I was working as a part-time activity director at a nursing home when Anna approached me, her face shrouded in bewilderment. “This morning,” she said in a shaky voice, “a man on the radio said there are people who don’t believe in God. Is that possible?”
Anna and her late husband had fled Soviet oppression in the 1920s, finally obtaining a heavily wooded homestead in eastern Alberta. “Before we could afford a mule,” Anna once told me, “I would pull the plow myself.” Her social life had been confined to her Ukrainian Pentecostal church. Anna had lived out her 85 years believing that belief in God was universal.
We don’t live in Anna’s world. A recent study found that only 56% of American citizens claim to be religious. That compares to 37% in Canada, 27% in Great Britain and 31% in Australia.
The New Atheists
The rapid retreat from organized religion has created a happy hunting ground for “New Atheist” authors like Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), Sam Harris (The End of Faith), and the late Christopher Hitchens (God is not Good: How Religion Poisons Everything). If these self-proclaimed “Four Horsemen” have it right, religious belief isn’t just silly; always and everywhere, it has been an unmitigated disaster.
We are all familiar with the New Atheist narrative. The classical world was on the cusp of a golden age of scientific discovery until the Christians ushered in 1,500 years of ignorance and superstition. The barbarity of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the European wars of religion and, of course, the suppression of Galileo and his telescope are trotted out as evidence. Then, as if by miracle (so to speak), the Enlightenment banished shadows of night, unlocked the glories of ancient Greece and Rome, paved the way for secular government and, most importantly, swapped blind faith for reason and scientific inquiry.
This makes for a wonderful story, and Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and Hitchens have exploited it to the full. It is also, as serious intellectual historians have repeatedly argued, demonstrably false.
In recent years, scores of legitimate scholars — religious, atheist and agnostic — have pieced together a more accurate and, admittedly, more complex, historical portrait. But these weighty tomes haven’t enjoyed the commercial success the Four Horsemen have enjoyed.
“This makes for a wonderful story, and Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and Hitchens have exploited it to the full. It is also, as serious intellectual historians have repeatedly argued, demonstrably false.”
I have spent the past month with three thoughtful responses to Enlightenment mythology: John Dickson’s Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History, Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, and David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies.
Reproducing the Jesus song
Dickson’s Saints and Bullies is a humble attempt by an Australian Anglican scholar to reckon with the admittedly spotty resume of the Christian Church. Jesus Christ composed a beautiful melody, Dickson says, which Christians have labored to reproduce. More often than not, we have made a mess of it.
To illustrate, Dickson spent a full week learning to play the cello, then scratched out a deplorable version of Bach’s Cello Suites. He then invited Kenichi Mizushima, a renowned cellist, to play exactly the same notes (you can hear the results for yourself here).
“Rejecting Christianity based on the terrible performance of some Christians,” Dickson argues, “is like dismissing Bach after hearing my feeble attempts to play his Cello Suites.” Sometimes Christians play the melody of Jesus well, sometimes poorly, and there are times when we seem to forget about it altogether. Some Christians have lived like saints; others (the “bullies”) have invented forms of “muscular Christianity” calibrated for quick results.
For Dickson, genuine Christian faith flows from the teaching of Jesus, most specifically, the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:27-36 and Matthew 5:38-48) which he calls “the most sublime ethical teaching ever given.”
In the formative centuries of Christian history, Gregory of Nyssa emerges as a saint (largely for his unrelenting opposition to chattel slavery), while Ambrose of Milan rates as a bully (for arguing that Christians have the right to persecute Jews).
Neither saints nor bullies
Unfortunately for Dickson’s argument, most Christians are neither saints nor bullies. Augustine of Hippo, in Dickson’s view, could play the Jesus melody to perfection (“love and do what you will”), but often butchered the tune (for instance, his willingness to consign unbaptized babies to damnation).
Although the Christian revolution has produced spectacular feats of radical love, Dickson concludes, it has not changed the fundamental thrust of the societies it has touched.
“Violence has been a universal part of the human story,” he admits. “The demand to love one’s enemies has not. Division has been a norm. Inherent human dignity has not. Armies, greed and the politics of power have been constants in history. Hospitals, schools and charity for all have not. Bullies are common. Saints are rare.”
That said, Dickson sees a discernible movement toward “ethical Christianity,” a deep appreciation for the Christian moral vision independent of Christian metaphysics. Tom Holland, a British historian with a flair for narrative prose, is Exhibit A.
A Savior with no borders
Holland’s Dominion begins with a whirlwind tour of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman Empires. The imperial mindset, he insists, had no place for Christian tenets such as love for one’s enemies, compassion for the poor or the conviction that people, regardless of race, gender or social status, are all equal in the eyes of God. Empires are built on strength, the submission of the strong to the weak and, when necessary, spectacular displays of cruelty.
Long centuries languishing under the heel of brutal empires, Holland says, placed unimaginable stress on the Jewish people. How could Yahweh be both “the God of the Covenant” and “the Creator of all humanity?” The problem became particularly pronounced when the Roman general Pompey, following a three-month siege, claimed Jerusalem for the globe-spanning Roman Empire in 63 BCE.
