Sunday, December 18, 2011

D. B. Hart on the Fate of the American Religion

I still have some residual Ochlophobistophilism about me, which gives me pause before linking to an article written by David Bentley Hart. Back in the day, such actions could get you banned in Memphis (Owen, I joke.) My first exposure to DBH was back in 2003, when I stumbled across an essay he wrote about Malcolm Cowling. I found myself terribly impressed and scribbled 2 or 3 pages of selected passages in my real common-place book. His acclaimed work, The Beauty of the Infinite, was released that same year, and so I eagerly ordered a copy. I found the book to be utterly and absolutely unreadable. And so, I have since shied away from his writings. I will say, however, that his coffee-table book, The Story of Christianity, is very nicely done. A recent post at Second Terrace, led me to the particular article in question here, in the current issue of the New Criterion. If you can wade through the Hartian verbiage, I believe there to be much to commend this work. I have copied significant excerpts below, and have highlighted on particular passage I find to be especially noteworthy.

After all--and this is a truth so certain that only the most doctrinaire Marxist or lumpen British atheist could deny it—the structure of culture is essentially an idealist one, and a living culture is a spiritual dispensation…. That is why the very concept of a secular civilization is nearly meaningless…

All of which brings me to my topic: the uncertainties of the American future and the possible role religion may or may not play in that future…. Often blamelessly derivative, but also often shamefully forgetful of even the recent past, it is a nation that floats lightly upon the depths of human history, with sometimes too pronounced a sense of its own novelty…

There may not be a distinctive American civilization in the fullest sense, but there definitely is a distinctly American Christianity. It is something protean, scattered, fragmentary, and fissile, often either mildly or exorbitantly heretical, and sometimes only vestigially Christian, but it can nevertheless justly be called the American religion—and it is a powerful religion. It is, however, a style of faith remarkably lacking in beautiful material forms or coherent institutional structures, not by accident, but essentially. Its civic inexpressiveness is a consequence not simply of cultural privation, or of frontier simplicity, or of modern utilitarianism, or even of some lingering Puritan reserve towards ecclesial rank and architectural ostentation, but also of a profound and radical resistance to outward forms. It is a religion of the book or of private revelation, of oracular wisdom and foolish rapture, but not one of tradition, hierarchy, or public creeds. Even where it creates intricate institutions of its own, and erects its own large temples, it tends to do so entirely on its own terms: in a void, in a cultural and (ideally) physical desert, at a fantastic remove from all traditional sources of authority, historical “validity,” or good taste (Mormonism is an expression of this tendency at its boldest, most original, and most effervescently vulgar). What America shares with, say, France is the general Western heritage of Christian belief, with all its confessional variations; what it has never had any real part in, however, is Christendom.

And so, in fact, America was established as the first truly modern nation, the first Western society consciously to dissociate its constitutional order from the political mythologies of a long disintegrating Christendom, and the first predominantly Christian country to place itself under, at most, God’s general providential supervision, but not under the command of any of his officially recognized lieutenants. The nation began, one could argue, from a place at which the other nations of the West had not yet arrived.

In another sense, however, when one considers the result, it is all rather astonishing. America may have arisen out of the end of Christendom, and as the first fully constituted political alternative to Christendom, but it somehow avoided the religious and cultural fate of the rest of the modern West. Far from blazing a trail into the post-Christian future that awaited other nations, America went quite a different way, down paths that no other Western society would ever tread, or even know how to find. Whereas European society—moving with varying speed but in a fairly uniform direction—experienced the end of Christendom simultaneously as the decline of faith, in America just the opposite happened. Here, the paucity of institutional and “civilizing” mediations between the transcendent and the immanent went hand in hand with a general, largely formless, and yet utterly irrepressible intensification of faith: rather than the exhaustion of religious longing, its revival; rather than a long nocturnal descent into disenchantment, a new dawning of early Christianity’s elated expectation of the Kingdom….

In the wake of Christendom’s collapse, the forms of Christianity that would prove most lively would be those that possess something analogous to the apocalyptic consciousness of the earliest Christian communities: their sense of having emerged from history into the immediacy of a unique redemptive event; their triumphant contempt for antique cult and culture; their experience of emancipation from the bondage of the law; their aloofness from structures of civil power; and their indifference to the historical future (for the present things are passing away).

Whatever the case, the American religion somehow slipped free from this story before it reached its dénouement, and so it is not inextricably entangled in the tragic contradictions of historical memory. At its purest, in fact, it is free of almost all memory, and so of all anxiety: it strives towards a state of almost perfect timelessness, seeking a place set apart from the currents of human affairs, where God and the soul can meet and, so to speak, affirm one another. For a faith so thoroughly divorced from history, there is no set limit to the future it may possess. And if, as I have said, culture is always shaped by spiritual aspirations, this all has a very great bearing on what kind of future America might possess. History is not created by historical consciousness, after all; the greatest historical movements are typically inspired by visions of an eternal truth that has somehow overtaken history. This is simply because a people’s very capacity for a future, at least one of any duration or consequence (good or bad), requires a certain obliviousness in regard to time’s death-bound banality, a certain imaginative levity, a certain faith. The future is often the gift of the eternal.

