David Bentley Hart on fortuitous effects of Christianity

What interests me—and what I take to be demonstrable and important—is the particular ensemble of moral and imaginative values engendered in numberless consciences by Christian beliefs. That such values had political and social consequences I certainly do not deny; I feel fairly safe in saying, for instance, that abolitionism—as a purely moral cause—could not easily have arisen in any non-Christian culture of which I am aware. That is quite different, however, from claiming that Christianity ineluctably or uniquely must give rise to, say, democracy or capitalism or empirical science. It is to say, rather, that the Christian account of reality introduced into our world an understanding of the divine, the cosmic, and the human that had no exact or even proximate equivlanet elsewhere and that made possible a moral vision of the human person that has haunted us ever since, century upon century.

David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemiesp. 202-203

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The above quote was called to my attention by the latest episode of the Unbelievable? radio show, in which Hart and Terry Sanderson, president of the UK’s National Secular Society, debate the potential results of the new atheist goal of secularization and the relegation of all religion to individual, inconsequential observance (at best).

I’ve been interested in David Bentley Hart since my friend Cliff Martin reviewed his book a couple years ago. The above quote is indicative of his approach, which is careful not to argue that Christianity is true because it does this or that for the world. As he says on the show, “The book is not an exhortation to ‘believe, because if we don’t, we don’t have moral rationales for behaving the way we ought to behave.’ ” In fact, “It’s not that anyone would deny that there is some natural promptings and desire for the good that is part of our human natures (if you believe in human nature); every faith says as much, that these are indeed human good and human values.” He finds it “silly” to suppose that we would have rationally deduced specifically the types of values that most of us, secularists included, find most important: “It’s simply the lesson of history that what that desire for the good produces is not a particular set of values that are immediately rationally recognizable.” His point is that we cannot and should not ignore that Christianity has yielded felicitous impacts on society that he finds exceedingly unlikely to have occurred in a truly secular environment devoid of Christian influence—benefits which he insists are likely to dwindle in the thoroughly secularized society that’s been progressively more stridently advocated in recent years.

Sanderson, of course, disagrees, which leads to some stimulating discussion. Highly recommended.

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  • Paige

    Hmmm, not sure I can agree. I wouldn’t agree that without interaction with Muslim culture, we would never have Universities either.

    • Not sure how much I agree, either, not having read his book and seen the
      full force of his arguments. But it’s an interesting listen.

  • Chris Schelin

    I just listened to that podcast as well, and I think, in terms of logic and critical analysis, that DBH totally outclasses Sanderson.  It’s pretty clear that Sanderson’s secularist faith in the progress of liberal-democratic nation-states is untested and anything else he has to say is little more than glittering generalities.

  • Paige

    I would have to read the book, because I certainly didn’t come away from the podcast sharing the view you’ve stated above. Of course, I’m fresh off a recent study into Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “History of Christianity, The First Three Thousand Years.” DBH repeatedly mentioned that his book acknowledges the valid criticisms of Christianity’s checkered past, but I was left wondering if somehow that past had been neatly “apologized” away in order to come to his conclusions stated in the podcast.

    • I understand your misgiving, and not having read the book I can’t answer definitively, but from what I’ve heard from those who have read the book, he unflinchingly acknowledges the magnitude of Christianity’s historical shortcomings. But all that is well-chronicled in the works of the New Atheists: the point of the book is to call attention to the good that Christianity has brought, good which he believes would not have come about without it.

  • Joe

    It seems to me that DBH argument can go both ways. If the good things we have is rooted in Christian grammar and ideas then the bad things can also be contributed to that same grammar and ideas since it is all we have got. Also, if Christianity can emerge into something distinct from a Hebrew/Greek grammar then why can’t secularism emerge eventually into something distinct from a Christian grammar. Sanderson should have granted Hart his premise and said so what?The secularist is building on the Christian grammar to emerge into something better just like Christianity was built on the grammar of Hellenism and Hebraism. Now I am not a secularist, I am an Orthodox Christian like Hart, but his podcast comments I find unconvincing.