Christianity and capitalism reconsidered

David Bentley Hart’s essay on the incompatibility of Christianity and capitalism, featured in the new issue of Plough Quarterly, strikes me as absolutely essential — an argument that everyone who wants to think seriously about Christianity and the social order ought to reflect on and find a response to. That argument is not, in its broad outlines, new — but it does condense some vital points and express them in vigorous prose.

But before getting to Hart: One of the most frustrating elements of the current debates about Christianity and American life is the vagueness and abstraction of the relevant terms. When certain Christians decry “the liberal order,” what do they mean? My friend and colleague David Corey has offered a deeply intelligent and extremely useful response to Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed in which he points out that while liberalism is intrinsically associated with the securing and preservation of freedom, “freedom” has been defined by the key theorists of the liberal order in at least nine distinct ways. Which of those do the celebrants of the liberal order celebrate? Which do the denouncers of the liberal order denounce? Often it’s impossible to tell, and it’s highly unlikely that the typical celebrant or denouncer would even understand the question. (So please read David Corey’s essay.)

Of course, most people who make arguments about anything don’t really know what they’re talking about. But it seems to me that arguments about Christianity and politics have an almost unique ability to reduce the intelligence of the people involved by at least a third. We desperately need clarity about what, exactly, we’re arguing about. And that’s where Hart’s essay can help. In the first sentence of his essay he writes, “I have no entirely satisfactory answer to the questions that prompt these reflections; but I do think the right approach to the answers can be glimpsed fairly clearly if we first take the time to define our terms.” And indeed this is precisely where we need to begin.

Unfortunately, this promising opening leads immediately to the least satisfactory element of Hart’s essay, which I am going to address in the remainder of this post, and then go on, in later posts, to describe what I think is very right, or at least very useful, in the rest of his essay.

I have often praised a model of debate that I learned about from my friend Robin Sloan. Here’s Robin’s description of it:

Every so often, the Long Now Foundation here in San Francisco hosts a debate. It might be about nuclear power or synthetic biology or perhaps the very notion of human progress — high-stakes stuff. But the format is nothing like the showdowns on cable news or the debates in election season.

Instead, it goes like this:

There are two debaters, Alice and Bob. Alice takes the podium, makes her argument. Then Bob takes her place, but before he can present his counter-argument, he must summarize Alice’s argument to her satisfaction — a demonstration of respect and good faith. Only when Alice agrees that Bob has got it right is he permitted to proceed with his own argument — and then, when he’s finished, Alice must summarize it to his satisfaction.

David Bentley Hart is not interested in this sort of attempt to reach a common understanding of the terms of debate. Earlier I quoted the first sentence of his essay; but before the first sentence we get an epigraph from Baudelaire that begins, “Commerce is, in its essence, satanic.” At the end of that paragraph he cites the early anarchist Proudhon’s view that capitalism “is a system in which as a general rule those whose work creates profits neither own the means of production nor enjoy the fruits of their labor.” So Hart’s definitions of capitalism are those of its declared enemies. Thus, the incompatibility of capitalism with Christianity is not the argument of Hart’s essay, it is the essay’s premise. That the defenders of capitalism would not accept these definitions is, I suspect, of little interest to Hart.

But I think it should be. Consider Deirdre McCloskey in the first volume of her series of books on bourgeois life, The Bourgeois Virtues: “I mean by ‘capitalism’ merely private property and free labor without central planning, regulated by the rule of law and by an ethical consensus.” Her argument following from this definition is that liberal capitalism (a) makes us richer, (b) lets us live longer, and (c) improves our ethics. From these points she concludes: “Anticapitalism is bad for us.”

I don’t think that Hart would accept any of these points, but I wonder what he might say in refutation. One of the key points of dispute would surely be the characteristic effects of capitalism. Hart writes, “One can also concede that, now and then, the immense returns reaped by the few can redound to the benefit of the many; but there is no fixed rule to that effect, and generally quite the opposite is the case“ — but as we have seen, McCloskey claims that the best research tells us that Hart’s claim is flat wrong, that “generally” capitalist activity is a tide that lifts most if not all boats. (It’s funny how often McCloskey seems to be anticipating Hart, e.g.: “If modern capitalism is defined to be the same thing as Greed — ‘the restless never-ending process of profit-making alone … , this boundless greed after riches,’ as Marx put it in chapter 1 of Capital, drawing on an anticommercial theme originating in Aristotle — then that settles it, before looking at the evidence.” Largely this is because Hart’s critique of capitalism is a very familiar one, as, I’m sure, he would be the first to acknowledge.)

I also wonder whether, given disagreements like the above, it would be possible for Hart and McCloskey to agree on a definition of capitalism, and, if they did, what it would be and how it would affect their respective arguments. But to speculate about such possibilities is to live in a dream world.

I don’t want to try to adjudicate the dispute here. For one thing, it’s not a level playing field: Hart wrote one short essay and McCloskey three long books. I merely want to say that I think Hart could have started from a more neutral definition of capitalism and arrived equally securely at his anti-capitalist stance — indeed, could have arrived there more securely, and made his position more convincing to skeptics. It is even possible that everything that McCloskey says about capitalism is true and that capitalism is still incpmpatible with Christianity, because McCloskey does not tell the whole truth. (McCloskey is a Christian, by the way.) Hart’s essay has an unfortunate beginning, then, but after that it grows stronger. Hart confronts me with some powerful points that I would rather not confront — but I’m going to try to do so.

Everything I have to say from here on is directed to Christians who believe that what the Bible says, or at the very least what Jesus says in the Bible, matters to their thinking about our social and economic life — who believe that, once we understand what Jesus is saying to us, we are bound to obedience.

