Some historians say that any old cult could have taken over the western world had the emporer just enforced it’s practice. Christianity just happened to win the lotto. That’s more baloney though. We lose sight of how incredible it was since we are 1700+ years removed from it. We don’t realize how special Christianity really was back then and still is now, besides repeated attempts by modernism to write it off as just some slightly interesting psychological phenomenon. As Hart puts it in several places, Christianity may be the only true revolution the western world has ever experienced.
What is beyond debate is that by the time of the last great persecution and of Constantine’s ascent to the purple, Christians may have been a minority in the empire, but they were a strong minority, large enough to seem both a treat and a credible alternative to the ancient customs of the pagan world. Whatever might have happened had imperial history taken another turn…what did happen – what had been happening by that point for centuries – was that untold thousands of pagans chose to abandon the ways of their ancestors and to embrace a faith of so radically different a nature that they were obliged to leave almost everything proper to their old religious identities behind. This required not merely a change of habits but a total conversion of will, imagination, and desire. Why, then, did it happen? What made the new faith, and even the risks that attended it, so very preferable to a world of beliefs and practices that had endured with profuse and solemn majesty for millennia?
-David Bently Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, p128
I think Michael’s writing at InternetMonk.com has been by far the most helpful thing for my Christian walk the past four years. I quite seriously don’t know where I’d be without his guidance and that of some of the rest of the community that blog in the general vicinity. His first book is coming out this September and it is now available to pre-order from Amazon.
Michael’s also been diagnosed with cancer and is in rough shape. Get a copy, or else.
Reformed theologian Bavinck on how the Catholic doctrine of justification by works is superior to Protestant doctrine of justification by correct doctrine:
[W]e must remind ourselves that the Catholic righteousness by good works is vastly preferable to a protestant righteousness by good doctrine. At least righteousness by good works benefits one’s neighbor, whereas righteousness by good doctrine only produces lovelessness and pride. Furthermore, we must not blind ourselves to the tremendous faith, genuine repentance, complete surrender and the fervent love for God and neighbor evident in the lives and work of many Catholic Christians. The Christian life is so rich that it develops its full glory not just in a single form or within the walls of one church.
Wright on not being a soul trapped in an evil material body:
Being human is good; being an embodied human is good; what is bad is being a rebellious human, a decaying human, a human dishonoured through bodily sin and bodily death. What Paul desires, to take his terminology at face value, is not to let the soul fly free to a supposed astral home, but to stop the ‘soul’, the psyche, from being the animating principle for the body. Precisely because the soul is not, for him, the immortal fiery substance it is for Plato, he sees that the true solution to the human plight is to replace the ‘soul’ as the animating principle of the body with the ‘spirit’ or rather, the Spirit.
-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, p.346
Our theology of resurrection and eschatology is informed more in the epistles, but if you JUST read the gospels what do you get?
…the significant thing to notice here is this: neither ‘going to heaven when you die’, ‘life after death’, ‘eternal life’, nor even ‘the resurrection of all Christ’s people’, is so much as mention in the four canonical resurrection stories. If Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wanted to tell stories whose import was ‘Jesus is risen, therefore you will be too’, they have done a remarkably bad job of it. Instead, we find a sense of open-ended commission within the present world: ‘Jesus is risen, therefore you have work ahead of you.’
-N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, p.603
Those terrible dark ages with their religious crusades… compared to what? The twentieth century?
The European wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were something altogether different [than anything before]. They inaugurated a new age of nationalist strife and state violence, prosecuted on a scale and with a degree of ferocity without any precedent in medieval history: wars of unification, revolutions, imperial adventures, colonialism, the rebirth of chattel slavery, endless irredentism, ideologically inspired frenzies of mass murder, nationalist cults, political terrorism, world wars – in short, the entire glorious record of European politics in the aftermath of a united Christendom.
Far from the secular nation-state rescuing Western humanity from the chaos and butchery of sectarian strife, those wars were the birth pans of the modern state and its limitless license to murder. And religious allegiances, anxieties, and hatred were used by regional princes merely as pretexts for conflicts whose causes, effects, and alliances had very little to do with faith or confessional loyalties.
