In this third and last interview of David Bentley Hart by Tony Golsby-Smith, Tony starts out asking David to contrast Augustine’s reading of Paul with the reading that we get in Gregory of Nyssa (the focus of their first and their second interviews). Tony uses language at first that casts all of Augustine in an exclusively negative light, but David quickly points out that Augustine is revered as a saint both east and west, and gives several reasons for this. David points out multiple ways that Augustine’s theology is most beautiful at its outset (including elements that David praises as filled with timeless beauty and insight). However, David says that he follows the Irish theologian John Scottus Eriugena in using the early Augustine to critique the late Augustine. David argues that Augustine’s later theology grows calcified and cruel as Augustine labors under some basic misunderstandings of the original Greek in Paul and also faces tremendous stresses in the challenges of life and church leadership within the Western part of the Roman Empire.
David and Tony’s conversation ends up moving into an analysis of the modern world. David makes a case here for how the fall of Christianity came about as a response to the problems of late Augustinian theology, especially as it became even more extreme in various late medieval Catholic theologians as well as in the works of Luther and Calvin. Although the reformers come out looking entirely rejected and condemned in this excerpt, David (here and elsewhere) does have praise for both Luther and Calvin (although primarily only as a stylists, in the case of the latter).
I’ve transcribed the passages below for three key insights that I’m interested to consider further. First is that the modern autonomous self and its sovereignty of will is a concept that can be traced back to the theology of the late Augustine with regard to God. Second is that the modern nation state is the inheritor of a relatively late medieval concept of divine sovereignty that briefly went under the name of the “divine right of kings” but quickly was handed over to the secular nation state (at the Peace of Westphalia), giving rise to modernity and secularism as we know it today. Third is that secular modernity came about in large part because the God of late Augustine became a false God that was rejected (while at the same time becoming the basis of our own self-understanding.
From the high middle ages onward and in the next century, the 14th century more and more, the Augustinian tradition—in a now modernized and even more severe form—began to become one of the dominant strains of thought. Luther comes out of an Augustinian monastic tradition. He’s familiar with nominalist doctrines of absolute sovereignty—ideas that actually go beyond Augustine’s much more careful much and more brilliant metaphysical understanding of God—and begin more and more to take the element of what looks like sheer arbitrariness in the God of the late Augustine and elevate that to a virtue to make it represent divine sovereignty which now becomes the highest good.
There’s a curious convergence between this way of thinking about God and the emerging political models of early modernity. The absolute monarch (which is not a medieval idea, it’s an early modern idea), the absolute prerogatives of the nation state—more and more there’s some sort of strange occult interchange going on between the picture of God as this absolute sovereign (hidden behind quite often the nominalist veil of absolute mystery who’s only dealing with his creatures is the pure power of his will to be the sovereign disposer of all things) and the image of the monarch as the absolute sovereign. Then you could argue that the story of modernity has been more and more the migration of this understanding of what it is to be free—to be truly free, to be absolutely sovereign, to be just pure will willing what it wills for the sake of what it wills—migrates from the image of God to the image of each individual, and that becomes our picture of the libertarian modern individual subject invested with absolute prerogatives whose freedom consists in pure spontaneity of will—sovereignty over self.
How this happened—you can see the genealogy of this picture of divine sovereignty and its effect both in political thought and on our thinking about what it is to be a free rational creature from the late medieval period onward, but it’s by a subterranean stream that this is a possibility in late medieval thought because it has always been latent in the tradition going back to the late Augustine. Because from the moment the late Augustine decides that the answer to the Pelagians is this story of absolute praedestinatio anti-provisum merit—which is one of his clear misreadings of Paul (that God predestines either to damnation or salvation entirely without any pre-vision of the merits of the creature because those merits are in fact the effects of predestination not not their premise, not their cause)—from that moment onwards, this poison, I hate to say it, is present in the blood system of the West and of Christendom.
…Theologically, [Calvin] took it to a new extreme because he was willing in book three of the Institutes to say something that neither Augustine nor Aquinas would say, which was that God predestined the fall. So that the whole drama of fall, mortality, damnation, salvation exists purely as the display of divine power, display of divine sovereignty. Calvin’s quite clear here (and sadly there’s great precedent for this in the tradition), the rarity of grace, the fact that it’s given to only very few (understand, the vast majority of humanity was created with no other purpose than to suffer eternally)—the rarity of grace is what demonstrates its preciousness, its goodness. Actually the truth is, if that were true, it would demonstrate a certain revolting ego in that grace.
