Public Theology in Retreat
By Brad EastSeptember 20, 2017
A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays by David Bentley Hart
The Dream-Child’s Progress and Other Essays by David Bentley Hart
The Hidden and the Manifest by David Bentley Hart
That such questions must continually be asked, and such essays continually written, tells us all we need to know about the time in which we live. Obituaries, diagnoses, and genealogies have been offered in plenty, the most recent and profound of which is Alan Jacobs’s “The Watchmen” in Harper’s last year. There he chronicles the death of the Christian public intellectual in the United States. Although Jacobs recognizes the manifold external conditions that both gave and took away the possibility for thoughtful religious discourse to have a broad public in the United States, his argument comes at the issue from the inside: what actions on the part of Christians led to their marginalization? It turns out that Christians silenced themselves, at least in part. That is, just as society began to turn its attention away from the Church, the Church turned inward, began to talk primarily to itself; and when it turned outward, moreover, it increasingly and stubbornly used language unfamiliar to an unchurched polis.
Far from a nostalgic lament for days gone by, then, Jacobs’s essay is an indictment of Christian insularity and a charge to “code-switch,” which is to say, for Christians and indeed all “serious religious believers in a pluralistic society […] never to forget or neglect their own native religious tongue, but also never to forget that they live in a society of people for whom that language is gibberish.” So not only is the next Niebuhr not walking through that door; even if she did, her words would be only so much garbled Christianese, unintelligible and unappealing.
Which is not to deny that candidates for the office have been forthcoming since Niebuhr’s time: James Cone and Stanley Hauerwas could plausibly be counted his immediate successors; Cornel West and Richard John Neuhaus, although less theologians proper than activist-intellectuals, could also stake a claim. And at present one need only look at a single school (in this case Yale) to find a bevy of senior theologians doing significant work on matters of public interest: Kathryn Tanner, Miroslav Volf, Willie Jennings. They deserve your attention.
In a manner of speaking, however, Niebuhr’s unwonted successor is already with us. And his work and readership both prove and complicate Jacobs’s argument. His name is David Bentley Hart.
Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian, philosopher, and cultural commentator. Born and raised in Maryland, he studied at Cambridge and the University of Virginia. He has taught at Virginia, Duke, Providence, St. Louis, and Notre Dame. Since 2003, he has published 10 books, the most notable of which include Atheist Delusions, a sort of intellectual history of early Christianity in response to the so-called “New Atheists”; The Experience of God, a philosophical and interreligious elaboration of classical theism; and The Beauty of the Infinite, a full-bore metaphysics of beauty, his first published book and still magnum opus. Two of these books were published with Yale University Press, with a third coming out this November: a translation of the New Testament. And for the last decade or so, Hart has written the back-page column for the magazine First Things.
Hart’s accolades have come readily from within his guild and its various subdisciplines, including being rewarded the Michael Ramsey Prize in 2011 by Rowan Williams, then-Archbishop of Canterbury. But his books have also received notices from diverse, non-religious venues such as The New Yorker, the Guardian, the New Republic, The New York Times, The New Criterion, and National Review. The praise heaped upon Hart is extravagant: “a national treasure,” “an indispensable voice,” “the best living American systematic theologian,” “without doubt today’s most brilliant essayist, polemicist, and fabulist.”
And yet. Far from being Niebuhr-like — calling him his successor, as I did above, is absurd on its face — Hart’s public perception, insofar as he has one, is as a kind of curiosity, a unicorn emerging now and again, a character who cannot be ignored but can quickly be forgotten. In that way Hart is a type, a stand-in for what he stands for: robust Christian faith, articulated in the most learned, intellectually challenging, and culturally engaged manner possible, yet as unapologetic in rhetoric as in substance.