Whatever one’s view of Evangelicalism, only bigotry could prevent one from recognizing its many admirable features: the dignity, decency, and probity it inspires in individuals, families, and communities; the moral seriousness it nourishes in countless consciences; its frequent and generous commitment to alleviating the sufferings of the indigent and ill; its capacity for binding diverse peoples together in a shared spiritual resolve; its power to alter character profoundly for the better; the joy it confers. But, conversely, only a deep ignorance of Christian history could blind one to its equally numerous eccentricities: the odd individualism of its understanding of salvation; its bizarre talk of Christ as one’s “personal Lord and savior”; its fantastic scriptural literalism; the crass sentimentality of some of its more popular forms of worship; its occasional tendency to confuse piety with patriotism….

Much of American Evangelicalism not only lacks any sense of tradition, but is blithely hostile to tradition on principle: What is tradition, after all, other than man-made history, and what is history other than exile from paradise? What need does one have of tradition when one has the Bible, that eternal love letter from Jesus to the soul, inerrant, unambiguous, uncorrupted by the vicissitudes of human affairs? In some of its most extreme forms, Evangelicalism is a religion of total and unsullied reverie, the pure present of the child’s world, where ingenuous outcries and happy gestures and urgent conjurations instantly bring forth succor and substance. And, at its most intensely fundamentalist, so precipitous is its flight from the gravity of history into Edenic and eschatological rapture that it reduces all of cosmic history to a few thousand years of terrestrial existence and the whole of the present to a collection of signs urgently pointing to the world’s imminent ending….

My central claim is that what one sees with particular clarity in Evangelical piety is a deep spiritual orientation that both informs and expresses the American mythos: that grand narrative, going back to colonial times, of a people that has fled the evils of an Old World sunk in corruption, cast off the burden of an intolerable past, and been “born again” as a new nation, redeemed from the violence and falsehood of the former things.

It is not difficult, of course, to enumerate the weaknesses of a culture shaped by such a spiritual logic. It is a spirituality that, for example, makes very little contribution to the aesthetic surface of American life. This is no small matter. The American religion does almost nothing to create a shared high culture, to enrich the lives of ordinary persons with the loveliness of sacred public spaces, to erect a few durable bulwarks against the cretinous barbarity of late modern popular culture, or to enliven the physical order with intimations of transcendent beauty. With its nearly absolute separation between inward conviction and outward form, it is largely content to surrender the surrounding world to utilitarian austerity. It could not do otherwise, even if the nation’s constitution were not formally so secular. It would not have the imaginative resources. It is a religion of feeling, not of sensibility; it might be able to express itself in great scale, but not as a rule in good taste.

It is, however, a religious temperament wonderfully free of cynicism or moral doubt, and so it may have a singular capacity for surviving historical disappointment and the fluctuations of national fortune. Its immunity to disenchantment seems very real, at any rate. It may, in fact, grow only stronger if the coming decades should bring about a decline in America’s preeminence, power, international influence, or even solvency. Whatever the case, it is unlikely to lapse very easily into a decline of its own, or vanish into some American equivalent of the spiritual exhaustion and moral lassitude of post-Christian Europe.

The question that should concern us, it seems to me, is whether in years ahead America will produce a society that has any particular right to a future. By this, I mean nothing more elaborate than: How charitable and just a society will it be, how conscious will it be of those truths that transcend the drearier economies of finite existence, and will it produce much good art? And all of that will be determined, inevitably, by spiritual forces.

It is not obvious, however, what those forces will be, or what they will bring about. It is very much an open and troubling question whether American religiosity has the resources to help sustain a culture as a culture—whether, that is, it can create a meaningful future, or whether it can only prepare for the end times. Is the American religious temperament so apocalyptic as to be incapable of culture in any but the most local and ephemeral sense? Does it know of any city other than Babylon the Great or the New Jerusalem? For all the moral will it engenders in persons and communities, can it cultivate the kind of moral intelligence necessary to live in eternity and in historical time simultaneously, without contradiction? Will its lack of any coherent institutional structure ultimately condemn it to haunting rather than vivifying its culture, or make it too susceptible to exploitation by alien interests, or render it incapable of bearing any sufficiently plausible or even interesting witness to the transcendent . . . ? And so on and so on. There is much to admire in the indigenous American religious sensibility, without question, but also much to deplore, and there is plenteous cause for doubt here.

Still, the worst fate that could befall America, one far grimmer than the mere loss of some of its fiscal or political supremacy in the world, would be the final triumph of a true cultural secularism….Even when it is not breeding great projects for the rectification of human nature or human society—not building death-camps or gulags, not preaching eugenics or the workers’ paradise—the secularist impulse can create nothing of enduring value. It corrupts the will and the imagination with the deadening boredom of an ultimate pointlessness, weakens the hunger for the good, true, and beautiful, makes the pursuit of diversion life’s most pressing need, and gives death the final word. A secular people—by which I mean not simply a people with a secular constitution, but one that really no longer believes in any reality beyond the physical realm—is a dying people, both culturally and demographically. Civilization, or even posterity, is no longer worth the effort. And, in our case, it would not even be a particularly dignified death. European Christendom has at least left a singularly presentable corpse behind. If the American religion were to evaporate tomorrow, it would leave behind little more than the brutal banality of late modernity.