-David Bently Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, p. 89
And continuing later:
Part of the enthralling promise of an age of reason was, at least at first, the prospect of a genuinely rational ethics, not bound to the local or tribal customs of this people or that, not limited to the moral precepts of any particular creed, but available to all reasoning minds regardless of culture and – when recognized – immediately compelling to the rational will.
Was there ever a more desperate fantasy than this?
We live now in the wake of the most monstrously violent century in human history, during which the secular order (on both the political right and the political left), freed from the authority of religion, showed itself willing to kill on an unprecedented scale and with an ease of conscience worse that merely depraved. If ever an age deserved to be thought an age of darkness, it is surely ours.
This is great stuff. It reinforces what I wrote earlier about the New Age movement being just another expression of selfish hedonism and materialism – not anything resembling a religious movement.
In truth, the rise of modern science and the early modern obsession with sorcery were not merely contemporaneous currents within Western society but were two closely allied manifestation of the development of a new post-Christian sense of human mastery over the world. There is nothing especially outrageous in such a claim. After all, magic is essentially a species of materialism; if it invokes any agencies beyond the visible sphere, they are not supernatural – n the theological sense of “transcendent” – but at most preternatural: they are merely, tat is to say, subtler, more potent aspects of the physical cosmos, the instrumental subjection of nature to humanity, and the constant increase of human power.
Hence, there was not really any late modern triumph of science over magic, so much as there wa a ntural dissolution of the latter into the former, as the power of science to accomplish what magic could only adumbrate became progressively more obvious.
-David Bently Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, p.82
This also fits in nicely with my interest in how the post-enlightenment attraction to magic sees it as more of a “natural” phenomenon, a branch of science, than something that might actually interact with God and/or REAL angels and demons. Science didn’t really conquer magic. It overshadowed it and consumed it, but the will of man didn’t change.
If it weren’t for those darn Christians and their science-hating ways, we might have had King Arthur on the freakin’ moon! How cool would that have been?
The sort of claims that were once part of the homiletic repertoire of, say, Arthur C. Clarke or Carl Sagan – that the tradition of Greek science to which the rise of Christianity supposedly put an end was progressing inexorably toward modern physics, modern technology, and space travel – are sheer fantasy. To quote David C. Lindberg, “It is agreed by most historians of ancient science that creative Greek science was on the wane, perhaps as early as 200 B.C., certainly by A.D. 200. Science had never been pursued by very many people; it now attracts even fewer.
Lindberg also notes, there is no historical warrant for the belief “that the advent of Christianity did anything to diminish the support given to scientific activity or the number of people involved in it.”
-David Bently Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, p.67
Take a look at this. You’ve heard it before, I’m sure. I heard it a lot growing up. It’s taught (at least in summary format) in every academic discipline. It’s referred to in politics and all matters of historical discourse as if it is something nobody, not even Christians, deny. It’s a wonderful story about the goodness of man rising up to overcome evil. It just so happens, that when you look at each detail of this story closely, every element of it is baloney.
…modernity’s first great attempt to define itself:
an “age of reason” emerging from and overthrowing and “age of faith.”
Behind this definition lay a simple but thoroughly enchanting tale.
Once upon a time, it went, Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity labored in brutish subjugation to dogma, supersition, and the unholy alliance of church and state. Withering blasts of fanaticism and fideism had long since scorched away the last remnants of classical learning; inquiry was stifled; the literary remains of classical antiquity had long ago been consigned to the fires of faith, and even the great achievements of “Greek science” were forgotten till Islamic civilization restored them to the West. All was darkness.
Then, in the wake f the “wars of religion” that had torn Christendom apart, came the full flowering of the Enlightenment and with it the reign of reason and progress, the riches of scientific achievement and political liberty, and a new and revolutionary sense of human dignity. The secular nation-state arose, reduced religion to an establishment of the state or, in the course of time, to something altogether separate from the state, and thereby rescued Western humanity from the blood-steeped intolerance of religion. Now, at last, Western humanity has left its nonage and attained to its majority, in science, politics, and ethics.
This is, as I say, a simple and enchanting tale, easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail.
