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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Though Hart is deeply sympathetic to Heidegger’s impulse to restore a direct acquaintance with the strangeness and wonder of Being (from which strangeness we’re cut off by the interpolation of concepts, qualities, and all attempts to fix being into a static property that a thing can possess or lack), he regrets to inform us that Heidegger remains bound to his nihilistic fate; he gives us a notion of being “so entirely pure of determination as to be convertible with nothing. It is simply the manifestation of the manifest, the inexhaustible movement of manifestation itself, the silence whose self-effacement allows beings (in their absolute difference from being) to sound forth.”
What prevents Heidegger from escaping Modernity’s “nihilistic terminus” is his inability to accept and incorporate “the most remarkable aspect of the history of Western metaphysics: to wit, its Christian interruption.” What could Heidegger have gained from this interruption? An understanding of “being as truly ontologically different from beings.” “In scholastic terms, Heidegger has merely elevated possibility over actuality,” and he has failed to address the “essential mystery: How is it that either possibility or actuality is?”
God, then, could have saved Heidegger: “Modern philosophy’s forgetfulness of being is nothing other than a forgetfulness of Christian thought.” Christianity restores to philosophy a sense of theological analogy, which Hart explicates as denominating “a likeness always embraced within and exceeded by a greater unlikeness,” according to the Fourth Lateran Council. Analogy shows us “that God is what he is, while never allowing us to imagine we comprehend what it is we have said,” Hart says, citing Maximus the Confessor.
So Hart regales us: here are grand narratives, high level revisionist intellectual histories, and reiterations of his essential ontological theme. What becomes clear through his 200-word sentences and page-long paragraphs is the appropriateness of his inclusion in that great garrulous tradition in American letters. Because Hart does not proceed as some ordinary plodder might, by the steady accretion of claims and propositions, he takes a far more interesting road instead.
What I want to suggest is that Hart’s great gift is his possession of astounding perceptions, and his best work is not in logical argumentation per se (though he is hardly wanting of logical chops), but in articulating the contents of his grand analogical vision.
Under this interpretation, Hart’s ceaseless repetitions (each time with slight variations) aren’t lapses of writerly economy, but expressions of a long, assiduous labor to bring out as many glorious aspects and ramifications as he can of his analogical perception. His intuition gallops across the range of human thinking and longing, mapped over decades of wild omnidirectional exploration, in search of examples and illustrations. He foregoes secondary literature to offer his own unique readings of canonical figures, mangling some of them badly enough to have earned the scorn of specialists who confine themselves to a narrower plot of intellectual realty.
His declarations over the history of ideas are cocksure, as full of gusto as his rages and raptures over cultural ephemera. Here, for instance, he reaches an almost prophetic confidence: “Christian thought… in its long history of metaphysical speculation… was in fact so profound a disruption of many of the most basic premises of philosophy, and so audacious a rescue of many of philosophy’s truths from the impotent embrace of mere metaphysical ambition, that it is doubtful yet that philosophy can grasp what has happened to it, or why now it cannot be anything but an ever more indignant and self-tormenting flight from that interruption.”
His direct progenitor in this is, of course, G.K. Chesterton, particularly as the great Catholic literary critic Hugh Kenner saw him. Kenner wrote of Chesterton: “His especial gift was his metaphysical intuition of being; his especial triumph was his exploitation of paradox to embody that intuition.”
Hart’s prose enters the territory of paradox whenever he cleaves to his analogical vision; there, we see—with him—“the actual movement of our being’s likeness to God within an always greater unlikeness,” and a God whose being is such that he cannot be said to “exist” in the way that other beings do.
I am tempted to apply Hugh Kenner’s assessment of Chesterton’s vocation to David Bentley Hart, as well: “He is not essentially a combatant; he is essentially a contemplative.” This is borne out in Hart’s seeming inability to respond to substantive criticisms without resorting to narrativizing or psychologizing his opponent, as he so often does with, for instance, the philosopher Edward Feser. It is unclear to me whether his work actually has any natural partners in conversation—but then again, perhaps it doesn’t need them. Great stories are not amended or refuted; they are only replaced.
Then, too, rhetoric and beauty precede logic, as Hart claims of Christian thought in The Beauty of the Infinite. It “stands before the world principally with the story it tells concerning God and creation, the form of Christ, the loveliness of the practice of Christian charity—and the richness of its idiom.”
A great story, a grand vision, a set of metaphors— and Jorge Luis Borges reminds us in an early essay that “Any metaphor, as beguiling as it may be, is a possible experience, and the difficulty lies not in its invention… but in achieving it in a way that astonishes the reader.” Hart wants us to see a bit of what he sees, and the experiences he offers us are frequently astonishing. In his care we return to the revival tent, to the smashed raft, to the albino whale, and to the raptures of the unbounded American imagination. In his books, the tradition of great American garrulousness lives on.
Martyn Wendell Jones received his B.A. from Wheaton College and his M.A. from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. His work has appeared in print or online in Commonweal, Books & Culture, First Things, Open Letters Monthly, and numerous other publications.
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