In the end, though, on the matter of religion and the American future, I am certain of very little….Perhaps the quieter strengths they impart to our culture—its deeper reserves of charity and moral community, the earnestness of its spiritual longings, its occasional poetic madness—will persist for a long while yet, and with them the possibility of cultural accomplishments far more important than mere geopolitical preeminence. There is, at any rate, some room for hope.


Owen White said...

OK, I’ll bite.

I too was impressed by DBH’s essay on Cowling back in the day. So much so that I bought the first two volumes of Cowling’s trilogy, and read half of the third at the library (the third volume, even in paperback, is ridiculously expensive – and it is the best volume, wherein Cowling has his marvelous dismissals of C.S. Lewis, the Inklings, and Chesterton and Belloc). Cowling remains one of my favorite conservative thinkers, and if there were any conservative historian writing history in the vein of what your last post here suggests, it would be Cowling.

But this essay by DBH strikes me as almost the polar opposite of that sort of content rich focused-on-what-actually-happened sort of reflection on culture, history, etc. This seems to be the trajectory DBH is on. His recent essays, and this one more than any other to date (in my opinion), once you get past the façade of the vocabuliac pomposity, are not much more than Touchstonista screeds. DBH used to be a rhetorical genius. His essay Christ and Nothing is one of the top ten essays I have ever read in my life. His arguments vis-à-vis neo-paganism, and how it relates not at all to the old paganism, are content rich and superb. Even in Beauty of the Infinite, a work which DBH has now distanced himself from and which has been roundly nitpicked apart by scholars in the 3 major fields most related to the work (patristic/historical theology, philosophy, and literary criticism), DBH makes excellent arguments, notwithstanding the assertions that these arguments are wrong because DBH’s reading was limited or his data was wrong (as, it has been argued, with his presentation of Gregory of Nyssa’s soteriology – an area where I happen to agree with DBH). The man can argue, or, at least, could. I used to think he was something of an Orthodox Christopher Hitchens. OK, I once aspired to be the Orthodox Christopher Hitchens, so maybe I’m painting the world in my colors, but I think longtime readers of DBH might agree with me that the man used to present himself as a brilliant controversialist who took unsuspected turns and made arguments that were out of the mold of the usual argumentative models in whatever realm he was dealing with – think of his essay on pornography a while back as exemplary of this mode.

But nowadays he seems to be content to just put his vocabulaic pomposity to use with essays like this one – essays which say nothing new, which just add rhetorical flourish to argumentative tones which are incredibly tired, and all while presenting little in the way of a content rich argument.

This essay is incredibly derivative. The description of American Evangelicalism is neatly done, but it corresponds almost exactly, rhetorical flourishes aside, to arguments that have been made by American Evangelical critics of Evangelicalism, think Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio. There have been so many Christian and/or intellectual cultural commentators who have made the same distinction between American and European cultures, right down to the Mormons being the epitome of American religion bit. People have been making this argument over and over again for at least two decades. So when I read Fr. Tobias assert that this is the most important essay of the year, I have to ask myself “why?” It’s all been said before many, many times, and sometimes by people who made actual arguments with actual content (Bloom, for instance, in his original arguments concerning the place of Mormonism in American religion).

Owen White said...


There are so many assertions and issues brought up in this essay – I don’t know how to respond briefly, so…..
For DBH Christendom at least has left us with a worthy corpse – beautiful church buildings, beautiful music, beautiful theology that demographically speaking no intellectuals read anymore, beautiful customs that are hardly practiced anymore (though some still in shell form), and so forth. These are now dead. The secularist impulse can leave us nothing – not even a worthy corpse to look at. Cultures are framed by spiritual forces, the sort that leave worthy corpses behind, I guess. Only the spiritual/eternal forces in a culture can leave cultures/societies with those things called “enduring values.” At first reading the first thing that should pop into readers analytic mind here is that, obviously and to DBH’s explicit admission, the values he values from old Christendom didn’t endure. They died, hence the corpse. So these spiritual and not material forces leave us with those enduring values which don’t endure, or, at least, to put it in a way a conservative historian would like it, the ‘what is’ and ‘what has been’ analysis of enduring values brought about in culture by spiritual forces is the ‘reality’ that they don’t actually endure.

When I read this essay I’m struck by the fact that it is a much more eloquent and reserved variation on a theme I have heard since the Sunday Schools of my youth, when I was told about great preachers and missionaries winning whole nations and or whole people groups for Christ. I remember in 5th or 6th grade being told about the great Welsh revivals (I grew up in an area with a lot of Welsh folk around so we were told these stories in Sunday School) - we were told about how the bars all shut down, and husbands and wives got along, and the churches were full, etc., etc. But there were at least 2, and by some accounts 3, Welsh revivals which “won the nation for Christ” over about a 120 year period. I remember as a little kid raising my hand in class and asking the Sunday School teacher – “so, if the Welsh people had to be won for Christ again after the first revival, does that mean they were lost to Christ after they had been won the first time?” My point was, what does “winning” a society “for Christ” mean, if whatever changes you think amount to “winning” the culture are so transitory that they can be lost within a generation or less? That same spirit of questioning applies here, only now I would say that the central problem with this essay is that DBH doesn’t spell out or even suggest how it came to be that Christendom became a corpse. It’s as if big bad secularism came and screwed up this wonderfully marvelous social phenomenon that was the living culture of old, Christian Europe. Hell, I might as well be reading Belloc. Except that Belloc actually confronted some of the, uh, reasons that Christendom faltered and fell. Belloc acknowledged the rampant corruption, violence, inequality, and the poor political and economic bets ecclesial and Christian power wielders made prior to and in the early stages of modernity. The early Belloc, as a devout Catholic, defends the French Revolution on the basis that Church and State had become hopelessly corrupt, nominalized, and compromised. I don’t get the sense that DBH could ever go that far. In any event he never seems to acknowledge the Church’s own role in the downfall of Christendom.

