And this big story is bunk
The aim of Hart’s book is twofold. Put positively, he seeks to tell the story of the first few centuries of the church in such a way as to show what a revolution, in the truest sense, Christianity was. For Hart, in fact, the emergence of Christianity is the only transition in Western civilization that can really be called a ‘revolution’ in the fullest sense:
My chief ambition in writing … is to call attention to the peculiar and radical nature of the new faith in [the culture 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; and its elevation of active charity above all other virtues … The triumph of Christianity [was] a truly massive and epochal revision of humanity’s prevailing vision of reality, so pervasive in its influence and so vast in its consequences as actually to have created a new conception of the world, of history, of human nature, of time, and of the moral good.
(This paragraph alone indicates that the book is not written for the man on the street; it is more aimed at those who find The Reason for God the equivalent of Noddy and Big Ears Share the Gospel. This will put people off, of course. Some will find his style unreadably prosaic or sneeringly smug, and I would understand why. But I loved it.)
The negative side of Hart’s case, which I found even more stimulating, is his rejection of the mythology of the Enlightenment, both as it is believed at the popular level, and in the form expressed by the New Atheists. In being sharply critical of the ideology of modernity, Hart is clear that he does not despise scientific or philosophical progress – as has often been said, nobody wants to be treated by a pre-modern dentist – but, rather,
I mean the modern age’s grand narrative of itself: its story of the triumph of critical reason over ‘irrational’ faith, of the progress of social morality towards greater justice and freedom, of the ‘tolerance’ of the secular state, and of the unquestioned ethical primacy of either individualism or collectivism (as the case may be). Indeed, I want in part to argue that what many of us are still in the habit of calling the ‘Age of Reason’ was in many significant ways the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value; that the modern age is notable in large measure for the triumph of inflexible and unthinking dogmatism in every sphere of human endeavour (including the sciences) and for a flight from rationality to any number of soothing fundamentalisms, religious and secular; that the Enlightenment ideology of modernity as such does not even deserve any particular credit for the advance of modern science; that the modern secular state’s capacity for barbarism exceeds any of the evils for which Christendom might justly be indicted, not solely by virtue of the superior technology at its disposal, but by its very nature; that among the chief accomplishments of modern culture have been a massive retreat to superstition and the gestation of especially pitiless forms of nihilism; and that, by comparison to the Christian revolution it succeeded, modernity is little more than an aftereffect, or even a counterrevolution – a reactionary flight back toward a comfortable, but dehumanizing, mental and moral servitude to elemental nature.
That was just two sentences, for those who weren’t counting. Or, condensed into two slightly shorter sentences: the big story of modernity tells of how eighteenth century white European people heroically led the world out of darkness into light, out of ignorance into reason, and (in some versions) out of religion into atheism. And this big story is bunk.
Over the next few Wednesdays, we’ll see how Hart makes his case. I’m looking forward to it.