…You know, obviously, I believe that the whole notion of eternal torment is an accident of ecclesial history, and I can give you any number of arguments for why it became the predominant view. For most of Christian history, most Christians were largely unacquainted with the details of something like the theology of grace that you have in the late Augustine. It’s only in early modernity. …One of the reasons why, obviously, Calvin is an influential figure is because the printing press existed, and I think more and more the theology of the 16th century became more and more militantly late Augustinian. I want to point out again in Catholicism too, not just in Reformation in Evangelische circles but in a lot of Roman Catholicism as well. It also was the first time that many Christians actually came to be acquainted with the full contents of this theological and dogmatic tradition. Actually, [for] most medieval Christians you know, rather vaguely, there’s heaven, there’s hell, there’s the Mother of God who will plead first before her son the Judge. …Once a year you may communicate if you’re especially pious, if you’re one of the peasants. There’s not a strong consciousness of the theology—as a system of thought about God and God’s relation to creation. But in the early modern period, the late medieval into the early modern period, now, it becomes a matter of general consciousness, and that’s the beginning of the end when the Augustinian tradition is dominant. All of these movements—the Reformed church, Lutheranism—at first they’re marked by great vitality, but all these modern expressions of Christianity more and more begin to sink into a kind of morbidity because as people become aware of the full spectrum of this kind of late Augustinian theology [they are going to] see how repellent it is.
Now at first this will take the form of attempts to rescue other kinds of Christianity from historical forgetfulness, like John Wesley was a great reader of the Greek fathers, and he rejected out of hand this picture so the Methodist tradition stands outside. There were huge movements of universalism in 19th century Britain (not just in Britain …but throughout the Christian world, Russia too)—but if you just look at Britain in the 19th century, the the sheer number of prominent figures who were believers like say the Brontes, Lewis Carroll, George McDonald, you know, …Tennyson—you go down the list of people who are devout but with enough sensitivity and intellectual tact to be genuinely horrified by the picture they’ve been presented. But then of course what also happens is that more and more, at a very tacit, very quiet level, more and more people are driven away from this picture.
The late modern picture of God that became dominant, the voluntarist God of absolute sovereignty who was rooted in the late Augustine’s theology, is two things at once. He becomes the model of freedom as such, pure sovereignty, so he becomes a rival to each of us, an intolerable rival. He’s also a tyrant, and for both those reasons he has to be killed. In modernity, we discover our liberty by killing the ancient omnipotent rival to our liberty—the only one who can be sovereign in a way that leaves us subordinate to him. But also he’s a tyrant, you know, you cannot believe, you cannot love this God, and you should not, and he must die. So by the time we get to the late 19th century, and Nietzsche’s proclaiming the death of God and giving it a genealogy that’s rather brilliant, but one thing he leaves out is the degree in which the age [of] the death of God, the birth of modern atheism, the fragmentation of the Christian view of reality is something incubated within late medieval and early modern christianity itself.
Secular Translations: Nation-State, Modern Self, and Calculative Reason.
Formations of the Secular.
Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America.
Betz, John R. After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann.
Blumenberg, Hans. The Legitimacy of the Modern Age and The Genesis of the Copernican World.
Brague, Rémi. The Kingdom of Man: The Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project.
Migrations of the Holy.
The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict.
Connolly, William E. Why I Am Not a Secularist.
Del Noce, Augusto. The Crisis of Modernity. (Translated by Carlo Lancellotti.)
Dupre, Louis. The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture. (A trilogy.)
Funkenstein, Amos. Theology and the Scientific Imagination.
Gaukroger, Stephen. 4 volumes on the emergence of scientific culture.
Gillespie, Michael Allen. Theological Origins of Modernity.
Gonzales, Philip John Paul (editor). Exorcising Philosophical Modernity: Cyril O’Regan and Christian Discourse after Modernity.
Gregory, Brad. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.
Harries, Karsten. Infinity and Perspective. (Derrick Peterson’s all time favorite academic book on the scientific revolution.)
Harrison, Peter. The Territories of Science and Religion.
Hoff, Johannes. The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa (A top recommendation by Jonathan McCormack. See comments at this blog post.)
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. (Goes after logical positivism.)
Josephson-Storm, Jason Ānanda.
Metamodernism: The Future of Theory.
The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences.
Koyre, Alexander. From a Closed World to the Infinite Universe.
MacIntyre, Alasdaire. His quadrilogy.
Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions.
Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason.
Beyond Secular Order. (Shorter treatment.)
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Knowledge and the Sacred.
Nongbri, Brent. Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept.
Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Theology and the Philosophy of Science and Anthropology in Theological Perspective.
