by Brian C. Moore, Ph. D.
First off, I should begin by disabusing readers: this is not strictly a book review. I don’t really write book reviews. I am too given to confession, to wandering off the straight path, to expounding views initiated by what the author has said or not said, simply starting another subject entirely because of some idiosyncratic association that popped into my fool head. “You need an editor,” a Jesuit once said when I showed him something I had scribbled. “But that’s how I write,” I answered. Anyway, I started out at a piece somewhat resembling a review and those bits will show, good bones, perhaps, but this is not a book review and I don’t want to trick anyone into spending time hoping to find one. Rather, this is chimerical, a centaur, riffs on agreement, some definite rebuke and wrath, I enjoyed that bit, mostly a running engagement with the reported ponderings of David Bentley Hart who I have fictionalized, but all writings are fiction. (I am not even the author of these words, that fellow is a mystery, even to me.) So I began by looking at one book, but then the fifth essay or chapter in the first opus caused me to want to study that other text, Tradition and Apocalypse, and unwilling to write separate articles and unable to comfortably combine them, I have produced this uncomfortable mash, though I like it well enough, and I have warned you so continue at your own peril.
About thirty years ago, more now, how sad, I wrote a fairly wretched, but nonetheless interesting screenplay with my late friend, Wayne Brunson Bryant. We had no idea what we were doing and I have lost the single hard copy of our efforts at some point in the intervening years. Yet that story had staying power and became a sort of invisible repository for ideas and learning hoarded and then gazed upon like a jackdaw amazed by all the shiny things. I turned it into a very long novel that I tweak now and again. One day providence may see it to print. Shortly, I shall share a brief selection, but here, I only wish to note the opening epigraph that has long stood over the face of its journey. It is a quote from Adrienne von Speyr, the mystic friend and guide to Hans Urs von Balthasar:
Perhaps, however, the decisive thing has always lain in what is hidden, and it is necessary to dismantle one’s judgments and to reassemble everything anew from the standpoint of the hidden.
It seems to me this rather cryptic advice serves both my story and Hart’s vision. And despite our differences, there is essential agreement on the primacy of the eschatological, and the need for creative fidelity to a mysterious consummation that is best approached in art and dogmas understood not as satisfied intellectual possession, fundamentalist idols that stifle life, but as terse symbols that nurture wondrous anticipation of infinite, joyous revelation.
After reading David Bentley Hart’s You Are Gods, a friend of mine asked if there was any substantial difference for Hart between classic Christianity and Neo-Platonism. I was tempted to say that Neo-Platonism is probably preferable to his prickly sensibility, enjoying a relative absence of American sympathizers. Behind that question is the concern that Hart has reduced what is revelatory to metaphysics, perhaps. And then there is the sense, one sees this in queries and aggressive debate ostensibly about apologetics, that Hart has replaced salvation with syllogism, that his universalism is just so much logical surmise and not so much valid scriptural exegesis or existential attention to the drama of individual human lives. While at a superficial level, wariness before the synthetic splendor of Hart’s vision is understandable, partly because it requires a kind of aesthetic taste for wisdom hardly nourished in the common ethos—though that has probably always been true, and there are places where I think his assertions questionable—the overall momentum of the text is best indicated in the final chapter that ultimately articulates ecstatic wonder before the infinite largesse of Triune plenitude. One is invited to reflect upon the metaphysical implications of revelation which hearken to the deepest secret of our created and uncreated existence. The mystery of that dual assertion baffles the univocal imagination, summoning nocturnal depths to unsettle shrewd calculation limited by solar certitudes. Taken as a whole, You Are Gods is by turns bold, incisive, exasperating, ultimately a penetrating exposition of the manner in which the primal root of nature, time, and grace is the eschaton that alone bestows meaning and coherence to dynamisms of heart and mind summoned from the nothing as agapeic gift.
A number of the essays in this collection began as speeches for differing venues and I rather suppose the original occasion and nature of audience remains as coloration, the particular proclivities of the first listeners inviting rhetoric likely condign to prevailing attitudes. The penultimate essay began as a contribution to a Festschrift in honor of Cyril O’Regan, the last Hart describes as a kind of contrapuntal argument, “clumsily fugal”—though this description is possibly the charming deflection of a savant somewhat disingenuously lowering expectation before unfolding a remarkably plangent music of the soul. There might be a rough tectonic in the organization of occasional pieces. In any event, I shall take them in serial order and treat them as if there were something of an embedded narrative. Spurious or not, it yields an interesting tale. The Muse is often exquisite, though I am not sure how far I trust the bard. Under the guise of forthright, robust impoliteness, rudeness absolved by the spirit of H. L. Mencken, there is equivocity, melancholy, a performance more gripped by shadows than the flourish of apocalyptic promise belies.
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Chapter one, “Waking the Gods,” opens with a perfectly charming bit of humor that seems to me distinctly English in its ethos: “It is a source of constant vexation to me, as I am sure it must be to all of us, that philosophical theology pays such scant attention to root vegetables.” A voice sweetly comic, eccentric, kindly perceptive, I would that it were more dominant in Hart’s repertoire. Rather quickly, Hart calls upon one of his consistent villains, manual Thomism, whose zombie-like reprise among traditionalist Catholic circles engenders Hart’s trenchant response. Now, I was raised on the neo-Thomism of Maritain and Gilson, as well as the lucid exposition of Josef Pieper. I remain fond of the personalist inflected philosophy of Norris Clarke; Thomistically inspired is the term Clarke favors. Oliva Blanchette and David Burrell articulate versions of Thomism that are synthetically open, instantiations of inquiry carried by an active wisdom tradition that readers should not reductively equate with the incoherent and impoverished concept of pure nature. In any event, it is always charitable and simply just to take the best exemplars of a tradition as paradigmatic rather than to concentrate on the execrable, regardless of the relative number of adherents. Hart does not speculate upon why the pernicious variant of manualist theology should have become appealing to certain Catholics beyond a rebarbative aspect of the American temperament that refuses to allow a properly dead ideological attachment to fade into seemly oblivion. Indeed, the pure nature thesis is simply a wretched, insecure, miserly concoction that hardly defends the honor of God which is putatively the reason behind its revival amongst a peculiar set of pious intellectuals. Frankly, anyone passionately attached to pure nature is also likely to manifest a character and sensibility combative, reactionary, and far from the serene mystery of divine largesse. The irony is that a deeply flawed understanding of Triune economy results in an effort to secure the giftedness of grace in a manner that utterly misses the mark on the essential nature of the passio essendi. Hart astutely notes a particular error: “A final cause must be logically implicit in the potency it actuates, true, but not necessarily as some wholly inherent and autonomous power of expression.” Hence, the friendship of God that imparts gracious assistance should not be interpreted as proof against theosis as the natural end for human being. One discerns a recurring duplicity in many dualisms: the very attempt to radically isolate the supernatural from nature turns out to be the flip side of the immanent frame that evinces contemptuous neuralgia for transcendence. Charles Taylor’s buffered selves of modernity, Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe who delights in self-sufficient autonomy, characterize the pure nature asserted by a hapless, misguided enclave of the faithful.
