Ijust finished reading a very fine new book by David Bentley Hart, and wanted to post this recommendation to hopefully connect some other readers to this guy’s work. Hart is an American theologian, located within the Orthodox tradition, currently teaching in the Theology Department at Providence College, Rhode Island. My first encounter with his writing was in a book called The Beauty of the Infinite: the aesthetics of Christian truth, which was probably one of the most theologically dense yet poetically beautiful books I’ve read in several years. This time around the book, entitled Atheist Delusions: the Christian revolution and its fashionable enemies, is considerably less dense and daunting, though still a good solid workout.
When I first saw the book, I assumed it was going to be a response to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and company, which it is in part… but only in part. Hart calls the book “an essay,” though at 241 pages it is hardly what we thought of as an essay in my seminary days. What he means is that this is not an academic treatise, but is rather “very much a personal vision of Christian history… perhaps slightly eccentric in certain of its emphases, in its shape, even occasionally in its tone.”
Hart is not afraid of going toe-to-toe with the proponents of the currently fashionable wave of aetheists, which he does with great relish in both the opening and closing sections of the book. He calls Hitchens’ bestselling God is Not Great a “disturbingly bewildered text that careens drunkenly across its pages,” while of Richard Dawkins’ command of the philosophical arguments Hart comments, “a college freshman midway through his first logic course could dismantle (them) in a thrice.”
Well, there were moments while I was reading the first chapter that I thought that this rhetorical flourish was beginning to feel just a bit triumphalist – in fact, much in the same way that the fashionable atheists do – and then Hart shifted into the real heart of his extended essay. He takes the reader back to the earliest centuries of the Christian story, and shows the ways in which the Christian Gospel quite utterly revolutionized how human life came to be understood, and he does this with often exquisitely beautiful language:
In the light of Christianity’s absolute law of charity, we came to see what formerly we could not: the autistic or Down syndrome or otherwise disabled child, for instance, for whom the world can remain a perpetual perplexity, which can too often cause pain but perhaps only vaguely and fleetingly charm or delight; the derelict or wretched or broken man or woman who has wasted his or her life away; the homeless, the utterly impoverished, the diseased, the mentally ill, the physically disabled; exiles, refugees, fugitives; even criminals and reprobates. To reject, turn away from, or kill any or all of them would be, in a very real sense, the most purely practical of impulses. To be able, however, to see in them not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored, is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls (p. 214).
And in case you ever held to the belief that from the fall of the Roman Empire through to the Reformation and Renaissance was a period that can only be thought of as a brutal and superstitious “Dark Ages,” Hart will change your perceptions for good.
But he is worried about our current world. “If there is a God of infinite love and goodness,” he writes, “of whom every person is an image, then certain moral conclusions must be drawn; if there is not, these conclusions have no meaning.” If we in the West have entered a post-Christian era, we stand facing the very thing that, according to Hart, Nietzsche – a philosopher who welcomed the demise of Christian faith, yet understood the threat that came with its collapse – anticipated: “Now that the sacred canopy had been rolled back and the empty heavens exposed, a moment of potentially shattering crisis had arrived; and it was not obvious to him (Nietzsche) that post-Christian humanity had the energy to respond to it with anything more than an ever-deeper descent into triviality and narcissism” (p. 229).
Hart does find hope, in part because he believes that the Spirit of God will never utterly abandon us, and in part because we do have in our collective story the experience of the fourth and fifth century desert mothers and fathers cutting new and alternative paths in face of a world of great change and upheaval.
So, all to say that if you’ve bumped up against the work of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens – or perhaps Sam Harris, Dan Brown, Philip Pullman or Daniel Dennett, all of whom are addressed in this book – and if you’ve found yourself wondering if maybe these New Atheists are on to something, read this book. Hart will make you work a bit, but it will be work well worth the effort.