Hartian Illuminations: Being as Gift and Beauty

In this series of “illuminations,” I quote passages from David Bentley Hart’s collection of essays The Hidden and the Manifest that I have found particularly instructive. I hope they will generate good discussion.

“What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” asks Tertullian. The question has haunted Christian theology ever since. If we answer “Nothing whatsoever,” we find ourselves trapped in a biblicism unable to grasp the mystery of divine transcendence: God becomes a god, albeit the only one. If we answer “Everything,” we lose our hold on divine revelation itself: the biblical witness becomes submerged in the brilliancies of our philosophical reflections. Who needs the Bible if we have Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus? David Bentley Hart might be understood as inhabiting the space between Athens and Jerusalem. He identifies himself as a “Christian Platonist,” yet one quickly discovers that this is a Platonism that has been purified in the fire of the gospel. Here is a taste of Hartian metaphysics:

The language of creation–however much it may be parodied as a language regarding efficient causality and metaphysical “founding”–actually introduced into Western thought the radically new idea that an infinite freedom is the “principle” of the world’s being and so for the first time opened up the possibility of a genuine reflection upon the difference between being and beings. And the Christian understanding of God as Trinity, without need of the world even for his determination as difference, relatedness, or manifestation, for the first time confronted Western thought with a genuine discourse of transcendence, of an ontological truth whose “identity” is not completed by any ontic order. The event of being is, for beings, a pure gift, into whose mysteries no scala naturae by itself can lead us. And if the world is not a manifestation of necessity, but of gratuity–even if it must necessarily reflect in its intrinsic orderliness and concinnity the goodness of its source–then philosophy may be able to grasp many things, but by its own power it can never attain to the source or end of things. If being is not bound to the dimensions prescribed for it by fate or the need for self-determination or the contumacity of a material substrate, then the misconstrual of the contingent for the necessary constitutes philosophy’s original error.

It is for this reason also that theology’s interruption of the ‘history of nihilism” was philosophy’s redemption, immeasurably deepening its openness to being and increasing the intensity of its highest erōs. Within Christianity’s narrative, the world acquired a new glory; for all that it had been robbed of the imposing dignity of metaphysical necessity, it had been imbued with the still more extraordinary dignity of divine pleasure; the world had become an instance of what could only be called beauty–beauty of a kind more absolute and irreducible than any known to pagan Greek culture. A god whose very being is love, delight in the glory of his infinite Image, seen in the boundlessly lovely light of his Spirit, and whose works are then unnecessary but perfectly expressive signs of this delight, fashioned for his pleasure and for the gracious sharing of his joy with creatures for whom he had no need, is a God of beauty in the fullest imaginable sense. In such a God, beauty and the infinite coincide; the very life of God is one of, so to speak, infinite form; and when he creates, the difference between worldly beauty and the divine beauty it reflects subsists not in a dialectic between multiplicity and unity, composition and simplicity, shape and indeterminacy, but in the analogy between the determinate particularities of the world and that always greater, supereminent determinacy in which they participate. Thus it is that theology alone preserves and clarifies all of philosophy’s most enchanting prospects upon being: precisely by detaching them from the mythology of “grounds,” and by resituating them within the space of this peaceful analogical interval between divine and worldly being, within which space the sorrows of necessity enjoy no welcome. Thus, for Christian thought, knowledge of the world is something to be achieved not just through a reconstruction of its “sufficient reason,” but through an obedience to glory, an orientation of the will toward the light of being and its gratuity; and so the most fully “adequate” discourse of truth is worship, prayer, and rejoicing. Phrased otherwise, the truth of being is “poetic” before it is “rational” (indeed, it is rational precisely because of its supreme poetic coherence and richness of detail), and thus cannot be known truly if this order is reversed. Beauty is the beginning and end of all true knowledge: really to know, one must first love, and having known, one must finally delight; only this “corresponds” to the Trinitarian love and delight that creates. The truth of being is the whole of being, in its event, groundless, and so, in its every detail, revelatory of the light that grants it. (“The Offering of Names,” pp. 26-27)

When divorced from the revelation of the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, metaphysics is unable to transcend the necessities of existence and thus unable to apprehend existence as gift and beauty.

(Go to “Pascha as Final Judgment”)

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19 Responses to Hartian Illuminations: Being as Gift and Beauty

  1. Tom says:

    Reblogged this on An Open Orthodoxy and commented:
    Hart at his best.