Like the modern cosmologists who can only think along a univocal plane and never properly entertain the nothing, those learned folks who plump for pure nature also do not think through the implications of creatio ex nihilo. Hart clarifies the issue. The need for impregnable barriers between nature and grace forgets the coming from nothing. “Finite existence itself is always already nothing but the gracious effect of God calling creatures to himself out of nothingness.” Only the dim could proclaim “rivalries of agency” when the strivings of the creature are not properly construed as forms of competitive freedom, but rather energies of becoming that emerge from the mystery of Being as essentially gift bestowed by the gracious Father. And so, as Hart acknowledges, one can think a sense in which God owes his creatures grace, but only as demand incumbent upon the original gift of creation. Elemental desire remains an obligation that ultimately redounds upon his own Goodness. The core assertion that is given several iterations in the essay is the affirmation of the infinite horizon which alone permits intelligible, rational desire to be rational. “Any intellectual predilection toward a merely immediate terminus of longing can be nothing other than a mediating modality and local contraction of a total spiritual volition towards the divine.” Hart’s penetrating phenomenology of desire illuminates a metaphysical structure that necessarily bears upon judgment and interpretation. As Christos Yannaras remarks, every creaturely encounter is a divine love letter. Intentionality is never a passive happening. Or again, as D. C. Schindler has spelled out, reason is inherently ecstatic. Hart is not an isolated maverick when he notes that “rational experience, from the first, is a movement of rapture, of ecstasy toward ends that must be understood . . . as nothing less than the perfections of being,” a surprising conclusion to those placidly attached to a proud and lonely modernity scornful of the supposedly superstitious theophany of ancient civilizations. A. N. Whitehead years ago denounced the prescribed methods and declared precision of those methods as essentially fraudulent. A false twin, made in the image of those manufacturing such facts, no longer possessed genuine contact with nature. Hart says as much. “For spiritual creatures, nature is experienced as nature only by way of a more original apprehension of the supernatural.” Though all this, as William Desmond has recognized, requires the intimacy of an idiot wisdom to become existentially compelling. The obtuse are seemingly ever unfree to imagine desire otherwise, expounding nihilist fabrications as blunt realism.
While one can take this initial essay as mainly a response to the surprising resurgence of the manualist revival, the rest of the chapter opens up beyond a narrowly confined partisan error towards ways of thinking that touch upon Christology, theological anthropology, and the reciprocal mirroring of the human and the divine. A significant premise—“whatever is wholly extrinsic to the creature’s nature must remain extrinsic forever”—seems nearly tautological, for surely transformation entirely absent interior bases is rightly described more as destruction of the prior being and replacement with another nature rather than change that occurs to perduring uniqueness. (This is the point of the initial quixotic meditation on rabbits and turnips.) And so, Hart is correct to call out notions of “obediential potential” as magical incantation meant to obscure illicit metaphysical propositions, though the consequences are not abstruse. Think for a moment of popular eschatology that ponders without horror the abandonment of an entire cosmos to nihilating forces so long as one may serenely contemplate the rescue of the elect destined for a new creation blithely free of history’s torment. The incorporation of atomism and individualist egotism into soteriology is rendered spuriously cogent by the insidious abstraction of pure nature. I am curious how many readers shall see the inherent provocation in Hart’s proclamation of logical non-sense. Yet the astonishing consequence of Hart’s insight is nothing short of the recognition that the supposedly foolish economy of the childlike kingdom runs right through all our deliberative wanderings, the Ariadne’s thread of the natural will forever drawing the limited calculations of finite being towards an ineffable, eternal culmination of flourishing joy and unending adventure. Follow that insight far enough and you shall find yourself rebel against financiers, bankers, the advertising gods, all those pledged to an economy that renders God otiose to natural human desire. And then all those political plans dependent on considerations heedless of the infinite plenitude appear deeply inadequate, even false idols. Strangely, the advocates of pure nature find themselves aligned with the scribes of the immanent frame, the gratuity of extrinsic grace secret allies to the purely mundane powers. It is the theology of the archons of this world who so circumspectly seek to prevail upon the divine to remain chaste of the creation. They never see that the ardent heart of humanity is graceful cardiognosis. The Incarnate Child carries the hidden cosmic seed that replaces rationalist stones and nihilist pretensions with reverence and love for all life.
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In the next brief chapter, “The Treasure of Delight,” Hart reprises consideration of the infinities of desire in a Cusan key, though he begins with advertence to that lyrical pessimist Leopardi whose Zibaldone observes the common human destination of desire: disappointment. The aim of our longing ever exceeds the separate or accumulative intensity of our pleasures. “The nullity of everything” covers the world in a languor of dust. While acknowledging the evident cogency in Leopardi’s phenomenology of despair, Hart diagnoses metaphysical contradiction in its presuppositions. Leopardi presumes that infinite intention might arise spontaneously from finite physical causes. And yet, the insatiable yearning for limitless, perfect delight rendered visible by the very disappointment Leopardi records makes no sense were we truly creatures confined to finite, material causality. “An intention without a final intentional horizon can be experienced neither as fulfilled nor as unfulfilled.” Leopardi may anticipate Lacan where desire is perversely deferred indefinitely, each chosen object doomed to reveal its mediation of a transcendental source that never appears. And of course, no one can gainsay the existential reality of all this. The world is not enough, even James Bond comes to recognize that.
