The Post-Christian West and the Eye of a Needle

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Nocturne by Whistler

“Round us in antic order their crippled vices came—
Lust that had lost its laughter, fear that had lost its shame.
Like the white lock of Whistler, that lit our aimless gloom,
Men showed their own white feather as proudly as a plume.
Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.”

~ G.K. Chesterton

Taking up a theme from a previous post, here is another area in which Christianity changed the world for the better.  Not only did the Gospel’s focus on the poor and unforgotten give value to an entire segment of society that the pagan world looked upon with patronizing pity at best, the Gospel revolutionized mankind’s conceptual framework for understanding reality.  The modern world rejects Christianity at its own peril, as Hart will demonstrate.  We are deluding ourselves, in fact.

In his book, Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart notes that we moderns “believe in nature and in history: in the former’s rational regularity and in the latter’s genuine openness to novelty.”[1]  Not so for the pagans.  They had no concept of “the arrow of time” and did not assume that history contained a “narrative logic” broad enough to house “both disjunction and resolution.”  For them, history could not move “towards an end quite different from its beginning” but was stuck in an endless cycle, punctuated by the wiles of capricious and demanding gods.[2]  In their view, there was a regularity in history that followed the cycles of nature – an endless, thus meaningless, continuum of “creation and dissolution, without beginning or end.”[3]  The wisest amongst the pagans would agree that “generations come and generations go, / but the earth remains forever” all the while, the ultimate deity remained completely out of reach and uninvolved. [4]  The most one could hope for is to be able to cultivate a resigned soul that was “immune to the effects of time and nature alike.”[5]

Christianity interrupted the endless cycle, changing the “conceptual shape of reality” by introducing a coherent narrative in which God entered time to rescue it, proving once and for all that history had meaning and had indeed been moving towards something.  Hart writes that “Christianity’s immense epic of creation and salvation became for ancient men and women the one true story of the world.”[6]  God was “not limited by his own transcendence,” but was active in nature and history, moving it towards good and perfect ends.  Hart writes that the Incarnation also freed the pagan mind from bondage to “the powers of the air, the elemental spirits, the devils, death itself” and “purged the natural world of its more terrifying mysteries and tamed its more impulsive spiritual agencies.”[7]

Most importantly, the pagan soul finally felt its worth.  The effects the gospel had on its moral intuitions cannot be underestimated.  In the history that followed the Event, 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.”[8]

The challenge for us in the modern West today is that real meaninglessness has entered the cultural ethos for the first time in human history.  If the pagan view of reality contained undertones of nihilism with its noble resignation, the modern world has nihilism on at full blast.

With the loss of belief in transcendence, people today are stuck in a history that is headed toward an ultimate nonexistence in the eventual heat death of the universe.  Worst of all, the hopelessness this causes is itself meaningless, merely your body’s reaction to stress and your brain’s inability to adjust to the new normal.  Even the resignation moderns must muster in the face of such stony indifference can no longer be labeled noble (as in pagan times) for that would imply some sort of standard of judgment beyond the material universe.

Hart was correct to note that “it may be that Christianity is the midwife of nihilism precisely because, in rejecting it, a people necessarily rejects everything except the bare horizon of the undetermined will.”[9]  He goes on to say that the Gospel, with its “story of the crucified God takes everything to itself, and so- in departing- takes everything with it: habits of reverence and restraint, awe, [and] the command of the Good within us.”[10]

According to Hart, of all the modern philosophers, Nietzsche understood this best, even if he was blind to his own inconsistencies (something that Chesterton points out in numerous places).  He saw at best (in his warped opinion) a future of limitless human will (or a horrible “concentration of mere power” as C.S. Lewis called it in his book The Abolition of Man), and at worst, colorless banality.  Either way, it is all meaningless, a chasing after the wind as Solomon wrote over two thousand years ago. Hart writes,

“When Nietzsche—the most prescient philosopher of nihilism—pondered the possibilities that had opened up for Western humanity in the age of unbelief, the grimmest future he could imagine was a world dominated by the ‘Last Men,’ a race of empty and self-adoring narcissists sunk in banality, complacency, conformity, cynicism, and self-admiration.”

The measure of Nietzsche’s prophetic vision is mixed:  certainly a lot of banality exists in our entertainment crazed and celebrity worshipping culture, but the past one-hundred years have seen that concentration of mere power that concerned Lewis, as well, with its concentration camps, abortion on demand, gulags, state sanction mass starvations, and the dehumanizing effects of modern, high-tech warfare where classic virtues such as bravery, honor, and sacrifice are made ridiculous.

Like Lewis before him, Hart notes that the “quintessential myth of modernity is that true freedom is the power of the will over nature.”[11]  Lewis noted that this is truly a myth for it is Nature that wins a disabling and permanent upper hand in the contest.  Lewis writes, “as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same.”[12]

Ironically, Hart ends Atheist Delusions on a note of resignation.  With what I would call a noble, Christian resignation, he likens Western culture to “something of a desert for believers.”[13]  The words “the Benedict Option” are heard quite a bit in Christian circles these days.  It is something that I do not yet feel qualified to critique, not knowing all that it entails (my husband and I are awaiting the release of what is supposed to be a definitive exposition of it:  Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation and here is another excellent book by Tony Esolen: Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture).

Admittedly, I lean towards the “cup half full” temperament, so the idea of retreat, even if only a semi- or partial, sounds wrong.  I might even go so far as to say that we have long been in a retreat of sorts in the most vital areas – spreading the Good News and taking care and protecting “the least of these.”  Perhaps some desert wanderings would do us some good.  But who will carry out these vital operations when we are gone?  Oh, how I wish Chesterton were alive today!  What would he recommend?

I understand the despairing undercurrents in Hart’s closing remarks.  As mentioned above, the pagan dismissal of Christianity was, in a way, more innocent than the modern rejection.  They simply did not have the conceptual framework to value the revolution that Christianity brought with it.

Today, we have the conceptual framework and have decided to turn it on itself.  We are too close to see its value – too steeped in it to see how it shapes our perception.  Like good moderns, we are too easily bored.  Perhaps, this happens to a culture that has sinned and grown old.  In rejecting transcendence, in general, and Christianity, in particular, we are sawing off the very limb upon which we sit.  The modern heart seems to have hardened itself, not unlike Pharaoh before Moses or the rich young ruler that turned his back on God in the flesh.

How can one have any hope if they have at once tasted God’s goodness and then they reject it?  How hard it is for the modern world to enter the kingdom of God?  It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the modern world to enter the kingdom of God.

This is impossible with man, indeed, but all things are possible with God.

sunset-red-and-gold-by-james-abbott-mcneill-whistler

Sunset by Whistler

[1] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, (Ann Arbor, MI: Sheridan Books, 2009), 199.

[2] Ibid., 200.

[3] Ibid., 201.

[4] Ecclesiastes 1:4-6, NIV.

[5] Hart, 201.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 213.

[9] Ibid., 230

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 107

[12] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1955), 83.

[13] Hart, 241.

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2 thoughts on “The Post-Christian West and the Eye of a Needle

    • Thanks for noticing that, Byron! Somehow, I missed my intro in my cut and paste.

      My research paper for Mere? I always feel bad about what I turn in. For some reason, hitting “submit” makes me realize a million ways I could have done better. It’s magic really. Dark magic, surely.

      Like

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