Wednesday 23 August 2006

David Bentley Hart's beautiful theology

Gaunilo’s Island and Gower Street are currently blogging their way through David Bentley Hart’s masterpiece, The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

I was talking with a friend today about Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite, and I tried to persuade him that it’s one of the best books ever written by an American theologian. It really is an extraordinary book – profound, searching, beautiful, and often very humorous. In good Eastern Orthodox fashion, Hart is infinitely composed, beautifully serene – there is no Protestant anxiety, none of the darkness of Good Friday, but only the peaceful and radiant glory of the triune God.

In contrast to such light and serenity, Hart likes to shake his head at what he calls the “nihilistic” tendencies of Lutheran theology – e.g. “the ghastly Wagnerian opulence of Jüngel’s cult of Verwesung [decay] and the dark, late romantic coloratura of his unwholesome theological Liebestod [love-death]” (p. 373). If ever a book could persuade you to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, this would be the one!

Anyway, here’s one of my favourite quotes from the book:

“God is, so to speak, infinite discourse, full of the perfect utterance of his Word and the limitless variety of the Spirit’s ‘reply.’ Here, in the most elementary terms, is Christian metaphysics: God speaks God, and creation occurs within that speaking, as a rhetorical embellishment, a needless ornament” (p. 291).


Anonymous said...

Althoug I am impressed with David hart's book, IMHO Dr. David Bradshaw's "Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom," (Cambridge 2005) and winner of the Morris D. Forkosch prize, deserves the nod as the best American theological work in recent decades.

If the combination of David Hart and David Bradshaw don't bring you to Orthodoxy, you are invincably ingnorant! [tongue firmly planted in cheek]

Anonymous said...

The Beauty of the Infinite is indeed an extraordinary book. To say that it is not an easy read would be an understatement. The difficulty is partly due to the density of Hart's prose (one is reminded of Milbank) and the obscurity of some of his vocabulary, but mainly it is a result of the breathtaking immensity of the author's learning.

Hart's comprehensive deconstruction of the pretensions of the doyens of (post)modern continental philosophy is excoriating, including such theologians' favourites as Foucault ("his is an ontology of force whose practical expression can only be one or another instantiation of force") and, a particular bête noire, Emmanuel Levinas ("a prodigy of incoherence", "the banal tortured into counterfeit profundity, the obviously false propounded as irresistibly true", "a view of the world that is perhaps a little depraved").

Contemporary icons of Protestant theology also come in for some severe criticism, particularly Jüngel, but also Moltmann (his "loose, rhapsodic, paraenetic expostulations") and, to a lesser extent, Pannenberg and Jenson (with their "more cautious dogmatic projects"). Not that Hart does not leave himself open to the charge of lacking exegetical charity and theological humility! He is, however, appreciative of modern Roman theologians like Rahner and, particularly (and not surprisingly), von Balthasar (his "towering achievement").

And Hart does not shy at being unfashionable in, for example, rehabilitating Anselm's soteriology and (pace DW!) insisting on "that loveliest (and most widely misunderstood) 'attribute,' [the divine] apatheia".

In spite of the pugnacity you've got to admire a theologian with such "attitude", and the theme of the divine beauty (and peace), in the end, trumps the polemics, making The Beauty of the Infinite a fitting tribute to Hart's main man Gregory of Nyssa.

A must-read for sure. And so too, by the way, is Hart's The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005), the best theodicy/anti-theodicy written by a theologian since Marilyn McCord Adams' Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (1999). And it is much more reader-friendly than The Beauty of the Infinite, and a quarter of the length.

Anonymous said...

Sue bought this for me for my birthday in June. (I had it on my amazon wishlist.) I think I know what I'm bringing to Paris on Saturday... :-)

joel hunter said...

death bredon, I'm a student of Bradshaw's and I'll be sure to pass on your kind words here; he'll be honored to be compared favorably with Hart!

I look forward to reading Hart's book. I have two misgivings about EO that I'd like to put as questions for those of you who are more familiar with Hart's work:

1. 'Beauty'. What is the character and context for Hart's beauty-aesthetic? Does it lie on the Plato-to-Kant continuum that favors the form of the visible, especially in its image-to-logos copy/form emphasis, that inevitably turns inward to the aesthetically pleasing achieved by sense detaching? Or is the beauty-aesthetic situated in its wider sense, the lived sense of an experience-aesthetic?

2. Narrative. As a life-long protestant (albeit with irrepressible catholic urges), I am deeply suspicious of all ascent narratives in theology. My suspicion has two sides: (a) that they lose the utter astonishment and outrage of grace; (b) that "spirituality" aims for disembodiment (Nous turning to contemplate the One, etc.) rather than gritty, sensuous kenosis in the world.

David W. Congdon said...

Not surprisingly, I find myself saddened by the praise being given to Hart. And, Ben, I am surprised that you, being so schooled by Barth, would offer such praise to one who argues for the analogia entis, divine impassibility, and more or less dismisses Barth.

