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Sunday, 13 November 2011

Rediscovering the "Jesus Movement" Revolution

I cannot recall during my lifetime a public debate around issues of belief and “religion” anything quite like that sparked by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and their fellow travellers, commonly referred to under the collective title of the “new atheists”.

Before going to consider the significance of that debate we should take note in passing the reminder by David Bentley Hart that “religion” as the term is used generically does not actually exist. There are, Hart reminds us …a very great number of traditions of belief and practice that, for the sake of convenience we call "religions", but that could scarcely differ from one another more. Perhaps it might seem sufficient, for the purposes of research, simply to identify general resemblances among these traditions: but even that is notoriously hard to do, since every effort to ascertain what sort of things one is looking at involves an enormous amount of interpretation, and no clear criteria for evaluating any of it. One cannot establish where the boundaries lie between "religious" systems and magic, or "folk science", or myth, or social ceremony.

There is not any compelling reason to assume a genetic continuity or kinship between, say, shamanistic beliefs and developed rituals of sacrifice, or between tribal cults, and traditions like Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, or to assume that these various developed traditions are varieties of the same thing. One may feel that there is a continuity or kinship, or presuppose on the basis of one's prejudices, inklings or tastes that the extremely variable and imprecise characteristic of "a belief in the supernatural" constitutes proof of a common ancestry or type; but all of this remains a matter of interpretation, vague morphologies, and personal judgments of value and meaning, and attempting to construct a science around such intuitions can amount to little more than mistaking "all the things I don't believe in" for a scientific genus. One cannot even demonstrate that apparent similarities of behavior between cultures manifest similar rationales, as human consciousness is so promiscuously volatile a catalyst in social evolution. ...

… the task of delineating the "phenomenon" of religion in the abstract becomes perfectly hopeless as soon as one begins to examine what particular traditions of faith actually claim, believe, or do. … what sort of thing is the Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths? What sort of thing is the Vedantic doctrine that Atman and Brahman are one? What sort of thing is the Christian belief in Easter"? What is the core and what are the borders of this "phenomenon"? What are its empirical causes? What are its rationales? Grand empty abstractions about religion are as easy to produce as to ignore. These by contrast are questions that touch on what persons actually believe; and to answer them requires an endless hermeneutic labor - an investigation of history, and intellectual traditions and contemplative lore ... (192-193) In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments (Eerdmans, 2009).

After that significant and provocative diversion, let me to return to the “new atheists”. It is, I would suggest, not coincidental that this debate seems to be having its biggest impact in societies, like Australia, societies that are moving through the transition from a Christendom settlement, into a time that perhaps might best be labelled, if provisionally, post-Christendom. Their argument is driven at least in part by a reaction against a memory of the close connection of church and state, and the violence and terrible compromises that resulted from that connection.

The very public polemics of theses “new atheists’ have produced a range of responses, some of which offer entertaining and invigorating reading, and vigorous intellectual argument, in about equal proportions.

A highly significant contribution has come from Terry Eagleton with his rambunctious Terry lectures, Reason Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale University Press, 2009), a guaranteed page turner, with a take no prisoners edge to its aggressive, intellectual Irish night at the pub rhetoric. Possibly more substantial in the detail of its argument is the work by David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press, 2009), which offers by contrast to Eagleton a rather more grace-full and elegantly written historically informed demolition of many of the assertions made by Hitchens and Dawkins about the ills arising from Christianity’s impact on the world during the past two thousand years.

I won’t be attempting a comprehensive or comparative review of both books. Rather I want to unpack one particular and profoundly important theme that is central to the case that both authors want to make.  In identifying this point of common concern I was helped to focus on it by Shane Claiborne’s account of his experiments in practicing the Christian faith under the title The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an ordinary radical that I was reading around the same time as Eagleton and Hart.

Having taken the risk of rhetorical overkill in the title of his book, it transpires that Claiborne has strong support for his assertion of the revolutionary character of the Christian movement from both Eagleton and Hart.

Before proceeding to outline their respective accounts of the Christian revolution and its moral and political significance, I want to draw attention to one other strongly shared judgment by Bentley and Eagleton, in their response to the current wave of atheist critics of Christianity. They have in common the conviction that the quality of atheist criticism of Christianity has sadly declined from days of yore, or at least the time of Nietzsche. The current crop of critics are, in their view, embarrassingly ill informed, if not down right incompetent, in the case they make against “religion” in general, and Christianity in particular.