And that means being so bound even when obedience leads us onto paths that do not, or do not seem to, conduce to our flourishing. That is what I meant when I said that Deirdre McCloskey’s argument — that capitalism makes us wealthier, lets us live longer, and improves our ethics — could be right and even so Christianity and capitalism might not be compatible. Maybe God doesn’t want us to be richer and longer-lived, and maybe there are certain matters of faithfulness that transcend what most people call “ethics” (Kierkegaard famously called this the “teleological suspension of the ethical”). Christianity shares with the other Axial Age religions a thoroughgoing revaluation of what makes for human flourishing. As Charles Taylor points out in A Secular Age, Buddhism and Christianity diverge greatly in doctrine, and yet they have something vital in common:

This is that the believer or devout person is called on to make a profound inner break with the goals of flourishing in their own case; they are called on, that is, to detach themselves from their own flourishing, to the point of the extinction of self in one case, or to that of renunciation of human fulfillment to serve God in the other. The respective patterns are clearly visible in the exemplary figures. The Buddha achieves Enlightenment; Christ consents to a degrading death to follow his father’s will.

Jesus was not wealthy — “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” — and preached “good news for the poor.” He did not live to a ripe old age. His ethics were thought deficient by the leading religious figures of his time and place. Thus capitalism could be everything McCloskey says it is and yet we Christians could be called upon to disavow it.

Hart thinks this is precisely what Christians are called upon to do:

Christ clearly means what he says when quoting the prophet: he has been anointed by God’s Spirit to preach good tidings to the poor (Luke 4:18). To the prosperous, the tidings he bears are decidedly grim: “Woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full; woe to you who are full fed, for you shall hunger; woe to you who are now laughing, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:24–25). As Abraham tells Dives in Hades, “You fully received your good things during your lifetime… so now you suffer” (Luke 16:25). Christ not only demands that we give freely to all who ask from us (Matt. 5:42), with such prodigality that one hand is ignorant of the other’s largesse (Matt. 6:3); he explicitly forbids storing up earthly wealth – not merely storing it up too obsessively – and allows instead only the hoarding of the treasures of heaven (Matt. 6:19–20). He tells all who would follow him to sell all their possessions and give the proceeds away as alms (Luke 12:33), and explicitly states that “every one of you who does not give up all that he himself possesses is incapable of being my disciple” (Luke 14:33). As Mary says, part of the saving promise of the gospel is that the Lord “has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away starving” (Luke 1:53).


It is interesting to reflect on the number of Christians who insist that Scripture’s teaching on our culture’s topics du jour (whatever those might be) are explicit and obvious and so incontrovertible that anyone who disagrees with the Preferred Interpretation must be willfully blind — and yet simultaneously insist that the passages Hart quotes are subject to dramatically varying interpretations, and that it would be rash indeed to claim that we are actually literally being told to give all we have away to the poor?

This is why I am so fond of quoting this passage from Kierkegaard’s journals:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in this world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

I open the New Testament and read: ‘If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me.’ Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it).

As I say, I am fond of quoting this passage, but I am also judged by it in ways that make me profoundly uneasy. Kirekegaard’s savagely hilarious mockery prevents me from evading the force of the words of Jesus that Hart cites, and I suppose that’s good; but none of his words can compel me to obedience.

As far as I can tell, I am, as a Christian, bound to sell all I have and disperse the proceeds to the poor; but, also as far as I can tell, I won’t do it. And I won’t do it because I lack the requisite courage. I am afraid that if I obey Jesus on this point my wife and I will spend our final years in poverty and fear, that like Jesus himself we will have no place to lay our heads. I am afraid that if I give everything I own to the poor I’ll have nothing to leave to our son, who seems likely to be facing a more economically precarious life than I have had.

I don’t like being in this situation. I’d be much happier if I could convince myself that “Christian scholarship” is correct when it explains to me that those biblical texts Hart quotes don’t mean what it sure looks like they mean. But Kierkegaard forces me to see just how motivated my reasoning is, how desperately I want to avoid Jesus’s commands. So I suppose I should start praying for courage, shouldn’t I?

All that said, these reflections take us a long way from the question of how compatible Christianity and capitalism are.

The reason the reflections in the previous section of this post don’t bear on the relationship between Christianity and capitalism is simple: Jesus tells me what to do with my money, but He does not what sort of socio-economic order to build, or try to build. The focus of the New Testament is always on what persons do and especially what the ecclesial community, the koinonia, does. The relationship between those acts, that community, and the larger social order remains enigmatic. There’s no question that Jesus brings a revolution against all the existing Powers, but how that revolution is to be made manifest is hard to grasp. His statements about Roman power are famously ambiguous, and his lack of interest in leading or even participating in a political rebellion of the Jews against their overlords seems to have scandalized some of his early followers.

Hart tries to bridge the gap between statement and implication in the following way:

  • “There can simply be no question that absolutely central to the gospel they [the Apostles] preached was the insistence that private wealth and even private property were alien to a life lived in the Body of Christ.”
  • “Small intentional communities committed to some form of Christian collectivism are all very well, of course,” but “whatever prophetic critique they might bring to bear upon their society is, in the minds of most believers, converted into a mere special vocation, both exemplary and precious — perhaps even a sanctifying priestly presence within the larger church — but still possible only for the very few, and certainly not a model of practical politics.”
  • What must be kept in mind is this: “the full koinonia of the Body of Christ is not an option to be set alongside other equally plausible alternatives. It is not a private ethos or an elective affinity. It is a call not to withdrawal, but to revolution.”
  • In conclusion: “Christians are those, then, who are no longer at liberty to imagine or desire any social or political or economic order other than the koinonia of the early church, no other communal morality than the anarchy of Christian love.”

Before proceeding, I want to pause to digress on something that might be the only thing that really matters here. Deirdre McCloskey describes with enthusiastic intelligence the virtues that bourgeois-capitalist society cultivates; Hart, by contrast, writes of “the anarchy of Christian love.” It is a long-vexed question whether agape is a virtue in the same way that many other traits are virtues.