The same reality, the one we all share, though with varying degrees of flight, some far gone into the opium dens of virtuality, draws forth a quite different response in Nicolas of Cusa. Juxtaposing Leopardi and Cusa is the sort of thing a poet sees, I think. And while soon enough I shall level my own criticisms of Hart, I must say that many of his most assiduous critics seem to me lacking in stylistic finesse, that sense for the real that requires intuition beyond syllogism and geometric correctness. And so, nothing has changed. Human beings still find desire frustrated. Unhappiness, as Péguy noted in “the secret of forty,” remains the human predicament. But for Cusa, following insight discoverable in Plotinus and Gregory of Nyssa, everything has changed. The very presence of disappointment radiates the whence from which all creatures sojourn. The infinite which was equated with chaos, the unintelligible enemy of form and beauty for pagan antiquity, refuses our finite antinomies, our agonic certitudes ever ready to sacrifice irreplaceable singularity to purchase a lease on momentary order, ephemeral political quiescence. Cusa proclaims the coincidence of opposites. The infinite is perfect plenitude, dynamic peace, overcoming both the sleepiness of our surfeit and the desperation of our want. Indomitable longing reveals the horizon of the infinite that alone makes intelligible the distinct desires of our quotidian lives. Ecstasy is not reserved for the rare occasion of mystic vision, but the recurring foundation of ordinary human experience even when we fail to attend to the implications of our desiring.
There is, if you will, recognition that being is enchanted. Our dull trudging through time is passage from symbol to symbol, tracing in our joys and sorrows, squabbles, hijinks, and crimes, temporal chiaroscuro that whispers the divine secret. “He is the face of all faces, already seen in every face or aspect of any creature, albeit in a veiled and symbolic manner.” Just here, Hart warns that “all of this may at times strike us as more rhapsodic than precise, but it should not.” Charles Williams oft reminds us that it is hell that is inaccurate.Hart touches upon Jean Luc Marion’s “saturated phenomena” to clarify confusions. Marion’s anxiety is on behalf of the given object. He fears that hubris of the transcendental subject shall render the overwhelming dimensions of gifted Being opaque, replacing the mysterious real with shallow conceptual idols. To avoid danger, Marion asserts the limited scope of intentionality that must come up short against the immensity of the given. Thus, Marion attempts to protect the iconic from rationalist claims of mastery. Yet his phenomenological project suffers from fundamental misapprehension. Nicholas of Cusa had already anticipated his objection. “The seeing I direct at God is not a visible seeing, but is rather a seeing of the invisible in the visible.” Hart notes that the Cusan formula relies upon the opposite conclusion from Marion’s conjecture. Awareness of mystery is called forth by the hidden; that which does not appear or perhaps better, that which remains unseen even as it is seen. Being summons us as the music of silence, the invisible abundance that bursts forth in image.
Symbol is borne by the relative weakness of intuition before intentionality tethered to the aniconic infinite. The reverent surprise of awe that Marion prizes only occurs because of the deficit in being that points beyond itself. Apart from the excess of intention, one would never experience wonder. Ironically, Marion’s protective schema feeds the very complacency of spiritual poverty he wishes to dispel. Though, of course, as Hart recognizes, in terms of our psychological experience, everyone knows what Marion is talking about. Reducing the radiant penumbra of spirit to the limits of personality, the surplus of meaning that summons one to new eyes is really a sign of distance between one’s deliberative ego that ruminates upon a world of choices and the underlying heart that desires the one thing necessary. The mundane ego that believes it is creating from nothing asserts nihilist powers to resist and refuse created natures, but like Kantian autonomy, embraces a negative freedom shorn of the plenitude of gift that alone perfects liberty. The latter ultimately can only admit a procedural reason where what is real is limited to point masses, vectors, the cunning calculations of statistical probabilities and quantified facts. The evocative symbolic is no longer treated as requiring ascesis from the malformation of delusive psychologies, the reading of the world—a hard text, says Waldo Williams, an aspiration to divine intimacy. Now it is gratuity added on to brute fact: meaning is transient, relative, nothing inscribed in the heart of things. Christ or nothing.
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“That Judgment Whereby You Judge” has the subtitle of beauty and discernment. The general argument is quite sound. I agree with Hart’s assertion that ethics and aesthetics ought to converge in ways modernity has eschewed. And here, if I may, I include the promised brief excerpt from the mammoth unpublished novel of mine that pertains:
There is something naively brash about the futurists and proponents of fascism in the early twentieth century. Like the bombastic cheerfulness of a brass band, there was a monstrous insensitivity in its celebration of heroic strength. The fascist aesthetic was incurably adolescent, a teen-aged boy incapable of discerning the nuanced enchantment of the passing, irrecoverable moment. Its predilection for the gigantic and the narcissistically monumental overcompensated for soul so tiny it was thinned to the vanishing point. The compelling beauty discernable in the weak and disfigured requires visionary capacities beyond its preference for the obvious multiplied by the megalomania of the triumph of power. Where Velázquez catches the surprising glory in the anguished countenance of a court dwarf condemned to jig and banter for a living, the poorly developed consciousness can only see titillation or revulsion in the face of the grotesque. The harvest of bad art proves the interior convertibility of the transcendentals, the way beauty and the good corrupt into kitsch and spoliation of the innocent. Victory for titanic will is precisely the suffering of the unique reduced to abstract numbers and dead bodies thrown into mass graves. Though Nietzsche was correct that the judo of ressentiment perpetrated by the victim can equally distort, become an indulgence in vitriolic hatred for the oppressor that also forgets complexity, the profound integrity of art that insists on forgiveness as prerequisite to accurate vision.
The intended relevance of the above shall presently announce itself.
