Monday 13 November 2006

The analogia entis makes a comeback: David Bentley Hart

This week’s meeting of the Karl Barth Society of North America sounds excellent, and the session on David Bentley Hart will no doubt be of great interest. Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) is one of the most important and brilliant theological works of recent years – so if you haven’t yet managed to read it, this might be a good opportunity. On Saturday there will be papers by George Hunsinger and Archie Spencer, with a response by Hart himself, on the topic: “The Analogia Entis Makes a Come-Back – David Bentley Hart.”

Karl Barth famously remarked that the analogy of being (analogia entis) is both “the invention of antichrist” and the only good reason for not becoming a Roman Catholic. And in a shrewd reversal of this statement, Hart suggests (p. 242) that the rejection of the analogia entis might in fact be “the invention of antichrist” and “the most compelling reason for not becoming a Protestant”!

Hart is not, however, interested in reviving “any naïve natural theology.” For him, the analogia entis has nothing to do with an essentialist analogy between created being and divine being: “the analogy of being does not analogize God and creatures under the more general category of being, but is the analogization of being in the difference between God and creatures; it is as subversive of the notion of a general and univocal category of being as of the equally ‘totalizing’ notion of ontological equivocity.” (pp. 241-42).

Being itself always already differs, and our being lies before us “as gratuity and futurity,” so that “the analogy of being … is the event of our existence as endless becoming” (p. 243). In this event of becoming, we participate in the beauty of God’s own infinity: “God is the infinity of being in which every essence comes to be, the abyss of subsistent beauty into which every existence is outstretched” (p. 245). Precisely as we participate in God, our own differences are accentuated ever more sharply – indeed, Hart suggests that the eschatological kingdom itself will simply be “the endless liberation of difference into the light” (p. 400).

For Hart, therefore, the analogia entis does not concern my being as such, but rather the event in which my act of being participates in God’s transcendent act of being and thus receives from God its own otherness and particularity. The analogia entis thus describes my freedom to be, my emancipation from the totalising violence of identity (p. 245).

Ironically, then, while the analogia entis has often been understood as the reduction of differences to some essential similarity (e.g. that God and creatures share in common something called “being”), Hart brilliantly reverses this line of thought, so that “the analogy of being finds truth in the ever greater particularity of each thing as it enters ever more into the infinite that gives it being” (p. 247). Or, to put it more sharply: the analogy of being describes the triumph of the infinite over every kind of totality. Hence, although Hart seldom uses the term “analogy of being,” one could perhaps argue that the reformulated analogia entis is really at the core of his entire dogmatic proposal.

What will contemporary Barth studies and contemporary dogmatics make of all this? I for one would love to know! So if you happen to be there for the Barth Society Meeting this week, please feel welcome to drop me a line afterwards with some details about the discussion.


Anonymous said...

my flight to dc gets in a little before 9am, but i am hoping to catch most of the hunsinger/bentley hart conversation. (especially now that walt is speaking first)
i'll be sure to post my notes and the conversation on it. i am hoping to post a fair amount during the weekend on the various lectures that i attend.

Anonymous said...

Von Balthasar, following Barth's nemesis Erich Przywara, anticipated Hart with a dynamic and apophatic understanding of the analogia entis. And like Hart, von Balthasar insisted on the ontological dissimilarity between the Creator and the creature. It is hardly coincidental that Gregory of Nyssa - with his theology of the infinite - is a major influence on both theologians.

On the other hand, von Balthasar, hearing what his colleague and friend Barth was saying, tried to assimilate the analogia entis into the analogia fidei in order to preserve the freedom of the creature while maintaining the transcendence of God.

Whether or not this operation is successful - and indeed whether or not it kills the patients! - I do not have the brains to say. But it does sound to me like the participants in this dispute are actually a lot closer than the Christ/antichrist dichotomy would suggest.

Halden said...

Kim, you're exactly right about von Balthasar, and I'm convinced that von Balthasar is able to do so much better than Hart because of how he concieves the immanent kenosis in the Trinity in relation to divine pathos. Hart's assertion of apatheia shows precisely how he could be corrected by von Balthasar's much more profound theology of the immanent Trinity which sees the infinite distance within the distinction of the persons of the Trinity as the ground for the "distance of sin" to be transposed into and overcome in the superabundance of the Trinitarian relations which infinitely traverse distance through infinte love.


I'll be at the Barth Society meeting and I'll make sure to post something about this discussion, which of course I have a keen interest in.