Owen White said...


I know a lot of Orthodox have read Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, which is of course THE revisionist work on the English reformation. Duffy disagrees with some previous historians on the number of persons active in religious services prior to the English Reformation, and some post-revisionist historians have now “corrected” Duffy a bit on that, but even if you accept all the parameters, from pre-Duffy to post-Duffy and in between, nobody asserts that the majority of persons were active in actual religious liturgical services on a regular basis. The experience of most people was that church was something you did a relatively few times in a lifetime, for major events. Yes, there were all sorts of religious influences in culture at large, and all sorts of cultural customs which touched everyone which were religiously infused, but here I want to ask a question specifically suited for Orthodox – did those things actually change people, or even make them more inclined to change in a religious manner? I would assert that it seems not. They were more aesthetic forms within the culture at large, and usually had no more than a sentimental or nostalgic effect on human persons.

My wife’s grandmother recently told my mother-in-law, for this first time, that she was sexually abused by her father as a child. She didn’t say anything because she “would have been blamed for it” in that society. This was in east Kentucky during the Depression. It was a very Christian, very patriarchal, very socially conservative community. When I lived in Maine for a year, where Appalachia ends in the north, I read several studies on incest in Maine which noted that while other areas in Appalachia had seen a reduction in incest rates, Maine had not, and at that time had the highest incest rates in the country. Research on the history of sexuality offers data which suggests that the rape of children, and incest itself, was rather widespread in pre-modernity. Just as we expect certain sexual pathologies to arise in prison environments, in small communities where you spend many hours in a cabin during winter with nothing to do, etc., certain pathologies are inevitable. This is not a modern problem. These sorts of things were rampant back when the corpse was not, as DBH would suggest it, yet a corpse. I don’t mean to suggest that sex is the only factor (I mention it first because for Touchstonistas it is of singular importance). Violence, theft, greed, etc. seemed to have been rampant in premodernity. Look at the textual evidence of traditions like the evil eye and similar – there was clearly and commonly a lot of real animosity and conflict in these idyllic village environments that ChesterBelloc were so convinced were better incubators of Christians than modern cities. Hmmm. There were reasons our ancestors were so keen on leaving them. I don't think most of those reasons were malevolent.

Owen White said...


Further, I should hope it need not be developed much that the Church was horribly corrupt in the experience of many, probably most people prior to modernity and through modernity. I can only imagine how DBH would describe that famous event during the Spanish Civil War when peasant anarchists in the Republican Army “executed” a giant statue of the Sacred Heart at Cerro de los Ángeles. How horrible, how blasphemous. But to follow the vein of this essay, he would not dwell much on the treatment of peasants by the Church. On the Church’s own landowning immediately prior to that “execution” and its treatment of its tenants, and on the blessing the Church gave to social and economic norms which essentially enslaved peasants. Giant statues of Christ are nice and all, but when they are erected by an ecclesial power which blesses my landlord in his forcibly keeping my family in poverty, such that my children die of illnesses the landlord’s don’t die of because I can’t afford medicine, then damn straight I’m going to be inclined to shoot the statue, as I should be so inclined to associate that image with an ecclesial authority that is blessing the killing my people. DBH can focus all he wants on the “spiritual forces” that create the “enduring values” in society, but the experience of the vast majority of humanity, even in the most “Christian” of nations, has not been such that these spiritual forces which brought about beautiful churches and beautiful music and beautiful customs corresponded to a way of life they experienced as “beautiful” or whole or humane. The experience of life as “beautiful” in pre-modernity and into modernity has been the domain of the middle and upper classes. Yes, Christianity brought about great social transformations in the world. I am agree with those many communists who believe that modern socialist ideals are contingent upon Christianity within history. The elevation of women, the egalitarian impulses with regard to class and race. These things depend upon the Christian message in history. But that is not to say that everywhere you have beautiful churches you have the destruction of inhumane social forces. The Churches, all of them, despite their language of almsgiving and “fair” social relations, have long and well-established histories of siding with and reinforcing inhumane and utterly evil forms of social control. [This is one reason why I balk at the last post on this blog. It’s not as if we haven’t tried the “local” ethnic based nationalisms with their xenophobias and “defend the rural motherland culture” bits before. We know that for right wing elements to grasp a popular base they have to foster and encourage social hatreds against outsiders, foreigners, or whatever other Other they can find. ] In any event, the gig is up. The vast majority of persons in the West, and not because of some ideological commitment to secularism qua secularism, know that the Churches have no moral authority when it comes to the structuring of society. I might voluntarily allow a church to tell me where I can stick my penis and what I have to do with an insignificant amount of my income, but even then I’m not going to trust the church to tell me how society should be structured. I’m not going to trust it broadly as a cultural force. This is because of the vast array of human experience suggests as much. Hell, if thinkers as diverse as Marx and Kierkegaard can agree that the old European churches are morally bankrupt institutions which are inept at directing society, there might be something there to consider. The only way churches in some European countries can again rise to actual social prominence is if they ride the wave of a right wing nationalism. I disturbs me that some Christians find this an attractive possibility.

