The Transfigured World

When St. Peter heard the cock crow early on the morning of the first Good Friday, the synoptic Gospels tell us that he went out and wept bitterly. “We are the heirs of a culture that, in a sense, sprang from Peter’s tears,” writes David Bentley Hart in his new book, Atheist Delusions. The pathos of this gospel scene would have been invisible to the late antique moral sensibility. The weeping Peter and our response to him stand for the “Christian Revolution” of Hart’s subtitle, a transformation of the moral imagination that allowed Christians to recognize the full humanity of every person. This book presents the moral world of late antiquity and the scandalized response of its pagan inhabitants to the “bizarre prodigality” of the Christian belief in universal charity, which descended upon it “rather like a meteor from a clear sky.”

In the first of the book’s four parts, Hart gestures dismissively in the direction of the “new atheists.” But Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, et al. are not his chief concern. They have neither the intellectual chops nor the honesty of the likes of Celsus, Porphyry, Hume, or Nietzsche. We don’t make atheists like they used to. The so-called new atheists put their faith in a tired Enlightenment view of history and a nihilistic understanding of human freedom. In what he describes as a “historical essay” focused on the first four or five centuries of the early church, Hart relativizes this story with a counternarrative of Christian revolution.

In part II, Hart addresses the “soothing, self-righteous fantasy” of Christianity’s history as “nothing but an interminable pageant of violence, tyranny, and sexual neurosis.” If students know nothing else of church history, they can almost always be counted on to know about the Crusades, the Inquisition, and Galileo. Hart covers these and other familiar episodes. His engaging account of the emergence of modern science features a memorable description of the Ptolemaic system as “a magnificent achievement of mathematical choreography” having “precious little to do with anything we would call ‘science.’” According to Hart’s account of the wars of religion, the “violence increased in proportion to the degree of sovereignty claimed by the state.” The most “pitilessly and self-righteously violent regimes” explicitly replaced a Christian vision with a more “human” one. Historians may already know all of this, but someone who picks up Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great in Borders probably doesn’t. For such readers, Hart provides a formidable historical apologetic.

Modern scholars from Edward Gibbon to Rodney Stark have tried to understand the emergence of early Christianity in the ancient world. In part III of Atheist Delusions, Hart intervenes in this conversation to talk about the Christian Revolution that transformed late antiquity and resulted in what he calls the “Christian invention of the human.” To become a Christian in ancient Rome was nothing less than an “act of cosmic rebellion” against an order in which religious piety was compatible with “pervasive, relentless, and polymorphous cruelty” and the Christian law of charity was an offense against good taste. Rather than an interruption that caused the Christianization of the empire, Constantine’s conversion was part of a process in which thousands of pagans had undergone what Hart calls “a total conversion of will, imagination, and desire.” Pace Nietzsche, Christianity was not a slave revolt that challenged pagan exuberance with a “bloodless antisensualism.” Indeed, according to Hart, the Christian Revolution brought a “deep and imperturbable joy” into a world of “pervasive spiritual despondency and religious yearning.”

Hart jousts with classicist Ramsey MacMullen about the extent to which Christianity really changed the Roman world, arguing that there was a radical difference between pagan aid to the needy and the Christian charity that made the church the “first large organized institution of public welfare in Western history.” But the persistence of slavery in the Christian West complicates Hart’s picture of a “massive tectonic shift in spiritual culture” that made persons of all the faceless. In response to this difficulty, he invokes an extraordinary Lenten sermon by Gregory of Nyssa in the year 379. Even Julian the Apostate’s failure becomes a “proof of what the gospel wrought in its first three centuries.” Hart argues that Julian’s moral sensibility, like that of the new atheists, would have been inconceivable without Christianity.