Fred said...

Anybody recall what Paul Ricoeur said regarding the analogy of being?

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

This is going to be an odd comment, but one that I feel like ought to be made. The short of it is that most of this post strikes me as nonsense, and I’m troubled by the fact that such talk passes as high level theological discourse. There’s a lot that could be said here, so I’ll just pick one example.

Ben tells us that “Hart brilliantly reverses this line of thought, so that “the analogy of being finds truth in the ever greater particularity of each thing as it enters ever more into the infinite that gives it being.”” Say, what? Really, what in the world is being talked about here? And supposing that there’s something being talked about, why not say it more clearly?

Amazingly, Ben takes himself to *clarify* the point by saying that, “Or, to put it more sharply: the analogy of being describes the triumph of the infinite over every kind of totality.” This is the sort of thing that ought to make one’s head explode. First, I fail to see how this statement is putting the previous statement more sharply. In fact, I fail to see any relationship between the two statements at all. Moreover, to think that this statement is putting a point sharply is preposterous. The triumph of the infinite over every kind of totality? Really. What in the world is a totality? Whatever this could possibly mean, there's got to be a better way to say it.

Ben Myers said...

Hi there Anon -- many thanks for your thoughtful comment.

I apologise for the confusion here -- I wasn't really trying to explain Hart's whole complex project (the central concepts of which are "the infinite" and "totality"), but just to point out the important place that the analogia entis occupies in his project. So the phrase "the triumph of the infinite over every kind of totality" is just a 10-word summary of Hart's whole book -- and all I really meant to say here was that the whole book could be described as a reformulated analogia entis.

Sorry if that's still not very clear! In any case, Hart's book is very difficult stuff -- I guess I'd be able to summarise the whole thing better if I understood it better myself!

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

The fault for not fully understanding Hart’s very difficult book almost certainly does not lie with you. There’s a difference between books that are difficult for good reasons and books that are difficult for bad ones, and my own view is that Hart’s book is of the latter sort. When someone talks like Hart talks, I think he shouldn’t be taken seriously until he’s ready to clarify just what’s going on. That is, he should talk normally, and use words and concepts that we don’t already know only when necessary; and when doing so, he should be careful to tell us what they mean using the words and concepts that we *do* know already. But modern academic theology appears beholden to people who talk like him.

My complaint might seem to amount to merely the demand that I should be able to understand what’s going on in a book at a first glance. But that’s really not it. If you take a glance through something like Plantinga’s *The Nature of Necessity*, you’ll of course have no idea of what’s going on unless you’ve been around such discussions for a little while. But I’d never have the same feeling about something of Plantinga’s that I don’t understand at first glance as I do when I look at something of Hart’s at first glance. I trust you see the difference, too. In Plantinga, you know that all the concepts in question are clarified to the greatest extent possible; conceptual clarity and definitional rigor are must-have characteristics of the text. The difficulty isn’t gratuitous.

On the other hand, Hart’s book and books like it don’t appear to value conceptual clarity and rigor, with the result that 20 people will likely think that he’s doing 20 different things (within some appropriate range). The short of it is that, when reading what Hart says, you can obviously and justly ask, “Now what in the crap does *that* mean?” And hopefully, someone who knows what’s going on could explain it to you using concepts that you’ve already got. Which makes you wonder why he isn’t just talking that way to begin with. (And, my hunch is that, oftentimes, when you ask this question, neither Hart nor anyone could *really* tell you what’s going on without appealing to concepts equally as mysterious as the ones needing clarification.)

Are you at all sympathetic here?

Anonymous said...

I am, Anonymous! As I have said before, Hart's prose makes Milbank's look like a see-Jane-run book.

However I am pretty sure that Hart is not talking nonsense - as Milbank does not talk nonsense. Apparently some of Milbank's tutors, when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge, had misgivings about the soon-to-be founder-member of Radical Orthodoxy, about whether he was profound or merely obscure, even confused. Rowan Williams once told me that, recognising Milbank's brilliance beneath the density, he sometimes pleaded with said tutors to be patient with the lad. But that Hart can write lucidly and cogently is apparent, I think, in a little book like The Doors of the Sea (2005), which is one of the best takes on theodicy that I have read in recent years (Marilyn McCord Adams' Christ and Horrors [2006] is near the top of my un-read books pile). Perhaps that is because The Doors of the Sea began its life as an article for The Wall Street Journal. But it is one reason why, when I don't understand what Hart is saying in The Beauty of the Infinite, I think the problem might be mine, even though I don't like to be made to feel stupid.

