The Beauty of the Infinite

By David Bentley Hart, 2003 

Try to guess what the following have in common:  1) a man comes up to me and kicks me in the shins; 2) a mother reminds her daughter that it’s not ladylike to spit; 3) a group of friends form a club for Chicago residents of Polish descent; 4) a philosopher proposes an explanation of reality; 5) an essayist claims that America’s history has been one of expanding freedom.  If you’re a postmodernist, you’ve probably guessed that these are all instances of “violence”.  Those of you who haven’t afflicted your sanity by reading Nietzsche, Lyotard, Foucault, etc. are no doubt confused—surely only #1 is violence?  Here’s the claim:  the philosopher in #4 and the essayist in #5 are proposing “metanarratives” or “metaphysics”, which means they’re trying to impose their view of the world on everyone else and crush other legitimate worldviews.  All attempts to explain a multiplicity of facts under a unitary scheme, we are told, are instruments of “violence”.  Similarly, the mother in #2 is using rules of etiquette to assert her will to power and crush the spirit of her daughter.  Okay, so if unity is oppressive, multiplicity must be good, right?  Nope, despite what they sometimes say, postmodernists hate particularity too.  The friends in #3, by limiting the membership of their club, are excluding the “other” out of sheer hatred for non-Poles.  Only their weakness keeps them from committing genocide.  Well, then, if all of these things are violence, what isn’t violence?  Nothing—the will to power is the only reality.

I have trouble regarding postmodernism even as a species of error.  To me, it’s a species of paranoid insanity, a matter of interest only to psychologists.  Eastern Orthodox theologian David Hart, however, has decided to dignify their critique with a theological response.  Christianity, he says, provides a new paradigm for understanding unity in difference.  In God—whose inner life is the complete and eternal self-giving love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the two are equally fundamental, and they combine not in violence of any sort, but in peace and charity.  When God created the world and fashioned a multiplicity of beings, this was no violent rupture in an original unity of being.  The heart of being Himself already contains interpersonal plurality; the “distance” between God and creatures is prefigured in the “distance” between the divine Persons.  Therefore, finite creatures are actually images of God by their very finitude.  The ultimate reality is not violence, but love.  This may sound naïve, the sort of thing a postmodernist would dismiss as a comforting illusion.  Hart, in a somewhat surprising move, turns the tables and accuses the modern and postmodern views as the comforting illusion, in fact a return to a distinctly pagan illusion.  In Greek tragedy and in the ideology of the polis, evil and chaos are primordial forces, ineradicable facts of life which must be accepted but can be held at bay by the violence of the state.  For the Christian, evil is not primordial, it does not even have positive existence, and it is not necessary.  This, in fact, makes it more unbearable.  Thus, Hart criticizes efforts to read the crucifixion in a Greek-tragic light.  The resurrection does not vindicate the crucifixion, but rather the One who was crucified, and it awakens hopes that a merely tragic wisdom would have us put aside.  Similarly, Hart rejects the claims of some contemporary theologians that the crucifixion was somehow necessary for God’s self-actualization, a view that would remove the gratuity from creation and make us a means to God’s own end.  Nor will he stand claims that suffering and death have been assumed into the divine nature:  the point of the Incarnation was to share God’s Trinitarian life with us, not to contaminate God with our problems.  Hart also briefly critiques the moronic (but very common) assertion that God became man and died so that He could see how tough we have things and cut us some more slack.

For me, the most interesting parts of the book are where Hart is defending or attacking other theologians.  Part of the enjoyment comes from the fact that I usually agree with him.  For example, he points out that Rene Girard, in his claims that Christianity has overthrown the pagan order of sacrifice, has a grossly oversimplified idea of sacrifice.  Christ’s crucifixion may have exposed the inadequacy or injustice of sacrifice as transaction and sacrifice as expedient to maintain the social order, but it exemplifies and establishes another order of sacrifice, that of self-giving.  Hart notes that this type of sacrifice is prefigured in the Old Testament; I would say traces of it are also found in paganism.  As a second example, it was quite gratifying to read Hart’s response to Karl Barth’s claim that the analogy of being is a doctrine of the Anti-Christ:  Hart’s response is, basically, that Barth doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  I also appreciated Hart’s refusal to play the game of contrasting Eastern with Western Christianity.  I never thought I’d live to read an Eastern Orthodox theologian defend Augustine’s Trinitarian metaphors or Anselm’s theory of the Atonement, but Hart does so ably.  Indeed, he thinks the whole East vs. West/patristics vs. scholastics dichotomy is overblown.  (For example, most of Anselm’s claims about the Atonement are prefigured in Athanasius.)  Without a doubt, the favored Father of the Church in this book is Gregory of Nyssa.  Gregory was the first one to imagine in God a being that is infinite but not indeterminate—not a formless expanse, but an infinity with form and beauty.  Near the end of the book is a discussion of Gregory’s universalism—his belief that everyone eventually goes to heaven.  What drove this was not wishful thinking (the usual source of modern universalism), but a profound sense of the unity of the human race.  In the final kingdom, Christ must gather all things to Himself, God must be all in all.  Every person is an irreplaceable part of the Body of Christ, so heaven can’t be heaven without everybody.  Let us hope that Gregory turns out to be right.

At the end, the book returns to the postmodern hermeneutic of suspicion.  Hart ably carries out the standard conservative rebuttal:  the postmodern claim that all metanarratives are masks of the will to power is itself a metanarrative—it is, hence, self-refuting.  Furthermore, it is a particularly destructive (“violent”, one might say) narrative, because it erodes every community of shared meaning and leaves individuals naked and adrift in the value-free market and helpless before undisguised power.  Of course, if Hart had made this argument at the book’s beginning, he wouldn’t have needed to write the theological sections, but since these were the most interesting part, it’s good that he didn’t.

This book’s main drawback is the writing style.  From years of reading continental philosophers, David Hart seems to have been contaminated by their habit of writing impenetrable prose.  Here’s an example:  “What, exactly, after all, is the ‘moral’ interval that Christian thought imagines the soul to possess, if not precisely an interval, an opening or delay, where will doubles back upon itself or divides, where thought hesitates between identity and difference, where desire pendulates from delight to delight (‘delectatio quipped quasi…” as Augustine says…), and where the self finds itself always subject to the bearing over (metaferein) of metaphor?  Is not such an ‘interiority’ merely an intensity, an inward fold of an outward surface…”  What the hell is any of that supposed to mean?  (Perhaps if I could read the Latin and Greek parts, it would help, but I doubt it.)  Fortunately, not all of the book is like that.  My recommendation:  when Hart starts with the philoso-babble, skim.

3 Responses

  1. […] to appreciate its subtleties.  When we compare religion’s defenders to its attackers–David Bentley Hart to Christopher Hitchens, for example–there is no comparison whatsoever in breadth […]

  2. It’s been a few years since I’ve read this book, but the continental technobabble was actually part of the fun – rather like one might enjoy a Rube Goldberg machine or a pigeon show.

  3. […] has a history of this, by the way.  I remember in his Beauty of the Infinite, he goes on (please excuse my going from memory) about Christianity overthrowing the pagan […]

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