Review: Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable EnemiesAtheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.)

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More from Guigo II on Lectio Divina

Because of my disposition and profession, I have decided to read Guigo II of La Grande Chartreuse’s treatise De Scala Claustralium as my introduction to Lectio Divina on the grounds that the is the first, from what we can tell, to spell out the practice as lectiomeditatiooratio, and contemplatio. I find myself surprised that people are opposed to Lectio Divina; what Christian would be turned aside by the fruits of Guigo’s meditations? Behold:

Therefore, keen meditation, as it begins, does not remain on the outside, does not drink on the surface, fixes it foot higher, penetrates interior things, probes individual matters. It carefully considers [in the verse, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart…’] that it does not say, ‘Blessed are the pure in body,’ but ‘pure in heart’ — so it is is not enough to have hands unstained by wicked deeds, unless we are purified from base thoughts in our mind; this the prophet confirms with authority, saying, ‘Who will ascend the mountain of the Lord, or who will stand in his holy place? The man innocent in his hands and with a pure heart.’ (Ps. 24:3-4) Again, it considers how much the same prophet desires this purity of heart when he says thus, ‘Create a pure heart in me, O God,’ (Ps. 51:10) and again, ‘If I saw iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not hear me.’ (Ps. 66:18) It considers how stirred up blessed Job was in such watchfulness, when he said, ‘I have settled an agreement with my eyes that I am not thinking about a virgin.’ (Job 31:1) Behold how much a holy man limited himself, who closed his eyes lest he see vanity (cf. Ps 119:37), et perhaps incautiously behold that which later on he would desire reluctantly.

After it has drawn out these thoughts about purity of this sort of heart, it begins to think about the prize, how glorious and desirable it would be to see the desired face of the Lord, ‘beautiful in form before all the sons of men’ (Ps. 45:3), not now humble and poor, and not having that form with which His mother clothed Him, but the clad with the robe of immortality and crowned with the diadem with which His Father crowned him on the day of resurrection and glory, the day ‘which the Lord has made’ (Ps. 118:24). It considers that in that vision there will be that satisfaction about which the prophet says, ‘I shall be satisfied when your glory has appeared’ (Ps. 17:15).

You see how much liquid pours forth from the smallest grape, how much fire is set alight from a spark, how great the limited matter, measured out: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God’, has been extended on the anvil of meditation? (ch. 5, my trans.)

There is a sweetness and richness to Guigo and his pursuit of treasures in Scripture: What does this Bible verse really mean? Where do we see ‘purity of heart’ in Scripture? What does it mean to see God? This is what Lectio Divina is about; I see no reason why we should not practise this method of searching the Scriptures.

Guigo II: Lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio

La Grande Chartreuse: Home to Lectio Divina

I am not the greatest practicioner of the medieval discipline of Lectio divina; I really only started a few weeks, and only sporadically. To get myself into the discipline, I’m reading Guigo II, Prior of La Grande Chartreuse, the motherhouse of the Carthusians in the late 1100s, Scala Claustralium — The Ladder of Monks. My Internet research says that he’s the first to clearly articulate the now-standard quartet of lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio.

He writes, at the end of chapter 2:

Lectio is the careful investigation of the Scriptures with the attention of the soul (animus). Meditatio is the zealous activity of the mind (mens), seeking out the knowledge of hidden truth by the leading of its own reason. Oratio is the devoted attention of the heart to God for the removal of evil or the acquisition of good things. Contemplatio is a certain elevation above itself of the mind suspended in God , tasting of the joys of eternal sweetness.

Worship wars, medieval style (literally!)

When next your church gets heated over the issue of Anglican Chant vs said, BCP vs modern liturgy, guitars vs organs, drums vs no drums, choirs vs pop music bands, call to mind this event from Symeon of Durham’s Historia Regum (ca. 1129; the event is for 1083):

An infamous dissension took place between the monks and Turstin their abbot, at Glastonbury, a man unworthy to be spoken of, whom king William [the Conqueror] had unwisely preferred from the monastery of Caen to be abbot of that place. Amongst other deeds of folly he disdained the Gregorian chant, and began to force the monks to discontinue it, and to learn and sing the chant of one William of Fescamp. As they bore this very ill — for they had now grown old both in that and other ecclesiastical service according to the custom of the Roman church — one day he suddenly rushed upon them unawares into the chapter with an armed military force, and pursued the monks as they were flying in extreme terror into the church, as far as the high altar, while the soldiers pierced the crucifixes, and images, and shrines of the saints, with their javelins and arrows, and thrusting through with a pike one of the monks, even while he was embracing the holy altar, they slew him; and they murdered another at the base of the altar, pierced with arrows. The rest, urged by necessity, bravely defending themselves with the benches and candlesticks of the church, although severely wounded, drove back all the soldiers out of the choir. And then it happened that two of the monks were killed and fourteen wounded, as were also some of the soldiers. An action being brought on this account, as it was evident that the abbot was chiefly to blame, the king removed the same abbot, and placed him in a monastery of his own in Normandy. Very many of the monks were dispersed in prisons through the bishoprics and abbeys by order of the king. (Ch. 167 in Arnold’s edition, trans. J. Stevenson)