Eagleton in taking this stance, I need to emphasis, is not writing from inside the Christian movement, though we was exposed to it  through Irish Catholicism when growing up and engaged with liberation theologians during his university years. What Christian doctrine teaches about the universe and the fate of man may, he admits, not be true, or even plausible. The issue of truth he says is not the question immediately at hand.  The matter at hand for him is one of the ethics of controversy, how the argument is advanced. The case against critics such as Dawkins and Hitchens, referred to by Eagleton collectively as “Ditchkins”, is that they have failed morally and intellectually in the way they have prosecuted their case. … Critics of the most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook.

Eagleton it must be acknowledged has had Dawkins in his sights for some time, as his review of the God Delusion in the October 2006 issue of the London Review of Books makes perfectly clear. The Terry lectures evidently gave him the excuse and the space that he was looking for to make his case out at greater length.

Hart strikes a similar note in his judgement of the current crop of atheist polemics: I can honestly say that there are many forms of atheism that I find far more admirable than many forms of Christianity or of religion in general. But atheism that consists entirely in vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism. (4) Hart too has had his eye on the “new atheists” for some time. His review of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon entitled “On the Trail of the Snark with Daniel Dennett” displays the same characteristics of articulate prose and intellectually substantial critique.

But having digressed again, the temptation to quote and quote again from both Hart and Eagleton on the inadequacies of the “new atheists argument, is almost totally irresistible, so clear, forceful and entertaining is their prose, I must delay no longer in addressing the puzzle of why it is that the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton and the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart have arrived at a point, if not of furious agreement, then have moved into reasonable proximity around a judgement about the revolutionary character of the Christian movement, and its impact on the way we in modernity, (or is it post-modernity?), still engage with the world. 

Eagleton moves very early in his lectures to make his case against the new atheists on the grounds of Christianity’s revolutionary character. His line of argument is of particular interest because it does not rest on letting Christianity in its actually existing manifestations throughout history off for its failures. The case he wishes to make does not provide an apologetic for the failures of the Christian church. Eagleton after all begins the first paragraph of his book with the observation that, Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology. (xi)

In a fascinating on-line review in Salon Andrew O'Hehrir observes of Eagleton’s opening gambit: That's quite a start, especially when you consider that the point of Eagleton's "Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate" … is to defend the theory and practice of religion against its most ardent contemporary critics. ...

While it is, as O’Hehir observes, quite a start, Eagleton is only warming up. In Chapter 2 “The Revolution betrayed” he observes that Far from refusing to conform to the powers of this world, Christianity has become the nauseating cant of lying politicians, corrupt bankers and fanatical neocons, as well as an immensely profitable industry in its own right . . . The Christian Church has tortured and disembowelled in the name of Jesus, gagging dissent and burning its critics alive. It has been oily, sanctimonious, brutally oppressive and vilely bigoted. (56)

Despite the record of betrayal, a record that
Eagleton acknowledges has been matched in actually existing Communism, he proceeds to suggest that atheism of a certain character, and politically engaged Christian orthodoxy that takes the call of Jesus seriously might not be that far apart. After all Christians in the Roman empire were regarded as atheists.

According to Paul Vallely in his review of Reason, Faith and Revolution in The Independent Eagleton is clear that the …  history of religion is "a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology." Just as communism has misunderstood Marx, he argues, so the Church has betrayed Christ by backing an establishment of warmongering politicians, corrupt bankers, and exploitative capitalists for centuries. The Jesus of the gospels, he insists, was as radical a revolutionary who took the side of "the scum of the earth". The love he offered was as transformative as true socialism.

Andrew O'Hehir points us in the same direction when he observes later in his review, You can almost hear the steel chairs creaking as the last secular liberals rise to depart when Eagleton declares where his true disagreement with Richard Dawkins lies, which does not directly concern the existence of God or the role of science. "The difference between Ditchkins and radicals like myself," he writes, "hinges on whether it is true that the ultimate signifier of the human condition is the tortured and murdered body of a political criminal, and what the implications of this are for living."
What Eagleton is saying here is that in the crucifixion of Jesus we have an ultimate account of what it is to be human, and that this is where the revolutionary character of the Christian movement is grounded.
In his review of Hart, Stefan Beck argues that explore Gr_arrow_down
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. . . [Nietzsche] had the good manners to despise Christianity, in large part, for what it actually was--above all, for its devotion to an ethics of compassion--rather than allow himself the soothing, self-righteous fantasy that Christianity’s history had been nothing but an interminable pageant of violence, tyranny, and sexual neurosis. He may have hated many Christians for their hypocrisy, but he hated Christianity itself principally on account of its enfeebling solicitude for the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased; and, because he was conscious of the historical contingency of all cultural values, he never deluded himself that humanity could do away with Christian faith while simply retaining Christian morality in some diluted form, such as liberal social conscience or innate human sympathy." (Liberation theology” in The New Criterion)

Hart makes a similar case to Eagleton for the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus, though he makes the case from inside the Christian movement and argues at some historical depth of the extent to which Christianity has changed the way we understand what it is to be human. This practice of humanity in Hart’s view has profound moral implications that have gradually worked themselves into the way we understand the world and its sufferings.

