Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Story we Believe

Scot McKnight has been doing a series on David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.

Hart, a historian, argues that we tell a false story when we posit progress from the supposed darkness, violence, ignorance and superstition of the Middle Ages to an "enlightened" modern age. He argues that it simply shows a poor understanding of history to say we are "vastly more enlightened than those ... brutes who slouched through the swamps of medieval fanaticism ..." We've created a mythology of a "dark ages" of religious superstition which falsely bolsters our own claims to rational, intellectual and moral superiority. In this (false) story, getting rid of religious faith is a positive move that allows us to progress unhindered towards a juster, more humane society. This story, Hart says, buttresses the claims of the New Atheists that religion gets in the way of the good life. However, Hart maintains, the Middle Ages was more intellectually sophisticated, humane and non-violent than we give it credit for and the modern age more riddled with irrationality, inhumanity and violence than we like to admit.

Hart's challenge to the Story of Progress resonates with me for several reason. In brief, I was very much taught the Story of Progress in school. I was taught, for example, that poor Galileo was the victim of a backwards church that persecuted him on the basis of blind faith. The Church stood as an obstacle to enlightenment. Superstition once reigned and kept people poor and oppressed until science and reason triumphed, bringing us the good life. Science and faith were always locked in combat-- and thank goodness science and reason won. This message, one way or another, was repeated over and over again in my schooling. I believed it -- why wouldn't I?--until I awakened and started saying, hey, wait a minute .... Galileo was a sacrifice to politics, not a victim of a Church incapable of understanding the that Bible could be metaphoric. The Church was not ignorant --in fact, it was quite savvy. I began to actually read Medieval theologians and to realize that these people were as smart --or possibly smarter --than we are today.

McKnight writes: "Hart examines the connection of science and the demonic to show that they were both ways to deal with elements of life perceived to be powers. A rise in accusations about sorcery and the like is late Medieval or early Modern and not at all characteristic of the bulk of the Medieval age. Those most hostile to sorcery, Hart shows, were often not Christians and connected to state and power and politics -- Thomas Hobbes and Jean Bodin.

Hart's thesis is that this can't be explained simply as Christian power but of the corruption of power, in which Christianity was absorbed. Here's his very insightful and important thesis:

'The long history of Christendom is astonishingly plentiful in magnificent moral, intellectual, and cultural achievements... But it has also been the history of a constant struggle between the power of the gospel to alter and shape society and the power of the state to absorb every useful institution into itself.'

And: "we see that violence increased in proportion to the degree of sovereignty claimed by the state, and that whenever the medieval church surrendered moral authority to secular power, injustice and cruelty flourished" (86).

Medieval society was more peaceful, just and charitable than the imperial society before it and as well as more than the early modern nation state that followed it."

What do you think? Do you think we would view Christianity in a more positive light if we re-examined our narrative about progress? Is Christianity itself inherently a problem or is it a problem when Christianity gets cooped into supporting a nationalistic agenda?

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