Monday 20 August 2007

David Bentley Hart: the importance of being earnest

In his insightful New Blackfriars article on David Bentley Hart, Gerard Loughlin criticises the “violence” of Hart’s own polemical rhetoric, and he suggests that such rhetorical practice is in tension with Hart’s proposal of a rhetoric of peace. (Similarly, our friend Patrik has described Hart’s rhetoric as “the exact equivalent of US foreign policy”!)

In his response to Loughlin, Hart clarifies his understanding of rhetoric, and he defends the importance of straight-talking:

“I never anywhere argue in The Beauty of the Infinite for a ‘peaceful rhetoric’. Quite the contrary…. I argue rather that rhetoric as such is not somehow always implicated in violence, as certain denizens of the world of ‘theory’ have been heard to opine; and that we are not bound to accept the ontological presuppositions that underlie the belief that it is…. Honestly, I never meant to suggest that we should be more peaceable or inoffensive in the rhetoric we employ. Indeed, the only sort of rhetoric that I grant to be essentially violent is the sort that conceals its own intentions behind a façade of ingratiating insincerity….

“I do, of course, regret those moments when my tone becomes ‘wearing’. But, if I may be frank, what I often find wearing is the faltering, apologetic, restrained, and hesitant tone of much modern theology. It is what I quite shamefully and unfairly tend to think of as ‘the modern Anglican inflection’: the sorrowful diminuendo towards embarrassed silence, by way of prolonged clearings of the throat and the occasional softly whistled tune, as one contemplates changing the subject before anyone is so indiscreet as to venture a firm opinion.”


Sam Charles Norton said...

Do you think he has Rowan in mind? (More fool him if he does). I recently acquired Beauty of the Infinite - haven't read it yet - but I'm looking forward to engaging with him.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Sam -- no, I'm certain the "modern Anglican inflection" isn't referring to Rowan Williams. Think instead of the typical Anglican country parson, as depicted in so many Victorian novels.

In any case, it's a wonderfully charming and humorous description -- and I reckon we should all adopt the term "modern Anglican inflection" as a new addition to theological terminology....

::aaron g:: said...

Anyone who imagines such a thing as an Anglican's “embarrassed silence,” has clearly never attended a Parish Council meeting!

Dan Morehead said...

I think I'd tend to agree with Loughlin on this one and don't think the only other option is throat clearing. It isn't a question of firm opinion or infirmed opinion, but what kind of firm opinion and how is it best expressed. Theology has another term instead of violence: sin. And yes, rhetoric is always implicated in sin. The question is: more so or less so? In this sense, the "denizens of the world of ‘theory’" may have a leg up on Hart.

Anonymous said...

That last sentence is such a wonderful description. I love it, especially as an Anglican:)


Anonymous said...

OK, OK, DBH is a brilliant guy, and he has a point, but consider this quote from an Anglican who isn't of the befuddled kind: "It is hard to see how a contemplative theology could be polemical, let alone sneering in tone, and modern theology would do well to retrieve the conviction [of Augustine's De Trinitate] that as charity and truth are one in God, so ought they to be one in Christian talk about God." A.N. Williams, "Contemplation," in Knowing the Triune God, ed. James J. Buckley and David S Yeago, p. 145.

Anonymous said...

In a different battlezone, with Lutheran and Reformed aggressors, but deploying Patrik's metaphor, N.T. Wright has written:

"Like America looking for a new scapegoat after the collapse of the Cold War and seizing on the Islamic world as the obvious target, many conservative writers, having discovered themselves in possession of the Pauline field after the liberals tired of it, have looked around for new enemies. Here is something called the New Perspective; it seems to be denying some of the things we have normally taught; very well, let us demonize it, lump its proponents together, and nuke them from a great height. This has not made a pretty sight... But if we are siblings in Christ, there are appropriate ways of addressing one another and of speaking about one another, and I regret that these have not always characterized the debate."

"New Perspectives on Paul", in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Baker Academic, 2006) - a worthy addition to any book-list meme, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Really interesting quotations from Hart, Ben.

