Website of Dr. John K. LaShell
by David Bentley Hart (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003)
I found this a difficult book even though I have a PhD from Westminster Seminary and am quite comfortable with Augustine, Calvin, Luther, and Edwards. I read New Testament Greek fairly well, and can make out a little German and Latin, all of which were helpful. The primary reason this book is a hard read is that the author writes in the idiom of the post-modern philosophers whose positions he is critiquing, and much of their terminology is unfamiliar to me. A secondary problem relates to Hart’s style of writing. Here is a sample sentence, which is actually a good bit clearer than many others:
“Perhaps then it is Hegel—the most ambitious metaphysician of all—rather than his critics, who effected the transition from the Parmenidean to the Heracleitean orthodoxy of the day: precisely because the Hegelian system is the most unrestrained, regal attempt to bring the dynamism of becoming into the fold of magisterial metaphysics, precisely because it absorbs time and history into the epic of the Idea, violence—indeed, warfare—is imagined as inextricable from being; strife, conflict, conceived as one or another process of negation, dialectical determination, and the endless labor of thought, belongs no longer to Plato’s realm of the simulacra—ideality’s defatigation in time and matter—but to being’s truest, most necessary story: the diremption of Idea into finitude and the cooperation of finitude into Geist (p. 38).”
The Encarta dictionary on your computer will not help much with the vocabulary in sentences like these. I recommend that you keep the Oxford English Dictionary handy, along with good dictionaries of classical Greek and Latin. To his credit, Hart often provides a few explanatory phrases to qualify key terms that are essential for his argument. If you keep a stack of 3 x 5 cards handy, you can make a useful file of foreign and unfamiliar words (including his neologisms). I should also note that alongside of Hart’s tortured, complex sentences, one often finds short summaries of stunning cleverness and clarity.
The foregoing comments not withstanding, this is a very significant book for our times. The following is a rough summary of the text.
Post-modernism, following the lead of Nietzsche, has rejected metaphysics and all explanations of the world that seek to include everything under one unifying principle. As Hart cogently notes, the post-modern “critique of metaphysics is often only another metaphysics.”
In this context, Hart defends a Christian understanding of an objective reality that finds its original in the Triune God. Utilizing post-modern terminology, he insists that beauty is the true form of distance. God’s approval of creation as beautiful depends on the fact that creation is distinct from the God who regards it. The distance between God and His creation is implicit in His evaluation of the world as “very good.”
Beauty evokes desire, so that a biblical ethics based on beauty is contrary to Kant’s insistence that virtue only flows from a disinterested sense of duty. The world around us contains real beauty that reflects God’s beauty, so the Christian cannot take a Gnostic, otherworldly approach to life. A true appreciation of God entails a loving appreciation of His creation. Thus, beauty is linked to a real world in which real events take place. If we want to see the beauty of God, we cannot reduce the life, death, and resurrection of Christ to mere symbols.
Part 1—Dionysius against the Crucified: The Violence of Metaphysics and the Metaphysics of Violence
Nietzsche’s polar opposites, Apollo and Dionysius, form the backdrop for Hart’s analysis of post-modernism. The Greek god, Apollo, stands for the stability and order forcibly imposed by an all-encompassing metaphysics. Dionysius represents the wild abandonment to freedom that comes from throwing off the tyranny of Apollo, and Christianity is the most oppressive manifestation of Apollo. Christianity has turned the pagan noble virtues of pride and courage on their heads, replacing them with humility and patience. “Christianity is the gospel of castration” (96), and Christian morals are good only for slaves and the weak. Thus, the willing submission of Christ to the crucifixion represents the triumph of weakness as a virtue. As Hart clearly demonstrates, Nietzsche’s understanding of Christianity reflects nineteenth century liberalism rather than the New Testament. However, Nietzsche’s claim that Christianity is oppressive has become the new gospel of post-modernism. In the view of post-modernism, all persuasive language is a violent attempt to bring others into subjection, and no language is more violently subversive of individual freedom than religious language. Thus, Hart’s project is a defense of “the beauty to whose persuasive power the Christian rhetoric of evangelism inevitably appeals” (1).
