David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009)
From the title, one might assume this award-winning apologetics book from Yale UP is a polemic against prominent atheists. The title, no doubt, is a reference to Richard Dawkins’s bestselling The God Delusion. If one is at all familiar with Hart, one might further guess that it is a work of philosophy (Hart has his own following as a talented Orthodox philosopher and social critic). Actually, the title is misleading. It is not a rebuttal of any particular work or works by the New Atheists. It does not directly address popular arguments against the existence of God. It is not an academic tome (like some of Hart’s work). Hart himself characterizes it as an “historical essay,” a deliberately provocative retelling of Christian history that places itself in opposition to popular misconceptions exploited by New Atheists such as Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett.
Hart’s intended audience, therefore, is not chiefly atheists as such, but those who are swayed or simply disturbed by common historical critiques of Christianity. He is on the defensive, in the sense that he is not actively trying to convert anyone, but rather to defend the faith from popular calumnies. His tone ranges from biting satire to almost poetic delineation of the meaning of the Christian Revolution in history. His praise for this quiet, slow, and momentous Revolution is often qualified, but will doubtless inspire many Christians to new appreciation of their religious heritage.
Of the book’s four parts, I found the first only moderately interesting. Here Hart launches a cultural critique. He attacks what he regards as the secularist fantasies of the New Atheists; he accuses them and other popular writers of assuming the self-justifying narrative of Modernism, which draws a sharp divide between earlier ages of faith and superstition and the new age of reason and progress, denying that the latter age has any dependence on the former. If Hart’s representation of recent antitheist books is accurate, his critique, if brief, is devastating.
Nevertheless, he really starts to tackle the history in Part 2. He specifically addresses misconceptions about Christianity’s historical relationship with science and philosophy, following the general narrative proposed by popular writers such as Jonathan Kirsch. According to this narrative, there was a flowering of Classical (pagan) rational culture that was brutally suppressed by Christianity for over a thousand years, until the scientific revolution overthrew religious power, recovered the lost glories of paganism, and launched the modern enlightenment. Hart systematically and concisely rebuts the myths that undergird this reading of history. His chapter on science was especially good; he presents a Classical science that had lost its vitality long before Christianity, continued to be studied as an inheritance throughout the following centuries, and was only overthrown at the culmination of a long chain of medieval thinkers. The toppling of Aristotelian physics, perpetrated largely by churchmen, was what actually sparked the Scientific Revolution. The arguments in his chapter on witchcraft and heresy were newer to me but also made a lot of sense; Hart says it was the brutal power of the state, not chiefly the church, that led to a dramatic increase in witchcraft trials and inquisitions during the early modern period. He makes similar arguments about the so-called “Wars of Religion.” Although he concedes, often, that Christian history is not spotless, and in many places endorses criticism of the institutional Church, he does an admirable job at using well-established facts to refute popular myths of a general destruction and anti-rationalism perpetrated by Christian civilization and ideals.
Part 3 offers the counternarrative, describing a “Christian Revolution” which dramatically transformed the western world for the better. Hart suggests that Modernism’s self-justifying narrative, combined with cultural forgetfulness, has led to ignorance of the true debt the Western world owes to the Christian Revolution. Here he addresses the contention of prominent historian Ramsay MacMullen that Christianity only became popular in an exceptionally credulous era and made no real improvements on pagan society. While the New Atheists portray Christianity as a culturally malignant institution, MacMullen and his imitators describe it as irrational and above all superficial. Christianity did not kill the glories of pagan civilization with its new ethos, according to MacMullen; Christianity simply exploited its decline, and its teachings of brotherly love and a merciful Father God were incidental rather than integral to the social changes that occurred in the Roman Empire.
