Holy Fooldom Versus the Modern Nation State: All of Human History in the Eyes of David Bentley Hart

In the cosmology of David Bentley Hart, the greatest heroes are holy fools while the most bitter enemy is the secular nation state. (Note that this category of hero is steady and true of all earthly history, while the enemy is unstable and forever reconfiguring.) I’ll seek to elucidate each of these claims about Hart quickly which will also leave us in a good place from which to survey all of this current earthly story from start to finish.

I’ve long thought of Hart as a man inspired by the tradition of the wise fool. His most recent video chat appearance further confirmed this fairly obvious hunch. As Hart rambled delightfully on with religion scholar and Eastern Christian theologian David Armstrong at Perennial Digression, Hart spoke of this tradition (in its Taoist form) at several points:

There is a distressing absence of magical divine monkeys in the Western novel. …What I love about [Journey to the West] in general is that it is equally irreverent to all three of the major Chinese traditions at once. Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are all treated with remarkably cavalier coarseness. I say that as someone who loves all three of those traditions at their purest. What I like is that Chinese …sense of whimsy in which piety and absolute impiety become indistinguishable from one another at times. …I think of Gorilla [a character in Hart’s The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla] as …an exemplar of crazy wisdom—that tradition in Taoism of the mad monk.

Hart has admired a similar spirit in the mothers and fathers of the desert (within the closing paragraphs of Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies). Of course Hart (as Eastern Orthodox himself and a lover of several Russian theologians) would also be familiar with the revered tradition of the holy fool within the Eastern churches (and the Slavs in particular where it has a long history in the church as well as politics, literature and cinema) as well as the many other parallels in human cultures—with the likes of Ezekiel baking bread over a fire made of human dung, Diogenes of Sinope, the court jester, the troubadour and the mendicant friars (not, of course, that I equate all of these by listing them as comparable). It is no accident that John Saxbee said in his review of Hart’s Roland in Moonlight that it is a book where “Don Quixote meets The Wind in the Willows” (Church Times on 25 June 2021). Certain versions of this ideal are, of course, famously and indiscriminately popular. I recall seeing the Man of La Mancha during the 1998 season of Canada’s Stratford Festival with a group of young college friends. We walked the streets of Stratford for days afterward—arm in arm—singing “The Impossible Dream” at the maximum output that we could produce from ill-trained diaphragms and vocal cords.

To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
And to run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
…To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march, march into hell
For that heavenly cause

The whimsy of which Hart speaks in the Taoist tradition of the mad monk shares something of this or so my friends and I liked to hope at least. We called our little band of college fellows the Dúnedain and even practiced communism together for one summer (opening a single bank account between the crew of us into which we all deposited the paychecks from our various summer jobs). There is, of course, also a dark and abusive side to this ideal as can be seen in the figures of Rasputin or Sun Myung Moon and exemplified in various ways in the two very different books titled Crazy for God by Christopher Edwards (in 1979) and Frank Schaeffer (in 2007). That there is serious didactic and theological fruit from this tradition is, however, incontrovertible as can be found in the book Fools for Christ by Jaroslav Pelikan.

To be clear, Hart has never acted remotely like a mad monk or holy fool himself or made any such heady claims or insinuations. While Hart has a humor almost as scathing as that of Martin Luther, Hart is, at the end of the day, a modest and straightforward wit. (If you don’t accept this claim to Hart’s modesty, read Roland and Moonlight and then contact me about having a beer or two together afterward.) While neither he nor I are saying that Hart is himself fool enough to claim or tread the road of a holy fool, it is clear that Hart admires a wide spectrum of audaciously mad monks from the pages of history and literature.

Ji Gong (1133-1209)

If Hart’s greatest hero, then, is the mad monk, what might we say is the great enemy within Hart’s thought and writing? I propose that Hart’s greatest enemy is the secular nation state that gave rise to modernity along with the nation state’s most powerful contemporary manifestation—the multinational corporation.