In order to overthrow the Christian concept of beauty, post-moderns have drawn on Kant’s distinction between beauty and the sublime. The perception of beauty implies a true, rational fit between the mind and the object regarded as beautiful. An experience of the sublime, however, transcends reason, for it comes when one is presented with “an immensity, grandeur, or force that exceeds representation” (45). In the post-modern adaptation of Kant, the sublime is an invitation to freedom that goes beyond the rational representation of reality; it is the abolition of beauty. Whereas beauty involves order, the sublime leaves freedom for change, even for chaos and for Nietzsche’s unbridled will to power. On the other hand, the sublime can lead back to a Kantian ethics of disinterest. Impressed by the unrepresentable infinite, one simply does his duty. However, as Hart points out, “Modern prejudices aside, obligation flows from love or the possibility of love, and love (in both its strength and its indigence) is never devoid of eros” (83).
Christianity stands in stark opposition both to Apollo and to Dionysius. All philosophy rests on the assumption that the world is necessary or self-existent, but the Bible teaches that creation was a free act of God. If the world simply is, the violence is an inevitable aspect of existence. According to the Bible, however, violence is not a metaphysical necessity. It is an aberration resting on a violation of God’s covenant of light. In opposition to Dionysius, there is an order in creation that reflects the order of the Trinity. On the other hand, creation does not embody the static order of Apollo. Rather, the beauty creation is “a Trinitarian beauty that is motile, various, creative, abundant in signs of peace. The violence of finitude may often be unavoidable, but it is never necessary” (142).
Part 2—The Beauty of the Infinite: A Dogmatica Minora
Hart’s critique of post-modernism (Part 1) occupies the first third of the book (~150 pages). His constructive theological response in Part 2 (~260 pages) continues to interact with post-modernism to some extent, but its focus is on the church fathers—preeminently, Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius the Areopagite, but also Irenaeus, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, and others. Part 2 is superbly summarized in the table of contents, from which I draw the following paragraphs. Afterwards I will offer a few observations.
I. The Trinity
1. The Christian understanding of beauty emerges not only naturally, but necessarily, from the Christian understanding of God as a perichoresis of love, a dynamic coinherence of the three divine persons, whose life is eternally one of shared regard, delight, fellowship, feasting, and joy.
2. The Christian understanding of difference and distance is shaped by the doctrine of the Trinity, where theology finds that the true form of difference is peace, of distance beauty.
3. In the Christian God, the infinite is seen to be beautiful and so capable of being traversed by way of the beautiful.
4. The infinite is beautiful because God is a Trinity; and because all being belongs to God’s infinity, a Christian ontology appears and properly belongs within a theological aesthetics.
1. God’s gracious action in creation belongs from the first to that delight, pleasure, and regard that the Trinity enjoys from eternity, as an outward and unnecessary expression of that love; and thus creation must be received before all else as gift and as beauty.
2. As God is Trinity, in whom all difference is possessed as perfect peace and unity, the divine life might be described as infinite music, and creation too might be described as a music whose intervals, transitions, and phrases are embraced within God’s eternal, triune polyphony.
3. As God utters himself eternally in his Word, and possesses all the fullness of address and response, and as creation belongs to God’s utterance of himself (as a further articulation, at an analogical remove, of the abundant “eloquence” of divine love), creation may be grasped by theology as language.
1. Salvation occurs by way of recapitulation, the restoration of the human image in Christ, the eternal image of the Father after whom humanity was created in the beginning; thus salvation consists in the recovery of a concrete form, and in the restoration of an original beauty.
2. In Christ, totality’s economy of violence is overcome by the infinity of God’s peace, inasmuch as one order of sacrifice is overcome by another: sacrifice as the immolation of the beautiful is displaced by a sacrifice whose offering is one of infinite beauty.
Christian eschatology affirms the goodness of created difference, reveals divine truth to be inseparable from beauty, and exposes the totality as false and marked with a damnable finitude.