To this, Hart engages in a targeted and thorough rebuttal. The New Atheists are correct that Christianity was corrosive to the old pagan fabric of society, but paganism should not be idolized as something it was not. He explains that Christianity really did bring about a revolution in charity and the treatment of the underprivileged; to a melancholy paganism it brought joy, to a religious culture that disdained the material world it brought affirmation of the goodness of creation, to a rigid class structure it brought comparative equality. It established the first hospitals and charitable orders. Although it failed to sweep culture and society completely of its flaws, what remained, according to Hart, was in most cases vastly diminished by Christian influence. Slavery was not eliminated with the advent of Christendom, and Hart agrees that this is tragic; but the Christian worldview, with its affirmation of absolute human equality before God, not only demanded that slave-owners treat their slaves as brothers and sisters in Christ, but for the first time problematized slavery as a social institution—and the fact that even a rare few early Christian thinkers recognized this, demonstrates the subtle import of this shift. In one of his boldest claims, Hart suggests that Christianity birthed the genuinely original idea of universal humanity. The argument is complex and multi-faceted, but as Hart sums up,
[T]he Christian account of reality introduced into our world an understanding of the divine, the cosmic, and the human that had no exact or even proximate equivalent elsewhere and that made possible a moral vision of the human person that has haunted us ever since, century upon century. (203)
Part 4 is comparatively brief, describing how secular modernity, rather than “liberate” the western world from the “poison” of religion (as if there were such a thing as religion in the abstract), has claimed Christian moral innovations as the common property of humanity and yet condemned their source. Hart concludes by speculating on the long-term consequences of the departure of the spirit of Christianity from western society. The secular state, he notes, when freed from allegiance to religion, has often proved exceptionally murderous, and this should not surprise us. Banality has already crept in; but time may prove that the least of our worries, as the forces of nihilism continue to wear away at a cultural edifice whose foundations few wish any more to maintain. Hart notes what he regards as a dangerous social tolerance for bioethicists who deny the universal worth of humanity. He suggests that a kind of popular “magical thinking”—where people, awed by the wondrous power of science, allow it to grow on a plane where possibility equals permissibility—portends further moral disintegration. If the human is at its root a Christian idea, then it is not impossible for a post-Christian society to end up post-human. That can only be known in time.
Hart is most interesting when he is most provocative and surprising. Some of his historical assertions I already knew to be true in fact, and although I am admittedly not an historian of early or medieval Christianity, I saw nothing to suggest error in substance. He is up-front with his facts for the most part, and they could be easily checked. Nor should his major assertions about religion and modernity be regarded as fringe. Contemporary historians, in my experience, do profess to be suspicious of any “progress narratives,” and there are many non-Christian voices in the field that would agree with Hart that Modernism presents a problematic story of its own rise to domination. Rodney Stark, a (professedly non-religious) sociologist, has been the major popular figure in a positive reevaluation of Christianity’s pivotal role in Western history; it remains to be seen whether that will be assimilated or rejected by the academic establishment. As Hart explains, however, he is less interested in justifying “Christian civilization” as such (like Stark) and more interested in showing the positive and unprecedented influence of Christian ideals thereupon.
I have mixed feelings about Hart’s writing style. Hart seems bound to think in big words and lengthy chains of thought, however much repetition he uses to illuminate the nuances of his position. The meaning of his prose is clear enough when broken down by a careful eye, but I found it too heavy to skim or even read quickly. Though this is one of his lighter works, his prose still demands a slow and meticulous approach to reading. Additionally, though his barbed critiques of thinkers with whom he disagrees rarely fail to impress, I confess a private dislike to the sort of mercilessly satirical tone he employs.
I recommend Atheist Delusions to anyone interested in Christian history as such, especially those concerned by the typical litany of popular criticisms thereof. Its moments of polemic will rankle anyone on the other side of the fence, no doubt, but should not be mistaken for a lack of substance. The book is content-heavy in proportion to its size, deserving of successors to tease out its specific arguments and introduce its major points to public consciousness. It is a book that made me think, giving me new ideas to refine, nuance, and qualify with further readings in the subject. Most importantly, it presents a narrative whose merits ought to be seriously considered by Christians and historians of all persuasions. If valid, even only partially, it requires that we rethink the movement of our culture. It should not lead Christians to a shallow self-congratulation; however, it should lead us to new appreciation of our ancient faith, which despite its historical imperfections, has passed to us not only the body of revelation and theological tradition, but also a heritage of charity and divine humanism.
Note: I hope to get my hands soon on Hart’s recent apologetic work The Experience of God, also published by Yale, which speaks more broadly against antitheism (as well as religious fundamentalism) from the trans-religious question of who or what God is—whether we mean the same thing when we refer to “God.” I’ve read good things about it, and though I’m not principally interested in it for the apologetic value (I’m persuaded such arguments rarely convince anybody in themselves), I’m optimistic that I’ll get something out of it.
