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.