Owen White said...


Let’s be honest, as much as folks like DBH decry the spiritual condition of our societies today, and setting aside comfort issues like modern medicine and deodorant and such, how many of these conservatives would want to go back in time and live as an “average” or typical human being lived in pre-modern Christian societies, even if we only mean the social relations parts? How many would want to effectively be slaves to their lords, have nearly all aspects of their lives decided for them? It’s funny that when I talk with Eastern European Orthodox about communism, nearly all of them whose families had been middle class prior to the whatever revolution or social transformation occurred in their land lambast communism/socialism, but almost all of them whose families came from peasant backgrounds have mostly good things to say about the effects of socialism. I’ve noted this especially among Romanians. Among Ukrainians not so much. Obviously the experience was different in different places, but for all the horrors of socialism in many places a lot of village people were glad to get getting running water, electricity, access to medical care, schooling for their children, and to see the landlord replaced with a commissar who was often around a lot less. I wonder how many of these conservative Christians, if they were presented with an in-the-flesh choice between the realities of life in the Romanian village under the landlord, and the realities of life in the Romanian village in the worker’s state, would choose the landlord and Christendom? Of course, Romania is perhaps not the best example because most of those Romanian villages kept their churches during socialism.

DBH in this essay makes mention of the worst sides of socialism – gulags and worker’s camps and the like. But it is interesting that he doesn’t list explicitly the worst sides of capitalism. In his mind it seems the apotheosis of secularism is the gulag or ugly Soviet housing or somesuch, but there is no indication that he has thought of the ugliness brought about by late modern commodity fetishism, by a nation with millions of McMansions, by the changing nature of what we put into our bodies and the now seemingly irreversible changes to our rural landscape thanks to Monsanto, by the images of perpetual war that late capitalism depends upon, by the existence of advertisements EVERYWHERE and on EVERYTHING. Now, he has said things elsewhere where he suggests that the banalities of capitalism are rather naughty as well, but he doesn’t tend to get specific with them, and when so, never as specific as when he associates the dark sides of 20th century socialism with the secularist impulse. This seems to me to show a bit of his hand. In the end, conservative thought must find hierarchies to defend, and capitalism at least, despite all of its banalities, provides clear hierarchies, which are treated as ontological even if not ‘believed’ to be so, and thus it will never be as evil as the socialist impulse in the minds of men like DBH. In the end, DBH wants a society where there is a class, say blacks, who provide the poor black cleaning ladies like the one he so fondly grew up with.

Owen White said...

What is the way out, then, especially for those who want to both live humanly human lives and live as faithful Christians?

I honestly don't know, and it perplexes me greatly. I know that I can no longer turn in the directions DBH does. Beautiful European churches, polyphony, and literature will not save us or the world. If I were still Orthodox I'd bet with old Orr that the best we can hope for know is to create our own little sketes - microcultures, as it were, that operate as best as possible within the greater secularized contexts. I also think of art such as that of Arvo Pärt, which is decidedly modern and yet obviously informed by and borne of a traditional Orthodox spirit. I don't see blathering on about the ugliness of modernity as a way out. Human life has always been ugly for most people. The point is to transform and I don't see DBH's eulogies about corpses as holding any promise there.

The one thing I share with DBH on these fronts, if I take what he writes at the end at face value, is very little hope.

Owen White said...

Sorry for my own verbal pomposity, but then again, I think most of the readers here don't expect rhetorical humility on my part.

John said...

Owen, I had a long response, but lost it right before posting. I'll try again tomorrow.

John said...


Thanks for all this...I guess it is a good thing I did not post on a Rod Dreher article, huh? First, I am absolutely in agreement on Cowling--if nothing else, I have been reminded to go back and read more from him. You have to admit, my commendation of DBH was qualified at best. The main thing I wanted to do was note the particular passage I highlighted, where I believe he summed-up (with a minimum of verbiage) that which I observe around me.

You make valid points in your critiques.

1. This has all been said many, many times before. In going back over my notes from 2003, I found another article saying much the same thing, written by Ken Myers. Go to the usual sites and it is not hard to find similar essays. So, there is nothing new here. I believe the subject matter is important enough, however, that it bears repeating from time to time.

2. You are correct in that DBH could have strengthened his argument with some concrete examples. Since it was central to his thesis, a bit of explanation of exactly how he thought western Christendom died would have been helpful.

3. DBH was one-sided in noting the ills of socialism without a mention of the legacy of free-market capitalism. Venner, in the previous post, savaged it. (And I did not interpret that article as his heralding the awakening of a new European ethnic nationalism. We all know how that ends.)

