Or So I Like to Think:
The Great Talk of David Bentley Hart
Essay by Martyn Wendell Jones
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*** This essay first appeared in our Fall 2017 magazine issue.
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The judgments that Hart renders constantly verge on the immoderate, and rarely does he make a point squarely without infusing a bit of accelerant. Under one aspect this habit is a needless indulgence, but under another, it’s an act of generosity toward his readership. He has the good sense to pursue his maximalist impulses, knowing that they will lead him into his natural métier and enable him to consistently generate interest on the level of his individual sentences.
“In a very real sense,” Hart writes, “the Alice books, along with all of Carroll’s nonsense verse, constitute a kind of revolutionary manifesto of a uniquely English style of genius: that special capacity for elaborate whimsy, precise nonsense, absurdity burnished to an exquisitely delicate sheen,” which is a fine sentence as it stands, but for lacking the sweeping coda that Hart then appends: “—which the French admire but cannot imitate, the Germans dread but cannot resist, the Italians love but cannot understand” (18).
Sincere love animates many of his best appreciations; we enjoy his flashy takedowns when their targets are well-chosen, and consent to learn at his feet when he expounds on a recent book or obscure epoch. “[L]ove of country is most ennobling, I think, when it is most concrete, and when it rises up out [of] local loyalties, particular experiences, and natural customs,” he says, prefacing a delightful catalogue of American splendors that goes on for hundreds of words: “baseball, Ella Fitzgerald (especially the recordings done for Verve), and the voice of Reneé Fleming… the songs of Harold Arlen (America’s greatest songwriter), Cole Porter, and the Gershwins… The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Bogart, Ginger Rogers, and Ava Gardner (let me pause on that last one to heave a deep sigh).” This reads like a longer version of Woody Allen’s list of reasons to live in the movie Manhattan.
Anti-semites are “slobbering goblins;” the “Italian language has known no more brilliant master of both its native extravagances and its native subtleties” than Giacomo Leopardi; the whole project of analytic philosophy “rests upon irreparably flawed premises;” “I… hope to see puppies in paradise, and persevere in faith principally for that reason;” Sean Hannity speaks using “a high adenoidal voice, issuing from a somewhat oblate and suety face crowned by a chevelure a mite too bouffante;” and “really, even Bhutan cannot really be Bhutan indefinitely”… collating just this handful of fragments creates a sense of overheard, zanily brilliant, and amusing conversation that aptly characterizes The Dream-Child’s Progress. The book is perhaps best summarized as a partially transcribed oral history of the many denizens of Hart’s mind.
“It is tempting sometimes to read the whole history of modern continental philosophy as a cautionary fable regarding this divorce of reason from faith,” Hart writes in a late piece in The Dream-Child’s Progress. He plies this same theme in the essay that opens The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in Theology and Metaphysics, a dense book that puts Hart’s deeper gift on display. Titled “The Offering of Names: Metaphysics, Nihilism, and Analogy,” this first essay provides an opportunity to examine that gift in some detail.
Hart begins this story with an account of “two ontologies”: the first is a “metaphysics of participation,according to which all things are embraced in being as in the super-eminent source of all their transcendental perfections,” whereas the second is “a “univocal” ontology, which understands being as nothing but the bare category of existence, under which all substances (God no less than creatures) are severally placed.”
This is one of Hart’s central philosophical preoccupations, frequently and variously reiterated throughout his work: God’s being is of a different kind than a creature’s being, and God’s being is related to ours in a way that is made accessible to thought only by dint of theological analogy. This insight burns away acres of fatuous skeptical reasoning: if the target of an argument against God has all the qualities of a Neoplatonic demiurge, the hapless propounder has sown his seed on the wrong side of this essential distinction.
Hart sees the distinction; he is even transfixed by it. Our loss of analogy is one of the great ills that befell the post-Enlightenment West, coinciding with the gradual unveiling of Modernity’s “nihilistic terminus.” “The event of modernity within philosophy… consisted for Christian thought in the death of a certain vision of being: it was the disintegration of that radiant unity where the good, the true, and the beautiful coincided as infinite simplicity and fecundity, communicating themselves to a world whose only reality was its dynamic participation in their gratuity.”
The mid-20th-century German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, “recognizes that the particular pathology of modernity lies—to some very large degree—in the loss of a certain kind of wonder or perplexity, a certain sense of the abiding strangeness of being within the very ordinariness of beings.” Heidegger’s Being and Time is one of the great monuments of the phenomenological tradition, which began with the publication of Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations in 1900 and continues to the present day to yield fascinating works of sustained attention to the shape of things as they are “given” in direct experience.
Heidegger sought to investigate one of philosophy’s deepest questions—why is there something rather than nothing?—without an eye for answers, exactly, but in order to properly describe the nature of being as such. What does it mean to “be?” There is no better place to begin investigating the nature of being, he thought, than in human being—Dasein, “being there,” the only being for which its own being has become a problem.
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