The following quotations come from the Kindle edition of David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. This is a collection of quotes I found interesting. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to them.
The most important function of historical reflection is to wake us from too complacent a forgetfulness and to recall us to a knowledge of things that should never be lost to memory. And the most important function of Christian history is to remind us not only of how we came to be modern men and women, or of how Western civilization was shaped, but also of something of incalculable wonder and inexpressible beauty, the knowledge of which can still haunt, delight, torment, and transfigure us. (Loc. 95-98)
Origen, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine-all denied that, for instance, the creation story in Genesis was an actual historical record of how the world was made (Augustine did write what he called a “literal” interpretation of Genesis, but it was not literal in any sense a modern fundamentalist would recognize). (Loc. 861-62)
After all, no pagan theorist ever put forward a critique of the principles of ancient Greek natural philosophy as thorough or as ingenious as that of the sixth-century Christian John Philoponus. He not only argued against the immutability of the stars, but (even more outrageously) denied that the terrestrial and celestial regions possessed distinct natures. That the heavens above the moon are eternal, that their substance is the incorruptible “quintessence” ether, that the stars possess spiritual intelligence, and that all the celestial bodies belong to a divine realm immune to the decay, imperfection, and transience of the world here below-all of this was part of the firm and unalterable picture of reality to which practically every Greek scientist, philosopher, or educated layman devoutly adhered. In fact, even as late as 1572, when Tycho observed a nova in the constellation of Cassiopeia, the realization that the heaven of the fixed stars could suffer change was a severe probation of the settled convictions of most educated men. Philoponus, however, argued that one could deduce from certain variances among the known stars themselves that they are mutable objects, composed not of imperishable ether and divine intellect but of corruptible matter, and that they once came into existence and one day will perish like other material objects; the sun, he said, consists in fire, of the same basic substance as earthly fire; and he argued that the appearance of changelessness in the heavens is the effect merely of the immense temporal and spatial intervals of cosmic movement. For him-being a Christian-the entire universe was the creature of God, and the terrestrial and celestial realms alike were part of one natural order governed by the same rational laws. And so it was no great trial of faith (as it would have been for a pagan philosopher) to deny the divinity of the night sky: which is to say, Philoponus was able to cast off metaphysical dogma and apply himself to a rigorous reconsideration of the science of his time not despite but because of his Christianity and his consequent impatience for any “superstitious” confusion between material objects and gods. He also hypothesized that the space above the atmosphere might be a vacuum. He argued, against Aristotle, that light moves, and that the eye receives it simply according to the rules of optical geometry. And, most important perhaps, he rejected the Aristotelian dynamic theory of motion and proposed in its place a theory of kinetic impetus.
Philoponus’s reflections on motion were, in fact, considered by (without having much effect upon) Islamic thinkers such as ibn Bajja (c. io95- 1138), and then were passed on to Christian scholastic thought, where they were taken up, defended, or corrected by the likes of Bradwardine, Swineshead, Buridan, and Oresme. Indeed, if one is really passionately attached to the idea of alternating ages of intellectual light and darkness, one might well argue that in the sixth century in Alexandria a scientific revolution in physics and cosmology had begun to stir, taking the form of a skeptical Christian reappraisal of Aristotelian science and of the “divine cosmos” of pagan thought; and when Olympiodorus, the pagan head of the Alexandrian Academy, was succeeded by Christian commentators on Aristotle, this revolution seemed set to continue indefinitely; but then the seventh-century Muslim conquest of Egypt brought an end to the Alexandrian academic tradition and plunged science into six centuries of an Islamo-Hellenistic “dark ages.” And one might further argue that this Christian tradition of scientific skepticism began to reemerge in the West only during the later Middle Ages, resumed the inherently “Christian” task of preparing a way for a new paradigm of cosmic reality, and reached its final consummation in the thought of Galileo (a good Catholic), Kepler (whose chief desire as a scientist was to discover how the life of the Trinity was reflected in the beautiful harmonies with which God had marked every level of his creation), and Newton (an ardent, if radically heretical, Christian). All of this would of course be a gross oversimplification of history, an unjust denigration of Greek and Muslim natural philosophy, and in the final analysis rather silly-but no sillier than historically illiterate blather about the Christian “closing of the Western mind.” (Loc. 936-59)
If it really were the case, however, that the injustices and violences of late medieval and early modern Western Christendom were the natural consequences of something intrinsic to Christian beliefs, and if it were really true that the emergence of the secular state rescued Western humanity from the rule of religious intolerance, then what we should find on looking back over the course of Western European history is a seamless, if inverted, arc: a decline from the golden days of Roman imperial order, when the violence of religion was moderated by the prudent hand of the state, into a prolonged period of fanaticism, cruelty, persecution, and religious strife, and then-as the church was gradually subdued-a slow reemergence from the miserable brutality of the “age of faith” into a progressively more rational, more humane, less violent social arrangement. This, though, is precisely what we do not find. Instead we see that violence increased in proportion to the degree of sovereignty claimed by the state, and that whenever the medieval church surrendered moral authority to secular power, injustice and cruelty flourished. We find also that early medieval society, for all its privations, inequities, and deficiencies, was in most ways far more just, charitable, and (ultimately) peaceful than the imperial culture it succeeded, and, immeasurably more peaceful and even more charitable (incredible as this may seem to us) than the society created by the early modern triumph of the nation state. Nor, in this last instance, am I speaking merely of the violence of the “transitional” period of early modernity, on the eve of the so-called Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment-considered in purely political terms-was itself merely the transition from one epoch of nationalist warfare, during which states still found it necessary to use religious institutions as instruments of power, to another epoch of still greater nationalist warfare, during which religious rationales had become obsolete, because the state had become its own cult, and power the only morality. (Loc. 1170-81)
One might even conclude, in fact, that one of the real differences between what convention calls the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason is actually the difference between a cogent intellectual and moral culture, capable of considering the mystery of being with some degree of rigor, and a confined and vapid dogmatism without genuine logical foundation. (Loc. 1402-4)
. . . patristic theologians as diverse as Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Isaac of Nineveh saw in the phrase aionios kolasis (typically translated as “eternal punishment,” but possible to read as “correction for a long period” or “for an age” or even “in the age to come”) no cause to conclude that hell was anything but a temporary process of spiritual purification. (Loc. 2059-61)
The ultimate power and meaning of the Christian movement within the ancient world cannot be measured simply by the richness of later Christian culture’s art or architecture, the relative humanity or inhumanity of its societies and laws, the creativity of its economic or scientific institutions, or the perdurability of its religious institutions through the ages. “Christendom” was only the outward, sometimes majestic, but always defective form of the interaction between the gospel and the intractable stuff of human habit. The more vital and essential victory of Christianity lay in the strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness of the moral intuitions it succeeded in sowing in human consciences. If we find ourselves occasionally shocked by how casually ancient men and women destroyed or ignored lives we would think ineffably precious, we would do well to reflect that theirs was-in purely pragmatic terms-a more “natural” disposition toward reality. It required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few privileged souls, and then centuries of the relentless and total immersion of culture in the Christian story, to make even the best of us conscious of (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons upon us, the splendor and irreducible dignity of the divine humanity within them, that depth within each of them that potentially touches upon the eternal. (Loc. 2862-69)