David Bentley Hart and Rowan Williams: The Cold Heart of Secularism vs. The Warmth and Love of Christmas

As Christmas draws nearer, and we patiently listen to the usual range of tiresome voices calling for a reduction in the use of any overtly Christian imagery in association with celebrating this time of year (e.g.; that Nativity plays have their points of central import either obscured or removed; the insistence on ‘playing down’ religious language when talking about Christmas to colleagues), it is perhaps worth considering what our society might look like if it were as thoroughly secularised as some seemingly wish it to be. One can never predict such things with perfect accuracy of course, but it is surely possible to gain some idea of probable outcomes based on precedent and the core principles of a given movement.

A good assessment of what the core principles of secularism might lead to, and what its track record thus far may suggest, can be found in David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions (a provocative title that Hart himself takes pains to point out was chosen by his publishers) – a thorough and far-reaching text which examines very carefully the claims made by atheists and secularists about Christian history (particularly the Church’s relationship with science and its effects on culture) and, to my mind, rebuts them pretty comprehensively. The only criticism of the book could be that Hart occasionally displays too much impatience with those he is critiquing, but given the inane caricatures and lazy misrepresentations of Christianity one finds amongst that group, such impatience is perhaps understandable.

In the closing chapters of his book, after having engaged with the most common ‘new’ atheist rejoinders, Hart goes on to assess the history of secularism itself, and the alternative vision that it presents. The basic frame of how he interrogates this history is laid out at the end of a chapter detailing the radically new vision of humanity and our relationship to God that Christianity introduced, and on which rests so much of what is best in Western culture:

A civilisation, it seems obvious, is only as great or as wonderful as the spiritual ideals that animate it; and Christian ideals have shown themselves to be almost boundless in cultural fertility and dynamism. And yet, as the history of modernity shows, the creativity of those ideals can, in certain times and places, be exhausted, or at least subdued, if social and material circumstances cease to be propitious for them. I cannot help but wonder, then, what remains behind when Christianity’s power over culture recedes? How long can our gentler ethical prejudices – many of which seem to me to be melting away with fair rapidity – persist once the faith that gave them their rationale and meaning has withered away?

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009), pp.214-215, Yale University Press.

            Western conceptions of the dignity of the human person, of liberty (classically speaking, not the radically attenuated version we see at work now), of charity and social imperative, are all fundamentally rooted in Christian principles. As Hart notes above, many of these ‘gentler ethical prejudices’ (particularly those that concern the dignity of all human life – an ideal which had so greatly set Christians apart from their pagan neighbours) are already fading away; what then can secularism offer to fill the increasing void at the heart of our culture? The idea that naked reason (which, as it is seen by many secularists, amounts to logical positivism and/or empiricism) can solve all our problems is one that is hard to see as viable:

Can one really believe – as the New Atheists seem to do – that secular reason, if finally allowed to move forward, free of the constraining hand of archaic faith, will  naturally make society more just, more humane, and more rational than it has been in the past? What evidence supports such an expectation? It is rather difficult, placing everything in the scales, to vest a great deal of hope in modernity, however radiantly enchanting its promises, when one considers how many innocent lives have already been swallowed up in the flames of modern “progress.” At the end of the twentieth century – the century when secularisation became an explicit political and cultural project throughout the world – the forces of progressive ideology could boast an unprecendentedly vast collection of corpses, but not much in the way of new moral concepts. At least, not any we should be especially proud of. The best ideals to which we moderns continue to cling long antedate modernity; for the most part, all we can claim as truly, distinctively our own are our atrocities…

…The whole record of the modern attempt to erect a new and more rational human reality upon the ruins of the “age of faith” is thronged, from beginning to end, with lists of sacrificial victims – or, I suppose I should say, not lists but statistical registers, since so many of those victims must remain forever nameless. From the days of the Jacobin Club and the massacres in the Vendée to the great revolutionary socialisms, nationalist and internationalist, of the twentieth century, with their one hundred million or so murders, the will to lead modern humanity onward into a postreligious promised land of liberty, justice, and equality has always been accompanied by a willingness to kill without measure, for the sake of that distant dawn.

ibid, pp.222-223, 227.

            This history of violence in the name of progress, and the ease with which so many of those associated with secularising society adopted theories of eugenics designed to rid the world of people who they believed would ‘weaken’ the gene pool – a particularly grim form of utilitarian/utopian thinking which continues to haunt much of the thinking in ‘pro-choice’ and euthanasia advocates today – does not give one much confidence that complete secularisation of our culture will have a happy ending. But what of the claim that perhaps, after all, the mass killings of the last century were just due to the various movements finding their feet, becoming separated from their true ideals, or that they had found themselves hindered by the old order?

