Saturday, March 13, 2010

Hart on the tears of Peter

"To us today, this hardly seems an extraordinary detail of the narrative, however moving we may or may not find it; we would expect Peter to weep, and we certainly would expect any narrator to think the event worth recording. But, in some ways, taken in the context of the age in which the Gospels were written, there may well be no stranger or more remarkable moment in the whole of scripture. What is obvious to us--Peter's wounded soul, the profundity of his devotion to his teacher, the torment of his guilt, the crushing knowledge that Christ's imminent death forever foreclosed the possibility of seeking forgiveness for his betrayal--is obvious in very large part because we are the heirs of a culture that, in a sense, sprang from Peter's tears. To us this rather small and ordinary narrative detail is unquestionably an ornament of the story, one that enobles it, proves its gravity, widens its embrace of our common humanity. In this sense, all of us--even unbelievers--are 'Christians' in our moral expectations of the world. To the literate classes of late antiquity, however, this tale of Peter weeping would more likely have seemed an aesthetic mistake; for Peter, as a rustic, could not possibly have been a worthy object of a well-bred man's sympathy, nor could his grief possibly have possessed the sort of tragic dignity necessary to make it worthy of anyone's notice. At most, the grief of a man of Peter's class might have had a place in comic literature: the querulous complaints of an indolent slave, the self-pitying expostulations of a witless peon, the anguished laments of a cuckolded taverner, and so on. Of course, in a tragic or epic setting a servant's tears might have been played as accompaniment to his master's sorrows, rather like the sympathetic whining of a devoted dog. But, when one compares this scene from the Gospels to the sort of emotional portraiture one finds in great Roman writers, comic or serious, one discovers--as the great literary critic Eric Auerbach noted half a century ago--that it is only in Peter that one sees 'the image of man in the highest and deepest and most tragic sense.' Yet Peter remains, for all that, a Galilaean peasant. This is not merely a violation of good taste; it is an act of rebellion.
"This is not, obviously, a claim regarding the explicit intent of any of the evangelists. But even Christianity's most implacable modern critics should be willing to acknowledge that, in these texts and others like them, we see something beginning to emerge from darkness into full visibility, arguably for the first time in our history: the human person as such, invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity, and possessed of an infinite value."

David Bentley Hart, Atheist delusions: the Christian revolution and its fashionable enemies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 166-167. I was reminded that I had meant to put this passage up by Hart's defense of it against the passing critique of Anthony Kenny in the Times literary supplement, March 5, 2010, p. 6 (Kenny had reviewed Atheist delusions in the issue of the TLS dated 19 February):
to call attention to the novelty, for its time, of the gospels' treatment of Peter's grief--elevating a rustic, with a particular name and face, to a position of tragic centrality in the narrative--is not to ignore antique depictions of the joys and sorrows of anonymous peasants; it is merely to observe the considerable difference in moral sensibility separating the former from the latter
(italics mine).

Having completed Beyond good and evil recently, I can't help but think by contrast of Nietzsche (though Nietzsche is a sophisticated thinker, and therefore still beyond me).


Izzie said...

This reminded me of what I read in CK Chesterton's book, Heretics.

"When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward - in a word, a man. Peter."

Steve Perisho said...

Indeed, Izzie!