The basic structures of the nation state are so ubiquitous and revered in our world that none of us can fully get the concept into our mind’s eye. However, there is a wide consensus among historians that one of the most basic developments at the end of Christendom and the rise of modernity is the invention of the nation state. To try to describe the nation state would sound to any modern American like describing the way in which apples always fall downward. It is more helpful to start by listing the entities that were replaced by the modern nation state: a host of guilds (including the student or teacher guilds of universities), village commons, empires, kingdoms, townships, manors, church parishes, monasteries, and the papacy. All of these ancient and layered structures of Christendom (along with many more such layers that could be named) were radically and suddenly displaced by the single and undisputed secular power of the modern nation state, and this replacement was widely celebrated as liberation from centuries of tyranny. These older and layered structures of human societies, moreover, were not just a part of Christendom but were an aspect of all pre-modern human cultures. All humans who lived before 1618 and the start of the Thirty Years’ War, existed in a kind of suspension upon a web of meanings and powers that ran between the chief, the shaman, kinship ties, the matriarchy or sisterhood, the guild, etc. Of course, such a development in the human story did not take place overnight, and the remnants of the old ways are not entirely effaced from the planet. In his stories of Port William, Wendell Berry calls this network of belonging and mutual help “the membership.” However, Berry’s whole life has, of course, been dedicated to documenting how the membership has died.

What took place with this seismic shift within human history is the identification of state authority with strictly secular, scientific and technical solutions that can have nothing to do with private affections (such as faith in God or even with the bonds of deep relationship, comradeship, or kinship). With the one sovereign arbiter of impartial secular power, laws can no longer be written and maintained by multiple types of legitimate authorities who all sought to fit their laws to “the way things are” (i.e. to the realities of how creation—in its webbed splendor—must move together in a dance of lives who face mutual dependence on every side). Instead, the laws of today can only be made by one impersonal power, and all laws are now tools for shaping, improving and controlling humanity and our world.

This sad step on the human journey is also the invention of modern religion as nothing more than a reflection of and a prop to the one true parentage of the nation state. While Enlightenment science promoted a focused methodology that systematically examined physical causes, it was the nation state that propelled this vision of a machine world and enabled us to quickly reduce everything around us to nothing but moving and lifeless parts that should be manipulated toward whatever calculated outcome will best serve our goals. This vision renders God pointless and leaves religion with no place to stand. However, the nation state still provides neutral protection to the various religious communities that can cooperate with the state and offer appealing psychological help to their adherents. Religion went from being a universal human virtue (singing sacred songs and handing off local habits across generations) to being just one out of a set of contending ideologies that must compete for adherents on whatever ground the modern secular sate might allow. In this contemporary context, religions have long looked like nothing more than a petty collection of factions fighting over arcane points of history or doctrine. (Some books about this invention of the “modern religion” are Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brent Nongbri or The Meaning and End of Religion by Wilfred Cantwell Smith or Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities by Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyar.)

What is replaced with the rise of the secular nation state, then, is the whole range of particular places (not only geographical but also overlapping social spaces) where all of the arts lived as schools and traditions of skill and craft in service of various human ways of live. (These fine arts have all been relocated into museums and performance halls—often funded primarily by the nation state and corporations.) Lost also are: local kinship structures of people living close to the earth that sustains them, oral cultures and sacred scripts learned by heart through song and chant and understood first as aids to wisdom and vision rather than as tools to deploy in the defense of abstract doctrines or competing truth claims. (More on some of this from me here.)

Clearly, this is only a glance at the significance of the secular nation state in terms of what it replaced. What it has enabled is a massive accumulation of capital and technical resources. While many of these resources are obviously great goods that have helped to sustain human life, they are also the same engine that has enable an unprecedented and systematic destruction of human life in the name of various kinds of progress (both under totalitarian fascist states and communist states) as well as practices such as Down syndrome screening or abortion as a large-scale form of birth control. While clearly upholding communism as a Christian ideal (as practiced within most ancient monastic communities for example), Hart is deeply critical of its statist forms. Of Marx himself, Hart says that his early agrarian romanticism contains much to admire but that, in the end, Marx became the most terrible of arch-capitalists and wanted to turn the entire world into one totalizing factory.

In assessing the fruits of the modern nation state, Hart has pointed to the staggering death rates under Hitler, Stalin and Moa. China’s single child policy is another example of the systematic destruction and control of human life that so easily shows up under the totalizing tendencies of secular nation states. Hart makes it clear that the wanton destructiveness of the secular nation state and it’s inheritors (multi-national corporations) continues in ways that leave us all culpable as well as directly within the path of destruction. Hart’s picture both of all human history and of our own current moment could not be any more bleak (from the same July 9 interview with David Armstrong linked above):

