Books in Review: The Truth of the Soul of the Modern World

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Dual Book Review

The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization by Vishal Mangalwadi

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart

 

 

One of the New Atheists’ more childish conceits is that of secularism’s moral superiority over all that has come before. Today’s enlightened ethics, it is thought, are the happy outcome of Enlightenment thinking finally brought to fruition; though perhaps their virtue reaches back in time, across the yawning gap of the dark Christian era, to the golden age of Greco-Roman luminescence. Thus some branches of secularism compound their religious ignorance with historical blindness.

Several authors have addressed this error, among them Rodney Stark in Victory of Reason and For the Glory of God; but perhaps in some ways most tellingly in The Rise of Christianity. The best of these authors take a responsibly nuanced position: Christianity has not been perfect, and European Christendom in particular has been a mixed bag of good and evil. I do not prefer Alvin Schmidt’s How Christianity Changed the World, on account of its often too-rosy telling of the Christian story. Though it pumps rather parochially for Roman Catholicism, Thomas E. Woods Jr.’s book How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization is better.

Now into the mix come two books, one quite new, one somewhat older yet new to me, both dedicated to getting the story straight. They are each of them, in vastly different ways, the best of the lot.

In The Book that Made Your World, Vishal Mangalwadi writes of Western civilization from the refreshing perspective of one who grew up in another place. Indian by birth and upbringing, he has seen the contrasting effect of Christianity in his pantheistic native land. Back and forth his book walks the reader, from early Christianity to modern India; from the birth in Christian soil of humanity, rationality, technology, heroism, and the like, to their unique expressions in a land where these ethical traditions in particular still seem somewhat novel.

This is not a matter of mere theory. In his chapter on heroism, for example, he tells of assault, robbery, bribery, and corruption visited upon his own immediate family, culminating in the murders of his aunt and uncle. It was clear that local leaders were intent on undermining the family’s works of compassion and sharing, through which many were coming to faith in Christ. Friends and family encouraged him and especially his wife and children to pull out. But as he tells it,

The countryside was stunned when we arrived back on the battlefield with three young women and two little girls. For our neighbors and opponents, heroism implied the ability to fight back—to find our enemies and take revenge. They assumed that we must have imported secret weapons from the West. It did not occur to them that someone might choose to serve his enemies and sacrifice his life for them. For us this was spiritual warfare. And we had a secret weapon—prayer.

From that story Mangalwadi time-travels back to classical and medieval concepts of heroism. The classical hero was a victor in battle. Alexander the Great left his empire “to the strongest.” Augustus Caesar “consolidated his power by killing three hundred senators and two hundred knights.” Similarly with Hinduism, whose deities are typically depicted carrying weapons. Medieval heroism gradually became moral heroism under the influence of the Church; which in turn took its cue from the Bible. Do we regard the firefighters of 9/11 as heroes? How could that be, when they lost? It is because we have a new conception of heroism—one whose roots are found only in Biblical traditions.

David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions covers much the same ground as Mangalwadi’s book, for both share the purpose of setting the historical record straight. Where Mangalwadi is systematic in his topic coverage and highly personal, Hart by contrast is wide-ranging and literary. It would be hard to imagine two books on such similar topics that are so different in their manner of treatment. Mangalwadi is a story-teller. Hart is a polemicist: at times didactic, at times mercilessly witty (as I have already had occasion to share here), always sharp in his analysis. His central thesis is best summed up in his words on pages 32 and 33,

The ethical presuppositions intrinsic to modernity… are palliated fragments and haunting echoes of Christian moral theology. Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity that pre-Christian Western culture would have found not so much foolish as unintelligible. It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things—they would never have occurred to us—had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren.

Perhaps you noticed, perhaps it came as some surprise to you, when I spoke earlier of “the birth in Christian soil of humanity.” Mangalwadi calls this “The West’s Greatest Discovery.” Hart makes the same point. I have alluded to it earlier on this blog. Here is more:

What for us is the quiet, persistent, perennial rebuke of conscience within us was, for ancient peoples, an outlandish decree issuing from a realm outside any world they could conceive. Conscience, after all, at least in regard to its particular contents, is to a great extent a cultural artifact, a historical contingency, and all of us today in the West, to some degree or another, have inherited a conscience formed by Christian moral ideals. For this reason, it is all but impossible for us to recover any real sense of the scandal that many pagans naturally felt at the bizarre prodigality with which the early Christians were willing to grant full humanity to persons of every class and condition, and of either sex.

To grant full humanity: what Mangalwadi called the West’s greatest discovery. It was not to be found in Plato or Aristotle, not even in the Stoics. It came from the One who died for all equally, declaring all equally worthy of life, all equally significant, all fully human. Some complain (for example) that Christianity denigrates the status of women, but the charge is both historically and geo-culturally laughable, for it is only Christianity that has brought a real sensitivity to women into world culture. A great many other claims of Christianity’s faults are in the same category. Not all of them, to be sure: both of these authors acknowledge the human error that has always afflicted the Church. Still, as Hart has pointed out, the conscience by which we name those errors is a uniquely Christian conscience.