Since Aristotle, it is common for virtue theorists to describe virtues as finding some golden mean between two vices: hope, for instance, says Thomas Aquinas, may be found between the false extremes of desperatio and praesumptio, despair and presumption: the despairing person doesn’t think there’s anywhere to go, while the presumptuous person thinks that he has already arrived. (The hopeful person knows that she is a wayfarer: she hasn’t yet arrived, but she has a destination clearly in mind.) But while it’s easy to draw such a clear map of hope and its perversions, it’s harder to do that for love. After all, if your love is rightly directed, you can’t love too much.

McCloskey comments that some people who heard that she was writing about “bourgeois virtues” laughed, because they didn’t think that the bourgeoisie have any virtues. But in fact the classical conception of virtue is a useful way to think about middle-class life under capitalism. You don’t want to take unnecessary risks, but you don’t want to sew your money into your mattress either. You don’t want to hoard your resources, but you don’t want to waste them either. You don’t want to work yourself to death, but you don’t want to be lazy and feckless either.

But this balancing act may well be inappropriate to the life of agape, which in the New Testament is so often associated with what from the bourgeois point of view looks like extravagance. If someone takes your coat, give him your cloak also. Praise that old widow for giving all she has, even though a bourgeois virtue would counsel her to hold something back. Don’t try to escape persecution, but rather rejoice in it. Don’t even think about what you should say when called to account for yourself before some court — God will give you the words you need. Don’t try to maintain your emotional equilibrium but rather laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep. (Don’t save your money so you can give it to your son when you die.) This, I think, is what Hart means by “the anarchy of Christian love” — it’s a kind of flinging of yourself into the world without counting the cost and in defiance of the consequences. After all, look at what happened to Jesus when he flung himself into the world.

Practicing the bourgeois virtues makes the social world run more smoothly and predictably; practicing anarchic agape makes … we know not what. Hold on to your hat.

Anyway. Let’s posit that what Hart says in those five bulleted points I quoted several paragraphs back is true (especially since, as far as I can tell, all of it is true). Nevertheless: none of it tells us what we should do when we live in a society in which some people are Christians and some people are not. we may be called to revolution, but throughout history revolution has come in many varieties, varieties often incompatible with one another — so which variety is the koinonia supposed to follow? Or is its revolution essentially distinct from all other forms? Even when Hart says that intentional Christian communities don’t provide “a model of practical politics,” that doesn’t tell us whether we should have a model of practical politics. Maybe that precisely what a community of anarchic love shouldn’t have and indeed cannot have. Maybe that’s the nature of its revolutionary impetus. So not a great deal obviously follows from Hart’s argument.

But the primary imperative that surely follows is this: Do not make an idol of capitalism, do not see it as an ideal, do not see it as God’s Way, do not take it as a model for how to live. We are forbidden that by Scripture. In that sense capitalism is certainly incompatible with Christianity.

But having said that, it does seem to me that you could agree with Hart’s points and still hold a position fairly close to McCloskey’s, which is that capitalism, or rather the liberal social order which exists symbiotically with a market economy, is, for Christians and for everyone else, “pretty good.” Not great, not without significant flaws, but good enough to be going on with, and better than the available alternatives. Christianity is compatible with the liberal capitalist order in the sense that one can be a Christian within that order, though not easily and not without making trouble for yourself and for others.

But that doesn’t mean that one should be content with such getting by. The key question, I think, is to ask what, if we agree that Christianity is revolutionary, we mean by “revolution.” If you read Hannah Arendt’s great book On Revolution you will discover that the term has had many meanings over the centuries, not all of which are compatible with one another, and at least some of which — the violent overthrow of a government, for instance — surely cannot be reconciled with Christian faith and practice.

A related question — for Christians who are commanded to sell all they have and give to the poor, and to share all things in common — would be: May we strive to instantiate a political order that forces everyone within it to sell all they have and give it to the poor, regardless of whether they are Christians? I worry about this, because the track record of Christians when given the power of political coercion is tragically poor. Should not penitence for past sins, if nothing else, cause us to hesitate before attempting to enforce our convictions on those who do not share our faith?

Perhaps the best strategy would be to see if, in whatever political order we happen to find ourselves, we are able to be obedient to the commandments of King Jesus, at least for a period of time. Because we are unlikely to get other people interested in following a revolutionary banner that we ourselves aren’t strong enough to hold up.

how could we be convinced?

George Scialabba is one of the best essayists around, but his review of John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism is not one of his better efforts. It begins thus:

Our hominid ancestors first appeared around six million years ago. They started to use symbols around 150,000 years ago, and the first of the major religions began 5,000 years ago. What are we to make of this? Did humans have souls before then? If not, how did we acquire them? If so, why didn’t God reveal Himself throughout 99.9 percent of humanity’s life span? What was He thinking? And God’s puzzling silence didn’t end with the advent of religion. The God of the Old Testament was fairly communicative, and the gods of the Hindu pantheon made frequent appearances, at least for a while. But since Jesus ascended to heaven (or, if you prefer, since the angel Gabriel finished dictating to Muhammad), transmissions have all but ceased.

This would seem to call for some explanation. As the infidel Tom Paine scoffed: “A revelation which is to be received as true ought to be written on the sun.” The devout Cardinal Newman agreed but thought it had been: “The Visible Church was, at least to her children,” he wrote in 1870, “the light of the world, as conspicuous as the sun in the heavens, and the Creed was written on her forehead.” Unfortunately, the Church’s radiance has dimmed somewhat since then, and many unbelievers have wondered why God can’t write “YES, I EXIST” across the night sky in mile-high flaming letters visible (to each viewer in her own language, of course) everywhere on earth, each night for a week, once a year. Is that too much to ask of an omnipotent, infinitely loving Being?