Peterson, Derrick. Flat Earths and Fake Footnotes.
Pfau, Thomas. Minding the Modern. (From the angle of anthropology.)
Smith, James K. A. After Modernity?: Secularity, Globalization, and the Reenchantment of the World.
Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. The Meaning and End of Religion.
A Secular Age. (Recapped in How (Not) to Be Secular by James K. A. Smith.)
Sources of the Self.
Barbour, Ian. Religion in an Age of Science. Two volumes.
Lincoln, Bruce. Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After 9/11.
Tyson, Paul. Defragmenting Modernity. (Superb, easy distillation of Milbank’s and the RO’s critique of modernity recommended by Jonathan McCormack.)
Beck, Richard. Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age.
Freeman, Stephen. Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.
Hart, David Bentley. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.
Lewis, C. S. Abolition of Man.
Trueman, Carl. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.
Pro Modernity and Secularism Perspectives:
The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective.
Feast of Fools.
Inspirational quotation from none of the above books:
I take …complacency with regard to the post-religious rationalism of our age to be curiously oblivious to the extraordinary violence that has always been part of the history and the logic of secular modernity: the oceans of blood spilled by the wars of the emergent nation states, the nationalist and imperialist and colonialist adventures of early and late modernity, the racialist ideologies and totalitarian regimes incubated in the deep shadows cast by Enlightenment rationalism, the rise of early modern and industrial and late consumerist capitalism with all the evils—the rebirth of chattel slavery, the commodification of labor, the exploitation of impoverished labor markets, and so on—with which the whole history may justly be charged, the wars of terror we are willing to prosecute in the name of something called liberal democracy in order to protect the sacred space of that consumerist culture from any threat foreign or domestic, and so on.
From Theological Territories by 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.
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.
Roland has earned a place in my heart that I expect will be with me still as I face my own death and even beyond. While I am unabashedly rhapsodic about Roland in Moonlight, I easily acknowledge that some will find plenty to hate in this book. For example, there were hundreds of new words for me (as well as a few rich political diatribes). Regarding the big words, within the book’s last pages, when Roland uses the term “xeric regions,” David remarks that this is “exactly the word.” Roland quips, “At least, exactly the word that you or I would choose to use. In my case, out of precision; in yours, out of pretentiousness.” (352) This teasing and adoration of words goes in both directions. Earlier in the story, David mentions to Roland that “your appetite for classical neologisms is worse than mine” (204).
This is an expansive book, but Roland easily holds together its many narratives and its sweeping discourses. David Bentley Hart experiences the death of both his parents over the course of this story as they lived with him and his family in their final years. Even after sharing a few reflections following the death of his mother, however, David returns quickly to his dog and reminds us that “this is Roland’s book” (314). Remarkably, the story introduces us to Roland’s larger-than-life persona while still enjoying him as most definitely a dog. To name only a very few of his many accomplishments, Roland hires a troupe of Shakespearean players to perform a masque for David late at night in a forest glade behind the house (69), cares for David during a prolonged illness by writing up and submitting David’s application for a fellowship with the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies (122), and publishes multiple volumes of his own haiku (287). Despite all this (and much more), Roland’s warm sides, his ever-present tongue, and his keen nose are tangible realities on virtually every page and throughout many sleepless nights.
Although Roland defies a properly fictional status, it is technically correct to describe this book as a compelling memoir in which all the normal trials and joys of life are shared with two fictional characters—one very much alive and the other among the honored dead. David’s great uncle Aloysius Bentley (1895-1987), has a storied life, and even this life is brought to David by his faithful dog. Roland spends much of his time meticulously organizing, editing and publishing this great uncle’s private papers. Reflecting near the end of the book on what Roland has brought to light regarding Aloyius, David concludes: “Every person’s inner life is a mystery to everyone else, even those who know him or her most intimately—which would be the greatest of tragedies if it were a limitation of our natures that should prove final and immutable, rather than one that we have some cause to hope will one day—on the other side of the veil or through the looking-glass—fall away” (347).
Although Roland’s late-night conversations with David span many topics (from artificial intelligence to Freudian psychology and quantum physics), these two return most regularly to the religious, the metaphysical and the contemplative. A strong theme emerges that is very close to the point made by C. S. Lewis in his essay “Is Theism Important? A Reply” from the Socratic Digest (1952):
When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, “Would that she were.” For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is, essentially, the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian men of our own day differ from his as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman; and those writers would of course agree with me.
