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Monday, 7 February 2011

Prophets of Doom: David Bentley Hart and the Triumph of the Will

Prophets of Doom: David Bentley Hart and the Triumph of the Will PDF Print E-mail
Written by Tim Heydon   
origionaly published on the
Atheist Delusions; The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable EnemiesPart 1:  Radical Individualism and Opening the Road to State Terror

Modern Freedom means the Limitless Freedom to Will. Unleashed from the Guiding Hand of Christianity and Tradition, the Freedom to Will can Mean  the Freedom to Will Terror
Christianity Has Made Us – So How Can We Imagine a Non-Christian World?
It is difficult for us, living as we are at the end of nearly two millennia of Christian Civilisation, fully to grasp quite how revolutionary Christianity was in the transformation of attitudes in the ancient world, or to imagine what it might mean if those attitudes were to disappear, as disappearing they are in the West.
The World of Rome and the Christian Revolution
In his book ‘Atheist Delusions; The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies’  the theologian  David Bentley Hart does a terrific job of bringing  out  the impact of Christianity on the ancients, transforming  a world in which  an individual’s worth was predicated on  his or her  power or lack of it  to one in which every individual has intrinsic worth.   Roman society was built on a rather Nietzschean hierarchy of power in which the most powerful of all, the Roman Emperor, could be worshipped as a god while the lower orders were of little account individually and slaves had no personhood whatsoever. The latter were powerless things, like Christ before the powerful Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate.
Hart says , ‘the new world we see being brought into being in the Gospels is one in which the whole grand cosmic architecture of prerogative , power and eminence has been shaken and superseded by a new positively anarchic order; an order in which we see the glory of God revealed in a crucified slave’.
Hart’s Answer to Christopher Hitchens and his Ilk:  Western Civilisation
The title of Christopher Hitchens’ book ‘God is not Great’ is subtitled ‘How Religion Poisons Everything. ’ After a remarkably entertaining exposure, touched with more than a soupcon of asperity, of the paucity of Hitchen’s intellectual capabilities (and those of Dawkins), Hart asks, ‘Does he (Hitchens) really mean precisely everything?"
Would that apply then – confining ourselves just to things Christian – to ancient and medieval hospitals, leper asylums, orphanages, almshouses and hostels?  To the golden rule, ‘Love thine enemies’? ‘Judge not lest ye be judged’? Prophetic admonitions  against oppressing the poor, and commands to feed and clothe and comfort those in need? To the music of Palestrina and Bach, Michelangleo’s Pieta, ‘ah bright wings’; San Marco’s mosaics, the Bible of Amiens and all the gorgeous blue stained glass at Chartres? To the abolitionist movement and contemporary  efforts to liberate Sudanese slaves? And so on and so on? Surely it cannot  be the case that if only purged of faith these things would be even better than they are; were it not for faith it seems fairly obvious, most of them would have no existence at all.’
Our Future:  the Idea of the Sunny Uplands of ‘Progress’ is Likely to Lead to a Totalitarian Hell.
Hart holds out little hope for the West in the dawning age of secularism. He asks, ‘What evidence is there for the idea that secular reason, if finally allowed to move forward free of the constraining hand of archaic faith will naturally make society more free, more humane and more rational than it has been? It is rather difficult… to vest a great deal of hope in modernity, however radiantly enchanting its promises, when one considers how many innocent lives (‘an unprecedentedly vast collection of corpses’) have already been swallowed up in the flames of ‘Progress.’ The best ideals to which we moderns continue to cling long antedate modernity. For the most part all we can claim as truly, distinctively our own are our atrocities… The process of secularisation was marked from the first by the magnificent limitlessness of its violence.’
Radical Individualism and the Triumph of the Will
The tale of the modern nation-state’s struggle for liberation from the ‘shackles’ of religion and tradition should be located within the larger narrative of the triumph of the will.
Like most of the defining ideas in our culture, perverted though they may have been in the modern era, the emphasis on freedom of the will has its origins in Christian theology, but Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, spoke both as the heir of the late Scholastic tradition and for modernity when he said that the true image of god within human beings is the godlike liberty and incomprehensibility of the will.
Modern Ideas of Freedom are Nihilistic
Hart argues that the modern notion of freedom is essentially nihilistic, ie freedom is to be found in the individual subject’s power of choice, rather than in what is actually chosen. Neither God nor nature nor reason provides the measure of an act’s true liberty, for an act is free only when it is done in defiance of all three.
The Degradation of the Idea of Liberty.  Freedom as Consumerism 
Where is the ascendancy of the modern Idea of Freedom as Pure Spontaneity of the Will leading our Culture, Hart asks?  At an  ordinary, everyday level, it obviously leads to a degradation of the very idea of freedom, its reduction in the public imagination to a fairly banal kind of liberty, no more –though no less- significant than a consumer’s freedom to choose among different kinds of breads, shoes, televisions, drugs, drinks, sexual activities and relationships, political parties or religions.
The Death of Shared Obligations and Common Cause -  the Decay of ‘Community ‘ (and therefore National Sentiment)
At the level of conventional social behaviours it leads perhaps towards a decay of a shared sense of social obligation or common cause, or towards an increasingly insipid and self-absorbed private culture, or towards a tendency in society at large less to judge the laudability of particular choices by reference to the worthiness of their objects than to judge objects worthy solely because they have been chosen. (eg ’a woman’s right to choose’)
From the Banal to the Terrible
All this is both obvious and rather vague, but the modern concept of Freedom can lead to other more terrible things as well. For what the will may will, when it is subordinate only to its own native exuberance, is practically without limit.
Although pure spontaneity of the will is an illusion (we must actually will something), something dangerously novel entered our culture when we began to believe that the proper end of the will might simply to be willing as such. Nor does the truly liberated have to confine itself to the adventure of discovering and inventing  itself.  Collective will is so much more exciting than an individual’s will, at least if it can be disciplined and marshalled for some collective purpose.
With no Transcendent Source of the Good, the Capacity for Evil is Limitless
Furthermore if there is no transcendent source of the good to which the will is drawn but only the power of the will to decide what ends it desires, then no human project can be said to be inherently irrational or abominable. If freedom of the will is our supreme value, after all, then it is to all intents and purposes our god.
And certain kinds of gods (as our pagan ancestors understood) need to be fed.
Part 2 of ‘Prophets of Doom:  David Bentley Hart and the Triumph of the Will’  will show how radical individualism leads to state control.
his is No 2  In the ‘Prophets of Doom’ Series.
No 1: ‘Pitirim Sorokin’ and ‘A Christmas Message of Hope’ Parts 1&2