallen angel, perhaps he will inevitably resign himself to being an ape. He will rejoice that the universe demands little more from him than an ape’s contentment. This is no description of progress, this is a descent into darkness.
What can a Christian do?
Hart is not jubilant. Christianity’s inexorable movement towards extinction is only resisted by his confidence that the Christian story is a cosmic truth that can never finally be defeated. Hart recommends retreat for the Christian into the desert as the monastics did in the 4th century. They rebelled against Christianity’s own success, to discover again in the quiet wastelands, what it really meant to live for the love of God and one’s neighbour. To banish envy, hate, and resentment from the soul and to seek the beauty of Christ in others. The success of secularism to Hart is the same as the success of institutionalized, politicized Christianity of the 4th century. The authentic Christian retreats from both. In many ways, I think Harts very brief conclusion tilts toward an agreement with another book I read recently, The Benedict Option.
Body counting might not be the best comparison.
Hart with almost monotonous regularity takes the reader back to the 20th century to remind us that the most savage and sublimely violent period in human history was brought about by secular governments who had embraced thoroughgoing materialism informed by Darwinian biology. My one issue with this constant refrain is the failure to consider technology into the body count. The real question to ask in my opinion is what would the badly behaving religious leaders of Christendom have done with weapons of mass destruction had they had them? A question impossible to answer, but I get an uneasy feeling that the body count discrepancy from the Christian to secular would not have been nearly as high if both had weapons of equal capability.
David Bentley Hart has “a perverse aversion to common phrases” and comes wearing the cloak of Eastern Orthodoxy, so his translation is not at all like any other I’ve ever read. His footnotes explaining his translation choices are fiery, bulldoggish, and controversial. Is he a heretic? Is he a theological liberal? Is he just a blowhard with a few axes to grind? Is he right? One thing is sure, Hart is a provocateur of deeper thought for all who engage in his writings.
Most English Translations Lousy: Hart believes that all standard English translations of the Bible make essential concepts of the New Testament largely “impenetrable.” The truth that the original authors intended becomes “hidden” and “perilously hazy.” The reason he gives is that the work is done by committee. Collaboration according to Hart is a terrible idea for translation work because it becomes “ineluctably mired in the anodyne blandness and imprecision of ‘diplomatic’ accord.” Hart believes a straight shooter is needed who don’t give a damn about great traditions and what others might think, but who will only deliver the goods on what the New Testament actually says, evidently Hart is that man. So with that rather humble start off we go.
Hart smells of Universalism: Romans 5:18 is the clincher for him. He says in his comments on the verse “Christ’s act of righteousness brings righteousness and life to absolutely everyone. Whether intentional or not, the plain meaning of the verse is that of universal condemnations annulled by universal salvation.”
Let the fire burn out: Hart argues “There are only three verses that seem to threaten eternal punishment for the wicked (though, in fact, none of them actually does)” And then he attacks the veracity of what he refers to as “the God of love’s perpetual torture chamber” with astonishing ferocity. Clearly, he doesn’t want eternal hell to be true, and he has prepared an entire armoury of reasons to support its rejection. The Greek word for age, from which spin off all the English translations for eternal and everlasting is genuinely ambiguous. In fact, Hart claims that the word “never clearly means eternal or everlasting in any incontrovertible sense.” Also “Gehenna” never meant hell as it has come to be known in English. First century Judaism in spite of its various differences were unanimous that any concept of hell was for ultimate purification. Metaphor was the idiom of the day, squeezing any literal interpretations from the dramatic language surrounding the dark side of the afterlife is to Hart the longest of reaches. Hart piles into his arguments church father after church father, 20 in all I believe, who rejected the idea that hell was a “literal kingdom of ingenious eternal tortures ruled by Satan” Paul doesn’t talk about it, nor do any early confessional texts, nor does the 4th gospel, or the pastoral epistles. Once Hart has dumped his historical truckload of evidence upon us he lets us know that “the very concept of eternal hell is nearly as historically suspect as it is morally unintelligible.” If we missed the boat so badly on this where did we go wrong? The culprit is “Latin-speaking” Augustine he tells us. Hart is Eastern Orthodox so it’s fitting that he would blame the Western church. But is he right? I hope so, who wouldn’t wish it?
Hart is no fan of complementarianism: He mentions that “Junia” the apostle referred to in Romans 16 is most certainly a woman. No one in the patristic period denied this and “there is no instance anywhere in the vast literary remains of antiquity in either Latin or Greek where the name is masculine. John Chrysostom, for instance, opined that she must have been a woman of superlative wisdom since Paul accords her the title Apostle.” It wasn’t until 1243 that Giles of Rome (who probably knew no Greek) began to argue that Junia must be a man. Then Hart looks to take a swipe at complementarianism by his following statement “the argument remains popular to this day among those eager to make the church safe for misogyny, however it can safely be dismissed as nonsense.”
Dodging the obvious: In 1 Cor 6:9 he is super careful not to use the word, homosexual. Even though the literal meaning of the terms are “effeminate male partner” and “men who bed men.” Instead, he opts for the term “feckless sensualists” and “men who couple with catamites.” He refuses the word homosexual because in that day there would have been no concept of homoerotic sexual identity like there is today. Hart is confident that the specific sin Paul had in mind was a masters exploitation of young male slaves and so he leaves it at that. Any modern day application should not in his estimation be included in the translation. He draws the same conclusions in 1 Timothy 1:10. Fair enough, although, one wonders if Harts careful tip-toeing is a result of modern cultural pressure as much as it is cautious exegesis.
