Hart Argues History to Inform the Present

Review of Davide Bentley Hart's Atheist DelusionsDavid Bentley Hart. 2009. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The old saw goes: you cannot argue someone out of a position that they were not argued into. Apologetics is accordingly most useful in convincing oneself of the reasonableness of views that you already loosely hold. For critics who engage primarily in slander, correcting the veracity of arguments propping up such slander does not normally lead to retraction of the slander so much as the advancement of new arguments of similar veracity, particularly when political or financial incentives motivate the slander. Even weakly argued slander can imperil loosely held faith so the apologist is bound to remain fully employed.

Introduction

David Bentley Hart opens his book, Atheist Delusions, with these words:

“What I have written is at most a ‘historical essay,’ at no point free of bias, and intended principally as an apologia for a particular understanding of the effect of Christianity upon the development of Western civilization.”(ix)

Hart’s concern about bias is interesting because quickly proceeds to outline his decision criteria for establishing historical truth:

“It may be impossible to provide perfectly irrefutable evidence for one’s conclusions, but it is certainly possible to amass evidence sufficient to confirm them beyond plausible doubt.”(ix)

Again, this is interesting because Hart begins playing by postmodern rules of argumentation—a modern writer might appeal to objective truth (or rationality) at this point, which would invite derision from postmodern critics.

Central Argument

As an historian, Hart focuses on using the past as a vehicle for understanding the present, writing:

“This book chiefly—or at least centrally—concerns the history of the early church, of roughly the first four or five centuries, and the story of how Christendom was born out of the culture of last antiquity. My chief ambition in writing it is to call attention to the peculiar and radical nature of the new faith in that setting: how enormous a transformation of thought, sensibility, culture, morality, and spiritual imagination Christianity constituted in the age of pagan Rome.; the liberation it offered from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of occult agencies; the immense dignity it conferred up on the human person…”(x-xi)

What struck me in the middle of this lengthy essay was how much paganism of these first centuries of the church resembled the anxiety that we see every day in postmodern culture.

The Mythology of Modernism

Through the lens of historical observation, Hart furthermore chips away at the mythology surrounding the modern period. He writes:

“…what many of us are still in the habit of calling the ‘Age of Reason’ was in many significant ways the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value; that the modern age is notable in large measure for the triumph of inflexible dogmatism in every sphere of human endeavor (including the sciences) and for a flight from rationality to any number of soothing fundamentalisms, religious and secular; that the Enlightenment ideology of modernity as such does not even deserve any particular credit for the advance of modern science; that the modern secular state’s capacity for barbarism exceeds any of the evils for which Christendom might justly be indicted, not solely by virtue of the superior technology, but by its very nature…”(xi-xii)

Hart’s comment about barbarism is particularly interesting because today’s culture is quick to forget about the millions killed by the National Socialists and by various Marxian governments in our time yet obsesses about the thousands killed during the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition hundreds of years ago, where the historical veracity of various claims requires close scrutiny that is almost never offered.

Faith in Choice

An important critique that Hart examines at length is the postmodern obsession with personal freedom. He writes:

“…there is no substantive criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgment, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom. This is our primal ideology. In the most unadorned terms possible, the ethos of modernity is—to be perfectly precise—nihilism.”(21)

This observation is damning in its implications for the banality of our time. Freedom defined in terms of market choice for goods and ideas leaves no philosophical room for God, the development of personal character, or even the organization of communal activities, present or future. Inherent in this focus is an assumption that individual making choices has the resources required to make them and society is eager to provide them. Focusing on choice accordingly leaves decisions about everything else up to whoever is powerful enough to enforce them. Even the choices offered today may disappear quickly as a lack of interest in the future may lead one to eat one’s own seed-corn or to trade away one’s own freedom in the rush to consume.

Outline

Hart writes his book in 17 chapters divided into four parts:

  1. Faith, Reason, and Freedom: A View from the Present
  2. The Mythology of the Secular Age: Modernity’s Rewriting of the Christian Past
  3. Revolution: The Christian Invention of the Human
  4. Reaction and Retreat: Modernity and the Eclipse of the Human(vii-viii).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by notes and an index.

Assessment

David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions is an interesting read for the historically sensitive and philosophically astute. Hart offers commentary on current cultural controversies that both enlightens and challenges one to probe deeper, if for no other reason than to understand his voluminous vocabulary.

Hart Argues History to Inform the Present

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Monday Monologues: Telling Stories, July 16, 2018 (podcast)

Stephen W. Hiemstra, www.StephenWHiemstra.net
Stephen W. Hiemstra, 2017

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I pray about money and talk about telling stories.