Étienne Gilson, God and Philosophy (1941)
It is a coincidence that I picked up this book at the same time as Hart’s. There are significant differences between the two. They are separated by a wide gulf of time. Despite being a competent historian, Gilson is less interested than Hart in history as such. This work, a collection of four lectures, is also not intended to be principally apologetic. However, both contain strikingly similar assertions about the revolutionary nature of Christian thought and belief. God and Philosophy is written with budding Christian intellectuals in mind as an audience, and it attempts to define and describe the place of the metaphysical question of God.
In so doing, it posits that the revealed corpus of the Judeo-Christian tradition, particularly the non-philosophical statement “I AM WHO AM,” first allowed philosophers to conceive of “existences” and not merely “essences.” In charting the course of the philosophical idea of God through history, Gilson suggests that we have come full circle: we have “forgotten” God and returned to paganism. The apologetic elements relate to the alleged obsolescence of metaphysics in the wake of modern science.
Before we get into the meat of the book, some biography is warranted. Étienne Gilson was a decorated veteran of the Great War, trained in philosophy by such well-known French thinkers as Henri Bergson and Emil Durkheim. As a graduate student, his interest in Descartes shifted to Thomas Aquinas, and as a professor of medieval philosophy at the Sorbonne and later the College de France, he became one of the most prestigious medievalists of his time. Some credit him with single-handedly reviving interest in medieval philosophy. He died at the age of 94 in 1978.
Though Gilson was a devout Catholic and a staunch Thomist, his knowledge of philosophy was tremendous and eclectic, and he has enjoyed wide interest across denominational lines. The forward to God and Philosophy is written by Lutheran (later Orthodox) church historian Jaroslav Pelikan; I happen to know of Presbyterians for whom Gilson’s thought has been deeply influential. Despite being a Thomist, Gilson was sympathetic to the nouvelle theologie movement and managed to avoid the stereotypically Neo-Scholastic pitfalls of narrowness and rationalism. He was also no mere historian: he actively engaged contemporary “modernist” schools of thought in his writings, and this shows in this book.
The first lecture talks about God in the thought of the pagan Greeks, the originators of Western philosophy. Gilson suggests that there was a vast gulf between Greek religious assumptions—the gods of polytheism—and Greek philosophy, one that philosophers were hard put to solve. Man can view his life rationally and recognize it as ultimately subject to a chain of impersonal causes; but he is also aware of himself as a cause. Man, as the only instance of the world’s self-awareness, finds himself a unique being, subject to the laws of the universe but also an apparent locus of will, seemingly capable of self-determination. In understanding himself thus as a cause with a will, he naturally tends to ascribe will to the First Cause. “The Greek gods,” Gilson writes, “are the crude but telling expression of this absolute conviction that since man is somebody, and not merely something, the ultimate explanation for what happens to him should rest with somebody, and not merely something” (22).
But Greek philosophy wanted to understand a world of things as such, not to save man from loneliness. The philosophers therefore produced principles of necessity that they refused to identify with their gods. Plato, for instance, would argue that the material world is not true being, because it is ceaselessly changing. Yet truly to be means to be intelligible, and objects of knowledge in perpetual flux are certainly not intelligible. The eternal and intelligible reality, then, is the realm of the Ideas, from which ephemeral physical reality takes its essence. If we wish to assign divinity to anything in Plato’s thought, it might be the Idea of the Good, the source of all light and beauty. But Plato himself never calls this a god; he still regards this as something rather than someone. The gods were beings inferior to the Ideas, though “after so many centuries of Christian thought it has become exceedingly difficult for us to imagine a world where the gods are not the highest reality, while that which is the most supremely real in it is not a god” (27). Plato’s cosmos was full of gods to whom devotion was due, but they were distinct from philosophical principles “as an order persons is distinct from an order of things” (29).