Hart alludes to the well-known quip of Horace “de gustibus non est disputandum“—though not without adding that the admonition is pragmatic rather than a retreat from the ethical claims of beauty. The philistine who prefers pictures of dogs playing poker to Monet is simply inured from the persuasive powers and moral claims of the aesthetic. Hart willingly admits that the refinement of taste is often not worth the candle of trouble involved. Paris was right to choose Aphrodite. And then a second anecdote: the presentation of a famous courtesan before the court of Athenian elders. The glimpse of Phryne’s unveiled beauty carefully related as “entering a brief flourish of ecdysiasm into evidence.” Now this may be an especially circumspect rhetoric and I am far from an advocate of astringent prose. I abjure the plain style. Nonetheless, I half suspect that the entire production of Hart’s original speech grew, like a pearl from the initiating speck of sand, from that single word, ecdysiasm. It is such an ornamental bit of erudition, one might be forgiven a glance in the direction of Hemingway who otherwise I have little time for. And just after this display, Hart places the lucid articulation of the play’s moral, as it were. “Taste is not an unimportant thing. In any of us, it indicates how we are disposed to take reality in, how we are likely to recognize what is truly valuable or venerable or what is not, and how our desires are ordered or disordered.”
Yes, quite. So one might be tempted to take the juxtaposition of the prior indulgence of highly artificial language to the point of nearly hilarious euphemism with the central assertion of the essay as wry irony, a kind of hyperbolic winking; or perhaps not. It’s hard to gauge the effect of words on a particular audience, and presumably Hart knew his listeners. In any event, lest one consider all this a genuflection towards a coterie of privileged aesthetes, we are quickly advised: “Good taste is not always sophisticated; in fact, at its purest, it is remarkably innocent, guileless, even childlike.” And certainly, Christ’s criteria for entering the kingdom pledges the truth of it, though it remains yet a question of judgment that each of us must approach with humility. And here, I think Hart fails his own principles. His penchant for vituperative excess by his own lights is participation in the holy rage of the gospel. I don’t demur entirely, but there is also a perduring affection for literary forebears that foster indulgence of choleric contempt for those who are deemed lacking. Some unwashed and forgotten are readily made citizens of eschatological joy, whilst others are relegated to outer darkness, reprobate, stinking of vulgarity incapable of civilized taste. Certainly, Hart is secure in anchoring his Christian aesthetics. “In John’s gospel, one’s failure to recognize Christ as the true face of the Father, the one who comes from above, is one’s damnation, here and now.” And then, the Synoptics provide the extension into the Christological breadth of creation: “In Mathew’s, one’s failure to recognize the face of Christ—and therefore the face of God—in the abject and the oppressed, the suffering and the disenfranchised, is the revelation that one has chosen hell as one’s home.” And then immediately afterwards, Hart adverts to the southern border of the United States and quickly enumerates an adjectival barrage of invective regarding Donald Trump who is “foul, degenerate, vicious, contemptible, worthless, brutishly stupid,” a “sociopath and dropsical orange goblin,” rather like a gigantic, deranged oompa loompa. But Hart has not yet done with this delirious condemnation of the archons of the world. He soon includes all those fellow citizens who gave their allegiance to the regime—they are “deluded and blasphemous” to call themselves Christians for surely they are “children of the devil.” I have, in fact, given a mere sampling of the luxurious growth of denunciation which marks this lush peroration. After which, having established his Christian prophetic zeal, Hart returns to his somewhat less irascible topic with the risible conclusion, probably intended as proper wit, “But I am beginning to digress.”
Well, one is hardly able to enter into dialogue with a fellow so convinced of his own righteous acumen, nor is it solicited. One agrees or finds oneself condemned a devil. I surmise that even agreeing with the subject of Hart’s condemnation whilst rhetorically suggesting that the issue of borders might be muddied by existential complexities is damning. Whether or not Hart is willing to countenance that political associations more amenable to his taste might be equally accused of harboring creatures that slither out of a spiritual sewer, I suspect his rigorous certitude of judgment will somehow find extenuating circumstances that allow reason to exonerate the accused. The motivation of those who differ with his opinions is certainly capable of coherent defense despite his trenchant rhetoric and unstinting vehemence. Hart frequently casts a skeptical and irritated eye when the other side expresses strong moral indignation. Then, apparently, one is confronted with gullible consumers of misinformation. When traditional America worries that their children are being indoctrinated with Critical Race theory and complains that they are threatened with classification as domestic terrorists, one is confidently informed that such matters have no effect on curricula, being merely the occasion of abstruse discussion confined to harmless graduate seminars (this was actually an explanation offered by his brother). Conservatives who attempt to legally forestall the coerced importation of transgender teaching to prepubescent children should not be equated with repugnant intolerance. Dismay over theapprobation of abortion in society falsely conflated with concern for women and freedom is dismissed by those embarrassed by the worship of Moloch in their chosen candidates as something rarely affected by, say, what a President supports or does not support. The legal killing of millions of unborn is somehow not a Holocaust that ought to be reckoned the responsibility of those who advocate for facilitating its legal practice. Those who protest the callous murder of children in the womb, who express horror over the loss of innocence in the culture, who refuse the celebration of behavior that would have been considered perverse in nearly all ancient civilizations are branded Nazi without a sliver of shame. Perhaps Walmart shoppers are not celebrated philosophers or articulate essayists, yet they may rightly know in their bones that something wicked has come upon them. But these sorts are not granted the childlike taste for goodness; they don’t vote the correct party. In the end, this is an utterly arrogant prejudice, unkind, false, and meretricious, writing off whole cloth many persons who may have benefitted from Hart’s genuine insights were he capable of refraining from outrageous simplification selectively applied more in keeping with blind ideology than the complex vision of charity.
