Reading David Bentley Hart (and His New Book of Essays)

Hart- Hidden and the ManifestTo my mind, there are few intellectual delights sweeter than reading the well-tuned prose of David Bentley Hart. I’m aware that this statement may occasion a few chortles and raised eyebrows—I think of the pastor friend who said Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite was the most difficult thing he’s ever tried to read and consequently gave it away— but over time, Hart’s writings have become to me like the sipping of a fine port after so many cans of Dr. Pepper or Mahler’s Resurrection symphony after so many Beyoncé songs, if you prefer. Hart’s new book of previously published essays is more digestible than Beauty of the Infinite, —more hours d’oeuvre style than full dress, if only because if you’re not enjoying the taste of one essay you can grab another—but it’s certainly contains the caloric content and the substance of a rich and full meal.

Hart’s book is a theological and philosophical treasure and is a rich testament to his unerring learnedness, eloquence and profound intellectual range, as John Milbank attests on the back blurb. Perhaps I may serve you better, dear reader —oh you, likely tortured soul, this far deep into philosophy and theology!— if instead of trying to tidily summarize these essays, (you really must just spend time with them), I am able to position you to better understand Hart when you do decide to finally try and read him.

There is no doubt that it is much easier to digest a three minute Beyoncé song than a 45 minute Mahler symphony and so you must know that reading Hart takes work and time. He is an acquired taste and if you’re anything like me, you will have several different stages in your journey with David Bentley Hart, resembling, somewhat strangely, the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief.

  1. The first was the bewilderment stage– In this stage I was determined to understand what the man was saying even if it meant coming at the cost of spending more time looking up the words he was using than actually reading him. My first encounter was reading Atheist Delusions as a college undergrad and at many times I really had very little idea of what, exactly, Hart was saying but I knew that it looked very impressive and that I very well would like to swordfight with atheists this way some day and look as smart and accomplished doing it. But what exactly did it mean to be rather petulant or have a note of asperity? Dictionary… This stage often continues into the present.
  2. The Cheerleading or the Righteous Anger phase– This phase found me running up to the New Atheist bullies, or anyone that would disagree with him, behind his coattails—Hart, the brave older brother— casting stones and then running away. “Take that you bad guys that don’t believe in Jesus! I’ve got a very smart and clever brother that will take you to task.” In this phase, I enjoyed the ammunition that Hart gave me and felt that if he could be so disparaging to any and all that disagreed that it was not only appropriate to belittle opponents so and take great pleasure in laughing at their intellectual inferiority. As a young apologist wannabe sentences like “Dennet’s book is utterly inconsequential—in fact, it is something of an embarrassment…“ and “Dawkins [the] tireless tractarian [with an] embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning” were like bullets in the chamber of my rhetorical gun. This stage lasted for about three years or until around the second year of graduate school when I realized that this roughshod apologetic approach might be winning some battles but losing the war.
  3. The Turn (Kehre)– In this stage I found myself distancing myself from Hart and his spewing prose and wondered why Hart seemed so angry all the time. Why all the vitriol? Doesn’t Paul say that if he speaks without love he is but a clanging cymbal? Was it really necessary to disparage those who thought differently than he did so hostilely? Doesn’t he like anybody? I found myself being frustrated with his disparagement of anyone and everyone that didn’t agree with him.
  4. Engagement– This stage began in earnest again with the release of Hart’s book The Experience of God in 2014. I was at the tail end of an M.A. in philosophy and I found that Hart’s book nicely captured many of the philosophical arguments I had been studying, tidying them up in their relationship to my faith and why, exactly, these ideas mattered—something that is easily lost in the midst of studies. I relied heavily on his exposition of the anologia entis why the prennial philosophical question of “Why is there something rather than nothing” was misunderstood, ignored, and unanswerable by modern atheists— in my case, Feuerbach.
  5. Acceptance– In the end (which I consider to just have arrived at with the reading of these essays), I got over Hart’s cantankerousness because he is just too helpful and brilliant to write off as simply a demagogue. It seems that even Hart’s heart has begun to softent: he writes in the preface to this new volume that “I have also decided not to attempt to soften some of the more immoderate or provocative remarks in these essays, despite my resolve to strike a more emollient tone whenever I can…” Whether this change of tone is strictly for personal advancement or arises from the injunctions of the gospel that Hart proclaims, I could not say, but I was assuaged (not that I really needed a reason to be) and am curious how Hart’s invective will change in his future work.david-bentley-hart

Maybe your relationship hasn’t been nearly as tumultuous as mine has. Who knows? Maybe you have not the slightest idea what I am talking about and yet have read this far! Regardless, this collection of essays is a treasure and it will be a volume continually close to hand, both for its example of the power of rhetoric and for its rich expositions of the most basic and fundamental tenants of Christianity read in the light of the best of the tradition. Who can resist sentences like: It imbues the works of Augustine’s senescence with an inexpungible tincture of tragic moral idiocy, one that he bequeathed to broad streams of Catholic and Protestant tradition” (139) and “Ultimately, Heidegger succeeds only at returning to an oblivion of being as profound as his own… (24)?

Did I mention that Hart makes for a rather polarizing figure?