Aristotle, however, for the first time in history united these principles with divinity, by making his prime mover the supreme god, not an Idea, but a self-thinking Thought, first in the order of intelligences. The Aristotelian model endangered the Greek pantheon, but Aristotle stripped this Thought of all traditional characteristics of godhood: this Thought was utterly unconcerned about humanity or the rest of the cosmos. One could love it, but it could not love or receive worship. Rather than a unification of philosophy and religion, Aristotle’s “rational theology” boded the death of religion. Though the gods continued in religious ritual, the “gods” of the philosophical Greeks had no use for religion. Even the apparently monotheistic piety of the Stoics was more of a resignation to the forces of the universe. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, the Stoic consolation was that “A little while and thou wilt have forgotten everything, a little while and everything will have forgotten thee” (36). Greek philosophy remained essentially concerned with things, while worship, by its very nature (Gilson argues), can only be given to somebody, or something mistaken for somebody. Natural theology hit a dead-end; it was not until the metaphysics of the Judeo-Christian tradition appeared on the scene that the idea of God could evolve any further.
Lecture II moves to God in Christian philosophy. The revelation to Moses of God as “I am” sparked a revolution when Christians carried it into philosophy. The God of the Jews was not conceived to solve philosophical problems; rather, he revealed himself to the prophets and told them his name. But by explaining that he was the one Lord, he revealed himself also the first principle of philosophy. While the Greeks struggled with the coexistence of multiple gods and a reality philosophically understood to be one, the Jews understood the God of religion to be the one with the First Cause.
But the revealed God was much more than the philosophers had imagined; his name was HE WHO IS. As philosophers converted to Christianity, and as Christians became philosophers, the language of Greek thought was transformed from the inside to express hitherto unheard-of ideas. When Augustine of Hippo identified elements of Plotinus’s thought with the Christian divine economy, the work of Christian philosophy really began. Plotinus’s One was impersonal and utterly transcendent; all else, including “God,” belonged to another class of being, the same that we share. But Christian metaphysics described God—HE WHO IS—as “a pure Act of existing, taken as such and without any limitation, necessarily… all that which it is possible to be” (51). Such a God can beget of his own being only somebody else, never something, never another god—for it would be impossible for there to be two absolute acts of existing. Such a God is a perfect fullness, without need of granting existence to anything else outside himself; yet clearly, he has formed contingent beings, by a free act of creation. The creative Word itself, which Plotinus placed in the order of created beings, is for Christians of the self-sufficient God. Man is dethroned as the lesser god of the pagans; God is raised to the highest principle of truth.
According to Gilson, the synthesis begun by Augustine was not completed until Thomas Aquinas, whose work was the culmination of nine hundreds of Christian philosophical thought. Augustine had run into a problem. If intelligible truth is divine, man, belonging to a different kind of being, should be unable to possess it. Thus, according to Augustine, man needs God in order to be enlightened by that truth. But as Gilson points out, it is hardly a given that truth is unattainable by natural means. Augustine’s notion of being was still too Greek, too much based on essences.
But Aquinas, influenced by Aristotle, pushed Christian thought to deeper notions of existence. God is HE WHO IS, existence or esse, “to be,” most fundamentally and purely act, whereby all being exists. If existence precedes essence, then God, the first principle, must be supremely existential; remarkably, Gilson notes, philosophy seems only to have considered the existential nature of things after the realization of the existential nature of God. “In other words, philosophers were not able to reach, beyond essences, the existential energies which are their very causes, until the Jewish-Christian Revelation had taught them that ‘to be’ was the proper name of the Supreme Being” (65). This revolution in metaphysics made it all but impossible for future systems to remain sustainable while disregarding existentiality.
Yet human reason is more comfortable in the realm of essences, where it can measure and comprehend; existence, as a thing beyond our experience of particular essences, stretches our conceptual reason almost unbearably. There is nothing in human experience whose essence it is “to be,” and not merely “to-be-a-certain-thing.” Despite its difficulty, however, existentiality allows us to begin to perceive the nature of the universe, and wonder at its cause. It demands answer to the question “why”; “why” is not answered by “how,” the occupation of the sciences, but forms the substance of the philosopher’s quest for meaning. For Gilson, Aquinas had reached the pinnacle of metaphysical knowledge, the highest door accessible to human reason.
