I have been reading David Bentley Hart’s new book, God: Being, Consciousness and Bliss (Yale University Press, 2013). I read everything by Hart that comes my way for the same reason I listen to oratorios by Handel – it is a pleasure to observe a master working at his craft. Hart is a great writer regardless of whether you agree with everything he writes or not.
God: Being, Consciousness and Bliss is a fascinating book written by a man who exudes confidence in the Christian Gospel and therefore can do apologetics without sound apologetic, if you know what I mean. The book commends an ecumenical theism that Hart regards as a common legacy of both East and West, a very similar idea as the idea of a natural law common to both East and West expressed by C. S. Lewis in his The Abolition of Man with the phrase: The Tao. Hart is simultaneously respectful of empirical science and contemptuous of that leech on the body of modern science known as “scientism.” You can ruin almost anything by making it into an “ism” and when the modern approach to the natural world, which is quite effective is answering the question “How does it work?” is turned into a complete metaphysics, science is ruined and demeaned.
Hart criticizes materialism from many angles in this book and I just want to comment briefly on one of his points. He points out that it is silly to assert, as many of the “New Atheists” do, that the atheism of the regimes responsible for most of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century is irrelevant to the their crimes. He admits that a mere absence of belief in God does not dictate any particular politics or morality. And, of course, many people are better than their philosophies would logically lead us to expect. Likewise, Hart avers, no one is saying that adherents of any given faith or philosophical system has a monopoly of perfidious behavior. Hart goes on:
“One ought not to blame materialism for the greatest evils committed under its aegis, any more than one ought to blame, say, Christianity for the Crusaders’ sack of Jerusalem or for Torquemada’s malevolence (and who would be so wretchedly simple as to do that?).”
Well, actually there is no shortage of “wretchedly simple” people around today. But let it go; Hart’s point is clear:
“The belief that we are ultimately only biological machines, erected upon a chemical basis according to inabrogable physical law, does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that we should seek to engineer a master race or a perfect society.” (310)
So then, if we agree that this is so, then why does Hart say that materialism is relevant to the crimes of twentieth century totalitarianism? He points out that:
“every ideology opens its own special space of possibilities . . . We ought to remember that the mechanical philosophy arose not just as a new prescription for the sciences . . . but also in association with a Western project of human mastery over the world: the great endeavor to subject nature to impediments and constraints (the use the language of Bacon) or even to “rack” or “torture” nature in order to force her to yield up her secrets (to use the more savage languge of Liebniz). (310)
Now, what can we say about all this? He is right, it seems to me, to see a connection between the rise of technological science and the more general cultural project that began in early modernity of gaining mastery over nature and achieving security by means of power. I think that what Nietzsche brought into the open in the late nineteenth century – the will to power – was built into the development of Modernity from the start and could not help but express itself eventually in the brutality and violence of the dark twentieth century. But, I wonder, can we go even further in affixing blame on atheism and materialism for the tragedies of Auschwitz, the Gulag and the Cultural Revolution? If so, how?
As I was reading this passage from Hart, it occurred to me that, although violent, aggressive, power grabs have been a staple of world history and that the twentieth century differs only in degree and technological capacity for destruction from what went on is all previous centuries, there nonetheless is something qualitatively different about the position of the person in Christendom who is unjustly deprived of life, liberty or possessions from the modern inhabitant of the one of the totalitarian states that operated the death camps and the gulag. The difference is not the universal pathologies of the human heart, nor is it the horror of the evil we perpetrate on one another. It is the futility of prophetic atheism in the face of injustice.
When Stalin trivialized the mass murder of the peasants in the Ukraine by government policy by pointing to the nobility of the cause of building a perfect society, he was appealing to the highest possible authority in a materialistic universe. In atheistic materialism there is no heaven, no hell, no Day of Judgment, no soul and no God. There are only the earth, social justice, bodies and the State. So when the State judges there is no higher Judge to hear an appeal. The goal of a perfect society is the highest possible value. There is no transcendent value by which to judge the actions of men and governments. There is no higher authority to which appeal can be made.
By contrast, the humblest Christian peasant in Christendom massacred by unjust state power could, in his dying breath, believe that this injustice would yet be punished and his cause vindicated on the Day of Judgment. Modern man, however, has no such comfort. And modern prophets have no such authority they can invoke. There is only comfort here and now and, occasionally, a few eggs must be broken in order to make the omelet of Utopia. From within a materialistic worldview, prophetic protest against injustice is futile and pointless. Prophecy is only valid if a God exists who will enforce justice on the Day of Judgment; otherwise it is spitting into the wind.
This is why Alexander Solzhenitsyn had the last word on the twentieth century when he attributed the barbarism and cruelty of his country to the fact that “men forgot God.” Simplistic? No, it is merely obvious. The Sophists and Apologists for tyranny would have us think it is far more complicated than that, but if it is so, it is so only because we have deliberately made is more complicated in a vain attempt to evade our own consciences. Atheistic materialism has its prophets, but they are false prophets in exactly the same sense that the Biblical prophets viewed the false prophets of their day as false: they are futile in their prophecy. They are not in touch with reality. There is no reason to listen to them; nor is there any reason to fear their message.