Mr David Bentley Hart is listed online as an Eastern Orthodox theologian, philosopher, and cultural commentator. Besides his book deriding “atheist delusions,” he writes articles for the Christian publication, First Things. In one he summed up his defense of Christianity and disdain for non-theism, titled, “Believe It Or Not.”
I would like Mr. Hart to be more specific concerning the nature of the “social catastrophe” that he claims is occurring due to changing patterns in belief (or lack thereof), and exactly why the thought of such a “social catastrophe” makes him so much more wordy and volatile than the thought of other catastrophes humanity faces as a whole (or will probably continue to face in the future), like population growth outpacing economic growth in many places, or pollution continuing to build up in the environment, or economic inequality continuing to rise, or educational inequality and the need for everyone on earth to receive a good general education (a religious education alone is not going to help prevent politicians and others from making poor choices concerning humanityʼs future), not to mention other catastrophes like water shortages, natural disasters, etc.
Mr. Hart focuses at the end of his review on the thought of a broken human figure being connected with God, but he does not ask why humans weep at the sight of a broken human figure at all, or at a hurt animal. I suspect there is something more basic than “religion” going on, something more universal than “Christianity.”
Why does Hart not also mention that humans have a wealth of sayings on practical moral wisdom that can and have inspired other humans for thousands of years, including lines from great novelists and historians. Why not seek the best in every book and every person? In other words, does “Jesus” have to get “all the glory?” I also suspect that public schools in U.S. could teach classes in ethics, featuring all of the worldʼs greatest practical moral wisdom, and our children might be better off, but that there are so many people who believe that “Jesus must be treated as more than just a great moral teacher” who would cavil at the thought of having their children taught “heathen ethics” in school. So it appears to be the religious element that has left the public school system in the U.S. bereft of ethical teaching. At least thatʼs my current hypothesis. That, and the fact that so many people are barbaric in the sense of not even knowing much about the worldʼs practical moral wisdom from all the worldʼs sacred writings and philosophical writings and novelists, etc., and such people do not have much room in their minds to appreciate anything except “the words of God” in the only “holy book” they were taught to revere.
Secondly, does Mr. Hart assume there is only a single “Jesus” and a single “Christianity?” They are legion, and historians continue to debate a variety of views concerning the life and teachings of the historical Jesus. While “Christi-anities” continue to split off from one another like branches of an evolutionary tree, as do Muslim-anities, Hindu-anities, Buddhist-anities, etc.
Mr. Hart in his review sounds a bit like Kenneth Scott Latourette who extolled “Jesusʼ wide and profound effect upon humanity, especially in the past three or four generations… Through him millions of individuals have been transformed and have begun to live the kind of life which He exemplified… Through Him movements have been set in motion… Measured by His influence, Jesus is central in the human story.”
But exactly how many of societyʼs “influences” can be traced back to “Jesus?” Jesus didnʼt seem especially fond of earthly families when compared with the necessity of joining his particular “in group” of believers.
And how much do we owe to ancient Near Eastern culture? The Sumerians/Babylonians, who lived long before Jesus, taught in their Councils of Wisdom, “Do not return evil to your adversary; Requite with kindness the one who does evil to you, Maintain justice for your enemy, Be friendly to your enemy.” In The Dawn of Conscience James Henry Breasted showed how the earliest known recorded ethics and laws belonged to the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians and Babylonians, who preceded the Hebrews. More recently, see David P. Wrightʼs, Inventing Godʼs Law: How the Covenant Code of the Bible Used and Revised the Laws of Hammurabi (London: Oxford University Press, 2009). There is also the critically acclaimed work, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. And, a three volume series, The Context of Scripture. Not to mention the book, Origins: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of Some Modern Western Institutions by William W. Hallo who lists the debt modern civilization owes to ancient Egyptian, Sumerian and Babylonian ideas of urbanism, the formation of capital, the order of the alphabet, astronomy, mathematics, algebra, the division of the day into 24 hours, the hour into 60 minutes, the circle into 360 degrees, the coronation of kings, games, cookbooks, and much more.