If the nature of no known thing is “to be,” the nature of no known thing contains in itself the sufficient reason for its own existence. But it points to its conceivable cause. Beyond a world wherein “to be” is everywhere at hand, and where every nature can account for what other natures are but not for their common existence, there must be some cause whose very essence it is “to be.” To post such a being whose essence is a pure Act of existing, that is, whose essence is not to be this and that, but “to be,” is also to post the Christian God as the supreme cause of the universe. A most deeply hidden God, “He who is” is also a most obvious God. By revealing to the metaphysician that they cannot account for their own existence, all things point to the fact that there is such a supreme cause wherein essence and existence coincide. (71-72)
Yet this brilliant and precious insight was soon lost by philosophy. Lecture III, on modern philosophy, addresses the how and why. For one thing, the almost universal equivalence of philosophers with churchmen during the Middle Ages was no longer true in the seventeenth century and forward. Most of the great philosophers were working “to the ends of the natural cities of men, not to the end of the supernatural city of God” (74). In this lecture and the next, Gilson traces two revolutions in philosophy which successively dismantled the achievements of Thomism: Descartes and Kant.
Descartes’s thinking was still shaped by Aquinas and the scholastics, and he was besides devoutly Catholic. But in his own thought he separated religion and philosophy, because for him religious matters of faith were not suitable as objects for philosophical speculation. Descartes was eager to seek through philosophy only the knowledge derived from within himself and his observation of the world, and leave to religion the knowledge that comes by faith. Gilson argues that this problematized the medieval ideal of wisdom, under which all human knowledge is ultimately aimed at God, the supreme cause. Descartes not only distinguished philosophy and theology, as Aquinas had done, but he ordered them to different ends. Philosophy was now temporal knowledge received by natural reason alone. Indeed, it now became possible for the conclusions of philosophy and theology, as separate forms of knowledge, to contradict one another. In some ways, this was a return to pagan Greek thought, where reason and faith were, if not at odds, at least belonging to totally different realms.
Nevertheless, Descartes assumed that this method—which had never discovered the Christian God in the first place—would still ultimately demonstrate that God. History has proved him wrong, and Gilson suggests that had Descartes known anything about history, he would have realized that while the idea of God is universal and innate, the Christian definition of God is not. The Cartesian God closely resembled the Thomist God, but for Descartes God taken in himself was the province of religion, and philosophy accepted God only as first principle. The Cartesian God is necessary to the mechanics of the universe, but his self-sufficiency is ignored. He is reduced to the philosophical function of creator, though the true essence of the Christian God is not to create but to be. Gilson argues that such a God, reduced to the supreme cause of Nature, “an infelicitous hybrid of religious faith and of rational thought,” could not possibly survive.
Malebranche did push the Cartesian God back toward an older Christian understanding of self-knowledge and self-sufficiency, but ironically he ended up just Cartesianizing God.
The world of Descartes had been a world of intelligible laws established by the arbitrary will of an all-powerful God; Malebranche’s originality was to conceive God himself as an infinite world of intelligible laws…. With Malebranche, the Creator himself has to submit to the very type of intelligibility which the God of Descartes had freely imposed upon created things. (93)
The God of Malebranche is ordered by Cartesian laws. God is wholly rational; in fact, he is constrained by his own rational perfection to grant existence only to the most perfect world possible of being created. Though Malebranche affirms that God is being, his true conception of God is closer to Augustine than Aquinas, and he falls into the same difficulties. Absolute rational perfection, rather than being, begins to define God; the essence of the God of Malebranche and Leibniz precedes his existence. Though God is still required by the philosophical system, he has been reduced to a functionary, operating intelligibly and according to the necessity of his nature. Spinoza, the “religious atheist,” completed this transformation from a “Him who is” God to “that which is,” a purely metaphysical answer to philosophy, requiring of no mythology or revelation, capable of being recognized and loved but incapable of loving.
Yet the God of Christianity somehow survived; his ghost, and the ghost of his religion, continued on for a couple hundred years in Deism, whose “watchmaker” God simply answered the problem of final causes. “In short, God became again what he had already been in the Timaeus of Plato: a Demiurge, the only difference being that this time, before beginning to arrange his world, the Demiurge had consulted Newton” (107). This God was a “philosophical myth” that was gradually excised by later philosophers.