Note: William of Fécamp is also known as William of Volpiano. He was abbot of Fécamp from 1001 to his death in 1031. He revised the notation and singing of the monastic office in a number of Burgundian monasteries. Here is an image from an antiphonary believed to have been his, the Antiphonary of St. Benigne, now Montpellier, Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de Médecine, Ms. H159. The image is from folio 25v.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

“Imitating the blessed apostles”: The matrix for ancient and medieval discipline

In my new job, I am acquainting myself with the works of the monk-historian Simeon of Durham, who died around the year 1129. In his History of the Church of Durham (Libellus de Exordio atque Procursu istius, hoc est Dunelmensis, Ecclesie), Simeon writes:

Imitating the blessed apostles, the venerable Cuthbert adorned with good works the episcopal office which he had assumed; for by his continual prayers he protected the people committed to his charge, and called them to mind the things of heaven by his wholesome exhortations. (Book 1.10, trans. J. Stevenson)

A great many of our ancient and medieval ascetics believed themselves to be imitating the Apostles, or living the apostolic life, or living according to the Gospel, living ‘evangelically’ (gospelly). A century after Simeon, Franciscans will make much of ‘evangelical’ poverty.

This is in strong contrast with how most Protestants view asceticism. Indeed, asceticism tends to be associated with body-hating, unbiblical extremism; it is even used with such connotations by Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline. Moreover, it is in contrast with how the apostles are viewed; the only disciplines usually even considered in relation to the apostles are prayer and the study of Scripture.

Now, what might Simeon have in mind for St Cuthbert? Certainly, as the context makes clear, prayer and preaching — these are the chief apostolic virtues of St Cuthbert’s Scots-Irish predecessors, Sts Columba and Aidan. St Cuthbert, like those two, was an evangelist before he was a bishop.

He was also what one might call a prayer warrior. Of course, we might not go for his version of what continual prayer looks like. It is one thing to promote the daily office and cultivate silence, as St Cuthbert (who promoted the Rule of St Benedict amongst the monks of Lindisfarne) would have. It is another to stand in the freezing waters of the sea for an all-night vigil or to try and become a hermit.

Nonetheless, there may be something to the disciplined life being ‘apostolic’. It is clear from the biblical testimony that the apostles prayed at the Jewish hours of prayer; they fasted; they renounced worldly possessions; some of them forewent the joys of marriage for their apostolic mission; they studied and prayed over Scripture.

Many believe that St Paul’s time in Arabia was spent in prayer and communion with God before entering into ministry. Jesus certainly spent 40 days fasting on the cusp of his ministry.

As we saw a few months ago, in fact, Bede relates the story of the Roman mission to the Anglo-Saxons, headed by Augustine at Canterbury, in terms of them living as the apostolic community did according to Acts 2. These were certainly monks.

Later in the Middle Ages, it was the canons regular who claimed to be living the apostolic life. These were not, by a strict definition, monks, but clergy who lived together in community, lived a disciplined life, prayed a version of the daily office, and were active in their local communities, preaching and tending to the poor.

It is worth thinking about and pondering seriously — what does the apostolic life look like? It may not look like the cloister, but does it look like the comfortable pew?

Ancient Religion got me into this mess, part 3: Devotion

For part 1 of the series, click here, and for part 2, click here.

My study of ancient Christianity has made life difficult for me, these days. I find myself committed both to liturgy and to historic orthodoxy. My commitment to historic orthodoxy, discussed here, drives me to seek liturgy. And my understanding of the sacraments, under the influence of the ancient church, drives me to seek weekly Eucharist, celebrated liturgically.

But my study of ancient Christianity did not begin with doctrine, liturgy, sacrament, episcopate.

It began in the Desert.

Although I am now a scholar of medieval manuscripts and papal letters, I started out with a desire to apply the methodology of classical philology and ancient history to ancient monasticism. In undergrad, after a love affair with St Francis of Assisi and flirtation with St John of the Cross, I met St Antony the Great and the Desert Fathers . Here was a new, strange phenomenon. Here were the roots of the monastic tradition of Francis of John!

I wrote an undergrad essay on the Desert Fathers, drawing largely on The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks and the Life of St Antony published by St Athanasius. In my first Master’s degree, I wrote about John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus, drawing in a variety of other desert sources along the way. My second Master’s thesis was about the monastic lives written by Cyril of Scythopolis and John of Ephesus in the age of Justinian, and one of my coursework essays was on St Gregory Palamas.