Don’t Worship the Bible! Evangelical and Fundamentalist efforts to shore up confidence in a reliable Bible by making strong statements to its inerrancy don’t impress Hart at all.
All Christians believe that the New Testament is divinely inspired; but any coherent account of what this means must involve an acknowledgement that God speaks through human beings, in all their historical cultural and personal contingency. For those, however, who not only believe that scripture is inspired, but who are also deeply committed to “literalist, “inerrantist” or “dictational” understandings of inspiration, all the words of the Bible must be understood as direct locutions of God, passing through their human authors like sunlight through the clearest glass, and the canon of the New Testament — even though it took a few centuries to concreace into its present form, and has never really existed as anything but a shimmering cloud of countless variants — must be understood as a flawlessly immediate communication, in its every historical and lexical detail, of the teaching of the Holy Spirit and of the faith of the apostolic church. That has never been the only or even the dominant, Christian understanding of Scriptural inspiration. Many modern Christians, in fact, might be quite surprised at the speculative boldness and critical diffidence with which some of the greatest exegetes of Christian late antiquity and the Middle ages approached the Bible. Hart concludes his thoughts on inspiration lamenting the fact that “with the rise of the fundamentalist movement of the twentieth century (in-errantist views) have spread far and wide especially in their acute and virulent forms.
The Bible has issues: He has no care or fear in talking about textual variants, what belongs, what doesn’t belong, what’s a mistake, what isn’t a mistake. On the one hand, it’s refreshing to address some elephants that have long been standing quietly in the room, on the other hand, it’s a bit unnerving for one who grew up in a tradition of boot stepping allegiance to the Bibles inherency. After reading Hart, if he is to be believed, a strict “inerrantist” position is no longer possible.
Let the women be silent verse doesn’t even belong. This passage according to Hart doesn’t belong at all. It’s a late dated interpolation. Internally it breaks the flow of the text and contradicts chapter 11 in which women clearly are encouraged not to be silent in the church. It also contradicts Paul’s radically egalitarian point of view in places like Galatians 3:28. Externally a good number of ancient texts have the paragraph in different spots, one even footnotes it at the bottom of a page. Most scholars have now concluded the passage to be spurious. — It would have been nice to get that one right. This little paragraph screwed up church history big time!
Faithfulness is better than faith: In many places he changes the term often translated “faith” to “faithfulness” Hart is no fan of the protestant Reformation. He refers to the reformers and their offspring as “demonstrably wrong” in their understanding of Paul’s views on salvation. Paul taught that we are not justified by the works of the law (circumcision, kosher laws etc.), but we are justified only by “a faithfulness that necessarily entails works of love — good deeds— in respect of which one will be judged and either rewarded or purged.” The notion that justification is merely a formal or forensic imputation of righteousness rather than a real corrective transformation is a meaning that simply doesn’t exist in the history of the word. Salvation is a process far more than it is a declaration.
Jewish/Greek/Roman Mythology — Hart enlightens us on how the New Testament interacts with the mythologies of the day. One example is the Jewish tradition which held that God deputized angels to give out the law to the Jewish people, the only problem with this plan is that the Angels didn’t always deliver God’s instructions correctly! Therefore any law spoken through the angels is not equal to or as final as the word spoken directly by the Lord. You can imagine the debates already in ancient Judaism as to the source of some particular laws over others.
The belief that we are guilty by birth is a mistake. Romans 5:10 is “one of the most consequential mistranslations in Christian History” — What happened? The two little greek words ἐφ’ ᾧ in the Western tradition were translated into Latin to mean that death comes to us “because” we are sinners. Creating the Western theological position of original guilt. The idea that in some sense all human beings had sinned in Adam, and that therefore everyone is born already damnably guilty in the eyes of God. The Eastern tradition which had a better understanding of Greek drew no such conclusions. Humanity has not inherited a condition of criminal culpability at birth, rather, humanity has been exposed to the contagion of sin and the disease of death. The point of Romans is that Jesus reverses the disease of death by introducing eternal life in him. Death doesn’t come because we are sinners, death and sin have infected our planet, and we are caught up in the mess is the idea.
Don’t take the Bible so literally, the apostle Paul didn’t! — His translation and comments on I Cor 10:11 — Now these things happened to them figuratively, and were written for the purpose of our admonition… As should be obvious, Paul frequently allegorizes Hebrew scripture; the “spiritual reading” of scripture typical of the Church Fathers of the early centuries was not their invention, nor just something borrowed from pagan culture, but was already a widely accepted hermeneutical practice among Jewish scholars. So it is not anachronistic to read Paul here as saying that the stories he is repeating are not accurate historical accounts of actual events, but allegorical tales composed for the edification of readers. Hart is angling for a less historically rigid Bible.
Revelation is history. The beast of Revelation is almost certainly Nero Hart says. Evidently, Nero had become a legend in the 1st century, and many had thought that his apparent suicide in 68 a.d. was a fake and that he would return. So much of Revelation according to Hart was more about current events than future events.
Penal substitutionary atonement is not a Biblical idea. As Christianity spread out through other cultures and languages words like ransom and redemption began to broaden in meaning:
Some Christians came to imagine that the word referred to a ransom paid to God the Father by the Son, to appease God’s righteous wrath, or to repair his injured dignity, or to yield tribute to the awful majesty of his sovereignty. That idea is entirely alien to the way the word is used in the New Testament; there is no suggestion there that, in Christ God pays God off, or God rescues us from God; instead the work of salvation is depicted as a single, unified act of rescue, whereby God the Father, through the Son, redeems his children from the slavery into which they have been sold.