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Yet one ought not to let the excesses of Hart’s political rhetoric detract from a genuinely important focus on beauty—a recurring theme in Christian thought, though recessed enough in the last century to spur Hans Urs von Balthasar to come to its defense. (In any event, beauty is no longer summarily ignored or confined to the Kantian sublime. It is even often recognized as a sort of signature for all the transcendentals—where beauty in its imperious mystery is acknowledged, the possibility of wonder and childlike humility returns.) And surely, Hart is correct to assert the eye of charity as the lucid vision of holiness. The aesthetics of the Triduum invoke a breadth and depth that is literally immersed in eternal surprise. The astonishing beauty of Christ is both the light of Mount Tabor and the leper’s kiss, so one must be prepared for the difficult topsy-turvy hilarity that is the joyous dance of the saints. One must also account for an irreducible distance between the dead quality of positivist facts and the life-giving creativity of divine gift that is the subject of the provocative fourth essay, “Pia Fraus: Our words and God’s truth.”
It is a small piece, but in some ways the most alluring and congenial to my own enterprise as writer and thinker. It begins with the equivocities: “there are many kinds of silence. There is a silence of intolerable absence and one of overwhelming presence, a silence of unspeakable remoteness and one of ineffable intimacy. . . ” which then urges caution, for all the great religious traditions assert that God is not silent. At the moment, I think this is rather counter-cultural. We are so immersed in the noise and chatter of the Ethernet, the instant reporting of global happening, the marketing of every passing emotive inflection in so-called influencers, a kind of gnostic horror is invited before the tawdry show of malice, ignorance, and sheer triviality that proliferate like poisonous parasites of being. The practice of the desert fathers appears as antidote. One must listen with the subtle, spiritual ear from whence the mystery of the cosmos is illuminated. The silence is plenitude beyond all speech, a warning against those who would idolatrously possess the divine as exhaustive disclosure, a kind of fundamentalist answer book that renders further experience redundant. The Word is always also deed, Event, infinite surplus. The need to distinguish between empty facts and substantial fictions is brought to the fore. Hart asks “what precisely does it mean always to tell the truth in a world that strives to resist the divine presence?” Separation between facts and truth may be necessary when “the facts of history” might be distortions of original gift, umbratile forms of what may be termed “ontological falsehood.”
One might suggest that the genuine business of the Church is to continually tell the story of the goodness of Creation against the many rival versions that come to us as evil dreams in history. What’s most interesting about the convergence of the aesthetic and the ethical in light of Christian revelation is the manner in which the eschatological founds the temporal. If being is always a summoned gift, it is never a neutral surd given; being is named destiny, so freedom is not reduced to a quantitative deliberation between options, nor the spontaneous movement of the will apart from some deep connatural apperception of the intelligible Good. History is the slow becoming, the paradox of approach to what truly begins as assent at the end. We are only here because we participate in the amen of eternity. Yet the unseen criterion of perfection judges the shadow world; the fact is not decisive. The assertions of the ego, the claims to liberty as nihilist power, do not constitute a self-validating metaphysical warrant, no matter how loudly proclaimed by social media and institutions dedicated to education. The Ministry of Truth is not the prophetic witness of God’s grandeur. On the contrary, such claims are ersatz, a sham freedom that posits the fact of historical action as ultimate when the source and end of liberty is elsewhere. “Vengeance is mine.” But what this means is the prerogative of the holy: God is not limited by the consequences of your earthly horrors. It is not justice to allow falsehood to prevail. The serene bliss of divine favor is never hemmed in by creaturely obsessions or the knotted mess of human dereliction. The Cross descends into all our flight, our morbid inertias, the striving that fails honor, unwise, ungrateful, without the grace of natural affection, everything sullied and dim and grotesquely puffed up is burned away into nothing by the purifying blaze of love.
Hart concentrates the issue by putting in question forms of ethical purism that deny any licit occasion where it would be good to lie. He cites the oft engaged example of the Nazi who comes to the door inquiring whether or not one knows where Jews may be hiding. Aquinas and Augustine are determined by criteria as adamantine and unbending as the categorical imperative, righteously affirming that God will be unhappy if you fib. I recollect exhortations on this particular virtue where the potential for martyrdom is lauded as an opportunity if conviction is troubled by any apparent absurdity in the command. Abraham and Isaac are also sometimes brought forth as exemplary. Hart opines that no one really believes this. “Only in a world where prudence is never required, because contradictions cannot arise between what we ought to desire and what the world really is” would it be possible to consider the unblinking report of any state of affairs as “a moral good in and of itself.” There is no world where a saint rightly congratulates himself for having ratted out Anne Frank. Perhaps what is indicated is that truth is more mysterious, requiring a wisdom unbound from the limits of mere positivist accounting. It is natural to think of deception with regards to genocidal murderers as both evidently right and primarily an action designed to protect the innocent from brutal evil. The hypothetical scenarios set up to question notions of rigid, uncompromising truth telling generally present starkly drawn circumstances where wicked intent and innocent victim belie complicating ambiguities. The temptation is to forget what a saint must not forget—that the wicked are also brother and sister in need of mercy and healing care.
The natural spiritedness of soul stirred to anger before injustice wishes to crush the wicked. The vindication of the Jews and mass slaughter of their enemies, seventy five thousands and more at the end of the book of Esther, is the sort of providential turn of fortunes readily taken as moral approval of violent retribution. The Cross may answer differently. And then, one discerns another reason to prefer fiction to factual declarations—it is indeed a kindness to one ensconced in evil if they are prevented from engaging in further evil by a fortuitous tale. Consideration of both parties is important, because otherwise it is easy to slip into a religious ethics where one’s duty is only to the elect, where deception need not worry about any consequences borne by the deceived. If forgiveness is seeing with the eye of God, then it is judging in light of who your brother and sister already is in the heart of love’s candor. This is frankly a nearly impossible thing. Think not of the worst villainy, but of common every day exasperation with misaligned temperaments, ordinary suffering of habitual irritations. The urgency of divine bliss performs a standard of justice different than mere journalist verification of facts. I am not saying the facts are unimportant, but part of their importance lies in the inextricable weaving of tares and wheat. It is only in the night of Holy Saturday that the shattering breaks the clay idols of our vanity; only in the darkness of invisible charity that bitterness and wormwood are conquered and one begins to hear the true names, Christophoric, theandric, shorn of death and putrefying wickedness. From our existential situatedness, the best you may be able to accomplish is to glimpse that reality which must appear more fiction than fact. Forgiveness is the eschatological truth of persons, the fore given announced by fictions, the storytelling of those who speak with tongues of fire. The saint is a storyteller of eschatological dimensions. Forgiveness is to participate in passio essendi, the gift of the Origin that flows with the last of the wine.