A Few Miscellaneous Observations on Part 2
1. Divine impassibility or apatheia is carefully discussed under the headings of Trinity and Salvation. How can God become a man, capable of suffering and dying, and yet abide in eternal and unchangeable bliss? Hart’s response is two-fold. First, God is not the undifferentiated, unmoved Mover of Aristotle. “God’s impassibility is the utter fullness of an infinite dynamism, the absolutely complete and replete generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit from the Father, the infinite ‘drama’ of God’s joyous act of self-outpouring” (167). The incarnation and the death of Christ, are not, therefore a change imposed on God from without, but are the freely chosen overflow of that eternal self-outpouring. Second, “as human being is nothing at all in itself but the image and likeness of God, then the perfect dwelling of the eternal image and likeness of God—the Logos—in the one man who perfectly expresses and lives out what it is to be human, is in no sense an alien act for God” (357).
2. As may be observed in the preceding paragraph, Hart holds to the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone. This is hardly surprising since he is an Eastern Orthodox theologian, but it makes little or no difference to his argument.
3. The Analogia Entis, or “analogy of being,” is not, as Karl Barth suggested, “the invention of antichrist, and the principle reason for not becoming Roman Catholic” (241). It is, rather, essential to understanding God’s relationship to the world. The triune God is the pattern and source all of creation’s individuality and beauty, but there is no continuity or gradation of being from God down to us, such as Neo-Platonism envisions. “In short, the analogy instructs us to see the world as creation, as God pouring himself inexhaustibly forth . . . giving distance to beings in the infinite distance of the Father’s self-outpouring” (248). The Analogia Entis also forms the basis for Analogia Verbi, the “analogy of the word” because “our logoi are eternally embraced in God’s Logos” (303). That is, the words we use as names for God are embraced in God’s eternal Word, the Son of God.
4. While I appreciated Hart’s discussion of salvation as recapitulation, that is, the restoration of the human image in Christ—which is the dominant image of salvation in Eastern Orthodoxy—I must dissent from his dismissal of substitutionary atonement. His eloquent descriptions of divine beauty leave little place for the wrath of God and for the propitiatory nature of Christ’s sacrifice. Indeed, it seems as if Hart would like to do away with hell altogether, if he were not constrained by his Orthodox commitments. One suggestion regarding hell that I found to be interesting and possibly true is the Byzantine conception that “hell is nothing but the absolute proximity of God’s glory without the interval of the gift: God’s glory encountered as sublimity rather than beauty” (272). This school of thought “makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and [it] interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement …. The ‘fire’ of hell is that same infinite display of semeia by which God is always declaring his love, misconstrued (through rejection) as the chaotic sublime rather than the beautiful” (399-400).
5. Hart considers Bach to be “the greatest of Christian theologians, the most inspired witness to the ordo amoris in the fabric of being” (282). He contrasts the inevitability of Wagner’s music with Bach’s freedom. “Is any music more fated than that magnificent arch spanning the course from Siegfried’s funeral processional to Brünnhilde’s immolation and the conflagration of the gods in Götterdämmerung? In Bach’s music, though, motion is absolute, and all thematic content is submitted to the irreducible disseminations that fill it out: each note is an unforced, unnecessary, and yet wholly fitting supplement….” Because of this combination of freedom and fitness, “Bach’s is the ultimate Christian music; it reflects as no other human artifact ever has or could the Christian vision of creation” (283).
Hart’s musical meditations, though sometimes elegant and instructive, nevertheless, contain a subtle flaw. He writes, “It is the promise of Christian faith that, eschatologically, the music of all creation will be restored not as a totality in which all the discords of evil necessarily participated, but as an accomplished harmony from which all such discords, along with their false profundities, have been exorcised by way of innumerable ‘tonal’ (or pneumatological) reconciliations” (281). Certainly, the Bible does not teach that evil is a metaphysical necessity. However, if we say that evil was not necessary in the sense that God planned for it to occur, then how could the death of Christ for our sins have been “foreknown before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:18-20), or why did the apostles acknowledge that “Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel” did “whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27-28)?
