Category Archives: Theology

Atheist Delusions

David Bentley Hart - Atheist Delusions

In his fresh and polemical new book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, David Bentley Hart takes on the so-called “New Atheists,” throwing the full weight of his historical insight, theological prowess, and rhetorical profundity into exposing and then dismantling recent assaults to the faith.

The underlying purpose of the book is to clear the air of the wildly unfounded assertions and distortions that attempt to depict Christianity as a blind, violent, superstitious, and primitive stain on our collective moral sensibilities, shrouding the “progressive” story modernity likes to tell about itself with a sense of legitimacy and superiority. In Hart’s estimation such tales of our (supposedly) rational, scientific, and tolerant struggle against dark ages of irrational dogmatism, cultural and creative stagnation, “wars of religion,” and so forth are simple and enchanting, “easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail” (p. 34).

Instead, Hart makes a case for the genuinely and irreducibly revolutionary impact of Christianity on the West. As he notes in the Introduction,

“My chief ambition in writing [this book] is to call attention to the peculiar and radical nature of the new faith in [the cultural] setting [of late antiquity]: how enormous a transformation of thought, sensibility, culture, morality, and spiritual imagination Christianity constituted in the age of pagan Rome; the liberation it offered from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of occult agencies; the immense dignity it conferred upon the human person; its subversion of the cruelest aspects of pagan society; its (alas, only partial) demystification of political power; its ability to create moral community where none had existed before; its elevation of active charity above all other virtues” (pp. x-xi).

Now based on the early hype surrounding the book (undoubtedly encouraged by the rather superfluous blurbs garnishing the back cover), I admit that I felt some initial reservations about what kind of book Hart had actually produced here. Would I find a defensive, angry, even (rhetorically) violent call to arms in defense of a new Christendom? Or perhaps another rosy theological apologia sweeping the seamier sides of the Christian historical past under the rug of our selective memory? In clashing dueling sabers with the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and the rest would Hart ultimately come to emulate the very style and depth of argument he seeks to rebuff?

If I’m honest, the first couple of chapters did stoke my skepticism, albeit briefly. Hart’s more aggressive, ad hominem attacks on the authors of the New Atheism (to the point of intellectual name-calling) do not exactly boost the credibility of his argument, nor will his cutting and abrasive language likely win him many friends amongst his ideological objectors. That being said, Hart is at least honest about his methodological approach and his occasional lack of pleasantries. And while the style of his critiques are a bit harsh at times, the content is most certainly sound, provoking, and justified. In light of the “intellectual rigor” of his opponents, perhaps Hart has a point when he says that “Atheism that consists entirely in vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism. And it is sometimes difficult, frankly, to be perfectly generous in one’s response to the sort of invective currently fashionable among the devoutly undevout, or to the sort of historical misrepresentations it typically involves” (p. 4).

Minus a few such complaints, Hart’s book is a brilliantly insightful and eloquent essay on the rise of Christianity in the first four or five centuries. I appreciated the fact that Hart refuses to white-wash the historical data into a simplistic, sanitized picture of Christianity that pretends away faults in life and practice of the church, while nonetheless being honest about the bold and unprecedented impact Christianity has had upon the consciousness of the West. Hart is at his strongest in his clear critiques of the modern project and the current situation it has left us in, but also in his detailed historical analysis of the facinating consequences of the Christian gospel upon the social imaginary of ancient paganism.

Instead of attempting some sort of summary or overview, I’ll bring my general comments to a close here. There are plenty of reviews of Hart’s book out there that are far more nuanced and thorough than the one I’ve just presented. My intention here and in the few posts to follow is not so much describe or defend Hart’s book as a whole, but to interrogate a few particularly insightful gems he offers us in its pages.


Proportionate participation in the divine excess of God’s delight

“God who is beyond fullness did not bring creatures into being out of any need of his, but that he might enjoy their proportionate participation in him and that he might delight in his works seeing them delighted and ever insatiably satisfied with one who is inexhaustible” (3.46).

 — Maximus the Confessor, The Four Hundred Chapters on Love


Charity as conversation: Beyond the bounds of calculated exchange

“We could say that charity here also has to do with conversation — an activity that need not be productive, that presupposes mutual recognition, an activity in which ‘success’ is measured simply by the maintenance of the activity itself. Charity becomes visible where it is clear that bonds are treated as already established, not as always to be established; where it is assumed that the basic human position is not that of individuals uneasily making treaties with each other, but of exchanges of recognition, acknowledgements that within or alongside or against the world of calcuated cooperation — and calculated non-cooperation — is a realm where the possibility and reality of exchange and common concern are agreed or given beforehand” (pp. 71-72).

“In one sense, of course, charity celebrates a state that exists supremely in its own right, a state of pure converse on conversation, a social joy. But precisely as such, it exists beyond history and beyond what we can know, think or say about civil society and political society. It is ‘mythical’, though not in the sense of being some kind of pure projection or aspiration. The institution/ritual of charity tells us that to have a language to negotiate or quarrel in is already to presuppose the social miracle, the fact of linguistic sharing. Charity unconvers the bedrock of speech: sheer converse, the exchange of sounds in codified patterns and the peculiar exhilaration that attaches just to that. It affirms what it is in language that is ‘there’ before and after argument and context — which is not self-expression (a meaningless idea outside the frame of converse) but the possibility of recognition” (pp. 87-88).

