A piece of advice Fr. John likes to give is that if somebody says he doesn’t believe in God, it might be a good first step to find out about the god he doesn’t believe in. This can save a good deal of frustration and misunderstanding, as it’s likely traditional Christians don’t believe in that god either, and thus no quarrel on its’ account. If it is in fact the Christian God of the Trinity that a person disbelieves in, it’s valuable to know that as well. David B Hart seems to want to make a similar point in his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, and “Believe it or Not,” the article he wrote for the May issue of First Things. His main point is that the problem with the New Atheists is not so much that they disbelieve in Christianity, as that they fail to understand Christianity well enough to successfully disbelieve in it in any but the most general fashion. I might, for instance, say that I disbelieve in Hinduism, and it’s true in the sense that I don’t believe in it, but not in the sense that I know what it is I don’t believe in. Nietzsche is at least admirable insomuch as he actually acknowledged that ancient paganism was essentially a religion of Strife, and that after Christianity had inverted morality with its claims of love and eternal life, anything coming after its demise would be nihilism. Or so I hear; I haven’t managed to read much of his writing. The general direction of Hart’s new article is that the god most of the New Atheists disbelieve in is that of 17th century deism, and they suppose that Christian ethics will still hold up after the destruction of Christian belief.
I trust Hart’s knowledge of Christianity and his careful reading of the New Atheist books, so I’ll suppose he’s right that they mostly don’t know what they’re talking about. As a society we’re woefully uninformed about history, philosophy, and theology, so it stands to reason atheist writers are no exception. But Hart’s point is more complex than that, and I’m having a somewhat difficult time bringing out the place that complexity assumes in his argument. “Believe It or Not” concludes:
Couched at one juncture among its various arguments (all of which are pretty poor), there is something resembling a cogent point. Among the defenses of Christianity an apologist might adduce, says Grayling, would be a purely aesthetic cultural argument: But for Christianity, there would be no Renaissance art—no Annunciations or Madonnas—and would we not all be much the poorer if that were so? But, in fact, no, counters Grayling; we might rather profit from a far greater number of canvasses devoted to the lovely mythical themes of classical antiquity, and only a macabre sensibility could fail to see that “an Aphrodite emerging from the Paphian foam is an infinitely more life-enhancing image than a Deposition from the Cross.” Here Grayling almost achieves a Nietzschean moment of moral clarity.
Ignoring that leaden and almost perfectly ductile phrase “life-enhancing,” I, too—red of blood and rude of health—would have to say I generally prefer the sight of nubile beauty to that of a murdered man’s shattered corpse. The question of whether Grayling might be accused of a certain deficiency of tragic sense can be deferred here. But perhaps he would have done well, in choosing this comparison, to have reflected 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.
Here, displayed with an altogether elegant incomprehensibility in Grayling’s casual juxtaposition of the sea-born goddess and the crucified God (who is a crucified man), one catches a glimpse of the enigma of the Christian event, which Nietzsche understood and Grayling does not: the lightning bolt that broke from the cloudless sky of pagan antiquity, the long revolution that overturned the hierarchies of heaven and earth alike. 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.
EDIT: paragraph deleted on account of being almost entirely verbal slush.