To listen, click on the link below.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

Monday Monologues: Telling Stories, July 16, 2018 (podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Placher Argues the Foundations for Postmodernism, Part 2

William C. Placher. 1989. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Many times philosophy is denigrated as irrelevant and uninteresting. Far from irrelevant, it gives form to our thoughts—our default settings—and motivates us to take actions that we never really think about. For example, why do postmoderns head to the mall when they are upset, while back in the day moderns typically stopped to pray in a church? Far from uninteresting, philosophy shapes our music, explains trends in art, and leads us both to see and explain the world and ourselves in fresh, new ways and to rediscover aspects of our history which previously seemed mysterious or simply a bit nonlinear.

In his book, Unapologetic Theology, William Placher makes three observations about the postmodern apologetics project that bear repeating.

  1. Because we cannot argue from a foundation of absolute truth for the truth of Christ, neither can anyone else, such as secular modernists or scientists, argue from a foundation of absolute truth. This is an important observation because if Christian apologists continue to play by Enlightenment rules, there is no inherent reason why anyone should listen (138) and there is the danger that they may simply be shouted down by “imperialistic Enlightenment rationalism and liberalism” (168).
  1. While conversation cannot proceed from a foundation of absolute truth, common cause can still be found on an ad hoc basis. Placher observes that Christians can agree with both Jews and Marxists on the need to extend assistance to the homeless among us (167).
  1. In a real sense, our theology is justified in the eyes of the world by our actions, not the other way around (167).

Let me turn to each of these observations in turn.

No absolute truth, but shouted truth. The Enlightenment effort to find a foundation for absolute truth failed to discover a set of observations or logical relationships which could be used to justify objective truth. In its absence, competition has opened up to substitute subjective truth or truths of various sorts.

In the political realm, an early development of postmodern thinking evolved in Germany in the early twentieth century in the form of national socialism. If no absolute foundation exists, then let’s pick a leader to tell us what to believe. The logic was as unmistakable as the evil that it implied. Fear motivates us to seek easy answers and to accept solutions that would otherwise be unacceptable. The link of national socialism to the philosophy of Nietzsche, particularly his “will to power” is direct and undisputed among those that have studied it.[1] Political correctness, which originates with Karl Marx,[2] flows out of this line of thinking because once you promote a subjective alternative for absolute truth it is terribly inconvenient having your opponents point out the subjective nature of your alternative.[3]

In an economic realm, the absence of absolute truth helps explain the critical role of advertising and Hollywood movie productions in forming public opinion and preferences in daily purchases. If subjective truth is the only truth, storytelling is extremely interesting and important in cultural development because it persuades.[4]

Agree not on truth but on service. Placher makes the point that when we meet someone, we do not lay out a detailed foundation for conversation; we just look for points of agreement and start talking.

At one point I attended my uncle’s retirement from the Council of Churches in New York city and, although he worked as a pastor, a table of orthodox Jews attended the retirement gala. This observation interested me and I invited myself to sit with them. When I asked why so many orthodox Jews were attending a meeting of the Council of Churches, they told me that although they do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah, they agreed with many of the service projects undertaken by Council of Churches and wanted to get involved.

Service points to Gospel truth. Although Placher does not develop this theme, it is an inference that can be drawn. In a world where many voices scream for attention, actions speak louder than words and point to the motivations that brought them to fruition. Jesus said: “each tree is known by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:44) No one cares for a tree that bears no fruit and such it is with philosophies.

William C. Placher (1948 – 2008) was a postliberal theologian, a professor at Wabash in Indiana College, and the author of numerous books. His doctorate (1975) was from Yale University.

William Placher’s book, Unapologetic Theology, reviews modern and postmodern philosophical arguments that affect how we do theology and witness in the postmodern age. In part 1 of this review I summarized Placher’s argument for why the modern age is truly over—objective truth has no foundation that we can all agree on. In part 2 I summarized key implications of his work. Placher’s work is a fascinating read written for college students, but helpful to anyone concerned about cultural trends.

References

Lind, William S.  2009. “The Roots of Political Correctness.” Online: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/2009/11/19/the-roots-of-political-correctness. November 19.

Schaeffer, Francis A. 1976. How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. Wheaton: Crossway Books. (Review: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-wW).

Sacks, Jonah. 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. (Review: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1E0)

[1] For example, Nazi propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl, named her documentary on the 1934 Nazi rally at Nuremberg a paraphrase of Nietzsche’s famous phrase, Triumph of the Will (Schaeffer1976, 62).

[2] For example, see: (Lind 2009).