The final lecture, on contemporary thought, begins by noting that contemporary thought on the problem of God belongs wholly either to the Criticism of Kant or the Positivism of Comte. What these doctrines have in common is that “the notion of knowledge is reduced to that of scientific knowledge, and the notion of scientific knowledge itself to the type of intelligibility provided by the physics of Newton. The verb ‘to know’ then means to express observable relations between given facts in terms of mathematical relations” (109). God, not being an object of empirical knowledge, falls outside of this definition of knowledge; natural theology is therefore dismissed completely.
The Revolution of Kant, Gilson goes on to say, completely broke with the tradition of Aquinas and Descartes. The Christians had used Greek metaphysics to answer Christian problems; the moderns (through Spinoza) had used existing metaphysics to justify science; but Kant and Comte undermined metaphysical speculation entirely. The God of Kant and Comte is not a cause, but an idea of reason; in fact, cause, the very question “why,” is “irrelevant to the order of positive knowledge” (112). To this order belong only those questions which can be answered by science; all else is not rational knowledge, and philosophy has no ambition beyond it.
But if we do not think that science is adequate to rational knowledge, if we hold that other than scientifically answerable problems can still be rationally posed concerning the universe, then there is no use for us to stop at the eighteenth-century Author of Nature…. We now know what these gods [of Spinoza, Liebniz, and Descartes] are: mere by-products born of the philosophical decomposition of the Christian living God. Today our only choice is not Kant or Descartes; it is rather Kant or Thomas Aquinas. All the other positions are but halfway houses on the roads which lead either to absolute religious agnosticism or to the natural theology of Christian metaphysics. (113-114)
Modern people, writes Gilson, are caught between an instinctive sense of God, a “spontaneous natural theology,” and the enchantment of scientific confidence. So Pascal, who believed God’s existence and his nonexistence were equally incomprehensible, made his famous wager. So Kant, who proved that God cannot be demonstrated, felt compelled to retain him as an idea. But if the truth of this common notion of God cannot be found by the means of science, it can only be tested “as a philosophical answer to a metaphysical question” (119).
Science, Gilson explains, is perfect insofar as it is able to produce rational explanations of the world as it is. Yet the problem of God is the problem of why the world exists as it does, and there is no way to verify that empirically. Therefore, God is not a scientific problem. The value of the Christian religious account of reality is that it posits existential explanations for the very existence and condition of man, placing man within a framework of the divine plan. These claims can only be evaluated through existential metaphysics rather than science.
Gilson then engages in a bit of cultural criticism, focusing on agnostic astrophysicist Sir James Jeans’s book The Mysterious Universe, which attempted to show his popular audience how science can answer philosophical problems. Jeans claimed that science must establish facts, and philosophy may speak only when science has done all it can. Gilson admits that this perspective, on the face of it, seems much more sensible to moderns than the one he has argued. Yet Gilson notes the title of Jeans’s book describes the universe as “mysterious.” Certainly, we have no need of science to tell us that; we knew it long before. Science, in fact, is intended to extend human reason and thus make the universe less mysterious; science of necessity assumes that the unknown is not impenetrable. The true reason scientists can find the universe mysterious is because they mistake existential or metaphysical questions for scientific ones, and when they ask science for answers they receive none.
For instance, Jeans stated that the physical emergence of man was governed by chance, and in fact by an extended sequence of improbabilities; certainly for science, this is a “mystery,” however many “provisional hypotheses” are lined up. Jeans argued that modern science compels us to believe in some exterior, mathematical “Thought”; Gilson argues that what Jeans is doing simply isn’t science. This “Thought” has been posited and discussed by philosophers for thousands of years in a variety of scientific worldviews. To ask why man appeared, and appeared in a certain way out of a near infinity of possibilities, as a thinking and living being, is a question of existence that science cannot answer. Chance is not an answer; it merely pretends to be. Scientists are so wary of metaphysics (with some reason) that any talk of final causes strikes them as antiscientific. While they might acknowledge the appearance of purpose and design, they explain organized beings by the very laws that make such beings improbable. Scientists “much prefer a complete absence of intelligibility to the presence of a nonscientific intelligibility” (130).