David and Roland take a very similar thesis and develop it together brilliantly over the course of their exquisite conversations. Some Christians (along with devout believers of various other ancient faiths) may be offended by the doctrinal speculations indulged by Roland and David. As an American Evangelical myself—a happy convert to Orthodoxy it is true but coming increasingly to recognize that I will always be, to some real and good extent, an Evangelical—I can easily relate to these concerns. However, for any who might share them, I counsel patience here.
For one thing, dogs clearly do not have the same religious needs as humans. In this book, we learn many details from the entire mythic and religious history of dogs, including their own original sin (involving open car windows and bacon) as well as the origin of their generous condescension to abide with and to help humankind in our abject moral and physical poverty. Roland says to David, “As for your sin—your original sin—I can’t speak to it. It was already something established in your natures before your kind and mine ﬁrst truly met” (190). In part, the religious speculations between David and Roland should be read in the clarifying light of this difference between dog and man. Even more fundamentally, however, this book’s theological theme is in response to this claim by Roland:
And so, in an age of unbelief, everyone is an unbeliever to some degree. Belief now requires a decision, and a tacit application of will that never for a moment relents. That’s why the fiercest forms of faith in the modern world are actually just inverted forms of faithlessness—forms of desperation masquerading as faith. Arch-traditionalism, I mean, and of course fundamentalism, which are in fact manifestations of a morbidly impoverished power of belief, a faith wasted away by inanition and hardened by desiccation, and of a frantic attempt to hold onto relics or remains that one mistakes for living possibilities. …Well, the regress is infinite. It’s simply the case now that almost everyone of your race today—in the modern world, I mean—even the most devout and convinced of them, is more profoundly an infidel. Real, guileless faith in the divinity that shows itself in the evident forms of creation has become catastrophically attenuated, like the fading scent of a chipmunk on the porch after two days of rain. And that’s a tragic condition to be in, because the divine dimension is real, and is moreover the deepest truth of your own natures. To be estranged from it is to be shattered within yourselves… to become something less than machines… fragments of machines… a heap of springs and sprockets. (328).
If Roland’s assessment of our current situation is bleak, his expectations for our future are even far worse:
There was a time, again, when your kind was much better able to see the gods—the angels, deiﬁed mortals, spirits, fairies, what have you—than now you are. Not because there was a stabler and more open causeway between the two hemispheres of your brains or anything like that, but because there was a wider, more richly populated open causeway between your souls and the cosmos. And those gods—or what have you—were also mirrors of what you are, as spiritual beings, there above. I don’t mean they were Feuerbachian projections, ﬁgments of alienation or anything of that sort, but rather that they came more easily into full sensuous manifestation so long as human beings were in a state of what Barﬁeld called ‘original participation.’ Unlike him, however, I don’t believe that your kind’s estrangement from that original, more vividly theophanic world is simply a temporary stage—a kind of probationary process—on the way to a post-critical ‘ﬁnal participation.’ It would be nice to imagine that that’s the case, but I fear that the reality will be one of continuing, deepening estrangement, an ever more precipitate descent toward total spiritual eclipse, and toward a ﬁnal, enduring darkness in which the true light of spirit has been all but extinguished. Then you’ll be worse than mere savages. You’ll be a race of nihilists. You may even… you may even forsake your moral tutelage by dogs.
To this dire prophecy, David only responds, in a faint voice: “Don’t suggest that. It’s a horrible thought. Hell on earth.” (327)
It is because of such horrors, that David gradually comes to agree with Roland about the primary need to treasure every great truth and beauty from the many ancient contemplative traditions of humankind. Throughout the book, Roland insists that David is secretly a Hindu, and Roland will never allow David to finish any of his sentences in protest against this claim. Eventually, as the two are considering several stories of glorious revelations from various other faiths, Roland declares: “You believe everything. You despise doctrinaire religious certitudes, not—as is common for your kind in this age—out of skepticism or incredulity, but out of a superabundance of belief” (322). David concedes substantially, but not entirely, to Roland:
It’s true, as you say, that I can believe everything at once, though I suspect that it’s a choice I make principally on account of my unwillingness to relinquish any dimension of anything that I find appealing or admirable… or beautiful. Not for my kind, at least. We have to draw some kind of working distinction between the perpetually valid symbol and the historically novel event. (326)
David is holding on, just barely, to the uniques of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As a child of American Evangelicalism, I cannot resist the temptation to provide a prooftext at this point. Compare David’s “unwillingness to relinquish any dimension of anything that I find appealing or admirable… or beautiful” to Philippians 4:8. In Hart’s own translation of this verse, we read: “As to the rest, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever grand, whatever right, whatever pure, whatever lovely, whatever of good repute—if there be any virtue and be any praise—ponder these things.”
