On modernity’s creation myth

David Bentley Hart outlines a popular, but mostly false, version of Christian history.



David Bentley Hart outlines a popular, but mostly false, version of Christian history.


Well, it depends whether you’re talking about the long story or the one that fits in the newspapers, in the back columns.

I think it’s been the case that since the late 18th century a sort of historical narrative, maybe starting with Gibbon, took shape – and this is entirely nonsensical, but it makes for a good story – [which] is that Christianity entered a world of rather high, even luminously sublime ideals like reason and beauty and even civil concord among religions. (This is another part of the myth – that non-Christian religions in the empire got along with one another terribly well – not really true.) And that it introduced – Christianity, that is, introduced a new fanaticism, a new spite, a new malice against the attainments of classical culture, against every other creed.

There’s plenty of violence in Christian history. Not coincidentally, Christians are humans, and as a result tend to behave like human beings – as disappointing as that can be. But the story that began in the pages of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall was that there was something uniquely fanatical and violent about Christianity in its early centuries, and this carried over in the centuries that followed and naturally mutated into all sorts of tyrannies, local and global.

The story you get is just basically that we have an early period in which Christians supposedly burned libraries and books, and started killing one another in a very early period – all of which is not true. This immediately turned into a long period of the ruthless persecution of heretics and witches – some of which is true (not the bit about witches; the witch burnings are an early modern phenomenon, not a medieval one). And then, of course, also imposed a cruel regime of sexual repression.

And, as a whole, the Enlightenment was a solution to this, the antithesis to the Christian problem, and we’re better off without the encumbrances of these superstitions and these cruel fanaticisms, and that if they were to vanish the world would be, as Richard Dawkins says, a paradise – if we could only shake off these fanciful and nasty beliefs.

Now, there’s always some truth to caricatures, and obviously there’s plenty of intolerance and violence in Christian history. It’s not especially interesting in itself – it’s not unique, it’s simply human.