I should have mentioned that Hart’s book is separated into four parts. Part One is entitled, “Faith, Reason, and Freedom: A View from the Present.” The first two chapters make up part one. Part Two is entitled, “The Mythology of the Secular Age: Modernity’s Rewriting of the Christian Past.”
Chapter Three is entitled, “Faith and Reason.” Hart begins chapter three with an example of the “rewriting” of history that contributes to modernity’s mythology. Citing Medieval Civilization by Jacques Le Goff, Hart notes that in writing of Christendom’s attitude toward the “excluded” such as lepers, Le Goff interprets the fact that leper hospitals were placed outside the towns to mean the Church needed these outcasts to be visible, just barely, so as to allow for a perverse sense of superiority and ease of conscience all at once. Le Goff writes as if the charity shown these poor souls by the Church amounted to little more than “the attitude of a cat playing with a mouse.” As Hart notes, how Le Goff could know what the psychology behind their motives might be is certainly a mystery and rather telling.
When reading something like this, given the fact we should be amazed at the existence of leper’s hospitals in the first place, during that time-frame, I am reminded of something Jesse Jackson once said about the unfair media coverage he felt he was receiving during one of his perennial runs for President—he said if he were to walk on water, the headlines the next day would read, “Jesse Jackson Can’t Swim.” Of course, as Hart rightly points out, it is only with the rise of Christianity that hospitals, as we’ve come to know them, even come into existence. They are a direct result of a narrative that lifted up, “the least of these,” and made charity and how we treat those less fortunate the very marks of salvation. The historical record is rather clear: The Church founded the first hospitals and built thousands of them all over Europe. Summing up Le Goff here, Hart writes,
Even granting all the quite legitimate observations one might make regarding the injustices of late medieval society, however, Le Goff’s remarks here are less than worthless. They tell us nothing about medieval society, but merely record a personal impression without any basis in the historical evidence.
Hart notes that every age re-writes and re-interprets its own history with a view toward validating its own idealized vision of what that history means, but some re-writings are more convincing than others. Modernity exists because people believe the story it tells of itself, not because of any “fact” or piece of “evidence” that would compel us to believe in it, for example, the same way we believe the earth is a certain distance from the sun. In fact, the modern narrative is believed even contrary to such “evidence” as noted above with hospitals.
Take for instance, Hart notes, modernity’s chosen historical designation as the “Age of Reason” as opposed to the “Age of Faith” it has supposedly superseded. He writes,
Behind the definition lay a simple but thoroughly enchanting tale. Once upon a time, it went, Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity labored in brutish subjugation to dogma, superstition, and the unholy alliance of church and state…all was darkness…then in the wake of the “wars of religion” that had torn Christendom apart, came the full flowering of the Enlightenment and with it the reign of reason and progress…
One only has to lend a cursory ear to the writings of the new atheists or more militant secularists to hear this myth being told over and over and to realize that it completely informs and shapes most of their subsequent arguments and, what are, frankly, prejudices completely founded upon this tale and nothing else.
However, the above myth, as Hart points out is:
…as I say, a simple and enchanting tale, easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail.
He closes with,
And so, naturally, among the broadly educated and the broadly uneducated alike, it is the simple picture that tends to prevail, though in varying shades and intensities of color, as with any image often cheaply reproduced; and the simple picture, in this case, is the story that Western society has been telling about itself for centuries now.
As an aside, herein lies the shift to postmodernity. The postmodern turn is the recent realization, among Christian and non-Christian alike, that modernity is a story, a tale, a fable told to make sense of history and experience and not some objective and neutral reporting of “facts.”
It remains astonishing then to find that so many of the arguments and general drift of the new atheists and secularists are based on a complete and unreflective acceptance of this fable called “modernity.” Of course, we should cut some slack here. It is the story they were told at least through High School. Most of us accept the reigning paradigm. What happens though when people begin to learn the story is not true or, at least, simply one more construal and not necessarily the most accurate?
Welcome to postmodernity.