For the Christian reader, there is a surprising return, in the last pages, to the fundamentals of the Christian faith. I cannot recall any other place where David Bentley Hart has written about Mary who is uniquely the Mother of God. In the final pages of this book, however, we ponder the mystery of Mary saying yes to God as she takes a last breath before the angel’s “glory and immensity of presence” knowing that “all depends upon this fleeting / Instant, wherein all of eternity / Lies hidden, hanging in suspense upon / One spoken word.” As she gazes upward in this moment: “The weight of silence grows. / Between her and his dreadful glory looms / Time’s fullness: all its empires and its wars, / Its deaths, its countless hopes and countless dooms.” (339) To reflect more upon the full context of these poetic lines would give too much away, and I do not want to steal anything from the unfolding of this book to each blessed reader.
However, I will also note that, alongside this deeply Christian meditation, we have another poem reflecting on the waking of the child Maitreya (348), a promised bodhisattva who currently waits in the Tuṣita Heaven. This heaven is also where Roland once resided, as we learn very early in the story (29).
My reflections here have become sadly dominated by theological and religious questions, but I want to return, in closing, to what is at the heart of this story. It is a generosity of spirit on the part of Roland Hart, who is clearly a profound help and guide to David. In his typical mix of profound yet deeply intimate, Roland shares this summary of his philosophy with David as they gaze out at a sunset together early on in the story:
It certainly seems reasonable to say that being is manifestation, that real substance is revelation, that to exist is to be perceptible, conceivable, knowable—and that, moreover, to exist fully is to be manifest to consciousness. …Every act of conscious, unified, intentional mind is necessarily dependent upon infinite mind—which is to say, God. …Experience of the ‘natural’ proves to be ‘super-natural’ knowledge. …We see one and the same world, you and I, because our spirits are looking not at sensations but at reality, and the physical transaction between the world and our optic apparatus is just the occasion for an act of discovery and unveiling that is, in reality, an event of direct spiritual communion. (157)
There is so much more that I want to say about this book, but it should wait. I will close by noting that this story moves through four parts, named for four homes that come to mark stages in the family’s journey from an edenic forest, through a hellish city and finally back to a modest garden haven. Each chapter is numbered simply with roman numerals so that the larger structure is not obstructed. In the end, Roland prepares David for a final farewell that David anticipates with tearstained face as they sit together upon the grass of Mama’s garden (to use Roland’s name for David’s wife). This closing account of a great sea voyage, shared by two persons who love each other, is worth the price of this volume. Buy yourself a paper copy now. You’ll not regret it.
The word socialism can evoke shivers of anxiety among Eastern Europeans as well because they’ll associate it with the rhetoric of the state communism that they labored under for so many decades. But on the whole, most nations, Western European nations, Canada …recognize that this is a word with a certain flexibility of connotations.
Christian socialism, I would point out, antedates Marxism. I’m not a great fan of Marx. The early Marx was something of a romantic—soaked in nostalgia for a sort of pristine world in which labor was not separate, was not alienated from the products of its hands. That Marx I like because he was still basically a pre-Raphaelite without realizing it. But the Marx who …wrote the last words of volume three of Das Kapital really is a man who wanted to turn the whole world into a factory. I mean, basically, he was no different from a corporatist capitalist. He just wanted one big corporation. If you look at what it actually says, he elevated labor over play, productivity, over leisure. …He becomes the ultimate capitalist by the end of Das Kapital. So yes, I thoroughly despise a fully developed Marxism, and I think it actually is to be blamed for the tyrannies of the Soviet period, that it was not a completely accidental alliance, that there is some real Marxist logic that went into creating the Soviet Union.
So what is socialism? Socialism is a much older, much broader, much wider tradition in Egnlish Christian thought and American Christian thought too. There was a form of socialism that, for one thing, doesn’t even have a political shape that we can recognize anymore. It was neither left nor right in our terms today. …The great father of Engilsh Christian socialism—not the first of them but the one who wrote the most compelling defences of the morality of Christian socialism—was John Ruskin, and he was an arch-Tory. He thought he was fighting against liberalism, what we would call classical liberalism. America, however, has two political parties that are classical liberal parties. John Stuart Mill could have invented either one of them depending on whether that day he was thinking in economic terms or social terms. The Republicans are Millian liberalism with an emphasis on his economics and presuming his liberatarian social theory. The Democrats are Millian liberalism emphasizing his social theory but excepting his free market economics. Their largely, in the grand scheme of things, indistinguishable from one another. The Christian socialist tradition, however, was a serious attempt to understand [the gospel]—not out of some nostalgia for a vanished golden age of Christian justice. (John Ruskin may have loved things medieval, but he understood the injustices of medieval society as well.) It was an attempt to take the gospel seriously, not only as some private morality to be crowded out of the public sphere into the realm of private fixation, but actually as a way of living together as an actual social picture of a real possible social ethos, a politics, a communal truth, a politics of love—one that …would be productive, that loved and even venerated labor and craft and trade but within a human framework not dominated by joint stock companies (as they had been called then and we would now call corporate structures) that reduce human beings to the commodity of labor and are devoted only to making a profit for their shareholders no matter what the cost either to workers or to the natural order or to society. To me there is no other politics that a Christian can adopt in the modern world without in some sense relinquishing one’s commitment to the gospel to some degree, and I really wish that Americans were not so neurostemically afraid of this word.