Gilson then explains that the scientist’s epistemology seeks homogeneity. Scientific explanations are inherently analytical and nonexistential. The introduction of purposiveness would violate this homogeneity. Final causes are “scientifically sterile,” but that does not of itself disqualify them as metaphysical answers. If we cannot scientifically admit design in organized bodies, we can at least draw the inference metaphysically, as indicative of a final cause. Sir Julian Huxley claims that purpose is a psychological projection on the economy nature; Gilson responds, what is wrong with that? Our ideas themselves belong to the economy of nature because humans are part of nature. If human purposiveness is “natural,” and it leads us to identify organization with purpose, why should we not infer purpose where we see organization? It is quite correct that science cannot justify this inference; but this inference should not be labeled fallacy.
To conclude, Gilson returns to the theme of a similarity between pagan and modern thought. The pagan world was “full of gods” who were functionaries of the natural order; the modern world is also full of gods, Evolution, Orthogenesis, Progress, Equality, Democracy, etc., who comprise a new mythology. “Millions of men”—Gilson was writing during World War II—“are starving and bleeding to death because two or three or these pseudo-scientific or pseudosocial deified abstractions are now at war. For when gods fight among themselves, men have to die” (136). Philosophy can actually provide clear thinking in the midst of this chaos.
The trouble with so many of our contemporaries is not that they are agnostics but rather because they are misguided theologians. Real agnostics are exceedingly rare, and they harm nobody but themselves. Just as they have no God, these have no gods. Much more common, unfortunately, are those pseudo-agnostics who, because they combine scientific knowledge and social generosity with a complete lack of philosophical culture, substitute dangerous mythologies for the natural theology which they do not understand. (137)
To the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?” science should remain silent. It cannot even ask the question. The answer to this existential question is an absolute Act of existence from which all beings draw their existence.
Being absolute, such a cause is self-sufficient; if it creates, its creative act must be free. Since it creates not only being but order, it must be something which at least eminently contains the only principle of order known to us in experience, namely, thought. Now an absolute, self-subsisting, and knowing cause is not an It but a He. In short, the first cause is the One in whom the cause of both nature and history coincide, a philosophical God who can also be the God of religion. (140-141).
This is as far as metaphysics can go. It cannot comprehend God. “Simple-minded metaphysicians have unwillingly [sic] led agnostics to believe that the God of natural theology was the ‘watchmaker’ of Voltaire, or the ‘carpenter’ of cheap apologetics” (142). Yet God, as absolute existence, is not to be really grasped by what he freely creates; nor can the anthropomorphic nature of our awareness of God entail an anthropomorphic God. The very essence of existence lies beyond our understanding; therefore, true religion picks up where metaphysics left off, leading us by curious paths toward the mystery of existence.
However much my extended synopsis may lead one to think otherwise, this is a short book. I am familiar only with the basic elements of Western philosophy, but I was able to follow it pretty well, with only a few terms of which I was totally ignorant. Recognizing that this is a compilation of lectures meant to sketch out ideas, I found this book helpful and really have no major complaints. I have no way of knowing how accurate the translation is, but there are plenty of annoying spelling mistakes and missing punctuation. My edition was recent (2002), but the page layout and typeface appear not to have been updated at all to something more readable.
Still, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the philosophy of God or natural theology, from a Christian perspective. I enjoy Gilson’s style and appreciate his erudition, and this book leaves me wanting more of both Gilson and philosophy. I need to resume my reading of his excellent (if lengthy) History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages.
Here is a list of some other books recently read:
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (c. 1274)
Dry but oddly engaging reading. In my experience, best read while cooking cabbage soup. I’ve ordered the Summa of the Summa.
Theodore Bozeman, Protestants in an Age of Science (1977)
Dickson Bruce, Violence and Culture in the Antebellum South (1979) FINISHED
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850) FINISHED
Rereading this for the first time since my childhood, for Dr. Hubele’s class.
Georges Dumézil, Archaic Roman Religion (1966)
Étienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (1955)
Though Gilson assumes better familiarity with Classical philosophy than I currently possess, leaving me at times bewildered about significant concepts, his writing and his concise summaries of information keep me going.
Lauren Groff, Arcadia (2012)
Kirsten really liked this novel and we’re reading it aloud. The prose and characters are impressive.
Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (1989) FINISHED
Recommended as an enlightening overview of religious populism in the Early Republic.