It almost sounds as though Hart denies that one can suffer apart from a suffering of physical violence. This, of course, would be of a piece with his metaphysics of passibility.

In fact, I wonder whether we see here the kind of ethics that would flow from Hart's (in my view) flawed metaphysics? The problem with it being that it has no distinct category of moral injury or suffering over and against material suffering, i.e. "passion" in the etymological sense. Impassiblists like Hart, in my view, deny that God suffers in the former sense because they think it is a case of suffering in the latter sense. But it is not; and while it is indeed absurd to think that God is passible in the latter sense, this is different to thinking he is "passible" in the former sense.

So for Hart: "if you ain't got no body, you can't get hurt" implies "If I'm just speaking harshly, I'm certainly not hurting you".

However, while words do not hurt me in the sense of causing material injury, but they can still damn well hurt!

Perhaps I'm not being fair to Hart's critique of the passibilist position? I'm happy to be corrected on this. (I'm only familiar with his sketchy arguments in The Doors of the Sea, not the fuller discussions in The Beauty of the Infinite).

Anonymous said...

I think Hart still has a point concerning the need for honesty and robustness in theological dialogue. Hauerwas interestingly makes a similar point, grounding the need for frank dialogue precisely in one's loving (rather than violent) concern for the other and for the truth. This much can certainly be squared with the ideal of non-violence. Nonetheless, the ideal of frankness is not a justification for disrespectful, point-scoring rhetoric.

Theo said...

I've just finished a thesis on Hauerwas, and thought at various points that he might need to soften his rhetoric a little. But that would mean he wasn't Stanley, so I thought perhaps I ought to be gentler *for* him. Wright is right - the key is a charitable ongoing theological conversation between those whose gift to the church lies in not pulling their theological punches, and the more reticent or cautious among us. Not mutually exclusive, of course.

Anonymous said...

I hate to say it, because I'm a fan of N.T. Wright's. However, in this instance (his above quote), he appears to be just another hypocrite. Because he starts out his quote, by doing what he says we shouldn't do at the end of his quote. What a shame.

Anonymous said...

Does it matter whether or not Hart is a nice guy? I'd be much more interested in knowing how readers of this blog react to this claim:

"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 of terms, is Christian metaphysics: God speaks God, and creation occurs within that speaking, as a rhetorical embellishment, a needless ornament." (The Beauty of the Infinite p. 291).

Here is a radical metaphysical claim: that everything is semiotic. It wipes out nominalism and other modernist philosophical sins at a stroke, and so has serious implications well beyond theology (e.g., to the science of perception). Is anybody interested?

dw said...

I teach my writing students to "do unto others with language as you'd have done unto you with language." Radical, eh?


Anonymous said...


I find that the theological methodology for use of language espoused by many today, including the Wright quote, implicitly makes Paul's states such as "I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves" illegitimate.

Of course Wright is going to say that. He doesn't see NPP as altering the gospel. But such rhetoric, such as the aforementioned quote by Paul, is the only proper response for beliefs that undermine the gospel. Opponents of NPP see it as a doing just that. Now, Wright can certainly disagree with that, but we must agree that if one believes a belief to be a subversion of the gospel, Pauline rhetoric is apropos. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

re: Patrick's A. N. Williams' quote -
I think it may be worth reflecting more on the fact that Augustine's insistence on the unity of truth and charity occurs within a work that is itself deeply (and in my view, quite properly) polemical - see e.g., the prolegomenon to De Trin. This suggests that we ought not to assume too quickly that an Augustinian caritas necessarily rules out the use of
polemic. It may, at times, even demand it.

Anonymous said...

Hi jbh,

No, I'm afraid that, whatever its Pauline pedigree, "Go cut your dick off!" is (if you like) using bad language in church and deserves a bar of soap in the mouth.

Seriously though, we all go polemically over-the-top sometimes - I have certainly been know to - and that (I hope) is to be forgiven. Hauerwas, at least, has been known to mock his own linguistic pugnacity; Hart seems to me a bit trop serieux to do the same.

