Peter’s Tears

A detail from St Peter in tears by El Greco

St. Peter’s Tears by El Greco (1541-1614)

In his book, Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart contends that when we moderns read the scriptures, we do so through a lens that has been fashioned by those very texts.  As a result, what was once extraordinary has become more than ordinary, appearing as natural and effortless as breathing.  In no other event is this more evident than in Peter’s denial of Christ and his subsequent sorrow.  Hart writes that “what is obvious to us—Peter’s wounded soul, the profundity of his devotion to his teacher, the torment of his guilt, the crushing knowledge that Christ’s imminent death forever foreclosed the possibility of seeking forgiveness for his betrayal—is obvious in very large part because we are the heirs of a culture that, in a sense, sprang from Peter’s tears.”[1]

In other words, we no longer marvel at such a detail. We are deaf to the revolutionary chords that it sent reverberating through antiquity.  Why?  Because the “act of rebellion” that those tears nourished has been successful.[2]  To highlight the grief of a backwoods, nobody like Peter, a peasant who would have served as a comedic foil at best, was scandalous to a culture in which caste was as ordinary as is it odious today.  Most importantly, it seems to have arrived from nowhere, a cosmic singularity or glitch in the pagan ethos of the day.

According to Hart, here “we see something beginning to emerge from darkness into full visibility, arguably for the first time in our history: the human person as such, invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity, and possessed of an infinite value.”[3]  Even our concept of personhood has been shaped by the revolution put into motion by the sympathetic treatment of a peasant’s tears.  Such dignity accorded to Peter was scandalous to the pagan culture of the time in which personhood was determined entirely by the state according to social status and accomplishment, not by something that transcended it with unassailable lift.  Hart calls belief in the intrinsic worth of every human being, regardless of station, nothing short of “a meteor” that lit up the skies of antiquity, a “slave revolt ‘from above’” that would forever change how man viewed himself and his neighbor.[4]  All of this is lost on us today.  We read of Peter’s grief and are moved because the Gospel has trained us to be moved.  Granted, the heirs of such a belief have not always lived up to its calling, but steady and true, it has whittled away on our sin-hardened hearts for two millennia.

Hart writes, “‘Christendom’ was only the outward, sometimes majestic, but always defective form of the interaction between the gospel and the intractable stuff of human habit. The more vital and essential victory of Christianity lay in the strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness of the moral intuitions it succeeded in sowing in human consciences.”

Oh, that our culture would maintain the “almost unnatural vigilance … required” to keep the revolution alive![5]  We must remain aware “of the horrible rapidity with which human institutions grow old,” never taking for granted as naturally intuitive what was once so rebellious.[6]

Looking back over the spotty history of moral success and failure, G.K. Chesterton called Christianity an eternal revolution that must never sleep as it seeks to reach the transcendent ideals at its heart.  He wrote that Christianity has “always maintained that men were naturally backsliders; that human virtue tended of its own nature to rust or to rot … [it has] always said that human beings as such go wrong, especially happy human beings, especially proud and prosperous human beings. This eternal revolution, this suspicion sustained through centuries, you (being a vague modern) call the doctrine of progress. If you were a philosopher you would call it, as [Christianity does], the doctrine of original sin. You may call it the cosmic advance as much as you like; [Christianity calls] it what it is–the Fall.”[7]



Illustration to Milton’s “Paradise Lost” by William Blake, 1808


[1] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, (Ann Arbor, MI: Sheridan Books, 2009), 166.

[2] Ibid., 167.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 167, 170.

[5] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (London, 1934), 112.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 113.

One thought on “Peter’s Tears

  1. Pingback: The Post-Christian West and the Eye of a Needle | Along the Beam

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