Such a claim would be easier to believe if it weren’t for the fact that secularism is not something that came into being in the twentieth century, but has been an integral element of modernity from the beginning. From the time of the Protestant Reformation onwards, one can see as key to changes in society the struggle of modern nation states to free themselves from the various restrictions that kept them in check – institutional, moral and sacramental ties which had previously been the glue holding Christendom together, and which continued to restrain the worst excesses of the state. As nation states freed themselves from those ties, we see the introduction of things like total war (with its increase of conscription and civilian casualties) and as the centuries went on, so did the amount of ‘jusitifiable’ violence also increase.

As for the moral principles of secularism themselves, there do not really seem to be any, other than the vestiges of Christian morality that we have deigned to keep on board (for the time being). The only thing that could be said to be unique in secularist ideology is the near-worship of reason, and that separated from any historical context or philosophical grounding. Such a lionisation though, seems to have led to our not only discarding previously vital ideals like the dignity of all human life but to our becoming a culture overly reliant on technical expertise, to the point where the only things seen as truly progressive are increases in technological prowess. If it is worrying that there are some who dream of an actual trans-humanism in our future, it is also of concern that we have already located our sense of value in something other than the realisation of human purpose and wholeness:

I suspect that, to a far greater degree than we typically imagine, we have forsaken reason for magic: whether the magic of occult fantasy or the magic of an amoral idolatry of our own power over material reality. Reason, in the classical and Christian sense, is a whole way of life, not the simple and narrow master of certain techniques of material manipulation, and certainly not the childish certitude that such mastery proves that only material realities exist. A rational life is one that integrates knowledge into a larger choreography of virtue, imagination, patience, prudence, humility, and restraint. Reason is not only knowledge, but knowledge perfected in wisdom.

ibid, p.236.

            Secularism is, fundamentally, a cold and heartless ideology – seeing things in terms of an always distant and never fully clarified utopian horizon and moral choices in light of a short-term utilitarinism, it lacks both a coherent teleology and anthropology; not knowing what humanity, and what our purpose in life, is, secularism will always be something that is initially parasitic and ultimately destructive. Failing to understand the fullness of all we are and the richness of the worldview in which we have heretofore lived, it cuts off the branch upon which it rests, standing for nothing in particular other than a vague sense of deliverance from constraint and freedom from material wants – ‘principles’ which tend, ironically, to dehumanisation, violence, and the cooling of charity (in both the social and theological sense).

To end on a happy note though, let us compare the secular vision to the vision of God and man presented to us at that festival so many secularists are keen to undermine – Christmas. Whilst David Bentley Hart has some beautiful passages on the Christian worldview in the book I have already quoted from, I would instead like to turn to a sermon given by Rowan Williams, because it was actually delivered on Christmas Day (in 2004, at Canterbury cathedral) and has a pastoral tone more appropriate to the message being delivered:

When we’re invited into the stable to see the child, it’s really being invited into the engine room. This is how God works; this is how God is. The entire system of the universe, “the fire in the equations” as someone wonderfully described it, is contained in this small bundle of shivering flesh. God has given himself away so completely that we meet him here in poverty and weakness, with no trumpeting splendour, no clouds of glory. This is how he is: he acts by giving away all we might expect to find in him of strength and success as we understand them. The universe lives by a love that refuses to bully us or force us, the love of the cradle and the cross…

…“I have come to cast fire upon the earth”, said Jesus (Luke 12.49). We may well and rightly feel a touch of fear as we look into this “engine room” – the life so fragile and so indestructible, so joyful and so costly. But this is the life of all things, full of grace and truth, the life of the everlasting Word of God; to those who receive him he will give the right, the liberty, to live with his life, and to kindle on earth the flame of his love.

Choose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral (2013), pp.23-24, 30, Bloomsbury.

            This image – the Child in the Manger (with its counterpart, the Suffering Servant on the Cross) – is what has inspired, advanced and sustained all that is best in Western culture, because it speaks to us of a God who is ceaseless, boundless Love, and One who has not only validated but sanctified human life by entering into it as a poor and helpless babe. The Nativity of Christ speaks to us of the Incarnation in a way that, due to its particularity, connects us with a worldview wherein all life is precious, models of power are subverted, and love is what lies at the heart of ultimate reality. It challenges us to see further than those who love us in return, moves us to open our hearts to the weak and displaced, and provides us with something in which we can hope in even the direst circumstances.

Even those who do not believe in the basic truths enshrined in the feast of Christmas still associate it with warmth, love, sharing and charity, and rightly so – it stands for all these things. But if such principles are to remain at the centre of our culture, sustaining all that is best in its foundations and informing all good that may come in the future, we cannot allow the cold heart of secularism to take centre stage. Christmas speaks of warmth and joy because it speaks of Christ the Lord, born in and amongst the poor and the weak, Love Incarnate, who offers hope to all who seek Him. If we really value all that is best, and that is most human in our world, we will resist the temptation to throw off the restraints of religion and instead allow Our Lord to ‘kindle on earth the flame of his love’, that thereby He may once again warm our hearts to love alike.

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