If there is one interweaving thread throughout Hart’s work (and these essays) it is the continual reference to the “conceptual revolution” of Christianity’s understanding of Being. That is, because of its doctrine of creation, Christianity forced a reconceptualization of the entire history of metaphysics. As Hart says,

Herein lies the great ‘discovery’ of the Christian metaphysical tradition: the true nature of transcendence, transcendence understood not as mere dialectical supremacy, and not as ontic absence, but as the truly transcendent and therefore utterly immediate act of God, in his own infinity, giving being to beings (109).

In other words, God is not some type of super creature among creatures (or man writ large as Feuerbach would have it) but existence itself. “Without him nothing was made that was made.” Hart uses this Thomistic doctrine between ens and esse to ground his critique of Heidegger in the first essay “The Offering of Names” and to summarize the uniqueness of Christian thought in “The Destiny of Christian Metaphysics” and it also features prominently in the title essay “The Hidden and the Manifest.” There are two important treatments of the much-maligned doctrine of God’s impassibility as well as two essays on Gregory of Nyssa an extended treatment of Milton and discussions about infinity.

If you’re just beginning with Hart or a fairly recent comer to metaphysics then I would suggest you start with Experience of God and then pick up this book of essays. (If you’re really just a pugilistic looking to excoriate your opponents, The Atheist Delusions is the book for you, though chapter 15 in that book I consider maybe the high point of any book I’ve read in the last five years. And it’s probably thanks to Hart that I even know what a pugilist is….) You’ll be glad you did.

To Be or Not to Be? It Is the Question

To be or not to be? We ask ourselves this question everyday, whether we realize it or not, through probably not in the existential context in which Hamlet gave us this most famous of lines. But we do decide in every action whether or not what we do will give us being or deprive us of what it means to be fully human. So, what does it mean to live a full and complete human life? I’m so glad you asked! Let me tell you what my friend James Schall has to say on the matter. Let me begin with a story. Schall-Life of the Mind

In graduate school, I asked the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) if I could be their campus representative, which I realize now, is somewhat akin to asking the fire department if I could bring my watering can to help fight their fires. They probably rolled their eyes but they obliged and so I became the pioneering member of ISI at the University of Dallas. ISI is a conservative educational organization whose purpose is to teach “the core ideas behind the free market, the American Founding, and Western civilization, ideas that are rarely taught in [the] classroom” and so being the ISI rep at a school like the University of Dallas— which exists to teach the great books and keep Western civilization alive— did not make me their most valuable asset. A majority of the students were already bought in to ISI’s core ideas and so I now realize why I could never get anyone to contact me with questions I had. (Book reviews can be so cathartic!) ISI has a lot of rich people who give them a good deal of money and so I became the recipient of boxes of free ISI books. One of the thinkers they introduced me to was Father James Schall, S.J., through his book The Life of the Mind. I remain forever indebted.

C.S. Lewis famously said that one has not read a great book until they have read it more than once (though you have to read it once to read it again). I would place Schall’s oeuvre in that category, and Life of the Mind is no exception. It is a book that could be profitably read over and over in order to discover anew or for the thousandth time what truly matters and what one should spend their precious time pursuing. Schall’s book is like a fortune cookie from Ancient Athens in that you can turn to almost any page, select any sentence, and meditate on its profundity throughout the day. Let me concretely apply this bold statement by opening the book at random to three places and recording what I find, which I can do, because I am my own editor.

  1. “We do sense, however, that we need speculative reasons to explain of justify our practical decisions and actions, especially if we suspect that what we do is wrong by some transcendent standard—that is, if we presume we do have such a thing as a conscience” (124, The Whole Risk for a Human Being).
  2. “Modern economics has shown ways for the drudgery of labor to be performed with dignity and profit by free citizens. If one thinks, for instance, of modern sewage and waste management systems, we see how the work formerly forced on slaves can be carried out in another, more human, way” (29, Artes Liberales—The Liberal Arts).
  3. “Not only am I, I, but that which is not myself is just as real as I am” (107, The Metaphysics of Walking).
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Father Schall, walking metaphysically, metaphorically, with a magnificently misaligned name tag.

Look at the chapter that last citation is taking from: The Metaphysics of Walking! What does that even mean!? I know that you are intrigued. Other chapter titles include such gems as: On the Things That Depend on Philosophy; On the Consolations of Illiteracy, Revisited; Books and the Intellectual Life; On the Joys and Travails of Thinking.

If you are looking for a good graduation present for either high school or college seniors, look no further my friends. One of the most shocking moments of Schall’s book to our modern sensibilities is when he reminds us that some pleasures are worth pursuing and others are not. In other words, some things are better than others! Any author willing to sacrifice his career at a prestigious East coast university (Schall teaches at Georgetown) with such a brazenly old-fashioned statement deserve a standing ovation.

I had the privilege of meeting Schall in grad school—I hope that I gave him a standing ovation, alas, I cannot remember—and I consider it one of the highlights of that period of my life. Wearing an eye patch and continually dabbing the excess saliva from the corners of his mouth as he spoke, Schall’s body was deteriorated but his face beamed like a child, mind sprightly, eyes radiating with the joie de vivre that comes from a life of disciplined intellectual delights and the continual back and forth of students and teacher. The Life of the Mind is a book that every person should have on their bookshelf, and hopefully, more often than not, in their hands. There are few books that come to my mind so full of life and wisdom and few thinkers that have done so much with the joys and challenges of the intellectual and spiritual life as Father James Schall. It will be a sad day, indeed, when his astute mind and childlike countenance go to find their final rest.