Hart argues that, [W]e shall never really be able to see Christ’s broken, humiliated, and doomed humanity as something self-evidently contemptible and ridiculous; we are instead, in a very real sense, destined to see it as encompassing the very mystery of our own humanity… . Obviously, of course, many of us are capable of looking upon the sufferings of others with indifference or even contempt. But what I mean to say is that even the worst of us, raised in the shadow of Christendom, lacks the ability to ignore those sufferings without prior violence to his or her own conscience. We have lost the capacity for innocent callousness.

To follow through Hart’s account as to the depth and significance of the Christian revolution for our understanding of what it is to be human would require a substantial essay in its own right. I need to emphasis that what Hart offers is no easy apologetic to justify or to dismiss the profound failings of the Christian church. The changes that its has brought have only worked there way through our institutions and culture gradually and over a long period of time. Nevertheless he wants to insist the changes are real and profound, they are an interruption, the full significance of which it is hard for us to understand for those of us who now stand on the other side of that interruption. Eagleton provides a helpful account of why such interruptions are significant with reference to the work of the French philosopher Alan Badiou (see pages 117-119 of Reason Faith and Revolution)

In the first few centuries of Christian witness the gospel was regarded by the intellectuals of the time and those holding positions of power throughout the Roman empire, as an outrage. Christians were enemies of society, impious, subversive and irrational. … for advancing the grotesque and shameful claim that all gods and spirits had been made subject o a crucified criminal from Galilee – one who had during his life consorted with peasants and harlots, lepers and lunatics. This was far worse than mere irreverence, it was pure and misanthropic perversity; it was anarchy. (115)

Christianity did not preach a message of liberation from the flesh. This crucified criminal in his death and resurrection, body and soul, was associated with a proclamation of the goodness of creation, the transfiguration of the flesh and the glory of creation. Hart develops this account against a detailed rebuttal of accounts of a cheerful paganism but of a despondent society full of religious yearning in which the dominant spiritual movements sought an other worldly release. (144-5)

The Christian difference was found in the placement of charity at the centre of the spiritual life. It raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick and the poor to the centre of the religious life. In the third century the bishop had substantial responsibilities for social welfare. His duties encompassed responsibility for the education of orphans, aid for poor widows and purchase of firewood and food for the destitute. According to Hart however this is only to touch the surface of the difference between Christianity and the older religions of the empire.

The story of Peter weeping at his betrayal of Jesus is for Hart one of those moments that displays the difference Christianity has made. …in these texts and others like them we see something beginning to emerge from darkness into full visiblity, arguably for the first time in our history : the human person as such invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity and possessed of an infinite value. It would not even be implausible that our very ability to speak of “persons” as we do is a consequence of the revolution in moral sensibility that Christianity brought about. (167)

The form of God and the form of the human person according to Hart has been revealed … to them all at once, completely then and thenceforth always in the form of a slave. (182)

The account Hart develops of the revolutionary character of Christianity connects to his recognition of the power of Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity and the significance of what it would mean to reject Christianity and its view of the human. In an article “Believe it nor Not” published in the theological journal First Things, (May 2010), Hart states that, Because he understood the nature of what had happened when Christianity entered history with the annunciation of the death of God on the cross, and the elevation of a Jewish peasant above all gods, Nietzsche understood also that the passing of Christian faith permits no return to pagan naivete, and he knew that this monstrous inversion of values created within us a conscience that the older order could never have incubated. He understood also that the death of God beyond us is the death of the human as such within us. If we are, after all, nothing but the fortuitous effects of physical causes, then the will is bound to no rational measure but itself, and who can imagine what sort of world will spring up from so unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?

… on the sheer strangeness, and the significance, of the historical and cultural changes that made it possible in the first place for the death of a common man at the hands of a duly appointed legal authority to become the captivating center of an entire civilization’s moral and aesthetic contemplations—and for the deaths of all common men and women perhaps to be invested thereby with a gravity that the ancient order would never have accorded them.

One does not have to believe any of it, of course—the Christian story, its moral claims, its metaphysical systems, and so forth. But anyone who chooses to lament that event should also be willing, first, to see this image of the God-man, broken at the foot of the cross, for what it is, in the full mystery of its historical contingency, spiritual pathos, and moral novelty: that tender agony of the soul that finds the glory of God in the most abject and defeated of human forms. Only if one has succeeded in doing this can it be of any significance if one still, then, elects to turn away.

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