Hart is not only uncharitable; he is simply a poor reader of modern theology. He is an odd combination: part Orthodoxy convert, part Radical Orthodoxy. You might characterize his theology as Radical Orthodoxy Orthodoxy. This makes his theology conversant with "postmodernity," but leads him to view Gregory of Nyssa as the answer to all our "postmodern" woes. In short, he spends too much time offering his rhetoric on postmodernity, and he's far too eager to make the eastern Fathers appear like the solution to our problems. This leads him to denigrate theologians who are asking questions that he would rather avoid.

In the end, I am highly suspicious of anything that comes out of the Radical Orthodoxy camp of thinkers. Anyone who finds Milbank a more fruitful thinker than Barth and Jüngel is tragically off the mark.

Anonymous said...

I admire Hart, too, even though I couldn't follow every argument. However, I did find his dismissive rhetoric tipping over from the bracing to the bullying (what one might call the "First Things" style...). If in "The Doors of the Sea" Hart had spent less time on put-downs and more on unpacking the theology of impassibility, it would have been a much better book. Those who ask what Hart's notion of beauty really means in practice have a point.

Anonymous said...

Hi DW.

You raise some excellent points. Hart's dismissal of the entire Protestant tradition gets on my nerves too (especially, of course, his dismissal of Barth, who actually anticipated von Balthasar in praise of the divine beauty). And while I am all for the archaeology of the premodern, the idea that the Fathers, East or West, are a panacea for all our postmodern confusions is simply the obverse of enlightenment chronological snobbery.

On the other hand, it does seem to me that revisiting the divine impassibility and the analogia entis is a worthwhile trip to make. If you don't care for the unkind Hart as a conversation partner on the former, try the more gracious Thomas Weinandy, Does God Suffer? (2000). Apatheia is not, I submit, a spent force, and its intentio fidei is theologically worthy. As for the latter, as with Barth's Nein! to natural theology, given their Weimer contextuality, and given the new-look Scotus and Aquinas of some exegetes, it too merits reconsideration (even if on the basis of "Keep your friends close - and your enemies closer"!). A paradigmatic (Reformed) case in point here is T. F. Torrance, a true heir of Barth, and his new-look natural theology, funded, not least, by the capital of which Barth was woefully broke, viz. the natural sciences.

As for Radical Orthodoxy, you've got to pick out the meat - there is some there - and throw away the bones. What really pisses me off about it is its almost studied obscurity, its snootiness, its million-miles-awayness from the church down the road, as well as its contempt for the secular which it sees as irredeemably benighted.

Anonymous said...

One can find better theology in the works of Dostoevski and Tolstoy. There is nothing more boring and etherial than haughty theology. Dallas Willard's, "Divine Conspiracy," is a better systematic theology than most modern or postmodern systematic theologians.(though it's not a theology book!) Practitioners make better theologians than theologians. I think the great turn of the Church was when it's practioners (clergy) had too much time and money on their hands and forfieted the streets for the pen and office. To echo C.S. Lewis, if you cannot write and communicate to the average man on the streets what is in your head then you should not be writing or need to refine your writing skills. How bout all us theologians cast ourselves down on the precipice and then write about that?

Tripp said...

A couple friends of mine who are at Duke told me how great the book was, so I bought it and read it. I think I will just second DW's comment and say that if someone wants to read an Orthodox theologian I really enjoyed Sergius Bulgakov's "The Bride of the Lamb."

Ben Myers said...

Hi David: sorry I made you "sad"! Naturally I agree with many of your reservations -- and I myself am far too steeped in modern theology (and in Luther's theologia crucis) to be able to agree with Hart's whole theology.

But one doesn't have to agree with a book in order to admire it! After all, I don't agree with whaling either, but I still think Moby-Dick is the best novel ever written....

Jason said...


I leave to one side your taxonomy of aesthetics, but would like to weigh in on your second point. It is my sense that orthodox (small 'o', but large 'O', too) ascent narratives resist both of your concerns. First, there might be different ways of expressing the response to grace -- astonishment and outrage are two good ways, but not exclusive -- which nevertheless preserve the 'Godness' of grace, that is, not domesticating it or making it an idol. Even if Hart (or, more to the point, theologians of Orthodox or Catholic sympathy) might not use just those terms, I think they still preserve the gratuity of grace.

Second, my sense is that 'spirituality' (specifically, Christian spirituality) in ascent always both draws us to God and draws us nearer to the concrete life around us. That is, coming 'nearer' to God is not simply a matter of leaving the creation, as if God were elsewhere. The great spiritual theologians (and the New Testament) always insisted that we cannot love God apart from loving our neighbour. And, again, the great spiritual theologians (and the NT) always insisted that our fleshly mortification was not to escape the created world, but to live properly in the created world.

Ironically, although this sort of world-denying (or world-distancing, perhaps) 'spirituality' has been around since before Christianity, it only gained a real foothold in certain parts of the church rather more recently.

Halden said...

