Magazine April 20, 2009, Issue

Shelf Life

David Bentley Hart is one of the most valuable theologians of recent years; his 2003 book The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth is a masterpiece. The title of his latest work, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale, 253 pp., $28), leads the reader to expect a scathing polemic against Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens, and other writers of the same genre. But while the book does provide some strong invective against the New (actually, not so new) Atheists, it has an importance out of proportion to its occasion. Dawkins et al. are like the irritant that prompts the secretion of a pearl.

What Hart does in this book is set forth a sweeping, and convincing, counternarrative to the story of Western civilization told by the atheist propagandists. Far from being an obscurantist obstacle to human fulfillment, he writes, Christianity actually invented the idea of humanity as we understand it today. Before the Christ event, a confrontation like that between Pilate and Jesus would have been seen much differently — as an appropriate restoration of cosmic and social order, in which the powerful are vindicated and the weak crushed. After that event, writes Hart, “try though we might, we shall never really be able to see Christ’s broken, humiliated, and doomed humanity as something self-evidently contemptible and ridiculous. . . . [We now] see it as encompassing the very mystery of our own humanity: a sublime fragility, at once tragic and magnificent, pitiable and wonderful.” Nietzsche was right in considering this a profoundly subversive view, and we in our time fail to see how scandalous it is only because it is so much a part of our spiritual heritage. Writes Hart: “We have lost the capacity for innocent callousness. . . . We cannot simply and guilelessly avert our eyes from the abasement of the victim in order to admire the grandeur of his persecutor; and for just this reason we lack any immediate consciousness of the radical inversion of perspective that has occurred.”

Hart points out that this new valuation of humanity-in-itself — not just particular human beings who are especially brilliant, bold, or strong — is grounded in the theological claims about Christ, whose “descent from the ‘form of God’ into the ‘form of a slave’ is not so much a paradox as a perfect confirmation of the indwelling of the divine image in each soul. . . . Once the world has been seen in this way, it can never again be what it formerly was.”

The sadness of pagan antiquity — of a fixed, closed, tragic world order — gave way to a world in which the lowest could be liberated into a joyful communion with God. Pope John Paul II loved to quote from a particular Vatican II document the assertion that Christ did not just reveal God to man, but “reveals man to man”; Hart’s book is a profound essay on this theme, and the revolution wrought in history by this new understanding of intrinsic human dignity. 

‐ “Parties and partisanship are indisputably orphans of political philosophy,” writes Nancy L. Rosenblum; and it’s easy to see why this is so. How many self-conscious intellectuals are there who don’t actively strive for a viewpoint above partisanship (or, at the very least, claim to)? The danger, of course, is that a commitment to purity in pursuit of truth can lead one to undervalue the efforts and achievements in pursuit of the public good on the part of frankly committed advocates of limited points of view — that is to say, of partisans. In On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship (Princeton, 588 pp., $29.95), Rosenblum — chairman of Harvard’s government department — explains that partisans are central to the functioning of representative democracy’s system of “regulated rivalry”: “Partisanship is the political identity that does not see pluralism and political conflict as a bow to necessity. This commitment entails political self-restraint, mental and emotional discipline, for partisans see themselves as firmly on the side of the angels, but acknowledge their partiality.”

The partisan process does more than merely promote these democratic virtues; it generates practical results for the broader political system. “Parties do not adopt fully developed conceptions of justice that exist antecedent to political activity. Parties are creative agents, and active partisans [take the initiative] in bringing [new lines of division] to public awareness.” To improve our public life, suggests Rosenblum, it would be better to focus on improving the quality of partisanship than to continue to indulge the view that independence and nonpartisanship offer a more promising solution.

‐ In The Political Philosophy of George Washington (Johns Hopkins, 226 pp., $40), Regent University government professor Jeffry H. Morrison traces the Founding Father’s thought to three sources — “classical republicanism, British liberalism, and Protestant Christianity.” The book is a brief but convincing appreciation of a mind that has been undervalued, even as Washington’s many other virtues have caused him to be near-universally recognized as “the indispensable man.

 – MICHAEL POTEMRA

In This Issue

Articles

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How We Fight

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Politics & Policy

A Good Plan in Africa

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Tip Jar Nation

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Features

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The New Afghan War

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Books, Arts & Manners

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By the Waters…

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Paleo Khan

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Politics & Policy

On Our Side

William F. Buckley Jr. wrote a successful series of espionage thrillers about Blackford Oakes, a CIA agent. Now National Review editor Rich Lowry (together with his friend Keith Korman) has ...
Politics & Policy

Shelf Life

David Bentley Hart is one of the most valuable theologians of recent years; his 2003 book The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth is a masterpiece. The ...

Sections

The Long View

The Long View

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Politics & Policy

Poetry

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Happy Warrior

Happy Warrior

Closing Up Shop As National Review’s in-house demography bore — oh, hang on, the self-deprecating “demography bore” shtick is getting even more boring than just boring on about demography . . ...
Politics & Policy

Letters

Keeping the Peace  In the April 6 issue’s “The Week,” you ran a paragraph about the recent attacks on soldiers and policemen in Northern Ireland. The piece unfairly and incorrectly stated ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Carter-era Fiat: Fix It Again, Tony. Obama-era Fiat: Fix It Again, Taxpayers. ‐ “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors,” Charles Wilson, the company’s president in the ...
The Bent Pin

The Bent Pin

Marry in Haste, Repent at Leisure As the Obama administration enters its third month I keep thinking of an old rhyming joke. It’s about an absent-minded girl who, being incapable of ...

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