…There is this journal that you may know of: First Things. …The editorial staff has embraced the new nationalism or some form thereof. …They are so staggeringly unsophisticated in their analysis of the failures of liberal secularism that they don’t understand that nationalism is always and can only be the last terminal stage of the very modernity that they think that they are struggling against. …It’s tertiary syphilis. …It’s all based on, among other things, a handful of bad metaphors about boundarylessness. …One of my neighbors signed it, Patrick Deneen, and he should know better, but he doesn’t. …This is my complaint about First Things. I spent twenty years trying to convince them that economic and social liberalism are two manifestations of the same essentially voluntarist understanding of the good. …I threw around all of the inflammatory rhetoric about nihilism and how this differs from virtue ethics and elevating greed. I wrote against marriage of Christ and mammon and all that, and I was just always the sort of curmudgeonly eccentric. So along comes someone like Patrick Deneen and at the very moment that they are waking up to the fact that at least some of this critique might have had virtue but instead of going in the direction that I thought was the obvious alternative, which is the embrace of a kind of radical Christian ethos that recognizes the nation state and the corporation …as matasticies of certain vices that Christianity is meant to heal us of, they went to embrace nationalism on the grounds that boundarylessness is the problem. Of course it isn’t. …We have plenty of boundaries. …That’s basically what modernity is. It’s ever more narrowly opposed boundary until there is nothing left but the isolated consumer and the nation state and the dialectic between them. Modernity and the corporation, they love national boundaries and national sovereignty. They love labor markets split between the legal and the illegal, the foreign and the domestic, the wealthy and the poor. They thrive on national identity and division, and what Christianity preaches is a real universalism …in which the statement that there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, …man and woman, husband and wife …really is a political statement. …It’s about the breaking down of the boundary between Jew and Gentile, between law and nations. Instead of that understanding of just how radical Christianity is, how much it detaches us from loyalty to the nation state, to the folk, to the imperatives of the people, they’ve gone quite the opposite direction and basically allowed themselves to become patsies of the worst aspect of late modernity which is nationalism, the reductio ad absurdum of the modern project, or actually, let’s be honest, the reductio ad malum of the modern project. There is no nationalism that can be anything other than that.
Modernity is what comes …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. …Modernity is not simply a “postreligious” condition; it is the state of a society that has been specifically a Christian society. …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.
From David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009). Recalls Fr. Stephen Freeman and others who say thatCharles, helpful. Thank you. This question brings to mind a claim that modernity is best understood specifically as a heretical distortion of Christianity. Also brings to mind this point by Charles Taylor that “the process of disenchantment is irreversible” (and Lewis describing post-Christian culture at the bottom of this post).
David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009) lakes up a theme that he’s gone much farther with in recent articles:
Those of us who now, in the latter days of modernity, are truest to the wisdom and ethos of our age place ourselves not at the disposal of God, or the gods, or the Good, but before an abyss, over which presides the empty power of our isolated wills, whose decisions are their own moral index. This is what it means to have become perfect consumers: the original nothingness of the will gives itself shape by the use it makes of the nothingness of the world—and thus we are free.
Earlier in this same chapter of Atheist Delusions, Hart put it this way:
To be entirely modern (which very few of us are) is to believe in nothing. This is not to say it is to have no beliefs: the truly modern person may believe in almost anything, or even perhaps in everything, so long as all these beliefs rest securely upon a more fundamental and radical faith in the nothing—or, better, in nothingness as such. Modernity’s highest ideal—its special understanding of personal autonomy—requires us to place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose.
David Bentley Hart picks up this theme again years later in The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (2013):
Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values. It cannot allow ultimate goods to distract us from proximate goods. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice. God and the soul too often hinder the purely acquisitive longings upon which the market depends, and confront us with values that stand in stark rivalry to the only truly substantial value at the center of the social universe: the price tag.
In Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane has much to offer regarding the connectedness of place and language. Patrick Kavanagh’s insight that the local parish is our only access point to Aristotelian universals is profound (see last excerpt in this post). To share a frustration, Macfarlane’s claims often exaggerate the powers of language alone to tie our hearts to the land and to enable us to hear the voices of the earth and water forms with which we live. It seems to me that this kind of attention and love cannot be separated from the norm of lifetimes spent in faithfulness to a particular place across generations. His collection of writers devoted to places and their peoples, however, is a powerful beacon amid the storms of modernity.
The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units (‘ field’, ‘hill’, ‘valley’, ‘wood’). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé about place, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in his 1903 essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’–meaning indifferent to the distinction between things. It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. The ethno-linguist K. David Harrison bleakly declares that language death means the loss of ‘long-cultivated knowledge that has guided human–environment interaction for millennia …accumulated wisdom and observations of generations of people about the natural world, plants, animals, weather, soil. The loss [is] incalculable, the knowledge mostly unrecoverable.’
…[Basso, author of Wisdom Sits in Places (1996)] became especially interested in the interconnections of story, place-name, historical sense and the ethical relationships of person to person and person to place. Early in the book, Basso despatches what he calls the ‘widely accepted’ fallacy in anthropology that place-names operate only as referents. …The Apache understand how powerfully language constructs the human relation to place, and as such they possess, Basso writes, ‘a modest capacity for wonder and delight at the large tasks that small words can be made to perform’. In their imagination geography and history are consubstantial. Placeless events are inconceivable, in that everything that happens must happen somewhere.
…For Weber, disenchantment was a function of the rise of rationalism, which demanded the extirpation of dissenting knowledge-kinds in favour of a single master-principle. It found its expressions not just in human behaviour and policy–including the general impulse to control nature–but also in emotional response. Weber noted the widespread reduction of ‘wonder’ (for him the hallmark of enchantment, and in which state we are comfortable with not-knowing) and the corresponding expansion of ‘will’ (for him the hallmark of disenchantment, and in which state we are avid for authority). In modernity, mastery usurped mystery. Our language for nature is now such that the things around us do not talk back to us in ways that they might. As we have enhanced our power to determine nature, so we have rendered it less able to converse with us. We find it hard to imagine nature outside a use-value framework. We have become experts in analysing what nature can do for us, but lack a language to evoke what it can do to us. The former is important; the latter is vital. Martin Heidegger identified a version of this trend in 1954, observing that the rise of technology and the technological imagination had converted what he called ‘the whole universe of beings’ into an undifferentiated ‘standing reserve’ (Bestand) of energy, available for any use to which humans choose to put it. The rise of ‘standing reserve’ as a concept has bequeathed to us an inadequate and unsatisfying relationship with the natural world, and with ourselves too, because we have to encounter ourselves and our thoughts as mysteries before we encounter them as service providers. We require things to have their own lives if they are to enrich ours.
…Patrick Kavanagh (1904–67), the great poet of the Irish mundane, was sure of the parish’s importance. For Kavanagh, the parish was not a perimeter but an aperture: a space through which the world could be seen. ‘Parochialism is universal,’ he wrote. ‘It deals with the fundamentals.’ Kavanagh, like Aristotle, was careful not to smudge the ‘universal’ into the ‘general’. The ‘general’, for Aristotle, was the broad, the vague and the undiscerned. The ‘universal’, by contrast, consisted of fine-tuned principles, induced from an intense concentration on the particular. Kavanagh often returned to this connection between the universal and the parochial, and to the idea that we learn by scrutiny of the close-at-hand. ‘All great civilisations are based on parochialism,’ he wrote:
To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields–these are as much as a man can fully experience.
From With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man by Saint Paisiosthe Athonite:
Geronda, why does St. Cyril of Jerusalem say that the Martyrs of the last days will surpass all Martyrs?
Because in the old times we had men of great stature; our present age is lacking in examples—and I am speaking generally about the Church and Monasticism. Today, there are more words and books and fewer living examples. We admire the holy Athletes of our Church, but without understanding how much they struggled, because we have not struggled ourselves. Had we done so, we would appreciate their pain, we would love them even more and strive with philotimo to imitate them. The Good God will of course take into account the age and conditions in which we live, and He will ask of each one of us accordingly. If we only strive even a little bit, we will merit the crown more than our ancestors.