In principle, I think Barth was right when, in a thoughtful moment rather than in the heat of battle, he once wrote to a correspondent: "You say many correct things. But what is correct is not always true. Only what is said kindly is true."

Anonymous said...

My Spiritual Master points out that the only way to assess anyone is by examining their life and actions altogther and by the company they keep. Are they sane and clear eyed or full of righteous (and even fundamentalist)craziness? Are they good company to ALL beings?

In my opinion Hart betrays himself by the company he keeps. The right wing "culture" warriors who are strident supporters of the so called war on terror and by extension the Pentagon death machine and its associated world wide "culture" of death. The dreadful applied politics of "shock and awe".

Not much beauty to be found in that neck of the woods!

You may find these paragaphs quite illuminating---no grand "righteous" polemics --just a simple statement of the Truth of Beauty and Reality altogether.It is based on His direct perception as The Beautiful Incarnate which He IS.

"The aesthetic experience, including the necessary great and sublime perceptual experience of real and true beauty, is not merely a nice idea. Rather, the aesthetic experience of real and true beauty---or the aesthetic and artistic manifestation of the Beautiful ITSELF---is a human necessity, even fundamental to the structure of the human body-mind. The aesthetic experience of real and true beauty is neurologically based---pre-"wired" into the human nervous system and brain. Any counter-aesthetic, or anti-aesthetic effort, or any effort that opposes, or runs counter to, the beauty-"wired" aspect of the human structure is, in effect, a form of abuse of the human being---and of the necessary right acculturation of humankind as a whole.

The true and traditional purpose of art is to draw the human being into the sphere of the aesthetic experience---in which the entire brain and nervous system, and indeed the entire body-mind and active life, is profoundly tuned to Reality (Itself, and altogether), and Truth (Itself, and altogether), and Beauty (or the Beautiful,Itself, and altogether).....There is a human necessity for a kind of resonation of vibratory participation in Reality (Itself, and altogethere), and Truth (Itself, and altogether), and Beauty (or the Beautiful, Itself and altogether)---beyond conventional "yes" and "no", beyond conventional "beauty" and conventional "ugliness", beyond conventional "realism", and beyond egoity altogether. Such human profundity is a great and necessary purpose, which true art (and, altogether, true culture and right civilization) should and must serve."

Anonymous said...


So you are saying Paul was wrong to say that?

Dave Belcher said...

I think it is vitally important in this conversation to remember that David Hart is always performing a form of persuasive rhetoric...for that reason, I think it is unfortunate that folks are not more strategic in their responses to him (and his massively significant, even if overestimated, book). There are a couple of things in these responses that are not so much ignored by Hart as they are appropriated to his own ends (as any good rhetor can and should do). For instance, I would really like to have heard a better account of subjective disposition to beauty (as would Smith), but we get nothing of that. And like Loughlin, I would like to discuss the (potentially harmful) forms our rhetoric can take...but listen to how Hart responds (and we get a bit of this in his earlier response to Smith when he flat out says that martyrs are indeed "out to win arguments"!): "I never said..." Perhaps this clarification is important, but he knows that in this mode, nothing else needs be said...he has already won the argument. He of course does not "argue for a peaceful rhetoric," though he does suggest by implication (actually there is quite a bit of explication which is the reason EVERYONE picks up on it! It is not simply a misunderstanding! But this is what is so brilliant about Hart's own use of rhetoric!)...sorry, he does suggest by implication that because any rhetoric is not inherently or implicitly violent, Christian rhetoric not only can but must be understood as peaceful. So, Hart can make ontic claims about the peacableness of Christian rhetoric that have no real existential value or viability. And really, this was of course Loughlin's point...he just didn't account for Hart's rhetorical response to such an argument. Unfortunate. I think I'll post something about all of this on my own site.

Anonymous said...

Hi jbh,

Do I think Paul was wrong to say that? Not if he was smiling!

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