In chapter 15, the heart of part III, Hart explains what he means by the Christian invention of the human. As Christians argued about the meaning of the Incarnation they were forced to clarify just what being human meant. From the Christological controversies of the fourth to seventh centuries emerged a metaphysical revolution: The cosmos was thenceforth understood as a created gift, and each person was understood to have an “immense dignity as transcending nature.” While the dogmatic definitions of the councils did not cause this new understanding, they did crystallize it. With the arrival of Christianity, every human person—even a weeping fisherman from the hinterlands—was an image of the Trinitarian God.

Hart’s historical apologetic follows a long tradition—from Charles de Montalembert and Jaime Balmes in the nineteenth century to Christopher Dawson and Jacques Maritain in the twentieth. But Hart is writing for a post-Christian time. He neither expects nor advocates a new Christendom for the West. The historical effects of the Christian Revolution were not inevitable, nor are they inevitably permanent now. Hart writes about the “eclipse of the human” in a civilization Karl Löwith once described as Christian in origin but not in consequence. As Christianity’s power over Western culture fades, the question becomes whether the post-Christian will become the posthuman. The arguments of modern scientific “sorcerers” such as Joseph Fletcher, Linus Pauling, and Peter Singer seem to represent the “chilling conviction that the advance of the sciences, under any circumstances, is its own justification.” But this trend is not inevitable either.

In 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre ended After Virtue with a hope for a new St. Benedict. Twenty years later, the Marxists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri concluded Empire by appealing to St. Francis as the embodiment of the joyful militancy they advocated. At the end of Atheist Delusions, Hart turns for consolation to the desert fathers and mothers. In their sayings he finds a record of the “battleground of the heart,” where Christians struggled against their own success to devote themselves to the “science of charity” and the “heroism of forgiveness.” The kind of transformation Hart now hopes for amid the ruins of the Christian West is a transformation of individual hearts, and he peppers the book with caveats and disclaimers about the “institutional” church. This is not a book about ecclesiology, but it is hard not to wonder what sort of institutional mediations might be necessary for the spiritual transformation Hart has in mind. Compared to St. Benedict and St. Francis, the desert fathers and mothers are minimally institutional at best, and perhaps this is how Hart likes it. But one sometimes wants to ask Hart the question once asked by Peter Steinfels: How could there be a noninstitutional church?

Some readers might be inclined to dismiss Hart’s bracing critique of the post-Christian West as a pessimistic denial of the graced character of our world. This would be an unfortunate misreading. To this reviewer, a quondam classics geek, Hart’s real appreciation for the pagan authors of antiquity is obvious on every page. At the end of Christendom, though, he is interested in what was new and different about Christianity in the first place. If the ancient world is one of “unremitting melancholy,” this only becomes apparent in the wondrous light of the gospel. Hart is no doubt familiar with the more conventional emphasis on the seeds of the Word to be found in the pagan classics, but that is not the emphasis his own essay requires.

Hart’s immense learning is matched to a robust and sometimes overblown style that has been described as acrobatic. This style is not to everyone’s taste, and Hart’s overall approach may leave some cold. My own take is that Atheist Delusions will be remembered as Hart’s breakout book. His contributions to such journals as First Things have long marked him as a rising public intellectual. His book The Beauty of the Infinite (2003) is one of the best pieces of constructive theology written in the United States in a long time. With Atheist Delusions, published by a distinguished university press, Hart’s work is now likely to come to the attention of a wider audience. And not a moment too soon.


Related: Eugene McCarraher on Christopher Hitchens's 'God Is Not Great': "This Book Is Not Good"
Lawrence S. Cunningham on Michael Novak's 'No One Sees God': "New Atheism, Old Apologetics"
Terry Eagleton, "Culture & Barbarism"
John Garvey, "The New Atheists"
John F. Haught, "Don't Assign These Books"

Published in the 2009-05-08 issue: 

William Portier is the Mary Ann Spearin Chair of Catholic Theology at the University of Dayton. His latest book is Every Catholic An Apostle: A Life of Thomas A. Judge, C.M., 1868–1933.

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