Keeping such information in mind, Latourette can not reasonably assert that “Measured by his influence, Jesus is central in the human story.” The “human story” encompasses every civilization on earth over a very long period of time. “Jesus” was not “born” into the “human story” until a mere two thousand years ago. And after his birth it took ten to fifteen hundred years before the first Christian missionaries reached China and the Americas. (During that same period, Islam challenged Christianity and “won” the Eastern Half of the Christian Roman Empire, Christian North Africa, parts of Eastern Europe, parts of Russia, parts of India, and parts of Indonesia, to become the most widespread non-Christian religion on earth. Also, Communismʼs expansion was more explosive than either Christianityʼs or Islamʼs, and even after the decline of communist influence, it has left behind billions of “practical atheists” when it comes to religion. And Europe, once the home and center of Christian civilization, the continent that evangelized the world, was blessed with the plague and ceaseless wars between Christian rules and between Christian peoples, including as of last century, two World Wars (I guess Europe didnʼt have enough churches or Christian influence for enough centuries to prevent those from occurring), and Europe has enjoyed itʼs most prolonged period of great relative peace only during these past 70 years since the end of the second World War, in fact thatʼs more peace than Europe has EVER seen before when it was so enthusiastically “Christian.”)
I would agree with Hart and with Latourette if they had merely claimed that “Jesus” was known at least by name by billions. (But of those billions, how many different interpretations of “Jesus” exist?) I would also agree if he had merely claimed that the human story had been influenced to varying degrees by different interpretations of “Jesus.” But to brashly claim that “Measured by his influence, Jesus is central to the human story” demonstrates a lack of commitment to historical truth and accuracy. The “human story” is old and brimming over with “influences” stretching back to ancient civilizations both East and West. In Western civilization alone there were ancient Near Eastern influences as mentioned above, as well as Greek/Roman politics, art, architecture, law, science and philosophy; Islamic mathematics, astronomy, philosophy. Other major influences include “guns, germs, and steel” (see the book of the same name); the Renaissance; the Enlightenment; modern day socialist, humanist and feminist influences and ideals.
Speaking of the crucial influence that the Enlightenment exerted upon Christianity, theologian Albert Schweitzer pointed out the following:
For centuries Christianity treasured the great commandment of love and mercy as traditional truth without recognizing it as a reason for opposing slavery, witch burning and all the other ancient and medieval forms of inhumanity. It was only when Christianity experienced the influence of the thinking of the Age of Enlightenment that it was stirred into entering the struggle for humanity. The remembrance of this ought to preserve it forever from assuming any air of superiority in comparison with thought.
Pulitzer prize-winning political scientist, Francis Fukuyama put it this way:
There was a time when religion played an all-powerful role in European politics with Protestants and Catholics organizing themselves into political factions and squandering the wealth of Europe on sectarian wars. [Like the “Thirty Yearʼs War” that began in 1618 when Protestant leaders threw two Catholic emissaries out of a Prague window, and which turned central Europe into a wasteland of misery, leading to the deaths of more than a quarter of Europeʼs population. - ED.] English liberalism emerged in direct reaction to the religious fanaticism of the English Civil War. Contrary to those who at the time believed that religion was a necessary and permanent feature of the political landscape, liberalism vanquished religion in Europe. After a centuries-long confrontation with liberalism, religion was taught to be tolerant. In the sixteenth century, it would have seemed strange to most Europeans not to use political power to enforce belief in their particular sectarian faith. Today, the idea that the practice of religion other than oneʼs own should injure oneʼs own faith seems bizarre, even to the most pious churchmen. Religion has been relegated to the sphere of private life - exiled, it would seem, more or less permanently from European political life except on certain narrow issues like abortion… Religion per se did not create free societies; Christianity in a certain sense had to abolish itself through a secularization of its goals before liberalism could emerge…Political liberalism in England ended the religious wars between Protestant and Catholic that had nearly destroyed that country during the seventeenth century: with its advent, religion was defanged by being made tolerant.
Even Robert Wuthnow, an evangelical Christian writer, admitted in Books & Culture (a newsletter produced by the editors of Christianity Today):
Framers of modern democratic theory in eighteenth century Europe [and colonial America - ED.] were profoundly influenced by the religious wars that had dominated the previous century and a half. Lockeʼs emphasis on tolerance and Rousseauʼs idea of a social contract were efforts to find unifying agreements that would discourage religious groups from appealing absolutely to a higher source of authority. The idea of civil society emerged as a way of saying that people who disagree with each other about such vital matters as religion could nevertheless live together in harmony.