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The penultimate essay, “Geist’s Kaleidoscope,” ostensibly a scholarly discussion regarding certain assumptions in the work of Cyril O’Regan, is more an example of Kierkegaardian indirection. I won’t go into the details of Hart’s historical analysis. Suffice to say, he persuasively argues that ancient Gnosticism is not a suitable choice as template for late modern German idealism. More specifically, Hegel’s enterprise follows a quite different imaginary and speculative ethos. Insofar as O’Regan and others have positioned Hegel as a modern exponent of Gnosticism, they have chosen more according to the fabulous invention of figures like Neander and Baur than anything consistent with the thoughts of actual Gnostics. All that is important for historical accuracy, but does not radically touch perhaps on our existential lives. And yet, this is a funny essay. It announces itself as one thing, but morphs into something other. It says that it is taking up a relatively enclosed space of scholarly debate, and then drifts almost imperceptibly at first into a questioning of much more fundamental assumptions. In the end, one is presented with a somewhat sideways wondering if O’Regan’s project is not indebted to deeply flawed notions of tradition and memory, and by implication, under the guise of erudite skepticism, the entire human quest for truth is subject to equivocations and uncertainties hardly to be made palatable through a pose of measured religious serenity thrown as palimpsest over a wryly contemplated bricolage of historical complexity and flux that never pauses to properly announce articulate ideological formations.
Indeed, it’s hard not to read this chapter as an occasional piece that truly contemplates the subject of Hart’s other book, Tradition and Apocalypse, to which I briefly turn. Surely Hart is correct in his critique of Newman and Blondel, two formidable Catholic thinkers. Hart aptly notes the suggestive value of Newman’s organic metaphors as a model of living tradition, while recognizing that they offer no help as a method for evaluating how historical phenemona might fit the pattern. The flaws in Newman’s argument predicated on an imaginary, compact completeness at a particular historical point of origin, the criteria of discernment based on clarity that could not precede the events that determined the eventual resolution of historical crises, all that is persuasively enumerated. Yet the feeling for natural teleology is ultimately right, though Hart inverts the magnetic north to the open future. The difficulty for Hart is that tradition as he conceives it is the provenance of poets. Baron Von Hügel wrote a multi-volume work on the mystic, Catherine of Genoa. He delineated an instance of a general problem. Catherine was brilliant, subtle, curator of exceptional insight. In order for her thoughts to be passed on, they were inevitably coarsened and simplified so that they might be accessible to ordinary folk. And probably most of her epigone did not even grasp how far they had strayed from inimitable excellence. Soon, rote catechetical exercises displaced existential creative wrestling with the angel, offering readymade answers for the perplexed, or for those who did not wish to be bothered with perplexity in the first place. The decadent scholasticism that followed Thomas Aquinas, largely reserved for the scholarly caste yet filtering down to pervasive, parochial attitudes, repeats the tedious lesson. The methods that appear to be teachable do not convey the living Spirit that blows where it will, but a praxis that intends to touch an entire community is likely to be disappointing. Mechanical repetition is prevalent in social life regardless of the particular venue. This is not to say that Hart’s explication of tradition is a purely rarified accomplishment. In reality, the outliers are the ones who frequently discern the wild path of the Spirit careening through the infinite abyss of God’s impenetrable light.I think of Hopkins, writing such rich, intricate, difficult art, poetry ahead of the sympathies or understanding of his generation. The Jesuits moved him from one dreary assignment to another, never appreciating the gift bestowed to them by the God they sought to serve. That excessive light is darkness to us. The soul reaches for less demanding trails of glory.
There is, of course, a certain intrinsic bias to this model of tradition. Hart announces such towards the end of Tradition and Apocalypse. “There is, simply said, a distinct element of the ungovernable and seditious within the Gospel’s power to persuade, one that we ignore at the cost of fundamentally misunderstanding its most essential character.” And while I agree with this, the ungovernable is also the caretaker of the past, the reverent bearer of what must not be lost. It’s too easy for Hart to discard all that as nostalgic resistance to eschatological glory. One can parse out multi-level criteria for how one intuits a match between the best contemporary orthodoxy, if it is cogent and not a time of crisis like the Arian controversy, and the “invisible” lure of the eschaton. Nonetheless, Hart goes out of his way to document the various contingencies and misreadings that contribute to, say, the modern Christian conception of Satan. He also minimizes any distance between the Genesis account of the Fall (a late interpretation in any event) and surrounding Mesopotamian myths, going so far as to accentuate the honesty of the serpent and the slapstick cowardice and injustice of the divinity. “Eat this fruit, for You are Gods.” Here’s a question: why should we accept any significant diabolic presence when it is the product of later permutations distant from the initial place in situ, as they say? If penal substitution and pure nature are obvious distortions, evincing a wider gap than that between Paul and what we know or surmise about the gnostics, why should we embrace later diabolic conceptions? If the place in history is not determinative—and clearly it isn’t, or one would not have moved on from the early subordinationist prejudice—and yet lateness or contemporary cogency also isn’t a trustworthy guide, then what does one have beyond the holistic aesthetic, moral, and metaphysical coherence exhibiting the greatest breadth and depth? And since that judgment is only going to be available to the gifted few, where does that leave the religious many? Stuck with inadequate traditions easily mocked by a savant like Hart? Then Jesus’ vociferous contempt for religious leaders that made prudential political calculations or theology that places various forms of ego driven ethical transactions above the shattering call of love may be invoked as precedent for telling the dim many just how diabolic they are.