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  2. Tom says:

    Wonderfully beautiful passage.

    Two new words for today: concinnity, contumacity.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. brian says:

    Notice: Reason is a product of beauty, of being drawn ecstatically in love towards the other. Knowledge is never neutral, never rooted in an autonomous standing apart or ultimately beholden to a self-constituted tribunal of rationalist criteria (e.g, the adolescent hubris of Enlightenment.)

    When critics of Hart’s Experience of God tried to say “yes, this is intelligent rhetoric, a philosophical Ground of Being, but nothing like the Biblical God of revelation” what they really wanted to do was 1) oblige Hart to defend the worst exemplars of a fundamentalist, literalist, theistic personalism and 2) treat the metaphysics articulated in Experience of God as irenic because bland assertion of an argument so drained of theistic charge as to be amenable to even some atheists. In reality, the main interest of the text was to divest superficial atheisms of ontotheological idols so that they might engage a genuine Christian metaphysics.

    In any event, one sees here what is already evident in The Beauty of the Infinite, that creaturely existence arises from nothing, not a necessary ground. Creaturely depths are continually gifted by the inexhaustible God who is Love. As an aside, I am reminded of Lev Shestov’s polemical Athens and Jerusalem. Shestov can be dismissed as a voluntarist who preaches an existential irrationality in the name of Jerusalem against the philosophic necessity of Athens. Yet I tend to agree with the poet Czeslaw Milosz that Shestov’s cry of the heart is in defense of an authentic sense of creation’s unique singularity. Jerusalem trumps a philosophic complacency insufficiently astonished by the freedom of a Loving Creator. Not only does theology interrupt a complacent metaphysics no longer atonished by Being that first gifts the coming-to-be of becoming being, it counters a vicious pragmatism that would sacrifice the beloved on the altar of general necessity.

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  4. Jack says:

    I lent an atheist friend a copy of Hart’s “experience of God” and she didnt read it. So I gave her a synopsis. Her response was that what Hart believed was synonymous with the laws of nature. Right then and there, I realised that Harts project was a failure.. Not because he was wrong or anything less than his usual erudite self, but because his target audience simply doesnt want to listen.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      LOL. God = laws of nature? I can’t imagine a more inaccurate reading of Hart.

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      • Jack says:

        Indeed. Yet this is what one often deals with when explaining classical theism to the average positivist or new atheist. I dont think I’ve ever seen a more obdurate crowd. Id like to give them the benefit of the doubt and just say that their minds work differently, but a book as lucid as Hart’s should clear up any confusion. I’m starting to think it is willful ignorance, than any sort of love of truth, that keeps their minds closed and seemingly incapable of understanding even basic theological concepts.

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        • brian says:

          They are like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ Last Battle who refuse to be taken in by any kind of enchantment. There is a delusion of disenchantment that calls itself realism.

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  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    A question has risen in my mind as a result of reading The Hidden and the Manifest: What does DBH think about Aquinas’s five proofs for the existence of God? I do not recall him addressing them anywhere. Let me rephrase my question: If we accept DBH’s understanding of divine transcendence, the analogy of being, the creatio ex nihilo and the giftedness of being, can these proofs actually succeed as proofs? I understand how any one of them might, at a given point in a person’s life and by the grace of God, succeed in posing the question of contingency, “Why this world rather than nothing?” but just raising the question doesn’t prove anything (or does it?).

    Unfortunately I’m not clear enough in my own mind to formulate my question, but hopefully you can catch the drift of my inquiry. What do you think?

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      No, they don’t succeed nor are they intended to be proofs. The way I understand Aquinas he uses them merely as a stepping point to demonstrate the inadequacy of univocal and equivocal theology and the preeminence of analogical predication.

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      • Thomas says:

        They are intended as proofs, indeed as deductively valid demonstrations from principles no rational person could deny (e.g., things change). He defends this position at ST I q. 2, art 2. For better or worse, he regards the five ways as deductive inferences from premises drawn from sensory experience.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          These would not constitute valid evidence and proofs in the ordinary sense – Aquinas can hardly be thought of as engaging in apologetics here. And apologetics is what seems to be Fr Aidan’s concern. Aquinas is preaching to the choir to demonstrate how the believer may know, think and talk of the God who exists but whose quid est cannot be known, thought or named.

