I think I’m beginning to figure David B. Hart out. I’ve been totally mystified about why anyone would consider him a credible or interesting thinker since reading his essay belittling the New Atheists, which was dreary and wearying — I compared his prose style to that of Eeyore. But note: one of his central points in that essay was that these New Atheists aren’t as smart and brave as the Old Atheists, an idea that comes up again in a new essay.
Hart has now written a column praising Julian the Apostate, of all people. Julian was a very interesting person in history, a 4th century Roman emperor who resisted the Christianization of the empire begun by Constantine by openly rejecting Christianity and endorsing a revitalization of paganism. He’s something of a mixed bag for atheists: he’s a hero for opposing the dour old monotheism that was spreading through the culture, but also a bit of a flake for encouraging the old classical religions — he was not an atheist by any means. The novel by Gore Vidal, Julian(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), is an excellent introduction to the doomed rebellion against Christianity.
One thing Julian also was not is a friend to Catholicism, so it’s odd to see a Catholic writer heaping praise on him. But then you discover that Hart doesn’t admire him for his views or his intelligence or his cause (although he acknowledges them), it’s because Hart has the conservative disease of believing everything was better in the past, that there was a Golden Age, and that we’re living in an era of decline and defeat right now. To these cranky old farts of stodginess, we’re always living in perpetual decline. Julian is to be admired because he also thought the generations before him were better than the one he was living in.
We now also live in the twilight of an ancient civilization, and many of us occasionally deceive ourselves that the course of history can be reversed. Christendom is quite gone, and the Christian culture of the West seems irrevocably destined for slow dissolution. The arts it inspired, the moral grammar it shaped, the shared stories and convictions by which it bound peoples together seem surely to belong to a constantly receding past.
If nothing else, those restive souls who feel some sort of reverence for that civilization—even those prepared to grant all the evils and failures inextricable from its history, and even those who acknowledge the deep corruption of the gospel it entailed—should be able to understand Julian’s anxiety, indignation, and implacable hostility towards the “Galilaeans.” Perhaps now, then, having had to suffer the trauma of modernity, both for good and ill, reflective Christians might be prepared to recognize that strange, compelling, and rather deluded man—Christian history’s most notorious “Apostate”—as someone who, as best he could, strove to “keep the faith
Keeping the faith is the important matter — let’s just sweep aside the fact that he was supporting a very different faith. Substance is unimportant, just so long as he believed. It’s a strange world the modern defenders of religion live in, where they’ve given up hope in fighting for the specifics of their dogma, and are reduced to desperately hoping that someone somewhere will be nestled in a delusion of some kind.
It is symptomatic of the malaise of the faithful that they find common cause with anyone living in a gloomy period of change from the Old Ways. I see it a little differently.
The history of Western Civilization hasn’t been one of constant decline. It’s been a complicated series of ups and downs, and people seem to differ on when it was going up and when it was going down. I see the major lifts occurring during periods of secular thought: Greece in the 6th century BC, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. These are the moments when great changes occurred that expanded humanity’s vision. On the other hand, the great troughs in human history were whenever religion was ascendant: the whole of the Middle Ages. Not that people weren’t aspiring to great things during the Middle Ages, but they were all weighted down with the burden of dragging an anti-scientific, reactionary church with them everywhere.
Hart seems like the sort of fellow who would invert everything, where the best moments in our history are those where we are most effectively shackled to the advancement of god belief. It’s very unfortunate for him. He’s living his life in a time where he believes we’re in decline, because he is attached to a Christianity in dissolution.
I’m feeling the opposite. Christianity in dissolution? Thank God, and it’s about time we got rid of those dismal superstitions. I see my children have been born in a time when civilization is on the upswing, and it feels good.