by David Bentley Hart
I suppose that honor (or at least pride) dictates that I respond to Edward Feser’s recent attack on me and on That All Shall Be Saved: “David Bentley Hart’s Attack on Christian Tradition Fails to Convince.” Not that it merits serious attention, but he and I long ago established the rules of this game that we have been playing for the last… (I can’t recall when it began, actually). The rules are simple and invariable. We exchange scalding rhetorical and dialectical assaults in public, I win, he fails to realize that he’s lost, we have a somewhat more cordial conversation about it in private and resolve upon a more temperate tone in future, and then we repeat the same bloody pattern a few months later. I thought we had reached a kind of detente when I wrote a positive review of his Five Proofs book (one of the two books of his that I like). But the Christmas armistice is apparently now at an end, the battle is rejoined, and I’ll certainly not prove a recreant from the fight. It is clear that he still wanted revenge for my excoriating review of that cruel and incompetent apologia for capital punishment he wrote a couple years back, and was willing to go to new rhetorical extremes to get it. It is also clear, as he has often proved in the past, that—despite his very real gifts in penning “For Dummies” style guides to the narrow range of philosophical topics he has mastered over the years—he no sooner ventures out of his depth than he sinks like a stone. But what is clearest of all—as he inadvertently reveals in several places in his review—is that he did not actually read the book.
More of that anon, however. The first thing worth noting here is the sheer abusive lunacy of the review’s final paragraph, which no respectable journal (and certainly no editor I have ever worked with, for all my reputed polemical ferocity) would have published. Like other reviewers who have only pretended to address the book’s arguments, Feser accuses me of vicious invective. (I pause here to yawn.) This is old news, of course, and the accusation remains false, and the issue has been dealt with here and elsewhere already. But Feser’s misquotations are even more cynically dishonest than those of his predecessors. He takes phrases from my description of the prejudices harbored by late antique patrician theologians regarding “the many” and attributes them directly to me, as if they are my own personal opinions. And from there he spins out a personal attack that, even by his positively subterranean standards, is loutish. But, of course, why be precise when you can be slanderous?
At least it livens up what was beginning to look like a fading parade. I had been waiting for another inane attack on the book, to see if anyone would be able to surpass those that have already appeared. And, indeed, the victor’s laurels—which is to say, the dunce’s cap—may now rightfully belong to Feser. He may even, at last, have unseated Doug Farrow (I await the judges’ scores). Certainly, no other reviewer has more thoroughly misrepresented the text or produced a more clownish caricature of the few arguments from the text he addresses. I know I have a predilection for writing prose rather than bullet-points, and this may have confused Feser; but his misstatements are so bizarre and extravagant that there are only two possibilities: either he did not actually read the book, but at most skimmed bits of it in his rush to write a review he had already concocted in his mind while doing something else (kicking a puppy, perhaps); or he is, when reading a complex text that has not been carefully explained to him several times in advance, damned near a functional illiterate. Of course, both things may be true at once, but I believe the former to be unarguably true in this case.
For instance, he writes that I “flirt with Gnostic esotericism as a way of explaining why universalism is not to be found in early Christian history.” And he asks, “Why did it take centuries before any Christian even floated the idea [of universalism]?” Now, of course, obviously no one who is familiar with the book’s actual text could possibly have written those lines, since—as I repeatedly make clear, with many names and citations, and in company with the whole of respectable Christian theological historical scholarship, and with bibliographical mentions of secondary texts to consult on the issue—it was precisely in the first four or five centuries of the Church that universalism was at its most prevalent in Christian theology and preaching, throughout the oikumene, and that in some places it was even probably the majority view, and that only in later centuries did it wane away to the margins. This is not even a matter of debate among historians, since the record is clear and since this fact has been known—well, more or less forever. (If you don’t believe me, Ed, take the matter up with three of the earliest witnesses to this fact: St. Basil, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine). Apparently, all my long passages on Gregory of Nyssa, all my mentions of earlier and later patristic universalists, all those scriptural universalist pericopes—none of this actually passed before Feser’s eyes. Feser’s pretense that he read the book simply falls apart at this point.
Though, to be frank, it falls apart everywhere else also. For instance, he makes “scriptural” arguments that all too obviously show that he is unaware that those issues have been dealt with both in the text and in my critical translation of the New Testament (to which the text is explicitly a supplement). And, while he pronounces the book a philosophical “mess,” he goes on to demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt that he has no idea what its philosophical arguments are. He claims, for instance, that from my treatment of the nature of rational freedom I “infer that no one is culpable” for his or her wicked choices. And so, he asks (as if the book does not provide an answer), “why do we need a savior?”
