Seraphim Rose and David Bentley Hart Two Orthodox Responses to Modernity

by Christopher Howell

One might not expect Seraphim Rose and David Bentley Hart to agree on much, but they do share one crucial perspective: that modernity is essentially nihilistic. However, while their diagnoses of modernity may be similar, their prescriptions are diametrically opposed. To stem the tide of modernity’s nihilistic encroachments, Rose rejected ecumenism as a modernist heresy, and he later promoted a patristic style of young Earth creationism against evolutionary biology. Hart, on the other hand, promotes instead ecumenical unity and the importance of creation as a philosophical and theological doctrine, not a historical event per se, that can be harmonized with science (provided science is rescued from its tendency to reductionism). Such distinct responses highlight the degree of variability within the American subspecies of Eastern Orthodoxy.

In Rose’s view, nihilism is the “root of the revolution of the modern age,” and this nihilism is not just a lack of faith but rather an active belief in nothingness: “No man…lives without a god,” and the god of the nihilist is “nihil, nothingness itself” (Rose 2001, 68-70). It begins with the rejection of God but manifests itself in four modern schools of thought: liberalism, realism, vitalism, and destruction. His clearest critique is on liberalism, which he describes as a more urbane nihilism—tempting, but ultimately flawed, because it cannot evade its own fundamental problem: its inability to justify its own existence (Rose 2001, 33). Likewise, Hart has written that the modern predicament is to “believe in nothing,” which he clarifies is not a faith in just anything, but rather “in the nothing, or in nothingness as such” (Hart 2009, 1-2). Hart shares Rose’s view that contemporary political liberalism is a “soporific nihilism,” but his discussion traces a different intellectual genealogy (Hart 2017, 323). Following Heidegger and Nietzsche, Hart contends that nihilism’s roots extend as far back as the Academy in ancient Athens—the only reason it has flowered now instead of then is because of Christianity’s interruption into the ancient world. Christianity assumed all philosophical categories into itself, and drained philosophy of any tools to respond to the inevitable recrudescence of nihilism once it returned. Christianity is “the midwife of nihilism, not because it is itself nihilistic, but because…to reject Christianity now is, of necessity, to reject everything except the barren anonymity of spontaneous subjectivity” (Hart 2009, 13). While Rose and Hart share an understanding of modernity as nihilism, Rose viewed ecumenism a dangerous extension of it, while Hart saw ecumenism as one of Christianity’s last hopes to defeat it.

Frustrated with the gestures towards ecumenism in the twentieth century, Rose was bewildered by Orthodox academics signing joint statements with “heterodox” Christians and protested that all ecumenism was heretical at heart. Its logical consequence, for him, would be “a syncretic world religion.”  He asked rhetorically, “Is there no limit to the betrayal, the denaturement, the self-liquidation of Orthodoxy?” (Rose, 1997). Hart, on the other hand, views ecumenism as potentially the only way to survive the nihilist wasteland of modernity. He writes, “I often suffer from bleak premonitions of the ultimate cultural triumph in the West of a consumerism so devoid of transcendent values as to be, inevitably, nothing but a pervasive and pitiless nihilism.” Salvation, in this world, can only be found in “evangelical zeal and internal unity” (Hart 2017, 284).

If Rose and Hart disagreed on ecumenism, their respective views on evolution, creationism, and biblical and patristic interpretation are even more starkly antagonistic. For the last nine years of his life, Rose turned his attention towards evolution as a central pillar of modernity’s attacks on Orthodoxy. Concerned that some Orthodox were attempting to harmonize Christianity with evolution, he protested that “physical evolution is by its nature atheistic.” It cannot be harmonized with Christianity because of its underlying philosophical presupposition: namely, materialism. He felt that such attempts at union between the two were only possible because of “the Patristic illiteracy of our day.” To correct this, Rose sought to assemble “the Orthodox Christian vision” on creation by turning to the Church Fathers as the “missing evidence” in the standoff between Christianity and evolution (Christensen 1993). Rose drew on sources as varied as Basil’s Hexameron and the creationist literature of the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego to erect an edifice against evolution (both as science and philosophy) that was later compiled into a collection—Genesis, Creation, and Early Man—by his friend and student Fr. Damascene Christensen. The patristic sources show, for Rose, that the Fathers were “quite ‘literal’ in their interpretation of the text, even while, in many cases, allowing also a symbolic or mystical meaning” (Rose 2011, 119-122). Perhaps the most surprising thing about this work is that the forward was written by Phillip Johnson, one of the founding figures of the Intelligent Design movement. Despite their major ideological differences, Johnson shares Rose’s view that it is the philosophical underpinning of evolution—materialism—that is the chief reason for its success and, furthermore, that it is incompatible with Christianity.

Hart rejects both the patristic creationism that Rose endorsed as well as Intelligent Design. He argues, instead, that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, which necessitates a view of creation as good and a gift, is medicine for the disease of nihilism (Hart 2003, 255-260). This doctrine need not be wedded to biblical literalism, and neither with young Earth creationism nor Intelligent Design. In reading the Fathers “literally,” one must not see either Genesis or their accounts of it as history, but rather must remember that they were reading the text ad litteram. “The difference,” he continues, “between the literal and the allegorical was simply the difference between what was there to be seen and what was given to be discovered” (Hart 2016, 275-276). To succumb to a literalist hermeneutic is to forsake the legacy of the Fathers and turn towards contemporary fundamentalism. Hart is quickly dismissive of young Earth creationism, as it is contradicted by “the entire universe and every physical datum that it contains,” but gives more time to Intelligent Design (Hart 2017, 58). Design does highlight a problem in science—that the metaphysics and methodology of naturalism have been conflated—but ultimately is itself an inadequate solution because of its modernist mechanism of divine action, an understanding of God as a tinkerer external to the universe who acts in the physical world at discrete and empirically verifiable points in history. Instead of such “extrinsic teleology,” Hart calls upon an intrinsic, natural teleology, such as the kind recently advocated by Denis Noble (Hart 2018).

Hart and Rose, and those who look to them for inspiration and insight, might naturally be seen as opponents, but this is not entirely warranted. When set side-by-side, they evince a striking image of the diversity of opinion in contemporary American Orthodoxy, but they are also evidence of an underlying unity when facing the challenges posed to Orthodoxy by modernity. After all, though Hart and Rose are opposed in understanding how the Orthodox might combat the dangers of nihilism, they do agree that this is the fundamental threat, and their dark prophecies of a post-Christian future are congruent. Hart looks to Anthony and the Desert Fathers, wondering if, in the “late modern West,” a life “in willing exile from the world of social prestige and power, may perhaps again become the model that Christians will find themselves compelled to emulate” (Hart 2009, 241). Rose followed this model himself, taking ascetic refuge in the mountains of northern California, for he saw in modern nihilism a pathology from which he must be wholly separate in order to resist. It was in this metaphorical desert that he found “a refuge from the storms and occupations of the world” (Christensen, 1993, 477). Perhaps here a thread can be found that links them. Time is pressing, and unity (even in disunity) is not optional—after all, “I do not think that we will walk very far in the light hereafter except together” (Hart 2017, 284).

Christopher Howell is a PhD student in American Religion at Duke University.

A longer version of this essay was first published as “The Rose and the Stag. An American Orthodox Converstation on Modernity, Science, and Biblical Interpretation” in Almagest: International Journal for the History of Scientific Ideas (volume 9, issue 2). The essay appears here with their permission.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.