Why We Need David Bentley Hart
Brad East has a very fine piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books in which he discusses the lack of obvious relevance of theology to contemporary American life, and posits the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart as someone we all really, really should be paying attention to. Excerpts:
Given this love of culture and the high calling of theology, the hinge of Hart’s criticism, and thus the chief object of his withering disfavor, is those selfsame “senile cultures,” that is, Western modernity and its offspring. Hart sees the progressive secularization of Western culture as a single sustained dehumanization of society — begun in the Church, ironically — and just so one long march toward the receding horizon of nihilism. Indeed, nihilism and secularism, capitalism and individualism, consumerism and voluntarism, scientism and materialism are all of a piece, “a seamless garment” that simultaneously signifies and effects the triumph of the will in all human affairs without exception. As Hart writes:
The history of capitalism and the history of secularism are not two accidentally contemporaneous tales, after all; they are the same story told from different vantages. […] [A] late capitalist culture, being intrinsically a consumerist economy, of necessitypromotes a voluntarist understanding of individual freedom and a purely negative understanding of social and political liberty. […] It is […] a system inevitably corrosive of as many prohibitions of desire and inhibitions of the will as possible, and therefore of all those customs and institutions — religious, cultural, social — that tend to restrain or even forbid so many acquisitive longings and individual choices. […] The secular world — our world, our age — is one from which as many mediating and subsidiary powers have been purged as possible, precisely to make room for the adventures of the will. […] Secularization is simply developed capitalism in its ineluctable cultural manifestation.
The very same moral, political, and theological vision underlies Hart’s decade-long polemic against the “New Atheists” (making for an unlikely public-facing pair with Marilynne Robinson, a hyperbolic snort to her erudite eye-roll). He does not protest their lack of faith, which he deeply admires in truly formidable unbelievers like Nietzsche. He protests their lack of moral courage, theological ignorance, philosophical crudity, unwarranted arrogance, and mechanistic reductivism. Their books are, after all, “nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men.” They are worth responding to inasmuch as their errors should be exposed and the record set straight. Hart’s experience in doing so has not been encouraging, however. In his reply to a New Yorker essay by Adam Gopnik, for example, Hart’s conclusion is as harsh as it is despairing of further dialogue:
It does not matter. Nothing is happening here. The conversation has never begun. The current vogue in atheism is probably reducible to three rather sordidly ordinary realities: the mechanistic metaphysics inherited from the seventeenth century, the banal voluntarism that is the inevitable concomitant of late capitalist consumerism, and the quiet fascism of Western cultural supremacism (that is, the assumption that all cultures that do not consent to the late modern Western vision of reality are merely retrograde, unenlightened, and in need of intellectual correction and many more Blu-ray players). Everything else is idle chatter […] What I find so dismal about Gopnik’s article is the thought that it represents not the worst of popular secularist thinking, but the best. Principled unbelief was once a philosophical passion and moral adventure, with which it was worthwhile to contend. Now, perhaps, it is only so much bad intellectual journalism, which is to say, gossip, fashion, theatrics, trifling prejudice. Perhaps this really is the way the argument ends — not with a bang but a whimper.
Given popular understanding of the meaning and cultural power of Christianity in America, it may seem at best counterintuitive and at worse obscene to assert the social and political impotence of religion in the United States. But that is precisely the point. There is both more and less to the Christian faith than its empty public ciphers would suggest. The freak show of power’s religious courtiers being played out before our eyes is a distraction and misleading in the extreme. What force it appears to have is spent: mere thrashing in the death throes of an exhausted, protracted collapse. And politics aside, what remains incontestable is the expulsion of Christian thought from serious public intellectual consideration and the concomitant lack of interest on the part of either those who pull the cultural levers or those who would wreck the machine altogether.
If David Bentley Hart represents anything, it is that there is more to Christianity in public than debauched power politics, more to theology than the caricatures of the unknowing. It is a rich, demanding tradition that hates injustice, loves the truth, privileges the downtrodden, adores the beautiful, and refuses to give even one inch to the atomizing, reductive forces of a technocracy rushing to impose the future on us all. It knows, but what it knows is mystery. It is not what you wish it were, and it will not affirm what you already believe. But then, who would want that? “Our longing for transcendence is inextinguishable in us,” and though our age obscures it, “we are nevertheless still open to the same summons issued in every age to every soul.” Come and see.
Read the whole thing. I recommend Hart’s book The Experience Of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss as the best introduction to his thought for us non-professional theologians. I recall reading it and thinking that if an unbeliever who thought religion was foolish gave himself over to this book, he might not come out of it a believer, but he would surely emerge with his convictions shaken. And for that matter, this is also true of believers. It’s not a Christian book, per se, but a book about theism, one that, in a stroke, makes the reader realize that what he thought he knew about theism is either untrue or radically inadequate to the subject. That is to say, a non-believer may put down this book thinking, “Belief in God makes more sense than I thought,” and a believer may do so thinking, “Belief in God is so much broader and deeper than I realized.”
For those who have led the charge against the forces of faith — Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Grayling, and numerous other wannabes — this change is a welcome sign that the American people have at long last begun to dispel their atavistic ignorance and reconcile themselves to the scientific account of the universe, which is utterly incompatible with any form of theism.
One of the many virtues of theologian David Bentley Hart’s stunning new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, is that it demolishes this facile, self-satisfied position, exposing how completely it relies on a straw man account of God for its cogency. Atheism may well be true; a society of secularists might get along just fine without any form of piety. But until those unbelievers confront the strongest cases for God, they will have failed truly and honestly to rout their infamous enemy.
Without meaning to downplay the very real differences among and within the world’s religions, Hart nonetheless maintains that underlying those differences is a commonly shared cluster of claims about God that can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, and various forms of ancient paganism. (He also finds continuities with a number of Buddhist concepts, though he doesn’t press the case.)
The first of these shared claims is that God transcends the universe. Without exception, our clamorous and combative atheists treat God as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe (a Flying Spaghetti Monster, perhaps). Then they use the findings of science to show that there is no evidence for such an immensely powerful object or thing. And ipso facto, there is no God.
But, of course, the major world religions don’t view God in this way at all. They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world. And that is an enormous — actually, an infinite — difference.
Hart has a way of talking about God that makes the subject seem fresh and alluring. That might come across as trite praise, but it’s not. It is no small thing, in the 21st century, and in a post-Christian culture, to make the discussion of God urgent and illuminating both to theists and atheists alike. If you don’t know Hart’s work, do yourself a favor and give it a try. (But don’t start with his book on theology and aesthetics; it is extremely dense and profound, but inaccessible to most readers.) We may never again be the kind of culture that pays theologians much mind, but in the case of David Bentley Hart, the tragedy would be ours.