I therefore do not mean to compare Hart to Niebuhr, not least because matters of temperament and institutional status, among many other factors, immediately complicate the picture. Instead, as figures fixed to their settings, they serve as a kind of diptych of public theology in the last 70 years. Accordingly, the questions here are different from Jacobs’s, though he supplies the necessary background. On the one hand, given the public insignificance of Christian thought today, what is the role of the theologian in US intellectual culture? On the other hand, what might someone like Hart have to say to open-minded readers unaccustomed to theology — how might he break apart stereotypes, open up areas of common interest, bridge the gap of suspicion, convert (in Jacobs’s play on Richard Rorty) unmelodic gibberish into musical fluency? Not, recall, in service of other goods, but of the goods of theology itself.
Those are the questions. But first, Hart himself.
With three books published in the last year — A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays, The Dream-Child’s Progress and Other Essays, and The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics — it is a fitting time to be introduced to David Bentley Hart’s thought. Together, these volumes will do the job. As is typical of Hart, the range of interests and topics canvassed is far too long and eclectic to mention exhaustively. But an abbreviated list would have to include Lewis Carroll, continental philosophy, fairies, the early Church Fathers, Nietzsche, Gnosticism, capital punishment, Nabokov, atheism, Platonism, Anton Bruckner, hermeneutics, consciousness, Richard Dawkins, baseball, natural law, Patrick Leigh Fermor, metaphysics, universalism, Dante, nihilism, modernity, Augustine, capitalism, Milton, the holy Trinity, the philosophy and religions of the East, and perhaps most important of all, his dog Roland. Where to start?
God, naturally. But which God? And how understood? Hart’s answer is at once classical, ecumenical, and particular.
Best to begin, following Thomas Aquinas, by saying what God is not. God is not the biggest being in the universe, or outside of the universe. God is not a discrete entity, like you or me, or a cloud or an atom or a quark, or (if one can put it this way) the universe itself as a whole. Nor is God the clockmaker, winding up time and matter and letting them run their course on their own.
God is the eternal and immaterial fullness of being and life that is the condition of there being anything at all. Infinitely rich and inexhaustibly beautiful, God is being itself, and as such, goodness and truth. Singular and simple, God lacks nothing yet, out of boundless and inexplicable love, creates what is other than himself, that which is not God. Distinct from God, what is not God — which is to say, everything: creation — is nevertheless bound to God, dependent at every moment and in every respect. Yet this dependence is not debilitating but enabling. It is the source of power and identity and, for living creatures, agency and, for rational creatures, freedom. To be is to depend on God for everything, and to acknowledge and celebrate this dependence is to be alive, fully alive, transparent to the source and end and empowering life that fills and moves all living things.
Hart describes this view as “entirely and ecstatically derivative: pure ‘classical theism,’ as found in the Cappadocians, Augustine, Denys, Thomas Aquinas, Ibn Sina, Mulla Sadra, Ibn Arabi, Shankara, Ramanuja, Philo, Moses Maimonides … well, basically, just about every significant theistic philosopher in human history.” Granting a touch of exaggeration, the gesture is clear: this vision is intended to be, not generic, but fulsomely non-parochial, informed by centuries, cultures, and religions beyond the early 21st-century English-speaking academy.
Far from a generic theist, however, Hart is an Orthodox Christian, confessing (and theologizing at length) the specific trinitarian faith of the Church — fingers uncrossed. For now, it is important to see the ecumenical baseline and emphasis of his thought, which he calls, significantly, “Christian Platonism.” It is a vision that addresses and encompasses every aspect of human life, because it is unabashedly for every aspect of human life. It is a deeply humane vision, in other words, not despite but because God is at its center.
The light that God is and sheds abroad in human affairs in turn illuminates those affairs. Hence theology’s interest in them, and hence Hart’s irrepressibly diffuse interests: to wit, whatever touches on the good, the true, and (most of all) the beautiful. Not for nothing has theology’s subject matter been defined traditionally as God and all things in God.