To which my first reply is: You really haven’t thought this through, have you? Let’s set aside any doubts about the assumption that our hominid ancestors of six million years ago belong naturally in the category “humanity.” Let’s also not ask too many hard questions about what a “major religion” would have looked like among the early symbol-using hominids. (Does Scialabba expect to find prayer books and sacred vestments in the remnants of the Pleistocene? He might as well say that we know those ancestors didn’t war with each other because they had no guns.) Let’s not bring in a Pentecostal or Sufi to address the question of whether transmissions from the Divine “have all but ceased.”

Let’s focus instead on the second paragraph quoted above. I would like to ask Scialabba this: If you looked up one starry evening and saw “YES, I EXIST” — presumably signed “Love, God” or something, because otherwise the point would scarcely be obvious — written across the night sky in mile-high flaming letters, would you immediately start believing in God?

And the answer is: Of course not. You’d think that this was some kind of high-tech prank, or a covert operation of the Koch Brothers. Later, when you discovered that other people had seen the same thing in their own language you’d be more concerned, but you’d doubt that it could be God, because why would God want to reveal Himself or Itself only to the literate? Surely the committed atheist would attribute this sky-writing to some powerful extraterrestrial civilization with a weird sense of humor — the Culture, maybe — before admitting the existence of God on these grounds.

Now, gentle readers, some of you may be saying that I am missing the point, the point being not that God, if there were a God, would reveal His existence to us in precisely this way, but that He would reveal it in some way, in some unmistakable way. But what would that unmistakable way be? What method of communication might avoid the rather obvious drawbacks, the clearly limited power to convince, of fiery skywriting?

I’m not sure it’s even possible to convince everyone that a given being is the Biggest Baddest Being of Them All — who knows what lurks out there in the universes? But even if that were possible it wouldn’t address the God of classical theism. David Bentley Hart puts this point with exemplary precision and clarity in The Experience of God:

To speak of “God” properly, then — to use the word in a sense consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism , Bahá’í, a great deal of antique paganism, and so forth — is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation. All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension; hence, much of the language used of him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence. All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known: that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with a fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.

How might that God impress Himself upon our understanding in unmissable, unambiguous, indisputable ways? I confess that I can think of no way except to write a conviction of His existence on every human heart. And whether that has been done, who can know? It’s not the kind of point on which it would be safe to take anyone’s word for Yes or No.

I’ll end with this. In Book V of Milton’s Paradise Lost, an angel named Abdiel asserts that God the Father created every creature, including the angels themselves, through the mediation of the Son. To this Lucifer replies scornfully:

That we were formd then saist thou? and the work

Of secondarie hands, by task transferd

From Father to his Son? strange point and new!

Doctrin which we would know whence learnt: who saw

When this creation was? rememberst thou

Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?

We know no time when we were not as now;

Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d

By our own quick’ning power, when fatal course

Had circl’d his full Orbe, the birth mature

Of this our native Heav’n, Ethereal Sons.

Our puissance is our own, our own right hand

Shall teach us highest deeds, by proof to try

Who is our equal: then thou shalt behold

Whether by supplication we intend

Address, and to begirt th’ Almighty Throne

Beseeching or besieging.

“Created by someone else? I don’t recall being created by someone else. We must be self-begot, self-raised by our own quickening power. I am my own maker.”

My David Bentley Hart Problem

Though I think David Bentley Hart is a brilliant man, and I have learned a great deal from reading him, I also believe he has some bad intellectual habits, and here I want to explain what I think his chief bad habit is.

Here’s the first paragraph of a recent essay by Hart:

If I seem to take N.T. Wright as an antagonist in what follows, he functions here only as emblematic of a larger historical tendency in New Testament scholarship. I can think of no other popular writer on the early church these days whose picture of Judaism in the Roman Hellenistic world seems better to exemplify what I regard as a dangerous triumph of theological predispositions over historical fact in biblical studies — one that occasionally so distorts the picture of the intellectual and spiritual environment of the apostolic church as effectively to create an entirely fictional early Christianity. Naturally, this also entails the simultaneous creation of an equally fictional late antique Judaism, of the sort that once dominated Protestant biblical scholarship: a fantastic “pure” Judaism situated outside cultural history, purged of every Hellenistic and Persian “alloy,” stripped of those shining hierarchies of spirits and powers and morally ambiguous angels and demi-angelic nefilim that had been incubated in the intertestamental literature, largely ignorant even of those Septuagintal books that were omitted from the Masoretic text of the Jewish bible, and precociously conformed to later rabbinic orthodoxy — and, even then, this last turns out to be a fantasy rabbinic orthodoxy, one robbed of its native genius and variety, and imperiously reduced to a kind of Protestantism without Jesus.

Here, then, are the primary claims that Hart wants to make:

  • There is a strong “historical tendency in New Testament scholarship” that he wants to call attention to;
  • That tendency is largely the product of Protestant scholars (a point only implied here, but made explicit later in the essay);
  • That tendency is utterly wrong;
  • The wrongness results from the “dangerous triumph of theological predispositions over historical fact in biblical studies”; and, finally,
  • The work of N. T. Wright is characteristic of this erroneous tendency.

Hart will develop these points by claiming that Wright and scholars like him are in the grip of “the Cartesian picture of things” and that only if one manages to “take leave” of that picture may one get a historically accurate grip on first-century Judaism — and therefore on the New Testament documents which emerge from it.

I do not want to contest any of these claims. For what it’s worth, they have some prima facie plausibility to me — I have myself complained about what in shorthand we might call Wright’s Cartesianism, though my complaints have focused on hermeneutical method rather than historical judgment. My frustration with Hart’s essay is simply that he provides no evidence for his claims: no evidence whatsoever.

Consider this passage:

In the New Testament, “flesh” does not mean “sinful nature” or “humanity under judgment” or even “fallen flesh.” It just means “flesh,” in the bluntly physical sense, and it often has a negative connotation because flesh is essentially a bad condition to be in; belonging to the realm of mutability and mortality, it can form only a body of death. Hence, according to Paul, the body of the resurrection is not one of flesh and blood animated by “soul,” but is rather a new reality altogether, an entirely spiritual body beyond composition or dissolution. And this is how his language would have been understood by his contemporaries.

