Fifteen years ago David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth blazed across the theological sky. For those of us who were reading theology back then, it was not quite like anything we had ever seen before. How many scholars can speak with equal ease about Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor as about Thomas Aquinas, Erich Pryzwara, and Robert W. Jenson; about Plotinus and Nicholas of Cusa as about Neitzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida? As Geoffrey Wainwright states in his review: “Few, if any, other theologians could have written The Beauty of the Infinite.” Hart’s erudition is staggering, but even more impressive is the way he has creatively synthesized the insights and teachings of the masters and made them his own. It is often difficult to know, for example, where Gregory Nyssen ends and Hart begins. An historical theologian may dispute Hart’s reading of Gregory, Dionysius, or Maximus, yet his reading is often so compelling it doesn’t matter. If that’s not what Maximus said, perhaps it’s what he should have said.
Then there’s Hart’s prolixity and boundless vocabulary. Jenson once quipped that “Hart never uses one clause where twenty will do.” Too true. Yet these multiple clauses also give his writing an incantatory power that sometimes achieves a profound mystical beauty—not always but more than occasionally. And everyone, of course, jokes about needing to have the Oxford English Dictionary at hand when reading his work, the unstated implication being that the author would have made all of our lives so much easier if he had restricted himself to our own very limited lexicons. But the moment one begins to replace those uncommon words with more familiar synonyms (Roget’s is no help here) one discovers that something essential has gotten lost. Form and content, medium and message, are indivisibly united in Hart’s writing. Many passages simply need to be read aloud in order to fully appreciate their lyricism and incandescent passion. Hart’s argumentation does not paraphrase well nor easily reduce to syllogism. Something else is afoot, I think–the communication of a metaphysical vision. Hart wants us to see what he has seen. Semantic density, denotation and connotation, metaphor, the sound of the words, the rhythm and cadence of the sentences–all contribute to the revelation, if there be revelation, of the transcendent plenitude of Being.
The Beauty of the Infinite generated immediate and vigorous response, but after a while the book largely disappeared from scholarly view–at least that is my impression. The disappearance is understandable. Part 1 is impenetrable to anyone who has not studied the thinkers with whom Hart interacts and critiques. I’ve never been able to push my way through it. I suspect that many readers have jumped ahead to part 2, the dogmatica minora, only to find themselves defeated still. Beauty of the Infinite book is an exceptionally demanding text. Many readers lack the sympathy, skills, patience and time to manage it. Reading Finnegan’s Wake seems an easier task.
Hart has continued to publish since 2003, but his substantive academic writings have been largely restricted to journals and essay collections and are thus easily overlooked. This is unfortunate. Like myself, many have found his essays more accessible than Beauty of the Infinite, even when a given piece is drawing verbatim upon it. For this reason the publication of The Hidden and the Manifest is a major event. The volume includes most of his better known post-Beauty essays but also several interesting essays unfamiliar to me, including one on thrift (it ain’t a virtue) and another on Gregory of Nyssa’s rejection of slavery. My favorites: “No Shadow of Turning,” “The Destiny of Christian Metaphysics,” “The Hidden and the Manifest,” and “Impassibility as Transcendence.” These were the essays, along with the works of Robert Sokolowski and Herbert McCabe, that directly challenged my longstanding understanding of divinity. Up until that time I had largely dismissed classical theism. What do impassibility and immutability have to do with the lively God of the Scriptures? Now suddenly these divine attributes began to make sense. Perhaps the Church Fathers had not been corrupted by Hellenistic metaphysics after all. The volume also includes a study of the eucharistic theology of the Eastern Church, “Thine Own of Thine Own,” and the controversial and much-tweeted lecture in which Hart unequivocally affirms universal salvation. Apokatastasis lives again!
Hart is sometimes accused of being more metaphysical than theological (which is hardly a criticism), but the essays of this book demonstrate his Trinitarian envisioning of Being. Consider the following paragraphs:
The doctrinal determinations of the fourth century, along with all their immediate theological ramifications, rendered many of the established metaphysical premises upon which Christians had long relied in order to understand the relation between God and the world increasingly irreconcilable with their faith, and at the same time suggested the need to conceive of that relation–perhaps for the first time in Western intellectual history–in a properly “ontological” way. With the gradual defeat of subordinationist theology, and with the definition of the Son and then the Spirit as coequal and coeternal with the Father, an entire metaphysical economy had implicitly been abandoned. These new theological usages–this new Christian philosophical grammar–did not entail a rejection of the old Logos metaphysics, but they certainly did demand its revision, and at the most radical of level. For not only is the Logos of Nicaea not generated with a view to creation, and not a lesser manifestation of a God who is simply beyond all manifestation; it is in fact the eternal reality whereby God is the God he is. There is a perfectly proportionate convertibility of God with his own manifestation of himself to himself; and, in fact, this convertibility is nothing less than God’s own act of self-knowledge and self-love in the mystery of his transcendent life. His being, therefore, is an infinite intelligibility; his hiddenness–his transcendence–is always already manifestation; and it is this movement of infinite disclosure that is his “essence” as God. … God is Father, Son, and Spirit; and nothing in the Father “exceeds” the Son and Spirit. In God, to know and to love, to be known and to be loved are all one act, whereby he is God and wherein nothing remains unexpressed. And, if it is correct to understand “being” as in some sense necessarily synonymous with manifestation or intelligibility–and it is–then the God who is also always Logos is also eternal Being: not a being, that is, but transcendent Being, beyond all finite being.
Another way of saying this is that the dogmatic definitions of the fourth century ultimately forced Christian thought, even if only tacitly, toward a recognition of the full mystery–the full transcendence–of Being within beings. All at once the hierarchy of hypostases mediating between the world and its ultimate or absolute principle had disappeared. Herein lies the great “discovery” of the Christian metaphysical tradition: the true nature of transcendence, transcendence understood not as mere dialectical supremacy, and not as ontic absence, but as the truly transcendent and therefore utterly immediate act of God, in his own infinity, giving being to beings. In affirming the consubstantiality and equality of the persons of the Trinity, Christian thought had also affirmed that it is the transcendent God alone who makes creation to be, not through a necessary diminishment of his own presence, and not by way of an economic reduction of his power in lesser principles, but as the infinite God. In this way, he is revealed as at once superior summo meo and interior intimo meo: not merely the supreme being set atop the summit of beings, but the one who is transcendently present in all beings, the ever more inward act within each finite act. … True divine transcendence, it turns out, transcends even the traditional metaphysical divisions between the transcendent and the immanent. (pp. 147-148)
To grasp something of the above is to understand the metaphysical revolution that was Nicaea, not the council in itself but the theological reflection on divinity that it generated in the fourth, fifth, and subsequent centuries. I knew some of this before I read Hart, yet his vision of divine transcendence as transcending the transcendent and immanent altered my experience of God. It changed how I pray. It changed, or at least is changing, how I preach, teach, and write.
The Hidden and the Manifest is probably not the first book by David Bentley Hart you should pick up if you are unacquainted with his work. Begin, rather, with The Experience of God and The Doors of the Sea. But if you are a theologian, or simply love to wrestle with hard theological questions, you will eventually need to embrace the challenge represented by The Hidden and the Manifest. Hart is convinced that genuine metaphysical reflection is necessary if the Church is to avoid fundamentalism, whether biblical, patristic, or modern-academic. Wrestle with these essays and you may find that you are finally ready to read (or reread) Hart’s magnum opus.