Hart’s capacious, voracious love of art, especially literary art, is perhaps the chief expression of his convictions about God’s relationship to human life and culture as well as what we might call his “theological criticism.” Consider his concluding remarks in an essay on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books:
If nothing else, Carroll clearly intended (and this is obvious from the constant and really very penetrating satire in both books) that most of the absurdity of that other world — Wonderland, the Looking-Glass world, Alice’s dreamscape — should be merely the absurdity of this world inverted and distilled into entrancing dream-images and elaborate jokes. […] [For,] seen from the saner vantage of eternity, our world will also prove to have been in many ways a rather ridiculous and irrational and only half substantial reality, through which the pilgrim soul wanders only till she wakes again into a land of far greater wonders. It is not a “moral” lesson in the boring or morbid sense of ponderous instruction in obvious virtues and inescapable duties. Rather, it is a lesson in the moral intelligence of true whimsy, true absurdity, which affords both a detached but charitable view of this world and also a joyful intimation of another and realer world.
Human culture is saturated by the spiritual, and faith’s critical encounters with works of culture are sites of recognition and delight in the sheer gratuity of the divine liberality, ennobling the kitschiest art with purity of heart, infusing the most secular with integrity of purpose. That is why theology finds itself so drawn to and invested in culture, and why both religion and theology have always been at the heart of human civilization — albeit with the exception of what an earlier essay terms “the senile cultures of a small geological apophysis (with a few appertinent isles) at the western edge of continental Asia.” As Hart writes elsewhere,
theology is — if scrupulously pursued — a complex and pitilessly demanding discipline concerning an immense, profoundly sophisticated legacy of hermeneutics, dialectics, and logic; it deals in minute detail with a vast variety of concrete historical data; over the centuries, it has incubated speculative systems of extraordinary rigor and intricacy, many of whose questions and methods continue to inform contemporary philosophy; and it does, when all is said and done, constitute the single intellectual, moral, spiritual, and cultural tradition uniting the classical, mediaeval, and early modern worlds.
Given this love of culture and the high calling of theology, the hinge of Hart’s criticism, and thus the chief object of his withering disfavor, is those selfsame “senile cultures,” that is, Western modernity and its offspring. Hart sees the progressive secularization of Western culture as a single sustained dehumanization of society — begun in the Church, ironically — and just so one long march toward the receding horizon of nihilism. Indeed, nihilism and secularism, capitalism and individualism, consumerism and voluntarism, scientism and materialism are all of a piece, “a seamless garment” that simultaneously signifies and effects the triumph of the will in all human affairs without exception. As Hart writes:
The history of capitalism and the history of secularism are not two accidentally contemporaneous tales, after all; they are the same story told from different vantages. […] [A] late capitalist culture, being intrinsically a consumerist economy, of necessity promotes a voluntarist understanding of individual freedom and a purely negative understanding of social and political liberty. […] It is […] a system inevitably corrosive of as many prohibitions of desire and inhibitions of the will as possible, and therefore of all those customs and institutions — religious, cultural, social — that tend to restrain or even forbid so many acquisitive longings and individual choices. […] The secular world — our world, our age — is one from which as many mediating and subsidiary powers have been purged as possible, precisely to make room for the adventures of the will. […] Secularization is simply developed capitalism in its ineluctable cultural manifestation.