[3] Marx tried to substitute his concept of dialectal materialism for the existence of God, but enthroning man or man’s thinking in place of God begged a creation account. Evolution seemed to fit the bill here until scientists in the ninetieth disproved the concept of spontaneous generation. Rather than explain how mankind could not evolve to be the center of the universe, Marx and his followers refused to talk about it and began to restrict access to Bibles, which competing creation account. It was curious to see why communist countries, such as North Korean, imprison anyone with a Bible while also arguing that God does not exist! This persecution is not arbitrary but has a philosophical foundation that goes all the way back to Marx.

[4]This is the theme of a recent book by Sachs (2012).

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Placher Argues the Foundations for Postmodernism, Part 1

William C. Placher. 1989. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is hard not to notice the crisis of identity facing Christians and the church today. If we as Christians see ourselves as created in the image of an almighty God, then nothing is impossible for God and, by inference, for us as heirs to the kingdom. On the other hand, if we start to believe our critics that God does not exist and church is just another human institution, then our options are no different than anyone else’s—limited by the time and money immediately available. Because we act out of our identity, we need to care about what our identity is in our heart of hearts, not just on our business cards. For Christians, our truest identity is defined in our theory of God or, in other words, in our theology.

In his book, Unapologetic Theology, William Placher writes:

“This book represents some of the philosophy I have been reading, as one context for thinking about a new way—or maybe a very old way—of doing theology.” (7)

By “old” Placher means to argue apologetically from a Christian perspective with Christian assumptions. This “old” perspective, which he calls the “unapologetic” approach, is interesting because:

“Christian apologists can adopt the language and assumptions of their audiences so thoroughly that they no longer speak with a distinctively Christian voice.” (11)

Arguing from the “new” Enlightenment perspective means:

“questioning all inherited assumptions and then accepting only those beliefs which could be proven according to universally acceptable criteria.” (11)

If those universally acceptable criteria preclude faith in Christ Jesus by their nature, then the “new” perspective blunts effective witness (12). Worse, if no universally acceptable criteria exist, which essentially means that the Enlightenment (or modern) era is over, then the price of arguing is paid without gaining any credibility as a witness. Thus, adopting an unapologetic stance appears warranted in the postmodern era which we find ourselves in.

Placher’s argument raises two questions that we care about. First, is the modern era truly over and, if so, how do we know? Second, because Placher clearly believes that the modern era is over, how do we approach apologetics in the absence of universally acceptable criteria for discussion? We care about these questions because it is hard to witness for Christ in the postmodern era if, in effect, we do not speak the language of a postmodern person.

In part 1 of this review will focus on the first question while part 2 will consider the second.

Is the modern era over? Placher starts his discussion of the Enlightenment with the father of the Enlightenment, René Descartes, writing:

“Descartes had set the goal of seeking a foundation for knowledge, but modern philosophy soon divided between empiricists who looked for that foundation in bare, uninterrupted sensations [things you see, hear, feel, taste…] and rationalists who sought it in logically unchallengeable first truths.” (26)

For empiricists, a problem quickly emerged because:

“We cannot build knowledge on a foundation of uninterpreted sense-data, because we cannot know particular sense-data in isolation from the conceptual schemes we use to organize them.” (29)

If this is not obvious, think about how one knows that a light is red and different from yellow or green. In order to recognize the difference, one needs to understand the definition of red and how it differs from yellow or green. Without knowing that definition, red is not a distinct color. We teach colors to children at a young age so they seem obvious to us as adults, but to untaught kids colors have yet to be learned. The definition of red is what is meant here as a conceptual scheme.

For logicians, Placher observes:

“What we cannot do is find some point that is uniquely certain by definition, guarantee to hold regardless of any empirical discoveries, independent of any other elements in the our system.” (33)

Placher notes the definition of a mammal, “a warm-blooded animal with hair which bears live young”, had to change with the discovery of the platypus (32). While the problem posed by the platypus seems trivial, Placher notes after referencing Russell’s paradox that:

“If our definitions in mathematics or logic lead to problems, we may decide to change them, but we always have more than one choice.” (34)

In conclusion, Placher cites Wittgenstein observing:

“when we find the foundations, it turns out they are being held up by the rest of the house. If theologians try to defend their claims by starting with basic, foundational truths that any rational person would have to believe or observations independent of theory and assumptions, they are trying to do something that our best philosophers tell us is impossible.” (34)

In other words, the attempt by Enlightenment scholars to find a defensible basis for objective truth has failed and we are now in the postmodern era where it can be said: “how you stand on an issue depends on where you sit”.

William Placher’s book, Unapologetic Theology, is a fascinating review of modern and postmodern philosophical arguments that affect how we do theology and witness in the postmodern age. In part one of this review I have summarized Placher’s argument for why the modern age is truly over—objective truth has no foundation that we can all agree on. In part two of this review, I will summarize Placher’s arguments for how we should do theology and witness understanding that we are in the postmodern era.

 

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