Hart positively detests Calvin’s picture of God as “the omnipotent despot … who not only ordains the destiny of souls, but in fact predestines the first sin and so brings the whole drama of creation and redemption to pass (including the eternal perdition of the vast majority of humanity) as a display of his own dread sovereignty”(134). It would appear that Hart needs to expand his appreciation for God’s beauty to include God’s wrath, His justice, and His predestination of all things that come to pass.
Part 3—Rhetoric without Reserve: Persuasion, the Tyranny of Twilight, and the Language of Peace
Given that post-modernism views all attempts at persuasion as a kind of verbal violence, how can we defend evangelism as an activity of peace? As Hart has been at pains to show, the Triune God contains within Himself a rhetoric of peace. The Father’s eternal self-expression, and the Word’s eternal response to the Speaker are the original beauty, peace, and love, from which all created beauty, peace, and love have their being. Furthermore, God sent His Word into the world “as the very form of peace, the infinite gesture of a love that simply exceeds the gesture of every violence brought against it.… Christ offers, in himself, a peace that enters history always as rhetoric, as a persuasion, as a gift that can be received only as a gift” (413).
Christians cannot escape their responsibility to proclaim the gospel to an often hostile world. But “in the moment that this rhetoric is addressed to another, and encounters in consequence the intractability of another persuasion, it finds itself engaged in a kind of war, a struggle of voices each to suppress or displace the other; and in this moment, how does Christian rhetoric distinguish itself as a peaceful gesture that suffers this war, without merely abjuring from persuasion as such” (414).
How might a Christian respond when a post-modern critic says, “Don’t you try to evangelize me. Your attempt at persuasion is an unwarranted aggression against me and an attempt to limit my freedom for your own ends.” First, according to Hart, we need to point out that labeling all persuasion as a kind of violence is itself a kind of violence. Post-modernism’s rejection of all ultimate explanations is itself an ultimate explanation. It lays claim to one absolute truth: that there are no absolute truths. Post-modernism is the ultimate rhetoric of violence for it denies to others the right even to speak God’s message of peace.
Second, the exercise of power does not necessarily depend on a metaphysical warrant to give it legitimacy (as, for example, Hitler did when he used the myth of Aryan superiority to murder Jews). When individuals or groups attempt to make the raw use of power into its own metanarrative, the only effective response is another metanarrative, another vision of the good. Thus, metanarratives have often provided the moral resources to oppose violence to human beings. For example, the belief that all people are equal before their Creator provided a powerful metaphysical foundation for the elimination of slavery. Thus, it is simply false to view all metanarratives as selfish attempts to dominate others.
Third, the post-modern version of tolerance insists that people must leave their distinctive beliefs behind in order to engage in public discourse. But since “persons are in some sense the creatures of their traditions” a refusal to admit traditions into the public square is de facto a violent reduction of personhood. Christianity, on the other hand, desires the conversion of the individual from the city of this world to the city of God, but it does not demand that the person leave his identity behind in order to engage in a conversation.
Finally, our proclamation of the gospel must never become an attempt verbally to trounce unbelievers and force them to adopt our point of view. Rather we must imitate the pattern we see in our Lord. As the Word of God suffered rejection and endured death, so we must be prepared for our words and ourselves to experience the same end. “Theology must, because of what its particular story is, have the form of martyrdom, witness, a peaceful offer that has already suffered rejection and must be prepared for rejection as a consequence” (441). Jesus Christ came “to cast fire on the earth: would that it were already burning (Luke 12:49). Only by assuming the form of a ceaseless practice of peace, however—even in enduring the wounds always borne by the body of Christ—can Christian rhetoric demonstrate and persuade that this is, at the last, the fire of an infinite love” (443).
Who might profit most from this book?
Ø Philosophers who are already acquainted with the major forebears and exponents of post-modernism, including (in alphabetical order) Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Hegel, Heidegger, Kant, Lyotard, and Nietzsche.
Ø Those who would like to enrich their already firm grasp of western Christendom’s theology, with a strong sampling of Eastern Orthodoxy’s best insights.
Ø Christian scholars in secular academic settings who face constant challenges from post-modernism’s rhetoric of violence.
Ø Well-educated Christians who hunger both for intellectual stimulation and for a clearer glimpse of the beauty of God.