Sunday, March 05, 2006


Here are my notes ont Hart's talk, which is mind you, a summary of a summary of the above book. For the full story, you'd best go there.

Religion's Peace with Death
Early 20th century anthropology, Hart explained, thought that religion was an attempt to flee the reality of death. Anthropologists once insisted that to the primitive mind, "death was not natural." The masters of suspicion and their progeny followed suit by insisting that religious ideas of the afterlife were pathetic compensation for the fact of human mortality.

More research however has suggested that this connection was a false one. Most ancient cultures thought immortality was only for the few (e.g. kings and emperors), and even if it was attainable, wasn't necessarily desirable, as in the the Greek's shady underworld or Hebrew's infelicitous Sheol. Religion, instead of fleeing the reality of death, has sought to reconcile us to it. Religion indeed is Marx's opiate, or at least the wine of Dionysius seeking to make life bearable in the face of death. But rather than defend this position, Hart sought to show that Christianity best have nothing to do with it at all.

When Hart examined responses to the tsunami, he regrettably saw "Christian" responses which were soaked in just this kind of "metaphysical optimism or pious fatalism." (I like to think mine is off the hook.) Examples would be Christians who said either the Tsunami was a good thing for having wiped out so many heathen, or (perhaps even more insidous) that in the light of God's providence such a tragedy was somehow "all for the best."

Christianity's War on Death
In contrast to these facile responses to the problem of evil, Hart suggested that the skeptical Ivan in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov provides the seeds for a truly Christian response. Ivan's argument against Christian belief is that the suffering of children should lead one to reject God on moral grounds. Even if it all turns out well in the end, the torture of a little girl is not worth the cost, and Ivan refuses to accept a God who thinks it would be. Though this is often seen as an unanswerable argument against Christianity, Hart contests that the argument in fact comes from Christianity.

Ivan's logic which insists that death and suffering are to be protested is what most closely resembles the complex, subversive logic of the New Testament. According to Christianity, we abide in the "aftermath of a primordial catastrophe," a world gone wrong. This is the "provisional cosmic dualism" of the New Testament which uses language such as "the prince of the power of the air" and "the god of this world" to name the captain of the current cosmic state of affairs. Jesus is a usurper, at odds with the "principalities and powers of the present age."
Hart, it became clear very soon, wants to take the language of spiritual warfare back from the crazies - because it doesn't belong to them - it belongs to the New Testament.
How different this warfare language is than the "solicitude of divine providence" through which modern apologists try to somehow reconcile God and evil. The New Testament provides a "contrary history" where nature, though indeed a "spectral remnant and divine fortaste" of what is to come, still awaits its future liberation and cannot be unconditionally accepted. Ivan's similar refusal to accept the state of the world where children could suffer then stems from "an intuition that is purely Christian."

Christ is often rejected because of the cheap consolation offered in his name. But Christians are "not permitted to enjoy such religious consolation" for "by our baptisms we have been conscripted into an ancient revolution." Easter is not a happy holiday but an "act of rebellion," and "Ivan's rebellion is redeemed by the Pashcal rebellion."

The death of a child cannot then be explained away by third generation Hegelians as being a stage in the realization of God. "The death of a child is not the face of God but the face of his enemy." Christianity then, as a friend of mine remarked not too long ago, is war on death. Hart ended with the classically Orthodox move of pointing to the tortured child's eventual divinization.

Q: One very direct questioner asked Hart, "What would you say to the parent of a child who had been tortured as Ivan described?"

A: Hart said he wouldn't say anything - but when pressed he suggested this: "God does not seek to reconcile you to this evil. He seeks to destroy it."