I share David's criticsms of Hart's book for the most part. I think Hart's inflated rhetoric dehabilitates any substantial theological precision in what he seeks to affirm. The best example of this is the way he construes the relation of divine infinity and apatheia. While he will often affirm that infinity is the overcoming of all limites and distances, traversing every boundary, he had a latent concept of infinity as negative (i.e. the absence of limitations). This is what informs his affirmation of impassibility. Hart is unable to conceive of finitude, suffering and death entering into the life of God because that can't fit with his concept of infinity as the inability of finitude to impose and interval within the infinite. However, a positive definition of infinity (such as that offered by Barth, von Balthasar or more recently, Jenson) allows for suffering and finitude to truely enter into the life of God because God's infinity is not the static absence of limits, but the trinitarian dynamism that eternally traverses and overcomes all limits.

This, I think is the crux of Hart's failure in this impressive work. His Christology is also, I think quite distorted and borders on Nestorianism. The other beef I have with him is his biblical illiteracy. Hart's use of the Bible is more or less limited to quoting various passages at the beginings of his sections and that's about it.

I could say more, but if you are interested I have a lengthy review of Hart's book posted at


Kyle said...


I concur but with a minor modification - it is one of the best...

I'm fearful to employ "ever" because usually after I do, I end up eating it.


Anonymous said...

Hi Halden.

I've just read your critique of The Beauty of the Infinite. While finding "much to commend", along with DW you make some very palpable hits. It is a very worthy addition to the mix and will provide some useful orientation when I revisit the book (particularly as I continue to wrestle with the notion of the divine apatheia and its christological implications).

And how very sharp of you to expose Hart's own rhetoric of violence in his engagement with his opponents, and the thinness, indeed the inconsistency, of his political ethics given his ontology of peace. Yes, "A healthy dose of Stanley Hauerwas would help Hart on this point quite a bit." Though given Hauerwas' own polemical pugnacity, perhaps - ad fontes! - the master Yoder would be better.

Thank you.


Halden said...


Fair shot on Hauerwas. Yoder would indeed be helpful to Hart if he would avail himself of him. Interestingly, I think that Yoder has the Christological integrity that Hart really lacks, but that would need substantiation.

At AAR last year in a session on Hart's book Hart admitted that he made his remarks about pacifism after being angered by reading some remarks from Yoder about the Orthodox church. So maybe Hart's jaded against Yoder. :)


Anonymous said...

Hi Halden and DW. Me again, picking your capacious brains!

Your comments on The Beauty of the Infinite - and, in particular, Halden's critique of Hart's take on the divine infinity - sent me scurrying to do some homework on Hart's mentor Gregory of Nyssa. A couple of points for your consideration.

1. Observe the polemical context of Gregory's teaching on the divine infinity: it occurs in response to Eunomius' contention that the divine nature is definable, comprehensible, Gregory's point being, simply, that if God is infinite, he is, ipso facto, undefinable, incomprehensible. Perhaps, I'm suggseting, we need to bear in mind that, if it is true that Gregory accents the divine infinity in a negative way (as the elimination of boundaries rather than their transcendence), it is by way of countering Eunomius' purported positive teaching. On calmer dogmatic reflection, Gregory might not take such an exaggerated position. Or is it not interesting that, in the late
Catechetical Oration
, Gregory says nothing about the divine infinity, or, for that mater, the divine darkness, so prominent in earlier writings. Compare Karl Barth, whose blanket Nein! to natural theology in the polemical context of the Nazification of Germany is later, post-WWII, re-thought in his more considered "theology of lights".

2. More fundamentally, is Gregory's doctrine of the divine infinity as negative as it seems? For one thing, it constitutes a remarkably innovative and radical rebuke to the platonic tradition that dismisses infinity as an entirely negative concept. For another thing, there is its intimate connection with the divine creativity and goodness. And, third, there is its equally intimate connection with Gregory's anthropology, with his doctrine of epektasis ("stretching out"), the human soul - and, again, contra platonism, human body - in perpetual pilgrimage towards and into the trinitarian depths, a doctrine which is more ethical than epistemological. Again, is it not interesting that Gregory's key text is Philippians 3:12ff., Paul's very muscular metaphor of the marathon? Indeed Rowan Williams suggests (in his brilliant The Wound of Knowledge) that Gregory "sees negative theology in a positive light as the ground of man's self transcendence."

Consider these pensées to be very much in the interrogative mode. And thank you both for the very stimulating discussion.


Halden said...


I think you're quite right in your reflections on Gregory's concept of infinity. I actually think that Hart seriously misuses Gregory, though I don't think I have the patristic expertise to really go after him on this. But, I would recommend that you look at Jenson's reading of Gregory in ST.1 where he argues that Gregory's concept of infinity in contrast to Aristotle is in fact positive (the overcoming of boundaries).

I think Jenson picks up on the trajectory in Gregory's thought that is informed by the trinitarian logic of the gospel while Hart picks up the residual neoplatonism that permeated Cappadocian theology, despite their brilliant work in the formation of trinitarian theology. This is what Zizioulas calls the "leavening" of classical thought wherein the ontological revolution of trinitarian doctrine reconfigured neoplatonic ontology in the thought of the Cappadocians. Unfortunately the leavening was never thorough, perhaps until Barth and the theologians following in his wake (particularly von Balthasar, in my opinion).

Hope that helps further.


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