Is the view that Hart criticizes here widely held by New Testament scholars (Protestant or otherwise)? Here’s what Hart says:

the early editions of the New International Version of the Bible, where the word “flesh” was in many cases rendered as something like “sinful nature” (I would check the exact wording, but that would involve picking up a copy of the NIV).

I am not sure what Hart means by “early editions” here: editions prior to Today’s New International Version in 2005, perhaps? One can’t be sure, because Hart doesn’t specify, and indeed makes a point of letting us know that he hasn’t even checked a copy of the NIV to make sure that he has the wording right.

But let’s assume that he does have the wording right. Even so, I would ask whether the NIV (a translation closely associated with evangelicalism) is characteristic of Protestantism tout court. How do other translations produced wholly or largely by Protestants translate σάρξ (sarx, flesh)? I would further ask: How do we know that the NIV’s choice is wrong? What evidence supports Hart’s claim that in Paul σάρξ “just means ‘flesh,’ in the bluntly physical sense”? Or that “this is how [Paul’s] language would have been understood by his contemporaries”? Many scholars — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike — have argued about these points for centuries, and have amassed a great deal of evidence about how key Pauline terms were used in the Hellenistic world — including in the Septuagint, from which Paul sometimes diverges in what appear to be highly significant ways — and how such “typical” usage might shape our understanding of Paul. Hart doesn’t cite any of these scholars. Hart doesn’t cite any non-biblical use of σάρξ. He doesn’t note that in addition to σάρξ Paul also uses the word σῶμα (soma, body), which would seem to be very nearly a synonym for σάρξ if Hart is right — and yet the two words seem, to many readers, to have very different functions in Paul. (Indeed, one might become vaguely aware of this divergence even in the parts of the essay where Hart discusses bodies, the σώματα ἐπίγεια and σώματα ἐπουράνια of 1 Corinthians 15.) Hart doesn’t cite, he doesn’t argue, he doesn’t provide evidence: he just asserts.

Now, to be sure, Hart quotes passages from N. T. Wright’s translation of the New Testament that he finds objectionable. But he does not quote any of the scholarly works in which Wright has exhaustively — to my mind exhaustingly — made his case for how he understands Paul’s use of flesh, spirit, and soul. Hart writes, “Wright has his own understanding of resurrection, one more or less consonant with the casually presumed picture today, even if it is one entirely alien to the world of first-century Judaism and Christianity. His categories are not those of Paul — or, for that matter, of the rest of the authors of the New Testament.” Not only does Hart fail to quote Wright on these matters, one would not even guess from his statement that Wright has written an enormous book on just this subject, called The Resurrection of The Son of God that explores all of the categories, terms, and authors that Hart invokes. Nor does Hart quote any other scholars who represent this putative Protestant tradition of eisegesis that he deplores. He just tells us what’s what.

The whole essay is like this. Another example:

If we could hear the language of πνεῦμα [pneuma, spirit] with late antique ears, our sense of the text’s meaning would not be that of two utterly distinct concepts — one “physical” and one “mystical” — only metaphorically entangled with one another by dint of a verbal equivocity; rather, we would almost surely hear only a single concept expressed univocally through a single word, a concept in which the physical and the mystical would remain undifferentiated.

But would we? Would we all hear that one concept? Are all “late antique ears” the same, in this respect? Maybe; but before I accept that judgment I’d like to have something more than one scholar’s word for it.

There’s another, related, issue I want to explore. Though Hart doesn’t mention it, the very position he stakes out in the passage I just quoted was articulated ninety years ago in what would become a very famous book, Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction. Barfield claims that “the study of the history of meaning”

assures us definitely that such a purely material content as “wind”, on the one hand, and on the other, such a purely abstract content as “the principle of life within man or animal” are both late arrivals in human consciousness… We must imagine a time when “spiritus” or πνεûμα, or older words from which these had descended, meant neither breath, nor wind, nor spirit, nor yet all three of these things, but when they simply had their own old peculiar meaning, which has since, in the course of the evolution of consciousness, crystallized into the three meanings specified.

It’s possible that Hart hasn’t read Barfield; it is more likely that he has read him but has forgotten that Barfield made this argument. For the record, I do not believe that Hart is intentionally concealing his intellectual debts, at least not in the sense that he seriously wants us to believe that he came up with these ideas all by himself. But I do think that his habit of assertion — this “rhetoric of authority,” as Frank Lentricchia once called it in writing about a very different figure of great intellectual appeal — leads him to neglect his debts in ways that are counterproductive to his arguments.

One might reply that in what is after all merely a brief essay one cannot expect scholarly documentation. Point taken; though I would add that it’s an essay that doesn’t hesitate to get into some fairly deep philological weeds. But be that as it may, Hart manifests the same habit elsewhere. Consider this passage from my favorite of Hart’s books, The Experience of God:

Our brains may necessarily have equipped us to recognize certain sorts of physical objects around us and enabled us to react to them; but, beyond that, we can assume only that nature will have selected just those behaviors in us most conducive to our survival, along with whatever structures of thought and belief might be essentially or accidentally associated with them, and there is no reason to suppose that such structures — even those that provide us with our notions of what constitutes a sound rational argument — have access to any abstract “truth” about the totality of things. This yields the delightful paradox that, if naturalism is true as a picture of reality, it is necessarily false as a philosophical precept; for no one’s belief in the truth of naturalism could correspond to reality except through a shocking coincidence (or, better, a miracle).