The very same moral, political, and theological vision underlies Hart’s decade-long polemic against the “New Atheists” (making for an unlikely public-facing pair with Marilynne Robinson, a hyperbolic snort to her erudite eye-roll). He does not protest their lack of faith, which he deeply admires in truly formidable unbelievers like Nietzsche. He protests their lack of moral courage, theological ignorance, philosophical crudity, unwarranted arrogance, and mechanistic reductivism. Their books are, after all, “nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men.” They are worth responding to inasmuch as their errors should be exposed and the record set straight. Hart’s experience in doing so has not been encouraging, however. In his reply to a New Yorker essay by Adam Gopnik, for example, Hart’s conclusion is as harsh as it is despairing of further dialogue:
It does not matter. Nothing is happening here. The conversation has never begun. The current vogue in atheism is probably reducible to three rather sordidly ordinary realities: the mechanistic metaphysics inherited from the seventeenth century, the banal voluntarism that is the inevitable concomitant of late capitalist consumerism, and the quiet fascism of Western cultural supremacism (that is, the assumption that all cultures that do not consent to the late modern Western vision of reality are merely retrograde, unenlightened, and in need of intellectual correction and many more Blu-ray players). Everything else is idle chatter […] What I find so dismal about Gopnik’s article is the thought that it represents not the worst of popular secularist thinking, but the best. Principled unbelief was once a philosophical passion and moral adventure, with which it was worthwhile to contend. Now, perhaps, it is only so much bad intellectual journalism, which is to say, gossip, fashion, theatrics, trifling prejudice. Perhaps this really is the way the argument ends — not with a bang but a whimper.
Perhaps, the sympathetic reader with flagging patience might interrupt at this point, there is indeed something to be said against the will to power, the invisible hand, and secularist supremacy. But why single out science, not least given the extraordinary gains made in material living conditions in precisely those centuries following the advent of modernity?
Hart has not an ill word to speak about science as such, about quantum mechanics and evolution and ecological degradation and the inestimable value of animals other than human. The problem, as he writes in The Experience of God, is when the presuppositions of scientific inquiry are “transformed into a metaphysics […] [becoming] a denial of the meaningfulness of any queries beyond the scope of the empirical sciences.” Thus is birthed “scientism,” what Hart calls “a barbarous fundamentalism regarding what qualifies as true knowledge or even true inquiry.” True believers in this radical faith exist; their tribe is increasing; they hold sway over university departments, governmental apparatuses, and independent research firms.
There really are those out there for whom a poem or a sonata or a sculpture is nothing but an objectively ponderable collection of molecules processed through a series of electrochemical events in accord with certain neurobiological constants, all as determined by a vast set of wholly physical contingencies. There are those who think Plato’s allegory of the cave is little more than a defective attempt to explain the physical structure of the universe. And there are those who take the risible pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology seriously, and believe that every aspect of culture, cultural history, politics, religion, social convention, and so on is more or less wholly explicable in terms of beneficial evolutionary adaptations (if one can only dream up the right Just So story).
Scientism is the socially acceptable form of the cultural pathologies identified above; it supplies cover for, while underwriting, a consumerist economy that views all creatures, human or otherwise, as nothing more than bits of stuff to break apart, put together, and throw away as this or that plastic individual will finds itself desiring to do from one moment to the next. Pope Francis, so beloved of Hart, is right to call ours a throwaway culture. And Hart was right, in 2011, to remark that the best contemporary image for the devil would be “[a] merciless real estate developer whose largest projects are all casinos.”
I have sought to portray Hart in his own words as much as possible, but I have barely skimmed the surface, not least regarding the role that the Bible, and most of all the person and story of Jesus, play in his thought, and the implications for his views on poverty, the death penalty, patriotism, and national politics. Nor have I held up Hart’s vices as counterweight to his virtues: the intemperate defensiveness, the pompous pugnacity, the extremes of scorn matching those of affection, the ostentatious vocabulary (Hart’s $10 words somehow always come in triplicate), the more than implied suggestions of literary omniscience, the intermittently pretentious tone of being right about, well, everything, and the absolute obviousness of said rightness. Hart is far from perfect. But then, perfection pertains neither to writers nor to theologians, and often their imperfections are the obverse of their particular excellences.
More to the point, Hart remains a distinguished public theologian in a country that continues to produce theologians but no longer recognizes them — in either sense of the word. The national culture no longer rewards or seeks out the public theologian’s wisdom or commentary, but more significant, it quite literally does not recognize the office of theologian, does not find intelligible what its occupants have to say. In turn, writing a little over a decade ago, Hart says that, should “the price of [theology’s] recognition by the post-Christian university […] be its reciprocal recognition of the secular order,” then “ignominious exile might be preferable to repatriation on sufferance.” Indeed, “The academic margins might be a more hospitable and healthy climate just at the moment; the desert, after all, has often proved the most fertile garden of the spirit.” Substitute “cultural” for “academic,” and one has Jacobs’s portrait of the contemporary Christian public intellectual in nuce.