I am a great believer in the advice of the late William Sloane Coffin: "Think thoughts that are as clear as possible, but no clearer; say things as simply as possible, but no simpler."

Anonymous said...

I will add to Kim's quoting Coffin a quote from Goethe: "One is only truly thinking when that which one thinks cannot be thought through."

By coincidence (?) I just this morning got to the discussion in Hart's book on the analogia entis referred to in the post. And it is the case that if I hadn't read the previous 240 pages, and some related work (especially Robert Magliola's Derrida on the Mend and some stuff on Buddhist logic) I would also see it as gobbledy-gook. True, Hart could be gentler on his readers, but not much gentler, since it is just the case that the issues here cannot be "thought through", that they cannot be understood in the way that Anonymous would like. But, as John von Neumann said about quantum physics "nobody understands it -- you just get used to it", by thinking around it, even though one cannot think through it.

Anonymous said...

I think Anonymous is hitting on a good point, though. If theology is done in the service of the church and the world, then surely the task of a theologian is to be as clear as possible. Granted, one person's clarity will be another person's gibberish, but. . . well, even Hart's The Doors of the Sea arguably likes the sound of its own prose a bit too much. When does a theologian's style become a genuine stumbling block for those seeking to understand faith?

Ben Myers said...

Although I think Anonymous has a valid point, I have to speak up here in Hart's defence: It's simply not true that a book (least of all an academic book!) should be condemned for being difficult. The poetry of Milton or T. S. Eliot is also very difficult -- but it gets better (not easier, but better) the more you read it.

I can only speak for myself here: but, having agonised quite a bit over Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite, I've found that it really does repay hard work.

And as for the stylistic point about Hart's prose: for me, at least, his prose isn't a stumbling block at all -- I think it's often remarkably beautiful, and far better than the colourless and tedious prose that most of us (myself included) produce!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful prose notwithstanding - and I do like the way that Hart phrases certain things in Doors (I'm as much a fan of flowery language as anyone!) - the point remains: should a theologian owe it to his or her readers to be as clear as possible? Granted, a theological book, an academic book, ought not be criticised because it is difficult (and I don't think anyone with criticisms of Hart has suggested that) - but if that book is difficult to understand because of the writer's style, how far, then, is that a problem that needs to be addressed?

Anonymous said...


I would venture to suggest that the theologians who have been given the gift of being able to write specifically for the so-called "layperson" should do so. It seems to me, however, that such theologians tend to rest heavily on the shoulders of others (as do all theologians to a certain extent) - and so there are some writers whose work, as Ben mentioned, becomes much better if the difficulty is wrestled with.

If you see this as a significant problem for the Church's work in the world, perhaps you should take on the responsibility of being the kind of writer who is able to effectively communicate otherwise difficult ideas to the average person lacking a degree or two in theology. It would doubtless be greatly appreciated by many, but that would also mean that part of that importance comes from the much more difficult ideas you would be drawing from. Does that make sense?

And anonymous - perhaps Hart's wish is to leave some of the wrestling up to the reader, knowing that that's the only way to really take deep ideas and make them meaningful and effective?

I recently took a class in which the main text was Derrida's Of Grammatology. I have never read a more difficult book in my life, and am still trying to sort through exactly what I can take away from it - but it is all the more meaningful to me because of it.

Anonymous said...

You have a point, Rory; but are you suggesting that there are two tiers of theologians, those who communicate difficult ideas to the 'layperson' and those who do theology 'proper' in the academy from whose work the first tier draw? If so, then sorry, I don't agree; to me that sounds almost elitist.

I am being unfair to Hart in suggesting, however subtly, that he cannot or does not desire to communicate his theology clearly. I would never advocate the watering down of theology just to make it easier to digest. But what are we trying to do when we write theology? Are we witnessing to Christ or are we just - however unintentionally - keeping it within the theologians' family, so to speak?

We cannot afford to dismiss those whose writing style we do not appreciate: that would surely be some form of prejudice. But I think the point can be reversed somewhat: if a theologian truly wishes to communicate his or her ideas with as little ambiguity as possible, shouldn't the language used be as clear as possible (which doesn't mean that we write in a simplistic way)?