But let us return to Hartʼs and Latouretteʼs praise of individuals in the “past three or four generations” whose lives “have been transformed and have begun to live the kind of life which He [Jesus] exemplified.” A few that stand out in my mind are Mohandas K. Gandhi and Albert Schweitzer, though Gandhi believed in focusing on whatever was best in each religion rather than trying to convert people from one religion to another. And Schweitzer was a noted theologian who rejected “the crooked and fragile thinking of Christian apologetics.” He later became a medical “missionary” in Africa because he held a liberal Christian philosophy based on a “reverence for life.”
And what about Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross? Or Florence Nightingale, the woman who made nursing a legitimate profession for women and revolutionized hospital care (even encouraging hospitals to no longer be purely sectarian, but to allow ill people whichever clergy they preferred)? Or Jane Addams who launched the American settlement-house movement and modern utilitarian and pragmatic ideas of social welfare with the establishment of Hull-House, a place where residents of the surrounding slums could learn English, find affordable childcare, and receive social services; eventually Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in social justice. Nightingale, Dunant, and Addams, all helped revolutionize charity, and all three were into social service, and universalistic views of religion, lying far from the exclusivist views held by many in their day. Furthermore, Dunant was gay and after he died his family burned his love letters written to another man. Addams lived with a woman whom she told “I am yours ‘til death’.” They viewed each other as a married couple. And Nightingale also mentioned her burning love of another woman in some strongly worded prose. Today people of all religions or none work in hospitals, and work for the betterment of mankind via agricultural science and medical science.
There are innumerable charitable organizations today; from international peace-seeking (and hunger-fighting) organizations to a multitude of national and local charities. In the U.S. such charities as the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and the Muscular Dystrophy Association are supported by donations to The United Way, which helps raise contributions for thousands of other national and local charitable organizations few of which are connected with religion or a particular religious denomination. And there are plenty of other charities seeking to help others like the Will Rogers Institute and Comic Relief. More food is given away each year by secular organizations and governments than by “Christians.” Such work has more to do with a simple wish to help others than with “Jesus” per se.
Speaking of “Jesusʼ influence” on nations today, The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and most other nations of northern Europe contain relatively low percentages of “Christians,” yet their human rights records, their generosity, their average education levels, their quality of life, lengthy life spans, low crime rates, and low poverty rates, put the rest of the world to shame, including the far more “Christian” United States. Scandinavians also have the lowest rates of unplanned pregnancies in the world. They instituted comprehensive teaching in birth control in their schools, and it worked. The leaders of Scandinavia have a long record of working for world peace. Swedes have been in Bosnia far longer than Americans removing land mines. The leaders of Norway initiated the peace talks between the PLO and Israel.
Japan is another industrialized nation whose people have longer average life spans, higher average education levels, less poverty, lower crime rates, a lower percentage of their population in prison, and lower abortion rates than the United States, and yet 56% of Japanese “do not believe in God or a Universal Spirit or were uncertain.” Compare that with the 90% of the U.S. population who “believe in God.” (Countries that have as high a percentage of “believers in God” as the U.S. include Northern Ireland and Iran, and the country with the highest percentage of believers in God is Nigeria. Check out how blessed Nigeria is.)
Hart admits of course that many movements and organizations throughout history that have emphasized “Jesus” have also wound up promoting suspicion, fear, divisiveness, inequality, intolerance, bigotry, hatred, subjugation, persecution, slavery, torture, terrorism, and war. And I fully appreciate what Hart wrote in the midst of his review, namely that
“Skepticism and atheism are, at least in their highest manifestations, noble, precious, and even necessary traditions, and even the most fervent of believers should acknowledge that both are often inspired by a profound moral alarm at evil and suffering, at the corruption of religious institutions, at psychological terrorism, at injustices either prompted or abetted by religious doctrines, at arid dogmatisms and inane fideisms, and at worldly power wielded in the name of otherworldly goods. In the best kinds of unbelief, there is something of the moral grandeur of the prophets—a deep and admirable abhorrence of those vicious idolatries that enslave minds and justify our worst cruelties.”
Thank you Mr. Hart, and also thank you for sending me that personal email response informing me that you were “not religious.” I think your readers ought to know that fact, and you also owe them perhaps a statement concerning what you DO believe and how you came to that belief.
Sincerely, Edward T. Babinski, editor of Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists (paperback published 2003).
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