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          • Thomas says:

            St. Thomas has a very strong notion of demonstration, derived from Aristotle. Demonstrations, he thinks, are of two sorts: a priori and a posteriori. (Though the terms are the same, he does not mean by these what Kant means.) But both of these are demonstrations, and demonstrations moves deductively from premises to conclusions.

            The difference between a priori and a posteriori demonstrations is not that one applies to God, or is less of a demonstrative proof. The difference is that an a priori proof, the cause is the middle term, whereas in an a posteriori proof, the middle term is the cause (often nominally defined). St. Thomas remarks that it is not necessary an an a posteriori proof have a proper definition of its middle term. This isn’t just an exception for God. If one comes home and finds the house in disarray, one can construct a proof for the proposition “something happened” — even though one lacks a definition for whatever that something is.

            I’ve been paraphrasing St. Thomas’ article at ST I.2.2, in which he argues that the existence of God may be demonstrated. His next step is to show not only that there might be demonstrations for God’s existence, but there are five such demonstrations. He’s not preaching to the choir on this point. There are a range of different views on whether the existence of God can be demonstrated, there are a range of different views on how the existence of God might be proved, there are different views on how God’s nature can be accurately characterized, and there exist another range of views on whether the specific arguments that St. Thomas advances in De Ente, Summa Contra Gentiles, the Summa Theologiae, and elsewhere are cogent.

            St. Thomas is clearly out to show that these arguments are deductively valid. They are not just any proof; in St. Thomas’ view they are proofs in the strong sense: demonstrations. And St. Thomas defended the soundness of these arguments (especially the first and second ways) throughout his career, in a number of different works designed for different purposes, incorporated them as a central component of his metaphysics, and he insisted all the while on their nature as demonstrative proofs.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            These are arguments, no doubt about it. Whether such constitute incontrovertible proofs for the existence of God, well let’s just say that only believers will agree. It is, let us not forget, faith that allows Aquinas to accept propositions to be true and meaningful and he himself makes this very clear in ST q13 a12 and DV q14 a12 for instance.

            I have yet to be convinced that Aquinas intended his arguments as apologetics to convince atheist interlocutors. Everything points to the contrary: he simply assumes the existence of God as his first principle the meaning of which (the meaning of what it means to say ‘God exists’) is presupposed and provided meaning only in the light of Christian revelation; Aquinas in effect avoids the question about the fact of God’s existence and concerns himself rather with whether statements about God can be meaningful. Do we have good reasons to believe that God exists? Yes we do, but faith is not in the order of ordinary knowledge.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Thomas, may I assume that you believe that Aquinas would disagree with the basis thesis of my article “St Thomas Aquinas and the Contuition of Divinity“?

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          • Thomas says:

            Father Kimel:

            It seems to me that the basic thesis reflects St. Thomas. Mascall does, however, rely too much on a visual metaphor (or intuition) for knowing being. Intuition (“seeing”) plays a role in knowing, but it is the first in several non-intuitive acts that lead ultimately to knowledge. And we do not, for St. Thomas anyway, have an intuition of God.

            I’m not sure if this difference is what you are driving at?

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Although it is self evident my position has proved to be demonstrably superior to Thomas’ (just kidding), but let me pile on a bit here, with pardon in advance for the idiosyncratic accentuation and heterodox dental displays. Some important points here: https://youtu.be/DP9OLebZgQ4

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  6. Morgan Hunter says:

    One question that I’d be very interested in asking DBH is to what extent these ideas–which in the Western philosophical context were the unique product of Christian revelation–were in any way paralleled in the developed Hindu or Buddhist traditions, with which I know he is very familiar.

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    • Jack says:

      I cant speak for Dr Hart but I would suggest Raimundo Panikkar’s magnificent translation and commentary on the hindu Vedas. Much of it seems to me to be in line with a lot of what Hart writes. Much of Hindu thought is considered pantheistic, but I personally dont see that when I delve into the Hindu texts. The vedas seem to suggest a relationship between creator and creation as lightsome and bouyant, not some ponderous ontological identity, as is often assumed. The upanishads to me do not necessitate some strict form of advaita vedanta. I see in them an apophatic anthropology that seems to transcend the usual advaitist dogma (or at least as it is understood in the west) that would equate atman and brahman in some kind of locked, univocal identity.

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