The fact is that we are in a Kali Yuga aren’t we? Putting aside all mythological construals of that, human beings generally are aware, in a two fold sense, that there is an urgency to this moment. One is quite a personal one. We’re all going to die, and our deaths are not that far off. And that will be an encounter with the ultimate horizon of all things. But also, in any given age, you have reasons to regret and see that, as the world changes, it changes toward—as much as you might believe in progress—you also see that it is a constant story of loss. Now we have arrived at a moment in the post-industrial age in which we are literally killing the world and nothing less than that. …We are poisoning the very foundations of organic life. …We are in a Kali Yuga. We are killing the world, and I don’t think there is going to be a miraculous intervention to stop us from doing it. So it may be that we are right now experiencing the judgement for iniquity and entering into the final moments. I don’t think it’s going to take nearly as long as Indian tradition suggests.

Earlier in this interview, Hart makes it clear that he does not think that God will intervene to forestall this impending self-destruction. At the same time, Hart says that God certainly could intervene and that it would be foolish to rule out such a thing categorically. In the end, however, this sense of impending self-destruction makes sense to me as well, as I write about in this short story (in which I also give it a Christian utopian turn).

However, Hart does not advocate anything like resignation. He points out that the teachings of Jesus Christ are relentlessly practical and political in the face of suffering and oppression (such as how to avoid getting dragged to court by powerful creditors and stripped of all your means for survival). Hart says that there is no ideal form of political action in the modern world because all of it serves the ends of the secular nation state. However, he nonetheless insists that we must take a stand with the best options that we have in the short term, and he identifies these as democratic socialism. Hart goes on to say that, in the long term, any options that might appear outside of the nation state should be our ultimate objective, and he suggests that these would look something like the ideas of Christian distributism (including layers of stateless authority with the reinvention of guild-like structures and other layered and organic human collectives or solidarities).

Not only does Hart advocate political action in the face of individual and planetary death, but he recommends that we never give up championing, collecting and reassembling all that is good, true and beautiful from all of the ancient religions of the world. Hart defends the Christian faith explicitly but also insists that everything truly human should be cherished as it is all now cheapened and at risk now in the face of the Christian heresy of modernity and ideological progress that continues to sweep the globe. While saying repeatedly that there is no past golden age and that what has gone before is never recoverable in any case, Hart also says that we should cherish and reassemble (in new ways) everything that is beautiful and true from our all of our human past. In this regard, he sounds a lot like Origen as he says that “out of the spoils that the children of Israel took from the Egyptians came the contents of the Holy of Holies, the ark with its cover, and the Cherubim, and the mercy-seat, and the golden pot wherein was treasured up the manna, the angels’ bread [so that] these things were made from the best of the Egyptian gold” (The Philocalia 13.1-2).

What Hart advocates is a cherishing of everything good from all the world cultures that now face extinction before the ravages of the secular nation state and the mechanistic vision of the world that it fosters. While Origen had all the pagan riches of the Hellenistic world in view, Hart has all the riches of every ancient human culture on the planet in view. Within the dialogs of Roland in Moonlight, Hart confides his “unwillingness to relinquish any dimension of anything that I find appealing or admirable… or beautiful” (326), and he draws this out even more fully in his July 7 review of Peter Sloterdijk’s After God:

The configurations of the old Christian order are irrecoverable now, and in many ways that is for the best. But the possibilities of another, perhaps radically different Christian social vision remain to be explored and cultivated. Chastened by all that has been learned from the failures of the past, disencumbered of both nostalgia and resentment, eager to gather up all the most useful and beautiful and ennobling fragments of the ruined edifice of the old Christendom so as to integrate them into better patterns, Christians might yet be able to imagine an altogether different social and cultural synthesis. Christian thought can always return to the apocalyptic novum of the event of the Gospel in its first beginning and, drawing renewed vigor from that inexhaustible source, imagine new expressions of the love it is supposed to proclaim to the world, and new ways beyond the impasses of the present.

The ultimate result, if Christians can free themselves from the myth of a lost golden age, may be something wilder and stranger than we can at present conceive, at once more primitive and more sophisticated, more anarchic in some ways and more orderly in others. Whether such a thing is possible or not, however, it is necessary to grasp that where we now find ourselves is not a fixed destiny. It becomes one only if we are unwilling to distinguish the opulent but often decadent grandeur of Christendom from the true Christian glory of which it fell so far short. The predicaments of the present are every bit as formidable as Sloterdijk’s diagnosis suggests, and our need for a global sphere of solidarity that can truly shelter the life of the whole is every bit as urgent as he claims. But it is also true that we are not actually fated to live ‘after God,’ or to seek our shelter only in the aftermath of God’s departure. In fact, of all the futures we might imagine, that might prove to be the most impossible of all.