Where on earth did he get this weird idea that I anywhere deny human culpability for sin? The material on rational freedom in Meditation Four of the book clearly has nothing whatsoever to do with the question of culpability, but addresses only the currently fashionable “free-will” defense of hell, and argues only that the kind of direct rejection of God’s goodness that this line of defense presumes and depends upon is not a real logical possibility for a rational creature. (Which no Thomist should deny.) Where the book does touch upon matters of culpability, in chapter two, it has nothing to do with such things as the “natural” and “gnomic” wills or any other aspect of the nature of rational freedom. I clearly affirm that our guilt for evil deeds is real; I insist only that it is finite, qualified by inescapable conditions within the fallen world, and justly subject only to a penalty proportional to the sinner’s intrinsic powers of intention and discernment; and I insist as well—like Paul and the author of John’s Gospel, among others—that it is precisely slavery to the conditions that make such culpability inevitable from which Christ saves us. For “everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34), but “the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). (But I don’t have time here to give Feser basic instruction in New Testament theology.)
Feser even more completely butchers the argument from personal coinherence in the text’s Meditation Three, somehow coming up with the claim that it is a form of pantheism. I won’t bother to repeat my actual argument, since the book is there to be read by anyone who cares to do so, and life is short. And, anyway, even if he had read it carefully, it would certainly have gone over his head. As his genuinely sociopathic book on capital punishment shows, moral intelligence is not one of his more developed faculties.
(Oh, and he mentions the Thomist argument that a disembodied soul cannot change its intentions, as it lacks the senses and the faculty of imagination, which is of course a dubious conflation of sensible inclination with moral intentionality, but which is also quite irrelevant to an eschatological scheme in which the discrimination between those whose works merit a reward and those who will be saved only “as by fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15) occurs in the New Age of the resurrected body.)
But this is pointless. Feser did not read the book. That is simply obvious. I don’t mean he failed to read it intelligently. I mean he has exposed himself as having indulged in scholarly fraud in his review, without any possible means of explaining it away. (He’ll try his damnedest, though, since he—like me—must always have the last word.) I confess, as dubious as I have often been regarding the amplitude of Feser’s talents and achievements, the one thing I had not suspected was that he was willing to lie, let alone to do so with such recklessness. I had, if nothing else, never doubted his honor as an antagonist. I was wrong, and I can say without any insincerity that this is a very disappointing discovery. But maybe it does not matter. Even if he had read my book, his review would have been foolish.
One thing I feel I have learned about Feser over the years, even when I still thought him honest, is that he lacks intellectual curiosity. He knows his line of Thomism and a few other things (basic philosophy of mind, for instance, and various expressions of classical theism) quite well, and can recite them by rote with vigorous proficiency. Good for him, and good for his readers when he’s at his best. But he is definitely not a gifted original thinker, and beyond that confined world of interests that he has mastered, he simply has no real desire to learn anything that might challenge or complicate his settled convictions. On the issue of scripture, for instance, no matter how often I have pointed out to him something that is not even controversial among real biblical scholars and scholars of late antique Judaism and Christianity, not even conservative Catholic ones—to wit, that the idea of eternal hell is not explicitly enunciated in the New Testament, and that the Gehenna of Christ’s preaching is wrapped in the tropes of Isaiah and Jeremiah—he simply refuses to consult any of the plenteously available literature on the issue produced over the last two centuries. In fact, so utterly intellectually lazy is he on this issue that he once tried to prove the presence of an eternal hell in the Bible to me by citing Isaiah 33:14. (Yes, Virginia, he is just that ignorant of his own faith’s scriptural history—he thinks that the doctrine of eternal torment can be found in the prophets.)
Well… (another pause, this time for a long, lugubrious, self-aggrandizing sigh of superiority). I suppose it’s time to end. In truth, I would not have minded an honest debate with Ed in these issues. As I say, I thought we had established a new pattern for public interactions. But he could not be troubled to undertake an honest survey of my arguments and I am no longer interested. And this, I have to say, is my principal frustration when dealing with Ed. As I have said, he simply doesn’t care to know. He knows what he wants to believe he knows and he’s not going to be swayed by the expertise of, oh, people who read Hebrew and Greek and who specialize in late antiquity and Second Temple Judaism and things like that. The same is true with regard to patristics, or theological currents from outside the Thomist camp of Western Rite Catholicism, or the great modern theological syntheses of Catholic systematics, and so on. It’s annoying to have my book reviewed by someone who didn’t bother actually to read it. But somehow it’s more annoying to be berated as a heretic by a defender of the faith who is so gigantically ignorant of his own religion. It makes even my powers of derision seem inadequate to the reality.