I'm trying to ask questions in this thread, not make judgements as such, and I'm sorry if I'm coming across as though I am. That says a lot about my own clarity of expression! ;)

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

Ben, in defense of Hart, you say, “It's simply not true that a book (least of all an academic book!) should be condemned for being difficult.” I agree – that’s never been my complaint. I’m complaining about a certain sort of difficulty that I think is gratuitous and bad.

Terry brings up the point that, if theology is supposed to serve the church, then folks like Hart aren’t doing that great of job if only a handful of people can understand what they’re talking about. There *may* be a point to this; surely not *all* theologians can do as Hart does. For my own part, I don’t think it speaks badly of Hart if he wants to write for a very specialized audience, and that’s it. He’s got that right, and if certain folks think he’s on to something, then they all can buy the books and talk about them, etc. The world of academia would be severely impoverished if everyone only took to writing things that lay people could digest.

I guess there’s no way around saying what I think at this point (and what motivated me to begin with). My complaint is exemplified in Scott Robert’s claim that had he not read some stuff on Derrida, then he wouldn’t have understood Hart’s book. I’ve got a very low opinion of Derrida and the philosophical tradition of which he’s a part. Derrida is probably the nonsense-talker than which none greater can be conceived, and some other continentalists hardly appear better.

At this point, I don’t know how I could advance any discussion here, since the issue is the merits of an entire philosophical tradition. To me, academic theology has lost its way by taking up with such folks, and I don’t like it at all. But I don’t think I can do any real convincing here. Maybe I can just ask whether anyone else sympathizes with *that* claim.

Anonymous said...

A different anonymous,

One of the tricks I've learned in philosophy grad school that I wish more theologians would use.

Write "Is this bullshit?" on a 3x5 notecard and keep it above your computer. Every time you are writing, don't know what you are doing and look up to invent something you are questioned "Is what you are writing right now bullshit?" There is an easy decision procedure to resolve the question. Read that last sentence you wrote back to yourself out loud and imagine someone asking, "And just what does that mean?" If you can explain, you are in the clear. If you can't, delete that sentence.

just a thought.

Logos said...

different anonymous presents "just a thought" (i.e., is this bullshit?), and it is a good thought. but a thought directed to oneself, not to others.

i loved Hart's book. A difficult read, given that he had to struggle mightily against a certain kind of postmodern thinking. still, with patient labor and laborious patience, the message comes across... it is interesting to note though that in his introduction he virtually admits that what he has written is almost something like a footnote to von Balthasar... a similar admission by Milbank in his introduction to his book "On Being Pardoned." it seems that, despite complaints about Balthasar's heavy German prose, he comes out the simpler still!!!

Anonymous said...

Hart's book is difficult stuff. I think there are two reasons for it. Firstly, the book shows a totally different worldview, where all dichotomies are left behind. There is no subjective-objective, immanent-transcendent, physical-mental and so on; all these well-known dualisms are gone in Hart's worldview. That's the reason why this book is so good and so difficult.
Secondly, maybe Hart could have been more clear about definitions and concepts, but that just doesn't fit in his rhetorical ontology and way of writing. The world, according to Hart, is not describable in clear definitions, but in poetry, because this world is a work of art, participating in the divine dance. That's why his theology looks more like poetry than analytic science. Working with strict and clear defintions to describe the world would presuppose a dialectical epistemology, which Hart rejects.

Jared said...

I realize I am entering the conversation a bit late, but I think Karl Barth's famous reference of Paul to those wrestling with his Dogmatics needs to mentioned in this post:

"To those who will not work, neither should they eat."

Furthermore, to ask a question that I think Hart would love, who can know whether Hart hasn't made himself as clear as possible? Most of us cannot understand him, not because he is not clear, but because we aren't. So from what vantage point can we judge the merits of his arguments and the tools which he uses to make them when we ourselves aren't clear to make such judgments?

Put differently, if Hart were an artist (and I would argue that he is) then challenge him for using modes of discourse that cause us trouble would be like telling an artist not to use certain colors because they hurt our eyes. But if the artist must, in concert with his art, alarm the viewers vision, he MUST use difficult colors. And this(or an analogous) enterprise is Hart's.

To help clarify Hart, I would recommend Stanley Hauerwas' Gifford lectures "With the Grain of the Universe" (special attention to the last two chapters) Though Hauerwas has nothing to do with Hart prima facie (as Hauerwas wrote it before Hart's book came out), I would argue that his positive understanding of Natural Theology post-Barth/MacIntyre is exactly what I take Hart to accomplish with the aesthetic aspect of Beauty of the Infinite. And thus helpful to those needing aid with Hart.

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