You ask whether the society DBH yearns for ever actually changed people. I would suggest not--or at least not that they or we would ever know, and certainly not in the way we think when we use the word "conversion"--nor do I think it had anything at all to do with how many times they might darken a church door. And yet, I think once all that fell away, or was removed, then I believe the difference could be seen and measured.

Somehow, I do not see that DBH is presenting such stark choices--by this I mean that the only 2 options do not have to be a secular wasteland on one hand, or a landscape dotted with empty Sacre Couers on the other. I have been fortunate enough to visit a goodly number of the grand cathedrals of western Europe, and frankly...honestly...they all left me a bit cold. Not to get in the "when I was in" mode, but one of my most memorable experiences occured in a small chapel that was little larger than a living room, high in the Caucasus Mountains. The sanctuary had been used as a livery stable by the Communists for decades. Now, it was a church again, and the center of life in the village. There is no such "village life" in the U.S., nor can it be replicated. For me, the problem with the secular wasteland, as characterized by
DBH, is not that it precludes the construction of grand cathedrals, but that it also precludes these small, plain, roughhewn treasures as well.

I would agree that the eastern European peasant class misses the loss of socialism more than the middle class. I would also say that all classes have suffered in the post-socialist transition. You mentioned the example of Romania: my impression--and it is only that, an impression--is that Communism had a lighter touch in that country, Ceausescu notwithstanding. I know the situation in Bulgaria was much different--harsher and more detrimental to the fabric of the nation.

Owen White said...


I agree with everything you've written here. Thanks for letting me vent.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to pull the bell curve down by simply saying I'm glad to hear someone else, who I know to me intelligent, admit to not finishing The Beauty of the Infinite.
It read like a PhD thesis on steroids. I'm not enough of a philosophy of religion wonk to "get it," even though Bill Placher (R.I.P.) was on the front cover praising it.

Jeremiah said...

As someone pursuing a philosophy PhD who also could barely understand *Beauty of the Infinite*, I urge you not to give up on DBH. Frankly, though I often dislike aspects of his tone and his prolixity, I have a hard time understanding some of the dislike of him. (I'm also curious, Owen, if you could share some of the sources of the round nitpicking you say *Beauty of the Infinite* received. I've read some blog reviews of it, and two symposia in academic journals about the work, but none seemed to me even to attempt to raise substantive criticism.)

As far as the essay above, I grant that DBH is occasionally prone to a type of pessimistic nostalgia (that I often fail to resist myself), but I'm not sure Owen's comments get to the heart of the matter. For those who think beauty is important, and who are doubtful that beauty can survive in a 'modern' culture, there is cause for worry (and I don't think Arvo Part, for example, counts as a 'modern' composer, without equivocating. Aspects of his style may have developed in the 'modern period' but the substance of his music rejects the things that DBH picks out when he talks of modernity). It also did not seem to me that DBH was defending feudalism, or that he thinks capitalism any better than socialism.

s-p said...

Owen, I sure miss your critiques of "Orthodox thinkers". Your 8 part comment was probably the best thing I've read on the internet in 6 months. Actually, it is the ONLY thing that has kept my interest for more than a paragraph (nay, two sentences) on the internet in the last 6 months. I go round and round with "Orthodox monarchists" and all manner of Goofodox prognosticators who cannot answer the simple question you pose of DBH's take on Western European Christianity: Why (or did it really) did "X-brand of Christianity" convert a culture (and allegedly its political system) then fail to keep it and why would we want to return to a such a failed religio-political system/culture? At some point one must imagine that hyper secularism is its own curse and for those who look within, the existential impetus for individuals to see their own "personal" bankruptcy of living outside a Trinitiarian image and likeness. It is only then "Orthodox theology" will make sense to the post modern secularist who will respond by creating a small community/skete and transformation can begin, IMHO.

Jeremiah said...

Owen, and S-P: Here's the answer I would give to what seems your fundamental question of why 'Christendom' was important (even if I grant that's not the best name for it, and in *some* senses there never was such a single thing): it produced things of lasting beauty the likes of which have not been produced since. Why is that not good enough? And I simply deny that the 'vestiges' of Christendom have only a sentimental of nostalgic value. But perhaps I have a more optimistic, even sacramental view of beauty. And whether you were convinced or not, DBH attempts to argue that the legacy of Christendom is also found in things like hospitals, the abolition of slavery, increased equality for women, etc. I simply don't see how pointing to a bunch of bad features undermines that case. And there seems to be an easy answer as to why Christendom didn't last: the change was not complete (and never will be), and people are liable to manipulation and drawn to manipulate (and always will be). That just means that things can change for the worse.

ochlophobist said...
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ochlophobist said...
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s-p said...

Jeremiah, without denying the sacramental nature of beauty and altruism that Christianity has brought into the world it is also clear from the Gospel that evil murders beauty and goodness. That is not a reason to NOT strive for beauty or to give but until one has watched one's sweat, blood and tears get bulldozed for a gas station because of clericalism and F-'d up ecclesial oversight I don't think you can "get" how it is the Church loses not just a temple but an entire culture, beauty and "goodness" notwithstanding. I don't think it is a matter of "optimism vs. pessimism" but a cold discerning eye on the realities of what happened in Europe, the Balkans and Russia in spite of all the "Christian" influences it had for over a millenium. Personally, I won't stop building Churches. I will however cease being cocksure about what it means and what it will accomplish in a grander scheme of things.