That last word makes me suspect that Hart knows perfectly well that he has just summarized the argument that C. S. Lewis makes in the third chapter of Miracles. But he doesn’t cite Lewis anywhere in The Experience of God. Nor does he cite the people Lewis probably got the argument from, Arthur Balfour in Theism and Humanism and G. K. Chesterton in the “Suicide of Thought” chapter of Orthodoxy. (I say Lewis “probably” derived his argument from those sources because, as it happens, he doesn’t cite them either. There may be a lesson here.) I’m inclined to think that Hart also knows that that chapter of Miracles has prompted a whole subgenre of philosophy devoted to evaluating the claim that philosophical naturalism is self-refuting, in the course of which the core idea has been traced all the way back to Epicurus — see, e.g., this article.

My point here isn’t to chastise Hart for failing to document his sources. As it happens, I am quite sympathetic to a mode of argument that is less dependent than academic scholarship usually on citation and documentation. But when you ignore the scholarly context as completely as Hart often does, you can end up leaving your reader with the suspicion that your case is little stronger than “Trust me, I know what I’m doing.” Documenting your sources can be a powerful way to strengthen your argument.

Again, I am quite sympathetic to the case that Hart makes in this essay. Hart moves towards his peroration by appealing to the Gospel of John. He acknowledges that “Nowhere in scripture … is this fundamental opposition between flesh and spirit given fuller theological (and mystical) treatment than in John’s gospel; and nowhere else is the promise that the saved will escape from a carnal into a spiritual condition more explicitly or repeatedly issued.” But he continues, in a long paragraph I’m going to cite the whole of,

At the same time, of course, no other gospel places greater emphasis upon the physical substantiality of the body of the risen Christ — Thomas invited to place his hands in Christ’s wounds, the disciples invited to share a breakfast of fish with him beside the Sea of Tiberias — but even this is perfectly compatible with Paul’s language. It is, as I say, extraordinarily difficult for modern persons to free their imaginations from the essentially Cartesian prejudice that material bodies must by definition be more substantial, more concrete, more capable of generating physical effects than anything that might be denominated as “soul” or “spirit” or “intellect” could be. Again, however, for the peoples of late Graeco-Roman antiquity, it made perfect sense to think of spiritual reality as more substantial, powerful, and resourceful than any animal body could ever be. Nothing of which a mortal, corruptible, “psychical” body is capable would have been thought to lie beyond the powers of an immortal, incorruptible, wholly spiritual being. It was this evanescent life, lived in a frail and perishable animal frame, that was regarded as the poorer, feebler, more ghostly of the two conditions; spiritual existence was something immeasurably mightier, more robust, more joyous, more plentifully alive. And this definitely seems to be the picture provided by the gospels in general. The risen Christ, possessed of a spiritual body, could eat and drink, could be felt, could break bread between his hands; but he could also appear and disappear at will, unimpeded by walls or locked doors, or could become unrecognizable to those who had known him before his death, or could even ascend from the earth and pass through the incorruptible heavens where only spiritual beings may venture.

It’s magnificent stuff. But I can’t resist noting that this is the very picture — of σώματα ἐπίγεια (“terrestrial bodies,” as Hart has it) being simply less real than σώματα ἐπουράνια (“celestial bodies”) — that forms perhaps the chief conceit of Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

Now, I am not suggesting that Hart needs to quote Lewis. Good old St. Jack already plays too large a role in our image of what orthodox Christianity is, and quoting him can often be counterproductive. But then, Lewis didn’t come up with this conception himself. Where did he get it? You can’t expect him to footnote a work of fiction; but when Hart uses the same concept in an essay, then maybe a citation or quotation of some kind would be appropriate and indeed helpful. For Hart to acknowledge that his understanding of Christ’s resurrection is not wholly original would, I think, enable him to make the case more plausible. (As I have suggested, had he made sure to cite his “antagonists” accurately and fairly — or at all — that would have helped too.)

It’s curious that Hart seems so consistently disinclined to do this kind of thing, and given how exceptionally intelligent Hart is, I cannot help thinking that the tendency is strategic. Hart is Orthodox, and Orthodoxy is almost defined by its account of Holy Tradition; which means that one can, if one is so inclined, dismiss the argument made by an Orthodox philosopher/theologian as a mere deference to that Tradition. It is perhaps in order to avoid being dismissed in this way that Hart disdains appeals to authority, whether religious or scholarly. One might in this context note that the core of his complaint about Wright et al. is that they sacrifice “historical fact” to “theological predispositions.” And Hart insists, in his eloquent and rather inspiring Introduction to his own translation of the New Testament, that he wants it to be “pitilessly literal” and as free from theological presupposition as he can make it — though of course he knows that he cannot erase history from his own mind.

So there may be strategic reasons for Hart to maintain a certain reticence about his intellectual inheritance. The question — for me, anyway — is whether that reticence can be maintained without falling into the “rhetoric of authority” that may win over certain kinds of readers but makes others, myself included among them, intensely suspicious.

credit and debt

David Bentley Hart:

The Law not only prohibited interest on loans, but mandated that every seventh year should be a Sabbatical, a shmita, a fallow year, during which debts between Israelites were to be remitted; and then went even further in imposing the Sabbath of Sabbath-Years, the Year of Jubilee, in which all debts were excused and all slaves granted their liberty, so that everyone might begin again, as it were, with a clear ledger. In this way, the difference between creditors and debtors could be (at least, for a time) erased, and a kind of equitable balance restored. At the same time, needless to say, the unremitting denunciation of those who exploit the poor or ignore their plight is a radiant leitmotif running through the proclamations of the prophets of Israel (Isa 3:13-15; 5:8; 10:1-2; Jer 5:27-28: Amos 4:1; etc.).

So it should be unsurprising to learn that a very great many of Christ’s teachings concerned debtors and creditors, and the legal coercion of the former by the latter, and the need for debt relief; but somehow we do find it surprising—when, of course, we notice. As a rule, however, it is rare that we do notice, in part because we often fail to recognize the social and legal practices to which his parables and moral exhortations so often referred, and in part because our traditions have so successfully “spiritualized” the texts—both through translation and through habits of interpretation—that the economic and political provocations they contain are scarcely imaginable to us at all.

