Christianity and the “Modern” Society

“[T]he history of modernity is the history of secularization, of the retreat of Christian belief to the private sphere.”  — David B. Hart, author and professor

I am a bit pressed for time this week, as I prepare to drive up to Maryland to spend several days with family. (Hiding from the downtown riots in a quiet, mostly-Jewish community.) In fact, I’m writing this on Monday night, since I likely won’t have time to work on it later in the week. Therefore, with minimal commentary I present to you another excerpt from Dr. David Bentley Hart’s award-winning book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press, 2009). (It won the Michael Ramsey Prize in Theology in 2011.) Enjoy!

Modern Society“What, after all, does it mean for a whole society to be truly ‘modern’? Completely modern, that is, as opposed to merely possessing modern technologies or obeying the axioms of modern economics. I have already offered a partial answer to this: it has a great deal to do with a society’s understanding of freedom. But, in a more purely historical sense, if we take the word ‘modernity’ to mean not simply whatever happens to be contemporary with us but rather the culture of the Western world as it has evolved over the last four or five centuries, then it seems obvious that a society is truly modern to the extent that it is post-Christian.

This is not to say, obviously, that modern society is predominantly inhabited by non-Christians or atheists; it is only to say that modernity is what comes ‘after Christendom,’ when Christianity has been displaced from the center of a culture and deprived of any power explicitly to shape laws and customs, and has ceased to be regarded as the source of a society’s highest values or of a government’s legitimacy, and has ceased even to hold preeminent sway over a people’s collective imagination. And the term ‘post-Christian’ must be given its full weight here: modernity is not simply a ‘postreligious’ condition; it is the state of a society that has been specifically a Christian society but has ‘lost the faith.’

The ethical presuppositions intrinsic to modernity, for instance, are palliated fragments and haunting echoes of Christian moral theology. Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity that pre-Christian Western culture would have found not so much foolish as unintelligible. It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things — they would never have occurred to us — had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren. That said, it is undeniable that — however much certain Christian moral presuppositions may continue to exercise their vestigial influence over us — the history of modernity is the history of secularization, of the retreat of Christian belief to the private sphere; and this, for many of us, is nothing less than the history of human freedom itself, the grand adventure of the adulthood of the race (so long delayed by priestcraft and superstition and intolerance), the great revolution that liberated society and the individual alike from the crushing weight of tradition and doctrine.

Hence modernity’s first great attempt to define itself: an ‘age of reason’ emerging from and overthrowing an ‘age of faith.’ Behind this definition lay a simple but thoroughly enchanting tale. Once upon a time, it went, Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity labored in brutish subjugation to dogma, superstition, and the unholy alliance of church and state. Withering blasts of fanaticism and fideism had long since scorched away the last remnants of classical learning; inquiry was stifled; the literary remains of classical antiquity had long ago been consigned to the fires of faith, and even the great achievements of ‘Greek science’ were forgotten till Islamic civilization restored them to the West. All was darkness.

Then, in the wake of the ‘wars of religion’ that had torn Christendom apart, came the full flowering of the Enlightenment and with it the reign of reason and progress, the riches of scientific achievement and political liberty, and a new and revolutionary sense of human dignity. The secular nation-state arose, reduced religion to an establishment of the state or, in the course of time, to something altogether separate from the state, and thereby rescued Western humanity from the blood-steeped intolerance of religion, Now, at last, Western humanity has left its nonage and attained to its majority, in science, politics, and ethics. The story of the travails of Galileo almost invariably occupies an honored place in this narrative, as exemplary of the natural relation between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ and as an exquisite epitome of scientific reason’s mighty struggle during the early modern period to free itself from the tyranny of religion. This is, as I say, a simple and enchanting tale, easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail.

Dark Ages - metal logoTo be fair, serious historians do not for the most part speak in such terms. This tale of the birth of the modern world has largely disappeared from respectable academic literature and survives now principally at the level of folklore, ‘intellectual journalism,’ and vulgar legend. One continues, of course, to see the entire medieval period now and then vaguely described as the ‘Dark Ages’ in popular histories; but scholars are generally loath to use that term even of the era to which it ‘properly’ refers: the period between the final fall of the Western Roman Empire in A.D. 476 and the rise of the Holy Roman Empire in A.D. 800 (or, more broadly, between the fifth and eleventh centuries); and they have abandoned the term not only because it sounds derogatory. The very idea of an unnaturally protracted period of general darkness after the fall of the Western Roman Empire began its life among the humanists of the Italian Renaissance, who liked to characterize the ‘new learning’ they advocated as a reawakening of ancient wisdom from a millennium of inglorious slumber. But most good historians know that the intellectual and cultural revolution of the Renaissance was the flowering of innumerable high medieval developments, fecundated by a late infusion into Italy of scholarship and classical Greek texts from the dying Byzantine Empire of the Christian East….

Sadly, however, it is not serious historians who, for the most part, form the historical consciousness of their times; it is bad popular historians, generally speaking, and the historical hearsay they repeat or invent, and the myths they perpetuate and simplifications they promote, that tend to determine how most of us view the past. However assiduously the diligent, painstakingly precise academical drudge may labor at his or her meticulously researched and exhaustively documented tomes, nothing he or she produces will enjoy a fraction of the currency of any of the casually composed (though sometimes lavishly illustrated) squibs heaped on the front tables of chain bookstores or clinging to the middle rungs of bestseller lists. For everyone whose picture of the Middle Ages is shaped by the dry, exact, quietly illuminating books produced by those pale dutiful pedants who squander the golden meridians of their lives prowling in the shadows of library stacks or weakening their eyes by poring over pages of barely legible Carolingian minuscule, a few hundred will be convinced by what they read in, say, William Manchester’s dreadful, vulgar, and almost systematically erroneous A World Lit by Fire. After all, few have the time or the need to sift through academic journals and monographs and tedious disquisitions on abstruse topics trying to separate the gold from the dross. And so, naturally, among the broadly educated and the broadly uneducated alike, it is the simple picture that tends to prevail, though in varying shades and intensities of color, as with any image often and cheaply reproduced; and the simple picture, in this case, is the story that Western society has been telling about itself for centuries now.”

Well,… that explains a LOT!

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