Jeremiah said...

Thanks for the response. I'm still forming my views on many of these issues, but I guess it still does seem to me like a lot of the debate is simply a manifestation of the contrasts between pessimistic and optimistic outlooks (though of course everyone is optimistic about some things and pessimistic about others) As far as DBH is concerned (whether or not his argument is 'original'), his main point has been that the formation of the Christian worldview was truly a revolutionary thing and when it has been manifested in a culture, it's effects have been the spread of beauty and justice. This is fully consistent with saying that that worldview has only ever been partially lived out and comes in starts and fits. So, again, I don't think anyone would deny that clericalism is a terrible thing and that terrible things have happened in 'Christian' Europe. But that is just to say that Europe and even the institutional Church have never been fully Christian. And to admit that is still to believe that the 'Christian revolution' is important and worth fighting for and bringing attention to. (If the main worry is just with DBH's rhetorical excesses, then I think that should be made clear in a way that admits the general soundness of what he's after.)

John said...


I will have to agree with s-p, in that I just do not see this debate hinging in any way on the difference between pessimism and optimism (and I understand that you are not saying that it is all that simple.) I just find these 2 concepts poorly-equipped to address the enormity of this issue. I do not know that I am one or the other--I certainly wouldn't want to characterize myself either way. At best, I appreciate realism (which, I believe, transcends both optimism and pessimism), and you might say I have gloomy expectations--but that I do not fret about it ("situation hopeless, but not serious.") But the thing I want to get back to is this--DBH's paragraph that I highligted, to wit:

"the secularist impulse can create nothing of enduring value. It corrupts the will and the imagination with the deadening boredom of ultimate pointlessness, weakens the hunger for the good, true, and beautiful, makes the pursuit of diversion life's most pressing need, and gives death the final word. A secular that really no longer believes in any reality beyond the physical realm--is a dying people, both culturally and demographically. Civilization, or even posterity, is no longer worth the effort....If the American religion were to evaporate tomorrow, it would leave behind little more than the brutal banality of late modernity."

Stripping-away the stylistic debate regarding DBH(and note that I omitted the "corpse" sentence, which was one of his typical verbal flourishes which detracted from the main point)--I find this statement to be true. I see it every day, all around me. In short, I believe it to be a cold-eyed assessment of American late modernity. I would believe it to be true even if the words were mouthed by one of our GOP Presidential candidates. DBH being DBH, he had to take us through Sacre Couer to say it. Trends are hard things to turn around, and this one has been in the works for countless generations. I do not see it reversing course (there's your pessimism, if you want to call it that.) And the only recourse, I see, is the wise counsel offered earlier--the small communities/sketes persevering and preserving within the larger secularist culture, ready for the rebuilding should the Lord delay (and there's your optimism, if you want to call it that.)

Jeremiah said...

Thanks. The pessimism vs optimism thing had to do with the claim that being part of a 'Christianized culture' never changed anyone. I think that's probably false because I think of culture as a sort of liturgy, and I think of liturgy as something that really does change people deep down. I would rather say, as I did above, that even a 'Christian' culture can never be fully Christian, and in light of other cultural forces, the Christian influences can easily be overwhelmed/reversed. But I do not think that difference of opinion really does have anything to do with optimism vs pessimism, so I take that back. I somehow missed Owen's comment above about forming small communities, and I think that's exactly right about where the Church's focus should primarily be, in part because 'cultures' are so fickle.

Anthony said...

s-p wrote:

Owen, I sure miss your critiques of "Orthodox thinkers". Your 8 part comment was probably the best thing I've read on the internet in 6 months. Actually, it is the ONLY thing that has kept my interest for more than a paragraph (nay, two sentences) on the internet in the last 6 months.

I second this opinion.

david williams said...

At first reading the first thing that should pop into readers analytic mind here is that, obviously and to DBH’s explicit admission, the values he values from old Christendom didn’t endure. They died, hence the corpse. So these spiritual and not material forces leave us with those enduring values which don’t endure, or, at least, to put it in a way a conservative historian would like it, the ‘what is’ and ‘what has been’ analysis of enduring values brought about in culture by spiritual forces is the ‘reality’ that they don’t actually endure.

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Maxim said...

I, too, will admit to being disappointed in DBH's recent offerings; he's still a very good writer, (and his primary importance to me was always as a writer) but he seems a little bit tired. Perhaps it's unfair to compare his recent output with the outrageous originality of his initial essays, as that kind of fire is hard to sustain, particularly as one grows older. How to retain a creativity undiminished in a world that demands the bulk of our resource be directed to the procurement of daily bread? That, at least, seems to me to be Hart's situation; too busy with the mundane affairs of existence to have the kind of pertinacious penetration into the problem of existence that he once did. Also, he no longer stands quite on the ground he used to, in stark contradiction to the contradictions of the modern ethos; in finding his place in the world, he seems to have made his peace with it, and even if it is a somewhat guarded peace, those things no longer inspire the same fervent response; the acerbic wit and hard-pressed attack are replaced by a sort of languid irony. It is like a career Senator going to the club with his political opponents after the day's controversies, engaged in primarily because it is their profession. He has stated that he no longer believes everything he wrote previously; sometimes in his current essays I have to wonder if he really believes what he is writing, so flippant the tone and so firmly is his tongue embedded in his cheek.