Clearly, there is a deep Christian motivation to Hart’s passionate defense of all that is admirable and now broken and increasingly lost in the modern world. He has often quipped in recent interviews that if he had to choose again to move into the most beautiful religious tradition that he could fine, he would be a Sikh (although one who retained his devotion to Jesus Christ). Hart is convinced that Christianity has betrayed itself (over centuries of unholy alliances with worldly power) and has finally unleashed an ideological devotion to progress upon the world that masks the destruction that it is fast bringing to the all human cultures and to the entire planet. All aspects of modernity are distortions of truths that modernity has borrowed from the Christian gospel and twisted into powerful lies. At such a juncture, Hart often points to the the apocalyptic thrust of Christ’s gospel and suggests that we should not hold too tightly to churchly institutions. We should instead look to Christ and the breaking in of a kingdom from outside our current story, a kingdom that destroys false powers although they might be strong enough to poison our entire planet or leave us to die upon a cross. This is a kingdom capable of remembering all that has ever been faithful and lovely as well as of giving it a home, even if this home is only the bright and suffering heart of a fool. After all, it is from just such hearts that the very best of earthly kingdoms are always made.

I should conclude, but I promised a recap of all earthly history. Hart follows Origen, Maximus and many patristic Christian writers in saying that time as we experience it now is a reduction from the eternal life of God within which true creation takes place. We have fallen from outside of time as we know it, and all of cosmic history as we can investigate it with our five senses is subjected to this fall. In this context, then, all of human history is bleak from start to finish within Hart’s writings. He describes Mary’s yes to God and Christ’s incarnate human life as the in-breaking of God’s life but also as the perfect seal of God’s continued participation with all life, even to the point of the cross and descent into death. Our fall did not uncreate us but only left us in a contingent state of resistance to God’s creative work, a state that does not ultimately separate us from God who remains the only ground of all that is alive and beautiful within our fallen and suffering cosmos. All of fallen history, then, is both a place of confusion and loss while also still a powerful witness to a goodness from which it has fallen and to which it will return after time (as we know it now) has come to an end. And for Hart, evidently, a few mad monks can see up to and even outside of this end better than most of us.

6 Comments

    1. Glad to hear that you appreciated it. I don’t know much about customizing themes in the blog tool that I use, but I’ve updated the theme to one with a darker font.

  1. There are clearly v. strong connections between the thought of Hart and Ivan Illich. See for example ‘The Corruption of Christianity (CBC radio) and ‘The Rivers North of the Future.’

  2. I’ve been a fan of DBH for a couple years because of his defense of universalism, but recently I’ve been feeling sideways about him. For instance: a lot of the rhetoric he uses against Atheists and Modernity rhymes so well with modern fascist-talk. I’m not accusing him of being a fascist: in the Solterdijk review, he makes clear how much he despises modern integralists. I think in his YouTube talk on freedom and nihilism, Dr. Brennan makes a very good point that Hart’s critiques are based heavily off Nietzsche and Heidegger, who along with Schmitt form the Trinity of modern fascist thought.

    Okay, so now that I’ve thrown around ‘fascist this’ and ‘fascist that’ – I think that DBH and we as fans could better the dialogue by intentionally engaging feminist and queer thought. We should avoid returning to ‘biology is destiny’ when moaning about mechanistic metaphysics, and we have to recall that the dispersal of authority in the past didn’t mean authority figures were less oppressive; in America today, the Pater Familias is gone, and thank God for that. Modernity is a mixed bag, and though I think the results trend towards the negative, it’s also taught us wonderful tools of critique that we shouldn’t throw away – maybe DBH mentions this in his upcoming book on tradition?

    I do enjoy this blog a lot, and I would like to hear your thoughts on this!

    1. Thanks for reading and for your response. DBH is fundamentally opposed to any ideological or progressive solution to our shared plight. He will only offer an eschatological solution in the final analysis, and this is not satisfactory to our modern minds. However, his apocalyptic vision is one that demands and gives thanks for any small and incremental victories of the good and of life. Certainly, modernity is a mixed bag, but DBH proposes that the humanity must ultimately return to a premodern awareness of the world in order to survive and thrive for another cycle within this current age.

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