In the old days, when there was a fighting spirit and everyone was trying to measure up to the best, evil and negligence would not be tolerated. Good was in great supply back then, and with this competitive spirit, it was difficult for careless people to make it to the finish line. The others would run them over. I remember once, in Thessaloniki, we were waiting for the traffic light to cross the street, when I suddenly felt pushed by the crowd behind me, as if by a wave. I only had to lift my foot and the rest was done for me. All I am trying to say is that when everybody is going toward the same direction, those who don’t wish to follow will have difficulty resisting because the others will push them along.
Today, if someone wishes to live honestly and spiritually, he will have a hard time fitting in this world. And if he is not careful, he’ll be swept by the secular stream downhill. In the old days, there was plenty of good around, plenty of virtue, many good examples, and evil was drowned by the good; so, the little disorder that existed in the world or in the monasteries was neither visible nor harmful. What’s going on now? Bad examples abound, and the little good that exists is scorned. Thus, the opposite occurs; the little good that exists is drowned by an excess of evil, and evil reigns.
It helps so much when a person or a group of people has a fighting spirit. When even one person grows spiritually, he does not only benefit himself, but helps those who see him. Likewise, one who is laid back and lazy has the same effect on the others. When one give in, others follow until in the end there’s nothing left. This is why it’s so important to have a fighting spirit in these lax times. We must pay great attention to this matter, because people today have reached the point where they make lax laws and impose them on those who want to live strict and disciplined lives. For this reason, it is important for those who are struggling spiritually, not only to resist being influenced by the secular spirit, but also to resist comparing themselves to the world and concluding that they are saints. For when this happens, they end up being worse than those who live in the world. If we take one virtue at a time, find the Saint who exemplified it and study his or her life, we will soon realize that we have achieved nothing and will carry on with humility.
Just as in racing, the runner speeding for the end line does not look back toward those lagging behind, but fixes his eyes forward, so too in this struggle we don’t want to be looking back and thus left behind. When I try to imitate those who are ahead of me, my conscience is refined. When, however, I look back, I justify myself and think that my faults are not important compared to theirs. The thought that others are inferior consoles me. Thus, I end up drowning my conscience or, to put it better, having a plastered, unfeeling heart.
Today no one, except the peculiar and esoteric race of men called “liturgiologists,” is interested in what was in the past a major preoccupation for Christians: the feasts and the seasons, the cycles of prayer, a very real concern about the “kairos“–the time of liturgical celebration. Not only the average layman, even the theologian seems to say: the world of Christian “symbolism” is no longer our world, all this failed, all this is gone and we have more serious affairs to attend to; it would be unthinkable, ridiculous to try to solve any real “problem” of modern life by referring it, say, to Easter or Pentecost, or even to Sunday.
…The real tragedy of Christianity is not its “compromise” with the world and progressive “materialism,” but on the contrary, its “spiritualization” and transformation into “religion.” …Christians were tempted to reject time altogether and replace it with mysticism and “spiritual” pursuits, to live as Christians out of time and thereby escape its frustrations; to insist that time has no real meaning from the point of view of the Kingdom which “beyond time.” And they finally succeeded.
…We must understand, therefore, that the intensive, almost pathological, preoccupation of our modern world with time and its “problem” is rooted in this specifically Christian failure. It is because of us, Christians, that the world in which we live has literally no time. Is it not true that the more “time saving” devices we invent, the less time we have? The joyless rush is interrupted by relaxation (“sit back and relax!”), but such is the horror of the strange vacuum covered by this truly demonic word, “relaxation,” that men must take pills to endure it, and buy expensive books about how to kill this no man’s land of “modern living.”
There is no time because Christianity, on the one hand, made it impossible for man to live in the old natural time, broke beyond repair the cycle of the eternal return. It has announced the fullness of time, revealed time as history and fulfillment, and has truly poisoned us once for all with the dream of a meaningful time. There is no time, on the other hand, because having announced all this, Christianity abandoned time, invited Christians simply to leave it and to think of eternity as of an eternal rest (if not yet “relaxation”). To be sure, one can still adorn the meaningless time with “beautiful symbols” and “colorful rites,” preferably “ancient.”
…The cross of Christ signified an end of all “natural” rejoicing; it made it, indeed, impossible. From this point of view the sad “seriousness” of modern man is certainly of Christian origin, even if this has been forgotten by that man himself. Since the Gospel was preached in this world, all attempts to go back to a pure “pagan joy,” all “renaissances,” all “healthy optimisms” were bound to fail. “There is but one sadness,” said Leon Bloy, “that of not being a saint.” And it is this sadness that permeates mysteriously the whole life of the world, its frantic and pathetic hunger and thirst for perfection, which kills all joy.
From chapter three in For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann (48-49, 54).