I don’t know which book to recommend more to you. If you love language for language’s sake, by all means begin with Hart, for he is gifted with vocabulary, with imagery, and with the rhythm that marks excellence in prose as it does in a different way in poetry. His knowledge of history seems encyclopedic, and he applies it to produce consistently fresh insights for the present day. In a few places, unfortunately, he departs very briefly from full confidence in the Biblical text. I suggest you overlook that flaw when you see it, for it happens in only a few places and it never materially affects the historical argument he is making. There were some places where—perhaps it was the mood I was in—it seemed to me that Hart’s prose was higher than the subject matter, and I found myself wishing he would let it relax a while.

If you prefer stirring real-world applications of Christian conscience, a more systematic survey of the Bible’s impact in history, and a cleaner, quicker read, start with Mangalwadi. Read it for its intriguing outsider’s perspective on Western history and civilization, too. They say that when a reviewer recommends a book, he ought to be frank about whatever there might be in it that he did not like. With Mangalwadi, I’m afraid I’m going to have to fail in that responsibility. I feel almost guilty saying this, but there wasn’t anything I didn’t like about this book.

Both books tell a story that must be told: that Christianity has been good for the world in ways that have too long been forgotten. Whichever one you choose to read first, you’ve chosen well—as long as you plan to read the other one, too.

The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization by Vishal Mangalwadi. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011. 487 pages including extensive endnotes and index. Amazon price US$15.63.

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 253 pages including brief endnotes. Amazon price US$10.08.

Comments

  1. JAD

    From the OP:

    One of the New Atheists’ more childish conceits is that of secularism’s moral superiority over all that has come before. Today’s enlightened ethics, it is thought, are the happy outcome of Enlightenment thinking finally brought to fruition; though perhaps their virtue reaches back in time, across the yawning gap of the dark Christian era, to the golden age of Greco-Roman luminescence. Thus some branches of secularism compound their religious ignorance with historical blindness.

    I don’t know any contemporary Christian scholar who argues that the medieval church didn’t launch the crusades, commission the inquisition or persecute witches and heretics. As a student of church history I have accept this honest “warts and all” reading as the true one. However, the western Christian church no longer condones these practices. Why? I don’t think it is because of the rise of an enlightened secularism; rather I think it can be argued historically that the change and reform came from within the church.

    One example is that of religious tolerance which was pioneered in the North American English colonies, in the 17th century, by protestant pastor named Roger Williams. Ironically without religious tolerance and freedom of conscience being established first there is no possibility that any form of secularism could have ever emerged.

    People like Sam Harris need to step back from their highly biased ideology and go to the library and read some actual history. The truth is not hard to find here if you are open minded and objective.

  2. SteveK

    I don’t think it is because of the rise of an enlightened secularism; rather I think it can be argued historically that the change and reform came from within the church.

    True. Secularism looks in the direction of modernity as a means for moral change. What makes moral sense today prevails over what made sense in the past because there are no absolutes that ground secular morality.

    Christianity, by definition, always looks backward toward the source. It says the reason for moral change today can be found in the unchanging past, which is God.

    So as far a Christianity goes, correcting course involves change that can only come from within. Secularism cannot possibly be the reason for Christianity correcting it’s moral failures. Christianity doesn’t allow that as an option.

  3. G. Rodrigues

    @SteveK:

    Secularism looks in the direction of modernity as a means for moral change. What makes moral sense today prevails over what made sense in the past because there are no absolutes that ground secular morality.

    Christianity, by definition, always looks backward toward the source. It says the reason for moral change today can be found in the unchanging past, which is God.

    Bingo.

    Replace “modernity” by “future” in Secularism and “source” by “past” in Christianity, and you end up, if not with a more truthful formula, at least with a more symmetric one, and the glaring nothingness upon which Secularism is founded is revealed, for the past is all we have and the future but a mere ghost of a possibility. The future will not be unless we have a Vision of what should be, and how shall we conjure such Visions? Plato paints a gloomy picture of man staring at the flickering shadows on the wall of reality made by the fiery sun at his back. But if the light that animates the shadows is the “true light that gives light to every man” then there is still hope for us. And faith and love. It may be the case that we will fall under the curse of Lot’s wife by turning back to the Light but a much worse fate awaits those who turn their backs to the Light to face the future: to see only darkness, or worse, confound the darkness that is there with the shadows that populate his own mind.

    note: Ok, the above paragraph came out more contorted and baroque than I wished, but instead of retouching it, let me just add that if the Secularist rejects or denies any Fixed Stars by which to guide our path, it is not just that he will not know where he is heading, morally speaking, but that he will not even be able to coherently judge the past or chart the future. Evolution language is highly loaded, but there can be no sense of progress in evolution if we have rejected any sort of telos or goal. If there is no definite, necessarily transcendental idea of what constitutes human nature and its purposes or goals, then it is meaningless to say that this or that is morally better. What we are left with are just capricious whims, habits, compulsions and whatever indoctrination gets to us first. Highly ironical given the Secularist screed about freedom.

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