-David Bently Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, p.33
Hart goes on in several following chapters to completely demolish this legend. One of his best chapters debunks the legend of the knowledge-hating Christians burning the magnificent Library of Alexandria in 390. I’ll have more on this later. (He argues), careful historians recognize that the library was attacked three different times from 47 B.C. onward. When the “christians” dealt the final blow in 390, it was collateral damage from a Roman political war, not some kind of church-backed anti-pagan religious crusade. Also the numbers about how many scrolls were burned (700,000+) are completely made up by contemporary critics. Numbers like this appear absolutely nowhere in old documents. Despite all the credit given to the Muslims, it was actually Christian monks that preserved the bulk of old Greek works by Plato, Aristotle, etc. that we still have today. How about that?
Update: Here, Leithart reviews a book that suggests the high technology and scholarship of the Muslim world during the middle ages is ALSO a myth.
Unfortunately, Christian’s themselves have sometimes added fuel to this silly secular non-history in their attempts to distance themselves from Roman Catholicism. That’s too bad. It’s like swinging the battle axe down, scraping your perceived enemy, only to bury the blade into your own foot.
This right here nails modern cafeteria spirituality to the wall:
…we do not draw near to the “mystery of God” with anything like the fear and trembling of our ancestors, and when we tire of our devotions and drift away we do not expect to be pursued, either by the furies or by the hounds of conscience.
This is especially obvious at modern Western religion’s pastel-tinged margins, in those realms of the New Age where the gods of the boutique hold uncontested sway. Here one may cultivate a private atmosphere of “spirituality” as undemanding and therapeutically comforting as one likes simply by purchasing a dream catcher, a few pretty crystals, some books on the goddess, a Tibetan prayer wheel, a volume of Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung or Robert Graves, a Nataraja figurine, a purse of tiles engraved with runes, a scatering of Pre-Rachaelite prints drenched in Celtic twilight, and Andean flute, and so forth, until this mounting congeries of string, worthless quartz, cheap joss sticks, baked clay, kitsch, borrowed iconography, and fraudulent scholarsip reaches that mysterious point of saturation at which religion has become indistinguishable from interior decorationg.
There could scarcely be a more thoroughly MODERN form of religion than this. The peoples of early and late antiquity actually believed in, adored, and feared their gods. No one really believes in the gods of the New Age. They are purchased gods, gods as accessories, and hence are merely masks by means of which the one true god – the will – at once conceals and reveals itself.
-David Bently Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, p.24 (with some editing)
I heard a LOT about the “New Age” growing up. It got a mentioned in a sermon at least once a month. Sunday school classes were devoted to topics like “Refuting Trancendental Meditation”. Even sun-catcher crystals were frowned upon as they might be mistaken for their (usually pyramid shaped I think) evil equivalents that were used for something called “channeling”. Frank Perreti was hot stuff. Actually, I still like Peretti. He’s a good storyteller.
The point is, I was always just a tad suspicious that nobody really cared about this stuff. I mean, these people don’t believe in a god that ACTUALLY cares about what you do. He (probably She actually) certainly doesn’t have strict moral standards. Is the cancer of our communities and our nation the fact that some folks take their Yoga class a bit to seriously or that Sally read a book about Wicca or that somewhere out there, somebody is into astral projection? I’m not talking about the trance electronica band, by the way.
I didn’t know ANYONE into the “new age” growing up. But I sure as heck knew a lot of people who were really into their big-screen TVs, their cars, their beer, their sex. Later, I moved to a more urban area where there really were some people that toyed around with Zen Buhdism, shaman sticks, you name it. Did that show up in their life though? What I saw was people caring a heck a lot about their jobs, their vacation time, their mortgage, their (nicer) cars, their weight. Same thing all over again.
Hart nails it here. All this is not any sort of real religion. It’s just a front for the one true god, our own self, our own will. It’s just another way we consumers worship… ourselves. What’s missing from all the scary “new age” we Christians are supposed to be really on the watch for? Real power. Real spiritual forces. Real invisible anything other than our own selves. How come (I’m guessing) 99% of people toying around with some form of new age spirituality don’t actually encounter any real energy? Because when you get beyond the beyond and all that, all you find in the center of the universe is your own self, doin’ whatever the hell you want to. Big surprise there.
Going back to my childhood for just one more moment – I’m not knocking the fact that some people were concerned about this sort of thing. I just think a bit more exhortation against consumerism and self-centeredness would have got closer the heart of the problem. I could still use a big dose of that from time to time.