On what we take for granted

David Bentley Hart describes the moral revolution Christianity wrought in how we see the poor and the sick.



David Bentley Hart describes the moral revolution Christianity wrought in how we see the poor and the sick.


We do live now in the long shadow of that moral revolution, the revolution in values. The modern critic of Christianity who best understood this was, of course, Friedrich Nietzsche, because he actually could think like a pagan to some degree, or at least did a good imitation of one, in deploring the Christian emphasis on charity, on compassion – he thought it transformed the world into a sick ward.

But something that most of us still acknowledge, whether we’re believers or not, is that there is an intrinsic goodness in caring for the poor, the sick. Not that we do it particularly well, especially not in this country, but we acknowledge it. I mean, that’s a moral presupposition, and when we have to soothe our consciences, those are the principles that we have to pretend that we’re obedient to, even when we’re not.

But we see, I mean, it’s a part of the reality of Western culture, all the Western nations, all those that were part of the long story of Christendom. People take it for granted that institutions of public welfare, that free hospitals that care for the poor are actually a social good; a demand made on us as moral beings whether it’s economically feasible or not, whether it’s socially necessary or not. Nonetheless, we take that for granted. And the inviolable sanctity of the human person as the primary agent and object of moral truth is something also that we at least pay lip service to.

I do think, though, that there is a certain fragility in it. I mean, when the large overarching metaphysical or religious narrative begins to wane, the principles themselves begin slowly, it seems to me, to erode.

I don’t know what the situation’s like in Australia, but just talk to an American libertarian sometime and recognise that, in the absence of that Christian grammar, even the people who consider themselves good, solid Western citizens can turn into the most callous, ruthless, and morally obtuse sort of people. Not because they want to be nasty – it’s just that they’re beginning to lose the story. And whether we like it or not, there is a cultural historical contingency even to our deepest moral values. They do change and they will change as our story changes.