Quotes from David Bentley Hart

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)


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