In any event, the Fall is clearly central and if one were only drawing from Neo-Platonism, one could easily minimize that aspect to more or less an unavoidable price of finitude, though also mythologically posed as some sort of guilty defatigation from the One. The developed notion of the Fall involves separation, the atomizing of the self, and also epistemological and noetic consequences that make discernment more complex . . . what seems rational and logical within one “tradition” might not appear valid in another. There’s a problem with Hart’s proposed “neutral skeptical historicist.” I don’t believe in that kind of neutrality. It is an Enlightenment convention, but I think, as I have written before, Alasdair MacIntyre is perspicacious on these matters. Hart continually privileges his own proclivities as participating in the invisible lure of the eschaton, whilst admonishing any variety of traditionalist as pathologically nostalgic or a desperate crypto-nihilist. If all the conservatives in Alexandria were subordinationist and wrong, then maybe the future of Christianity will unsettle all your present treasured convictions—except for his, he’s pretty sure his anarcho-communist rebels are authentically following the gospel, partly because they are always on the side of change, so can never get caught loyally attached to something that later turns out unable to properly point to the infinite largesse. Hart is often a “heads I win, tails you lose” kinda fella.
The upshot of this finds expression in “The Chiasmus,” a declaration that often reaches a pitch of quite beautiful reflection on theosis and cosmic destiny in Christ. The conclusion, indeed, is an almost Pauline exclamation of Triune bliss, creaturely freedom as the divine expression of the Spirit. Hart reiterates the importance of divine simplicity, in which contradictions of finite, creaturely experience are transcended, and Fatherly care refuses to remark a difference between necessity and freedom. Moreover, Hart anticipates how death may further liberate the creature from the delusions of linear time. “The vocation of rational freedom is, so to speak, to gather up the sparks of the Shekinah that were lost in the breaking of the vessels, or to aid in the rescue of the lost Sophia.” There is a musical echo of hermetic Kabbalah, a genuinely winsome declaration of Hart’s syncretist vision. In all this, I find myself in complete agreement. However, in my view, none of this requires taking leave of an objective, historical ecclesia. Hart differentiates between multiple Christianities and other religious practices erroneously cast as false rivals. Of these other religions, Hart adverts to exemplars that he admires. Doubtless they have their own fundamentalisms and exasperating believers, but one would not quite get that sense from Hart. The divisions and plurality so extreme as to constitute different religions is concentrated in one direction of concern only. But should one primarily think of Christianity as an assemblage of customs and beliefs in flux carried not by a unified subject so much as a diversity of porous hermeneutical entities, altogether representing a fragment of history amidst a much broader universal story? Presuming that starting point, Hart attaches the visible church to an array of quite different religions—and as a whole, all the variants are but “a corporate and historical expression” of Christ’s kerygma, a mere subset of the much larger invisible church, “at once more original, more ultimate, and more comprehensive than the visible.” In one sense this is obvious and hardly controversial. The invisible church is then understood as coterminous with the renewed cosmos, capacious, embracing all of time, unencumbered perhaps with the doctrinal messiness and appalling histories that beset Christian communities. Yet I do not concede that one must accept this reading of Christianity or of ecclesial existence in order to venture the breadth of scope apprised for the invisible church. In Tradition and Apocalypse, Hart looks askance upon Justin Martyr. The spoils of Egypt are judged triumphalist, perhaps almost naively haughty, refusing the dignity of intrinsic rationale to other cultural and religious essays. If, for example, Platonism and Christianity came to be so fruitfully intertwined, it was because from the integrity of each one discovers a common final horizon that binds them beyond historical and temporal permutations.
I certainly do not think of Christianity as a cuckoo bird, illicitly claiming for nest a foreign home. One would not wish to deprive every culture and tradition its native genius or incommunicable uniqueness. Yet ultimately, I suppose, I must offend Hart’s delicate diplomacy. If Christ founds all of created time and if the Church is ontologically spousal, I do not see the need to step outside of the historical ecclesia to discover the abundant treasure of the other—though, of course, many might see this as imperial mastery and subjugation of colonized victims, part of what Hart sees as the unholy alliance of worldly empire and eschatological summons, the “catastrophe” of Christendom. While surely there are abundant examples of terrible crimes and ignorance in that history, I do not think it an utter wasteland. The Grand Inquisitor does not love Christ. Is this really true of the entirety of Christendom? Such suspicion draws upon metaphysics distant from Triune bliss and agapeic gift. I think, however, that the body of Christ, cosmic in scope, is still also the scriptures, the flesh cradled in Bethlehem, and the sacramental fruit of liturgy, the generous, ever expansive Eucharistic communion. The invisible Church is synonymous with the mystical breadth of the visible, the ontological and eschatological truth of the cosmos. As Rowan Williams writes:
The Church itself is not an alien collectivity with hostile designs upon individual liberty, nor yet an association of like-minded human egos, but ‘life itself.’ Its ethical and spiritual disciplines are not markers of identity for a specific human grouping but expressions of the ontological truth which it embodies.
And so ultimately, Christianity is not an eclectic array of diverse religions, but the unified life of perfected, ecclesial existence, and nothing less than the most comprehensive, holistic, subtle, beautiful, symphonically open, apophatically aware, epektasis towards infinite surprise and joy is proper to her. Anything else is a slander on the virginal purity of the Church in her truest form—and really, Hart should know this, for he clearly articulated the distance between positivist fact and God’s truth.