Between degrees, I visited Cyprus where I first really met the Orthodox world. I inhaled their incense. I considered their icons. I read the first few authors of The Philokalia — themselves ancient Greek monks! On a return visit to Cyprus, I visited Machairas Monastery in the Troodos Mountains. I have subsequently spent time with the Benedictines of Sankt Paul im Lavanntal, Austria.

Furthermore, in the first year of my PhD studies, I organised a reading group about ancient monasticism (but we also brought in a little St Hildegard for good measure).

My engagement with the teachings, lives, spiritual practices, and oddities of ancient monasticism from St Antony through St Benedict to St Isaac the Syrian has changed me in subtle ways, I believe. I crave the kind of single-minded devotion to God they sought and sometimes attained. I go through spells of praying at least Morning Prayer. I used to fast. I love reading their writings, even when they are hard to grasp or impossible to apply to my situation as a married layman.

Loud music, emotive worship leaders, forced happiness, a feeling of being untethered from tradition — none of these things is conducive to the contemplative life sought by the ancient monks. And I think that rock concert worship events are part of the rootlessness of modern evangelicalism, part of why we often feel like we can preach morality but seem incapable of teaching it.

A richer, calmer setting that makes room for the contemplative alongside the active, for prayer beside preaching, for meditation alongside proclamation — perhaps this can help us.

As I say, this part of who I am is more nebulous a reason why I crave liturgy and believe that it is important.

And, to say it one final time, if God has used the ancient church in my life through these ways, why should I go back on what He is doing in my life? This is the subjective reason that tugs at me all along the way. What is the point of all the thinking and studying I have done if I just end up going to same sort of happy-clappy, non-liturgical church that I would have attended anyway? Shouldn’t our private faith have public ramifications?

How lectio divina and contemplative practices can be dangerous

La Grande Chartreuse: Home to Lectio Divina

Various Scripture-related ‘mystical’ practices that call themselves lectio divina have been growing in popularity in the world outside Roman Catholic monasteries, and, indeed, not only in the liberal mainline but even amongst evangelical Protestants. Some evangelicals are automatically, and irrationally, afraid of lectio divina because it comes from ‘Roman Catholicism’; others are concerned because some of its proponents are also into Buddhism and the like.

And, certainly, books about lectio divina are not all equal.

I won’t mount a defence of the practice here, though. Mark Moore has already done that in his post, ‘Is Lectio Divina Really Dangerous?

Instead, I would like to highlight the fact that I think the disciplines of the contemplative life can actually be dangerous — and not ‘dangerous to your small views of God’ dangerous. Actually potentially harmful. Of course, I must get this out of the way first: Their alleged ‘Roman Catholic’ (aka Latin medieval) origins have nothing to do with their potential for harm. If Protestants rejected everything from the ‘Roman Church’, we would have no Bible, no sacraments, no doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity, etc., etc. We must find the danger in the actual practices themselves.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking. As I said at the beginning, a variety of different practices currently masquerade under the name lectio divina. Some of these are actually medieval, deriving ultimately from the prayerful practices outlined around 1180 by Guigo II (d. 1188/93), prior of La Grande Chartreuse (motherhouse of the Carthusians) in The Ladder of Monks. Others are inspired by the medieval practices but are more in line with traditional Protestant discursive meditation. Others may not know what a Carthusian is but may be conversant with Buddhism.

The possibility is, in the end, that any of the forms of lectio divina currently on parade can endanger you spiritually.

One person, alone with a Bible, seeking to encounter God directly through the Word, sometimes reducing that to a single word or phrase.

Or, to move to other meditative practices, simply praying the Jesus Prayer. Or seeking to empty your mind of all thoughts. Or whatever.

Why do I think these things might be harmful? They might be harmful if they lack an important ingredient:

The community of the faithful.

Any of these practices can be salutary (yes, even ones tainted by Buddhism, let alone Roman Catholicism). They can be ways for us to focus our heart and minds on the Most Holy Trinity, upon the meaning and lesson and immediacy of Scripture as living and active. They can be ways for us to unclutter our cluttered hearts.

But they might make you go crazy. The Orthodox actually say that practising the Jesus Prayer unsupervised can be harmful. They also say that illusion is particularly dangerous for those who shut themselves off from the community of the faithful. The translators of The Philokalia are at pains in the introduction to point out that the teachings found therein, and the whole eastern Christian tradition of stillness (hesychia, hence hesychasm) is not reducible to these texts for monks and solitaries — these texts were written for people who participated in the sacramental and liturgical life of the church. They also read Scripture in the same ways you and I read Scripture.

Lectio divina, then, is not inherently harmful. I actually think it is good for us — as a way to stop trying to govern Scripture and allow it to govern us. However, any Christian discipline, when cut off from the fellowship and community of God’s people, can lead you astray and make you think that you are growing into the fullness of the stature of Christ when really you are growing up gnarled, crooked, and distorted. But don’t worry, God can straighten us out

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