I think the ways that Faith influence culture are subtle, having more to do with poetry than science. I'm not surprised that the Welsh have to have a revival every generation or so, because every generation has to seize the Faith anew, and the hardest people in the world to convert are your own children, and the worst fate is that they will fail to be converted and continue to haunt the sacred halls as tepid church-goers. Great art requires great faith, but I believe that great works of art are generally produced after faith has already begun to wane; it utilizes the energy generated by faith, but its eyes are on the World, not on Christ, and it is beginning to sink. It's hard to make a mark in the world without becoming worldly.

Great churches and other artistic achievements are relics of faith, (as they would not have come to be apart from it) but they are not the Faith; the tides recede, and leave them scattered on the beach. No People, no Culture, is truly Christian; to the majority of its adherents in any time or place, the Faith is just religion, that is, something to be used for purposes of divination and as a talisman against misfortune. Nevertheless, the Faith is a leaven; worked well into the loaf, it is not entirely futile, though its triumphs are ephemeral. The evidences of its passage are not valueless either; at the very least, they may cause some forsaken denizen of a world without meaning to raise his eyes in wonder to ponder these broken shells, and ask himself "What surf of what far sea upon what unknown ground troubles forever with that asking sound; what surge is this whose question never ceases"? Nevertheless, that's what they are; shells, from which the living essence has departed.

Maxim said...

Optimism and Pessimism are delusional mentalities; the glass is not half-empty or half-full, there is just half a glass of water. The sane perspective always contains elements of hopefulness as well as prudent reflection on the difficulties of the situation. Modern Utopianism has been a progressive forgetting of the fallenness of Man and the Earth, and the true balance between hope and caution can only come from preserving this knowledge. In this light we know that whatever there is of gold in our earthly existence is always buried beneath a ton of dross, but we also know that the dross is consumed, and the gold remains. Those who have lost touch with reality can only alternate fruitlessly between Optimism and Pessimism; it is only when Nature is revered as a goddess that she appears as a hag. No one need feel constrained to live a life of bitterness and despair by the pains they have suffered, it is our own free choice whether we are to make of our pain wine or vinegar. Life for the Peasant has never been easy, but in modern times his spirit has been embittered by those who preach the immenence of some worker's paradise, which isn't going to arrive, and if it does, will prove only to be a worse hell, the inevitable fate of an artificial paradise. Christ said that the poor are blessed, perhaps partly because they are free from the glamour with which the rich delude themselves, which is a deadly spiritual environment, and consequently are able to see the world as it really is, and profit spiritually from this knowledge.

Maxim said...

I suspect what we have in America is not the death of religion, as in Europe, but the corruption of religion, that is, religion as a perpetual circus, a mass entertainment and a palliative for all the emotional ills inflicted by life in modern society, rather like Prozac without the nasty side-effects. If this corrupted religion is able to be integrated a little more into the spirit of modernity, and retains sufficient energy to regalvanise the corpse of European religion, it could very well provide the nucleus of World religion, a Christianity which no longer affirms that salvation is through Christ alone able to combine with a Judaism which no longer believes itself a chosen people and an Islam that believes in Jihad only in the sense of spiritual endeavor; what is required is something contentless and amorphous, and what fits the bill better than the American religious environment?

If one makes it the purpose of his life to combat injustice, he will die in bitterness, as he will never be able to keep up, and any triumph he does achieve will be itself corrupted, probably before the end of his life, unless he is one of those blessed souls who die in battle fighting for The Cause, the happiest consummation for the revolutionist. Injustice does not have to destroy peace, just as Pain does not have to destroy Love; Christ himself, when approached by a man asking him to rectify an injustice in his family, essentially told him to refocus his energy. The Church was not established to combat social injustice; it did not fight to end slavery, (though eventually it did have that effect) or poverty, or disease, or for any of the progressive causes that modern Christians are so taken up with. To the extent that Christian values are absorbed into a human society, it becomes the redress of social ill; that this process in all cases is slow and incomplete in no way mitigates this truth. If we focus our energies entirely in a fight to the death with social injustice, it does two things: One, it changes the nature of the Church, making it into a this-worldly kingdom, and two, it plunges the world into a condition of perpetual war, and war is always an exceedingly fertile breeding-ground for injustices of all kinds.

The main reason I think Monarchy superior to other forms of government is that it models Heavenly order better than other forms, especially Democracy, which might be seen as the perfect expression of the Satanic revolt. Under this kind of authority, I think it's easy for people to unconsciously begin to view God as a kind of Prime Minister they can turn out of office if He doesn't reflect their values. I'm certainly not going to argue that Monarchical systems are free from injustice, but I do think it is possible for a good man to be king; our political order seems designed to prevent an honest man from speaking his mind, and so of course honest men steer away from political involvement, and we end up with a bunch of empty heads regurgitating the latest polls. Realistically, we're not going to have a Monarch at this stage of the game; perhaps as a stop-gap measure we should try every politician for his life at the conclusion of his term of office.