David Bentley Hart’s grocery list

– The notion that there is any milk in this house is a laughable error, one that could be committed only by the most willfully imperspicacious of observers;

– That we need bread is a conclusion inescapable to any but the most doltish and slack-witted of my co-residents;

– The fatuousness of the belief that a carton of orange juice resides in the refrigerator is so palpably evident that I struggle to comprehend that I must, after all, refute it;

– That any sugar may be found anywhere in this domicile is demonstrably false, and only a fool or a knave, or some unfortunate who contrives to be both at once, could affirm otherwise;

– The claim that we are in no need of beer is so flagrantly nonsensical that one could be forgiven considerable exasperation at the perceived need to signal its nullity — and yet such a requirement remains in force, so that silence on my part would constitute an effectual concession to idiocy;

– I pity the fool who thinks we have coffee.

Update: DBH writes to say that he is flattered by my parody, but wishes to protest the inappropriately high proportion of Latinate words here. I fear I must plead guilty, especially with regard to “imperspicacious.”

Dr. Dinosaur

This is going to sound terrible, but Dr. Dinosaur always reminds me of David Bentley Hart. They have similar levels of self-confidence, they often make people think that they’re crazy, and just when you’ve decided to write them off they do something strangely brilliant.

I realize that The Venn diagram of (a) people who read D B Hart and (b) people who read Atomic Robo comics has an infinitesimal intersection. But still.

rags and brambles: a meditation for Holy Week

What is at issue here is a species of vision that breaks down the rigid lineaments of a world that interprets itself principally according to the brilliant glamour and spectacle of power, the stable arrangement of all things in hierarchies of meaning and authority, or the rational measures of social order and civic prestige … The scale of the reversal cannot be exaggerated: when Jesus stands before Pilate for the last time, beaten, derided, robed in purple and crowned with thorns, he must seem, from the vantage of all the noble wisdom of the empire and the age (which wisdom Nietzsche sought to resuscitate), merely absurd, a ridiculous figure prating incomprehensibly of an otherworldly kingdom and some undefined truth, obviously mad, oblivious of the lowliness of his state and of the magnitude of the powers into whose hands he has been delivered. But in the light of the resurrection, from the perspective of Christianity’s inverted order of vision, the mockery now redounds upon all kings and emperors, whose finery and symbols of status are revealed to be nothing more than rags and brambles beside the majesty of God’s Son, beside this servile shape in which God displays his infinite power to be where he will be; all the rulers of the earth cannot begin to surpass in grandeur this beauty of the God who ventures forth to make even the dust his glory. There is a special Christian humor here, a special kind of Christian irreverence: in Rome the emperor is now as nothing, a garment draped over the shoulders of a slave and then cast aside. Christianity is indeed a creed for slaves, but in neither the subtle Hegelian nor the crude Nietzschean sense: in contrast to Hegel and Nietzsche—to dialectic and diatribe alike — Christian faith speaks of the slave as God’s glory, the one who lies farthest out in the far country, to whom tidings of joy are sent from before the foundation of the world, and from whom the free and infinite God cannot be separated by any distance, certainly not that between the high and low, because he is the distance of all things.

— David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite

Karl Barth and The Thing Itself

In speaking of God, human logic characteristically ignores both His nature and the fact that, when the reference is to Him, the argument from operation to cause is inapplicable, since He is not a known thing in a series of things.

— Karl Barth, making a point that he makes often. In so doing he almost always means to show the necessary absurdity of Christian apologetics, but it’s worth noting that it’s a point equally relevant to the New Atheists, as David Bentley Hart points out in his powerful book The Experience of God: “Suffice it to say that the demiurge is a maker, but not a creator in the theological sense: he is an imposer of order, but not the infinite ocean of being that gives existence to all reality ex nihilo. And he is a god who made the universe ‘back then,’ at some specific point in time, as a discrete event within the course of cosmic events, rather than the God whose creative act is an eternal gift of being to the whole of space and time, sustaining all things in existence in every moment. It is certainly the demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually ever written a word about God.”

But then many proponents of Intelligent Design don’t either. Here’s a long but vital passage in which Hart shows what the two sides have in common:

[Stephen] Hawking’s dismissal of God as an otiose explanatory hypothesis, for instance, is a splendid example of a false conclusion drawn from a confused question. He clearly thinks that talk of God’s creation of the universe concerns some event that occurred at some particular point in the past, prosecuted by some being who appears to occupy the shadowy juncture between a larger quantum landscape and the specific conditions of our current cosmic order; by “God,” that is to say, he means only a demiurge, coming after the law of gravity but before the present universe, whose job was to nail together all the boards and firmly mortar all the bricks of our current cosmic edifice. So Hawking naturally concludes that such a being would be unnecessary if there were some prior set of laws — just out there, so to speak, happily floating along on the wave-functions of the quantum vacuum — that would permit the spontaneous generation of any and all universes. It never crosses his mind that the question of creation might concern the very possibility of existence as such, not only of this universe but of all the laws and physical conditions that produced it, or that the concept of God might concern a reality not temporally prior to this or that world, but logically and necessarily prior to all worlds, all physical laws, all quantum events, and even all possibilities of laws and events. From the perspective of classical metaphysics, Hawking misses the whole point of talk of creation: God would be just as necessary even if all that existed were a collection of physical laws and quantum states, from which no ordered universe had ever arisen; for neither those laws nor those states could exist of themselves. But — and here is the crucial issue — those who argue for the existence of God principally from some feature or other of apparent cosmic design are guilty of the same conceptual confusion; they make a claim like Hawking’s seem solvent, or at least relevant, because they themselves have not advanced beyond the demiurgic picture of God. By giving the name “God” to whatever as yet unknown agent or property or quality might account for this or that particular appearance of design, they have produced a picture of God that it is conceivable the sciences could some day genuinely make obsolete, because it really is a kind of rival explanation to the explanations the sciences seek. This has never been true of the God described in the great traditional metaphysical systems. The true philosophical question of God has always been posed at a far simpler but far more primordial and comprehensive level; it concerns existence as such: the logical possibility of the universe, not its mere physical probability. God, properly conceived, is not a force or cause within nature, and certainly not a kind of supreme natural explanation.