E. Brooks Holifield, The Gentleman Theologians: American Theology in Southern Culture, 1795-1860 (1978) FINISHED
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)
Finally checked the Belhaven library for this famous book and read the first few chapters. I think I’ll try to get my own copy before reading any more.
Sean Michael Lucas, God’s Grand Design: The Theological Vision of Jonathan Edwards (2011)
I picked this up because it looked like a decent overview of Edwards’s thought. It’s not badly written, but several times I began to wonder how much reflected Edwards’s views and how much reflected the views of the author, at least in emphasis. Lucas did not seem to care much about Edwards’s hierarchical views of society, for instance, which would be considered outdated; he also did confess he found little of value in Edwards’s philosophy. It would also be difficult from this book to gather how much of the thought in was original to Edwards. All in all, I’m guessing this book is most useful for pastors eager for a quick Edwards refresh. I decided not to finish the book.
George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (2006) FINISHED
George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (2003) FINISHED
Erudite and well-written, sympathetic to Edwards but not uncritical. I’d far recommend it over the book previously listed on Edwards, at least to start with.
Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending Truth (2009)
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (1961) FINISHED
I’m enthralled by this book. The tenets of Western Christian mysticism in a very readable, simple, but deep presentation.
Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (1955)
Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (1998) FINISHED
Norris is an engaging (if not always inspired) writer, and her work maintains interest, occasionally dipping into the profound, wavering in an loose orthodoxy sometimes too much colored by modern Zeitgeist but remaining sympathetic. Not quite Annie Dillard, but a pleasant read.
Josef Pieper, “The Philosophical Act” (1952) FINISHED
In the back of my volume centering on his excellent Leisure the Basis of Culture, which I bought for honors colloquium last semester. It is a justification of philosophy as wonder, based principally on Plato and Aquinas. I’m not sure I completely understand the way he attempted to mark the necessary relationship between philosophy and theology in the last chapter, but in general it formed a readable and illuminating discussion.
Richard Pratt, He Gave Us Stories (1990) FINISHED
A book on how to read Old Testament narratives by an RTS professor and Oxford graduate. The original printing was financed by my friend John Farrar, and I’m finding it highly readable and helpful. That said, it raises many recurring questions as to the validity of the strict Evangelical hermeneutic; the book is centered on authorial intent with only a few nods to the work of the Spirit, which the author sees as inhering interpretive decisions, and the possibility of polyvalence, which Pratt rejects as nontraditional.
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004)
E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993)
Written by a prominent scholar and self-proclaimed secular liberal Protestant, a study that offers a historian’s look at the Christ with honesty and meticulousness. I would not, of course, trust it to deeply inform my theology, but I’m finding it probably worth the read.
Tobias Smollett, Humphrey Clinker (1771) FINISHED
Robert C. Solomon, The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy (2002) FINISHED
I got this undergraduate-level textbook from Dr. Kenyon’s stash, and read it to cover any glaring gaps in my acquaintance with philosophy, as I have not had any formal training. I’d say it has some faults and a humanistic bias (I objected particularly to some apparently uninformed statements on what Christians or Jews actually believe), but it was readable and sometimes quite engaging, and I’m sure there are worse introductions. I’ll probably get into one of my primary source anthologies next, also from Dr. Kenyon’s collection.
Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (2006) FINISHED
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989)
A major philosophical-historical work acquired from the Belhaven library. By far the densest book I’ve picked up in a while. It’s a large book and I haven’t gotten very far.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
I’m really impressed by his style and his insights. Read for Honors Colloquium.
Tomas Tranströmer, The Half-Finished Heaven (2001)
Tobias Wolff, The Stories of Tobias Wolff (1988) FINISHED
It’s been a while since I’ve read short stories. These are excellent.
 Some Eastern Orthodox readily distinguish the “True Church” from western Christendom, whose sins are at least better known; Hart, thankfully, does not do this. He has positive words for oft-forgotten Byzantine Christendom, but he does not treat Latin Christians as misguided heretics. Actually, he spends much of his book defending their civilization even after the Great Schism.
 Interestingly, this definition of God seems something that many Christians, let alone atheists, are unable to comprehend; yet failure to understand this also makes Christianity vulnerable to the sorts of criticisms appropriate to a pagan god, a sort of benevolent and anthropomorphic super-being whose existence belongs to the same order as created things.