This book is the intellectual side of ecclesiastical history, and Hart’s goal is not simply to debunk misconceptions that the so-called ‘New Atheists’ have been spreading abroad (without cease, despite this book having been out for 8 years) but also to introduce the ancient Roman world and what distinguished the Christian revolution from its pagan predecessor and how it impacted western culture in Late Antiquity and beyond.
For those interested in some of the deep debates about philosophy and the history of ideas, the notes are few. Hart says this is because the book is really an extended essay. Nonetheless, this choice is too bad, because I suspect that some of his judgements regarding Late Antiquity would be challenged by other scholars (not just Ramsey MacMullen, whose misuse of evidence Hart takes on with full force). But this is not really a book to win converts, anyway — the title is too provocative, the prose, at times, too biting to allow its opponents the peace of mind to engage deeply. This is not a criticism — it strikes me that Hart knows the audience for such a book as this, and it is not Richard Dawkins.
One strength of the book is that, while Hart (an Eastern Orthodox Christian) believes in Christianity and the Christian gospel, and thus Christian morality and ethics, he is not triumphalist about certain aspects of the story he tells. For example, the Emperor Julian is duly noted as, in terms of general character and policy, more ‘Christian’ than the Christian emperors of Late Antiquity. He also sees the transformation of Christianity into the state religion of the Roman Empire as a great disaster — for both Christianity and the Empire.
Yet he sees with clear eyes the glories of the Gospel and what Gospel means for society. God became man; in fact, he took on the form of a slave, according to Philippians. This casts the pitch of biblical anthropology an octave higher than the glorious truth that we are made in God’s image (Gen 1) — God has partaken of our nature. He loves each of us. All human beings, finite and changeable and weak and powerless, are of infinite value, beloved by the infinite God: men, women, slaves, free, Jews, Gentiles. What we gain from the Christian revolution, that paganism never (and, in Hart’s view, never could) gave is the human person.
What we gain, then, over centuries of a culture imbued with this charity — despite all the many failures of the institutional church and of particular Christians — are the abolition of slavery, hospitals, advances in medicine, human rights, innumerable charitable organisations, love of the unlovely, justice for the unjust, and more.
The great cloud that hangs over the final chapters is: Will we lose all this in a post-Christian society? He notes ethicists such as Peter Singer who calls for the abortion and infanticide of the severely disabled. To what end is it morally acceptable to kill, to murder, to destroy people with Down syndrome? People who, as Hart observes, despite any suffering they endure, are often much more filled with joy than we who lack disabilities. Why should they not have the right to life?
The book ends with a reminder of the Desert Fathers who, at Christianity’s alleged ‘triumph’, retreated from the institutional church into the wild to seek to live out pure prayer, perfect charity, and purity of heart, to gaze upon God and the world with the luminous eye. He does not say that we need a new monastic movement, but that the same high impulse that drove many of the Desert Fathers (setting aside the human failings of certain members of the movement, of which Hart is aware) might inspire us to find ways to live with Gospel witness and courage on the fringes of post-Christendom. I wonder what he would say to fellow Eastern Orthodox Christian Rod Dreher, who wrote The Benedict Option? (Not having read Dreher, I have no clue, but from what I’ve heard, Hart has a much more secure grasp of the intellectual history of the period.)