The MacIntyrean note of resignation is not accidental, moreover. Consider the last sentence of Hart’s 2009 Atheist Delusions:
[I]t may be the case that Christians who live amid the ruins of the old Christendom — perhaps dwelling on the far-flung frontiers of a Christian civilization taking shape in other lands — will have to learn to continue the mission of their ancient revolution in the desert, to which faith has often found it necessary, at various times, to retreat.
Hart, in short, will call out the decadences and absurdities and dominations of late modernity; but he is not deluded, or triumphalist. He writes in retreat. We are like Julian, the fourth-century apostate emperor, living
in the twilight of an ancient civilization, and many of us occasionally deceive ourselves that the course of history can be reversed. Christendom is quite gone, and the Christian culture of the West seems irrevocably destined for slow dissolution. The arts it inspired, the moral grammar it shaped, the shared stories and convictions by which it bound peoples together seem surely to belong to a constantly receding past.
This is the setting of public theology today, in which Hart has made a name for himself and flourished in just a decade and a half’s time. As I said, it demonstrates as well as complicates Jacobs’s account. The latter, because Hart has indeed won a kind of public recognition, and I don’t know that anyone would claim he has qualified his language in order to do so. But such details only demonstrate the force of Jacobs’s claim, one with which Hart readily agrees. There does not exist a literate elite public for theology. A few notable names may lend an ear from time to time. But mostly they will ignore it as so much nonsense, misunderstanding even and perhaps especially when trying sincerely to comprehend. The best a theologian can do in the meantime is the modest work of cultural interpretation, theological clarification, historical remembrance, moral critique, and moderate political prescription — all without expectation of being heard, much less answered. It is little more than lighting a way through the dark, keeping faith with those who came before and those who will follow. But it is something. Indeed, in the time between the times, which is the only time that Christians know, it is good work. And if the response is silence, so be it.
It need not be so, however. Hart — theology — need not go unheard, be left unanswered. Cultures are contingent; trends do not last forever. We do not know what the future holds, for North America, for western Europe, for the rest of the world. We live in a perilous time, in which the inevitable has consistently been revealed to be anything but.
Given popular understanding of the meaning and cultural power of Christianity in America, it may seem at best counterintuitive and at worse obscene to assert the social and political impotence of religion in the United States. But that is precisely the point. There is both more and less to the Christian faith than its empty public ciphers would suggest. The freak show of power’s religious courtiers being played out before our eyes is a distraction and misleading in the extreme. What force it appears to have is spent: mere thrashing in the death throes of an exhausted, protracted collapse. And politics aside, what remains incontestable is the expulsion of Christian thought from serious public intellectual consideration and the concomitant lack of interest on the part of either those who pull the cultural levers or those who would wreck the machine altogether.
If David Bentley Hart represents anything, it is that there is more to Christianity in public than debauched power politics, more to theology than the caricatures of the unknowing. It is a rich, demanding tradition that hates injustice, loves the truth, privileges the downtrodden, adores the beautiful, and refuses to give even one inch to the atomizing, reductive forces of a technocracy rushing to impose the future on us all. It knows, but what it knows is mystery. It is not what you wish it were, and it will not affirm what you already believe. But then, who would want that? “Our longing for transcendence is inextinguishable in us,” and though our age obscures it, “we are nevertheless still open to the same summons issued in every age to every soul.” Come and see.
Brad East is assistant professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. His writing has appeared in The Marginalia Review of Books, Modern Theology, International Journal of Systematic Theology, Scottish Journal of Theology, Pro Ecclesia, and elsewhere. He blogs at Resident Theologian.
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