Reading this passage, I find myself thinking of Hart’s title and asking: What might it be like, then, to have an encounter with the real God, the God beyond categories and logic, the God who is “experience as such,” whom we encounter as sat, chit, ananda? It’s a question Adam Roberts asks too.

The Thing Itself is all kinds of amazing, and very hard to describe: if you imagine a mashup of The Thing, Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Kant’s metaphysics, you’ll … not quite get it. Just read it, please.  Among the many things that Roberts does here, one of the most intriguing is to ask whether Kant’s antinomies — which attempt to address some of the same limitations in our language and thought that Barth and Hart also point to — might be a key to unlocking, even in computational as well as experiential terms, the mysteries of the universe.

Adam and I have been corresponding a bit about these matters, and lo, as I am trying to wrap up this post I see that he has just put up a post of his own about Karl Barth! Wonder of wonders! But he the atheist and I the Christian are finding some significant points of common interest here, points that I hope we will find ways to explore further.

For now I’ll leave you with these questions, which have been turning and turning in my head since I read Adam’s book: What if we thought of our current debates about God, our current confrontations between theists and atheists, as the inevitably sorry by-products of a failure to grasp what Hart argues, what Barth argues, what Kant says when he presents us with his Fourth Antinomy? And what would happen to our conversations if we took seriously the possibility that we don’t have any real idea what we have been arguing about?

And with that, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

straw men and new atheists

A straw man can be a very convenient property, after all. I can see why a plenteously contented, drowsily complacent, temperamentally incurious atheist might find it comforting—even a little luxurious—to imagine that belief in God is no more than belief in some magical invisible friend who lives beyond the clouds, or in some ghostly cosmic mechanic invoked to explain gaps in current scientific knowledge. But I also like to think that the truly reflective atheist would prefer not to win all his or her rhetorical victories against childish caricatures. I suppose the success of the books of the ‘new atheists’—which are nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men—might go some way toward proving the opposite. Certainly, none of them is an impressive or cogent treatise, and I doubt posterity will be particularly kind to any of them once the initial convulsions of celebrity have subsided. But they have definitely sold well. I doubt that one should make much of that, though. The new atheists’ texts are manifestoes, buoyantly coarse and intentionally simplistic, meant to fortify true unbelievers in their unbelief; their appeal is broad but certainly not deep; they are supposed to induce a mood, not encourage deep reflection; and at the end of the day they are probably only a passing fad in trade publishing, directed at a new niche market.

— David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God. Reading Hart is such a … bracing thing. Sort of like knocking back a tumbler of white lightning.


There is a tacit contempt for those whose experience and beliefs don’t fit in to the modern world as neatly as they ought to. And that includes not just people of the past, but people of other cultures who haven’t embraced western modernity, either because of material privation or because of cultural resistance.

It is an odd belief, that somehow we know more about reality and that therefore we realise there is no spiritual dimension to reality – because, what? Because we have functioning capitalist societies that are only occasionally on the verge of complete collapse? Or because we understand the molecular architecture of cells better?

Every historical period has its own presiding powers and principalities on high. Ours, for what it is worth, seem to want to make us happy, even if only in an inert sort of way. Every age passes away in time, moreover, and late modernity is only an epoch. This being so, one should never doubt the uncanny force of what Freud called die Wiederkehr des Verdrängten—“the return of the repressed.” Dominant ideologies wither away, metaphysical myths exhaust their power to hold sway over cultural imaginations, material and spiritual conditions change inexorably and irreversibly. The human longing for God, however, persists from age to age. A particular cultural dispensation may succeed for a time in lulling the soul into a forgetful sleep, but the soul will still continue to hear that timeless call that comes at once from within and from beyond all things, even if for now it seems like only a voice heard in a dream. And, sooner or later, the sleeper will awaken.

— David Bentley Hart. Thoughts to meditate on, often and long.

I have to admit that I have never been an admirer of Jung’s writings, even on those rare occasions when I have fleetingly spied what looked like a glimmer of insight among their caliginous fogs. The Red Book, however, makes his other works seem quite tolerable by comparison. It is an essentially silly exercise—sub-Nietzschean, sub-Blakean, sub-Swedenborgian—full of the kinds of garish symbolism and pompous antinomianism one expects from more adolescent minds. To anyone seeking fantastic journeys through strange oneiric realms, I would much more readily recommend Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, which are far better written, far better illustrated, and far more profound (Humpty Dumpty’s discourse on the meanings of words puts all of Philemon’s drearily portentous maunderings to shame). The Red Book is fascinating not in itself, but as an extraordinary symptom of a uniquely late-modern spiritual paradox, which I can only call the desire for transcendence without transcendence.

Now that I have a family of my own, we do observe the changing of the calendar year in our own tepid way. A glass of champagne at midnight on New Year’s Eve, a few mince pies—that sort of thing. My wife, being English, also likes to scare up a few Christmas crackers to pull open, for the amusement of our son, who quite likes having a reason to stay up late.

But, on the whole, it is still a minor observance for us, and nothing to compare to the celebrations we like to hold on Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany, when the last of the Christmas presents are opened, games are played, and the decorations come down from the tree. (I know many Americans think of Christmas as a single day and like to clear away the trappings of the season well before the fifth of January, but that is sheer barbarism, if you ask me, morally only a few steps removed from human sacrifice, cannibalism, or golf.)