— Rowan Wiliams, Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement


The Myth of Religous Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict

The Myth of Religous Violence - Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict

After a long period of research, public debate, and several highly insightful article publications, William Cavanaugh is finally putting to print his work on the mythos of religious violence and the agressive rise of the nation-state. For over 15 years, Cavanaugh has written on and off on this topic. Perhaps most well known remain: ‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House’: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the StateKilling for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is not the Keeper of the Common Good, and Sins of Omission: What ‘Religion and Violence’ Arguments Ignore. According to Amazon, Cavanaugh’s new book is currently scheduled to be released this September.

It appears that Cavanaugh will be presenting a more nuanced engagement with the various themes raised by these (and other) earlier interventions. Put briefly, in his essay for the Radical Orthodoxy reader, Cavanaugh argues that “The soteriology of the modern state is incomprehensible [. . .] apart from the notion that the Church is perhaps the primary thing from which the modern state is meant to save us.” The so-called ‘Wars of Religion’ of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe acted as a key epoch in the larger mythos that gave rise to the creation of the state itself.

According to this standard narrative account:

“When the religious consensus of civil society was shattered by the Reformation, the passions excited by religion as such were loosed, and Catholics and the newly minted Protestants began killing each other in the name of doctrinal loyalties. [. . .] The modern secular state and the privatizations of religion were necessary, therefore, to keep the peace among warring religious factions” (“The City”, p. 188).

In response, Cavanaugh suggests

“The ‘Wars of Religion’ were not the events which necessitated the birth of the modern State; they were in fact themselves the birth-pangs of the State. These wars were not simply a matter of conflict between ‘Protestantism’ and ‘Catholicism,’ but were fought largely for the aggrandizement of the emerging State over the decaying remnants of the medieval ecclesial order” (“A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House”, p. 398).  

Therefore, in justifying the existence of the state based on this mythology, the social contract theorists (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) fully endorsed and perpetuated the notion that it is necessary to (1) restore humanity to individuality, and (2) protect the individual from the violence of intolerant religion, personified concretely in the Roman Catholic Church. In other words, the state is supposed to save us from a violence that resulted from the process of its own formation.

Cavanaugh contends that the privatization of Christian practice was already well underway in the invention of the modern category of “religion” itself. In the Christian tradition of the Medieval Ages, religio was viewed not as a system of beliefs, but as virtue, one which  directs a person to God through the ethical and liturgical formation of members into the Church. However, in modernity religio was bifurcated from its ecclesial context and was slowly redefined: first as an internal universal impulse common to all, second as a propositional system of beliefs, third as demonstrable moral truths absent any particular theological, social, or ecclesial formation, and fourth, having been reduced from any material context other than the private conscience of the individual, religion was converted into a tool of state power. As Cavanaugh concludes,

“The concept of religion being born here is one of domesticated belief systems which are, insofar as it is possible, to be manipulated by the sovereign for the benefit of the State. Religion is no longer a matter of certain bodily practices within the Body of Christ, but is limited to the realm of the ‘soul,’ and the body is handed over to the State.”

In this way, “the creation of religion, and thus the privatization of the church, is correlative to the rise of the State” (“A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House”, p. 405).

Within many academic theological circles, this hypothesis has become somewhat of given presupposition. Of course, Cavanaugh’s project has not been without critics as well. However, to be fair while his articles have been powerful and compelling, they lack the space to fully ground the argument in the degree of historical specificity necessary to persuade those more expert in the field. Since he is going after a bedrock dogma surrounding the presumed origins of our contemporary western social imaginary, such a project demands a bit more attention to details.

In this light, Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence will very likely prove to be an extremely important book. Oxford University Press‘ descriptive blurb provides a clean summary of what we have to look forward to.

“The idea that religion has a dangerous tendency to promote violence is part of the conventional wisdom of Western societies, and it underlies many of our institutions and policies, from limits on the public role of religion to efforts to promote liberal democracy in the Middle East. William T. Cavanaugh challenges this conventional wisdom by examining how the twin categories of religion and the secular are constructed. A growing body of scholarly work explores how the category ‘religion’ has been constructed in the modern West and in colonial contexts according to specific configurations of political power. Cavanaugh draws on this scholarship to examine how timeless and transcultural categories of ‘religion and ‘the secular’ are used in arguments that religion causes violence. He argues three points: (1) There is no transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion. What counts as religious or secular in any given context is a function of political configurations of power; (2) Such a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion as non-rational and prone to violence is one of the foundational legitimating myths of Western society; (3) This myth can be and is used to legitimate neo-colonial violence against non-Western others, particularly the Muslim world.”


Greetings

This post marks my first formal intervention into the ‘blogosphere.’ As I inaugurate this new project, I sit facing the reality that the explorations pursued here are far more likely to raise murky questions than settle upon definitive answers. That being said, my hope is that this site will provide the means through which I can finally put pen to paper and track my thoughts, reflections, research findings, and other more creative investigations.

For quite some time, my interests in philosophy and theology have sent me down several distinct and seemingly irreconcilable paths of research, few of which seem all that comfortable in close, sustained dialogue with each other; namely, biblical theology, continental philosophy, ecclesiology, and above all the theological doctrine of the works of mercy. For whatever reason, I continually find myself grappling with the manifold questions situated at the intersection between ecclesial ethics, political philosophy, and liturgical theology. Exposing the tactical, mundane, even transgressive space of the everyday, my present work seeks identify in the embodied performance of charity (i.e., the gifts of food and drink, prayer and compassion, shelter and hospitality) the site in which these dimensions of thought and praxis can overlap, freshly illuminating what it means to be the Church consecrated, broken, and distributed for the life of the world.