In Holland’s view, the Apostle Paul resolved this ancient tension by declaring Christ crucified the Savior of the world.
“Paul was preaching a deity who recognized no borders, no divisions,” Holland explains. “Christ, by making himself as nothing, by taking on the very nature of a slave, had plumbed the depths to which only the lowest, the poorest, the most persecuted and abused of mortals were confined.” As a consequence, “the world stood transformed.”
As Paul told the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
‘Agents of terror’
Still, this revolutionary new understanding of God created an unresolvable tension between “the volcano-blast of revolution and the shelter from it provided by tradition.” Throughout Christian history, Holland says, settled tradition has lived in an awkward tension with the call for “reformatio.”
Christians become “agents of terror,” Holland believes, when they enforce uniformity either by enforcing tradition or pressing for reform. “They have put the weak in their shadow; they have brought suffering, and persecution, and slavery in their wake.” But, at the same time, “the standards by which they stand condemned for this are themselves Christian.”
Holland’s central insight is borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). In Holland’s paraphrase: “Freethinkers who mock the very idea of a god as a dead thing, a sky fairy, an imaginary friend, still piously hold to taboos and morals that derive from Christianity.”
This insight applies equally to the icons of pop culture and ivory-tower academics. Holland draws a devastating contrast between John Lennon and Martin Luther King Jr. Although Lennon’s Imagine has become the unofficial anthem of contemporary atheism, Holland says, his vision of “a brotherhood of man” was Christian through-and-through. King, who cast a similar vision, understood its biblical roots. While King was leading his people against police dogs and fire hoses, Holland notes, Lennon was tooling around his estate in a Rolls Royce.
On borrowed time?
But if, as Holland suggests, we have tossed out the bathwater of Christian metaphysics while retaining the baby of Christian ethics, are we living on borrowed time? Holland sees no reason why not.
David Bentley Hart is far less sanguine. “It may be,” he says toward the end of Atheist Delusions, “that when Christianity passes away from a culture, nihilism is the inevitable consequence.” Because, Hart says, “Christianity took the gods away, subdued them so utterly that, try though we might, we can never really believe in them again. … The story of the crucified God took everything to itself, and so — in departing — takes everything with it: habits of reverence and restraint, awe, the command of the Good within us. Only the will persists, set before the abyss of limitless possibility, seeking its way — or forging its way — in the dark.”
As a consequence, “post-Christian civilization will always lack the spiritual resources, or the organizing myth, necessary to produce anything like the cultural wonders that sprang up under the sheltering canopy of the religion of the God-man.”
Whenever the post-Christian world consciously eschews Christian morality (the Reign of Terror, the Nazi death camps, the Soviet Gulag, Mao’s Cultural Revolution) the results have always been horrific.
Hart never has suffered fools gladly and, in Atheist Delusions, his critique of the Four Horsemen is utterly brutal. How can men so pitifully ignorant of the Western intellectual tradition — Christian theology in particular — presume to pontificate on the triumph of reason over faith? Fortunately, Hart says, serious students of intellectual history have largely abandoned the trappings of Enlightenment mythology:
The classical world was not congenial to scientific endeavor; Christian Europe was.
The fruit of classical learning is available to us because it was preserved by Christian monks (especially in the Greek-speaking East).
The Inquisition, although unquestionably horrendous in its earliest phase, emerges late in the Christian story and, when compared to secular regimes of the 20th century, was typically cautious, fair-minded and deliberate.
The “wars of religion” were driven by the rise of the secular state and human ambition, not religious fanaticism.
Galileo’s famous conflict with the Renaissance papacy was more a clash of egos than a rejection of science.
Unfortunately, Hart laments, the reading public has displayed a marked preference for the sensational oversimplifications of the Four Horsemen.
Jesus story vs. organized religion
Dickson, Holland and Hart distinguish the Jesus story from the world of organized religion. “To be honest,” Hart admits, “my affection for institutional Christianity as a whole is rarely more than tepid; and there are numerous forms of Christian belief and practice for which I would be hard pressed to muster a kind word from the depths of my heart, and the rejection of which by the atheist or skeptic strikes me as perfectly laudable.”
Hart isn’t even arguing that the Jesus story is true; simply that it is singularly compelling and irreplaceable. Holland, for his part, never asks whether the God-on-the-Cross story is historical. All the same, he finds it unspeakably precious.
This pragmatic approach reminds me of George Macdonald’s The Curate of Glaston.
“I would live my time believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if it is not,” the curate confides to an intimate friend. “If these be not truths, then is the loftiest part of our nature a waste. … I would rather die forevermore believing as Jesus believed, than live for evermore believing as those who deny him.”
If that’s the shape of post-Christian Christianity, I will happily sign on.
Alan Bean is executive director of Friends of Justice, an alliance of community members that advocates for criminal justice reform. He lives in Arlington, Texas, and is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.
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