David Bentley Hart: The Soulless Society

I wasn’t going to post anything today, but then came across the following quote from David Bentley Hart (taken from his most recent book – The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss – for which I unfortunately do not have a page reference), which so well summarises everything that is wrong with contemporary Western culture that I had to share it:

‘Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values. It cannot allow ultimate goods to distract us from proximate goods. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice. God and the soul too often hinder the purely acquisitive longings upon which the market depends, and confront us with values that stand in stark rivalry to the only truly substantial value at the center of the social universe: the price tag.’

In this short statement is encapsulated all that is at the heart of our cultural and moral dissolution, our sense of existential malaise, and the decline of religious affiliation/observance. It cuts so deeply to the centre of our problems, and the fundamental reasons as to why we have fallen so far from grace, that it needs no further commentary. Hart has said all that can be said, and said it (as usual) very well.


7 thoughts on “David Bentley Hart: The Soulless Society

  1. That’s a great quote from David Bentley Hart!

    I then went on to read the automatically-generated WordPress ‘related’ post, “Secularism: Short-term happiness, long-term despair”. By the lack of ‘likes’ I assume most visitors to your blog have not seen this excellent article yet, so I highly recommend it them.
    Let’s keep washing out the ‘secular’ dust from our eyes. 🙂

    • It is isn’t it!

      Thank you for ‘liking’ my other article, and thanks for the recommendation 🙂 I am often surprised by which of my posts get more (or less) favour than others – the one you mention, I was quite pleased with, but as you say, no likes (until now)!

      As for washing the secular dust from our eyes, I can only but agree with you there! What gives me hope is that already there seem to be some signs of the younger generation (not a majority, but a significant amount) who are getting fed up with the culture they’ve inherited from their parents. The anti-relativist message of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI for instance, resonated greatly with a lot of young people. Let the dust washing continue!

  2. NIce- an American version of this would be a quote by Pogo the Possum:

    ” We have met the enemy; and he is us!”
    However, in this case I will dis agree with the Bard – brevity is not always the soul if wit.

  3. I understand the sentiment communicated in this post, but I feel like it oversimplifies late modernity. I teach at a university and most of my students are not primarily interested in acquiring things. I asked two of my classes to describe where they would like to be in ten years and no one talked about having certain things (though no one wanted to be poor, of course). They found their value primarily in their profession or the sort of work they wanted to be doing, and then many of them also noted the possibility of family (women more than men). I like Hart (who is American, and is Orthodox), but maybe he’s talking about the Boomer generation, and not the millenials (my students).

    • Hi Duane,

      Thanks for the comments – I see where you are coming from here, but I think what Hart (who is indeed American, and Orthodox) is really getting at is that our society will not ‘allow ultimate goods to distract us from proximate goods’. I agree with you that not everybody is interested in acquiring things, and you are correct to point out that Hart’s isolation of this particular aspect of late modernity is a little simplistic.

      However, given what else I’ve read of his, and the clear background to what he is saying here – e.g.; that our society ‘has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can’, I don’t think his concern is solely with us wanting to buy things, but that our primary concerns are selfish (what sort of career/life I want, regardless of any particular concern with what is a Good Life).

      There seems to be little conception of ordering our lives to transcendent concerns, and even when we are concerned with things that do not benefit solely ourselves, they tend to be very local (i.e.; within a network of family and friends) or national/cultural, and short term. I think essentially we are a very utilitarian and individualistic culture, and that this is what Hart is getting at – that some of us find satisfaction in areas other than buying ‘stuff’ is no doubt a good thing, but is still all about what WE want, not what is good per se.

      I would recommend Hart’s essay ‘Christ and Nothing’ for some elaboration on this by the way – goes much further into the roots of why we are where we are, and explains much better than I have some of the context to what he has written in the quote above.

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