Naturally, when one encounters Christians with beliefs or mores one finds objectionable, it is a relief to be able to say that they are not co-religionists. One is not of that sort. It is also convenient. Clever and accomplished folks of other faiths or of no faith whatsoever cannot point to them and embarrass me. I can even take part in their satires and witty put downs of the benighted who claim Christ. And so, it is much easier to vent one’s vitriolic distaste for the despised other (if they are a despised one wishes to hold in contempt). There might, of course, be other despised one wishes to approve of and to throw in the face of the Pharisees. I am not, by the way, accusing Hart of hypocrisy here, or at least, if so, I share it. There are many forms of Christianity that I cannot stomach in the least. The kind that propagates like licentious bunnies on television, at its best, well-meaning, bland, soporific—I simply could never be a Christian if it meant finding all that intellectually, morally, and aesthetically humane. And yet I have a qualm: I am not quite comfortable saying they have no purchase on the face of Christ, no share in his Church. If I am asked to discover Christ in the vagrant, the criminal, the crazed and wandering tribes, is it right to deny Christ to these? And perhaps at minimum, one ought to avoid unnecessary offense and understand their confusion and hurt when one overtly denies them membership in the common life of Christ. It is one thing for Christ to say “depart from me, I never knew you,” and another for me to indulge rage. First, because the same Christ who denounces is the Christ of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the Christ who abandons no one, who follows every derelict sinner into every obscure and loathsome hell in order to rescue and return the lost to the amity of love; and second, because I am not Christ if I do not love, if my love has limits, if I cannot bring myself to include those I do not naturally care for. And to be honest, I am often not Christ. There are plenty of folks I simply hate because I find them disgusting, mean horrors, and lots of others who are banal, disagreeable, boring. I much prefer cats. But I assume I shall learn otherwise, that the eschaton shall broaden my imagination and grant the eye of love so that I can see all persons as they are in Christ.
So, granting that all created realities are also symbols, that the Kingdom is symbolon, always exceeded by its surplus, by the promise of ever greater surprise, revelation, the epektasis that is discovery, the desire coincident with plenitude that is never sated, does that imply that everything beautiful and winsome in the world is merely there to be exceeded? Is the cosmos worldly? Perhaps, if it is rooted in the no thing that is God, if its origin is the Triduum, if the “it is good” arrives from the “it is finished,” then there is always an illusory quality to the mundane tout court. Indeed, the entire economy of scarcity and competition, the zero-sum game assumed by the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal, all that is false, the image on the coin, the monetary valuation that forgets the primal gift. But then, perhaps, the so-called worldly powers may not only be cast as thuggish conservatives jealous to retain ersatz authority, or as mawkish, hidebound, pathologically nostalgic, or simply dim and unimaginative. As Plato understood, every form of polity has its corrupt defatigation. Aristocracy becomes a self-serving oligarchy, democracy devolves into demotic hedonism, supine fodder for the propaganda of the archons. The philosopher king, who cannot be found in the world in any event, is readily available as tyrant and demagogue. Even the refusal of any institutional governance may have its false double. The saint-rebel against worldly sorrows may find an imposter in other putative anarchies, where the dull, cowardly conservative is actually a lucid proponent of created realities and gifted natures contra a nest of vipers who mistake nihilist will-to-power for progressive liberation.
Hart often casts the primitive Christian communities as anarchic rebels against every form of mundane complacency which endures habitual abusive powers. Let us think about this. I am reminded of a lament remarked in Peter Brown’s book on the body and antiquity. The end of the long first blush of Christian expectation for the imminent parousia saw young men forsake the deserts, leave monastic isolation and contemplative prayer. They returned to the fields and towns to marry; and young women, too, left the virginal vocations and embraced the pain of childbirth. For really, this abjuration of private property, this communal being-with, if it was more than a proto-hippie commune, and that’s alright too if you like that way of companioning, it wasn’t sustainable as a global praxis. The church in Jerusalem was constantly begging funds from all those busy worldly brethren in other places who had not yet abandoned the pagan economy. Or maybe, one takes More’s Utopia not as satire, but a workable polity. Excess wealth is not good for the soul. I won’t argue with that. But do you want to read the domestic comedies of Jane Austen as merely a retreat from exemplary Christian life? Are the majority of human lives throughout the innumerable generations to be shunned as immune to transfiguration into eschatological glory because they fall outside monastic ideals, participate in familial privacy and property ownership? Of course not. Indeed, it’s evident to a moment’s reflection that many particular excellences require a polity different from the ideals of primitive Christian communities. Those communities are not to be faulted their zeal and expectation, but neither should those living beyond that initial breathless hope be considered unfortunate exemplars of less compelling living. Indeed, it would be wonderful to be able to live without soldiers and doctors and lawyers, to be deathless, to live utterly in the plenitude of eternal life. The witness of the earliest Christians may emulate that perfected unity—but it was not that unity and never could be, awaiting the eschaton with all its mysterious perfections as much as any other time or mode of organized human action. There’s a point at which valorizing the anarchic is more an existential gesture than a fully rational program for social order. It’s partly a protest against dust and human depravity, but like the little boy in Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon, it floats off above the Parisian folk and their petty, bourgeois fixations. Apart from the actual end of historical time, this is short hand for death. If Hart wishes us to embrace the valid spiritual and intellectual efforts of all those beyond narrow Christian forms, is this only for an elite of poets and sages? I prefer Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s notion of the entire humanity engaged in a mysterious action, each civilization playing a necessary part, though occluded from our timely calculations or knowledge. But surely Hart agrees with this wider panoramic vista, though he might have to accept that even empire may play a role that is not simply vicious.
But it’s likely a lot of this difference in sensibility is existential or temperamental. Certainly, when I was a lad, I was not keenly acquainting myself with the gospels in Koine Greek. Nor was a Cambridge education ever a likely destination. My parents divorced when I was young. I grew up in blue collar Buffalo where my grandfather worked first in a rubber mill and then in steel before the rust belt economy fell to pieces. The annual Easter showing of Cecile B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments was a favorite, the Technicolor melodrama, that alluring game of Hounds and Jackals, I loved it when Yul Brynner’s Ramses pronounced to the ravishing Anne Baxter, “His god is God.” My early attachment to Christ owed a fair amount to C. S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles and even a graphic novel version of the Bible. I cherished these images because through them I drew closer to the ultimacy of love that called to me. In Tradition and Apocalypse, Hart describes himself as a dispassionate seeker of truth, suggesting Hercule Poirot setting the little gray cells to work upon the quandary of reality. Or perhaps he means to imply a noble intellect radically at ease, able to shift from one paradigm to another with nerveless aplomb as the argument unfolds, free of allegiances that might sully the simple integrity of his search. If one day, Christ should turn out less convincing, so much the worse for the Galilean. Or it may be all that is a useful pose, a turn of the kaleidoscope, another performative mask pretending at DBH.