Religion or Interior Decorating?

It is rare these days to encounter writer who’s ideas are as finely wrought as his style. I know of one such writer, who offers in four tight sentences this withering critique of modern-day “spirituality”:

Our ethics tends to be something of a continuous improvisation or bricolage: we assemble fragments of traditions we half remember, gather ethical maxims almost at random from the surrounding culture, attempt to find an inner equilibrium between tolerance and conviction, and so on, until we have knit together something like a code, suited to our needs, temperaments, capacities, and imaginations. We select the standards or values we find appealing from a larger market of moral options and then try to arrange them into some sort of tasteful harmony….

This is especially obvious at modern Western religion’s pastel-tinged margins, in those realms of the New Age where the gods of the boutique hold uncontested sway. Here one may cultivate a private atmosphere of ‘spirituality’ as undemanding and therapeutically comforting as one likes simply by purchasing a dream catcher, a few pretty crystals, some books on the goddess, a Tibetan prayer wheel, a volume of Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung or Robert Graves, a Nataraja figurine, a purse of tiles engraved with runes, a scattering of pre-Raphaelite prints drenched in Celtic twilight, an Andean flute, and so forth, until this mounting congeries of string, worthless quartz, cheap joss sticks, baked clay, kitsch, borrowed iconography, and fraudulent scholarship reaches that mysterious point of saturation at which religion has become indistinguishable from interior decorating.

The writer is David Bentley Hart. The passage itself comes from his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, published by Yale University Press. The title, perhaps pressed on Professor Hart by otherwise well-meaning marketing staff, does a disservice to the book’s contents, which are deeply erudite and form a profound meditation on the history and influence of the Christian church.

Atheist Delusions seems to have been written in an outpouring of frustration or indignation at the paucity of intelligence and wit among the so-called New Atheists (excepting, perhaps, Christopher Hitchens). In a similar vein, but from an atheist’s point of view, Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton had a similar fit about Richard Dawkins in the London Review of Books. I could, of course, name several others, but few writers rise to their level of intellectual sophistication, matched by their artful deployment of style.

While such critiques offer many thoughtful insights, particularly in isolating and correcting error, they don’t provide us with a positive vision of God or the Bible—or our experience of either.  It is fortunate for us, then, that Hart has taken his argument further, now offering a positive statement, in his forthcoming book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Blissto be published in September by Yale.

Now there’s an event in book publishing to get excited about.

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