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.