David Bentley Hart. You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2022.
You Are Gods is a book which, it would not be controversial to say, invites the reader to consider and accept a number of highly contentious theological claims. This is unlikely to be disputed by the author himself, who is very much on the warpath against today’s Thomist revivalism. In this war, Hart is happy to look for ammunition where available, including in the armoury of Gnosticism, Situation Ethics, the Qu’ran and Hinduism, among others. His admission that he would have no objection that his work be subtitled “Studies in Vedantic Christianity’’ already gives us a taste of what is to come.
The book itself is a collection of six essays, each of which deals with different subjects, ranging from, inter alia, the theology of grace and creation, through ethics and Nicholas of Cusa, all the way to aesthetics and deification. It is an interesting yet complex work of theology and philosophy, which, despite its merits, contains high-level academic prose which will likely prove impenetrable for the general reader.
Before delving into the work’s contents, it is worth addressing a significant claim that the author makes about this book, namely, that he is advancing an “Eastern Christian view over against a particular set of Western traditions”. The fashion in which this debate is framed, especially given the context of ‘Vedantic Christianity’, makes it even more necessary to explore this point. As this work has been primarily reviewed by secular and Roman Catholic reviewers, the present review offers the perspective of a fellow Orthodox Christian who wishes to appraise Hart’s legitimacy in presenting his views as Orthodox.
It is regrettable that the East/West debate appears to have been framed in the usual yet problematic way for such discussions, which goes something like this: the “West”, in this instance exemplified by “traditionalist Catholic sects”, is obsessed with dogma and Thomas Aquinas’ systematic teachings, whereas the “East” is much more dogmatically flexible, indeed, almost a-dogmatic, and thus completely open to the incorporation of all manner of esoteric Christian, as well mainstream and marginal non-Christian teachings into its theology.
It must be clarified that this understanding of “openness” and “theological flexibility” in the East only appeared in the late nineteenth century in intellectual circles and was expanded in the twentieth century by the Paris school of theology to which the author frequently refers and which he openly reveres. This particular school of theology represented a rapture with all Orthodox theology before it, not just in the sense that Orthodoxy had not ever before treated theology as an academic discipline, but also due to the inclusion, with abandon, of gnostic and heterodox Christian (especially Meister Eckhart’s, the thinker with a rock-star status in the Paris school) and non-Christian ideas into its theology.
Suffice it to say, the theology of the Paris school has remained a largely academic phenomenon, and a very contentious one, especially outside the West. It must, therefore, be stated that the “Eastern View” provided by this work is primarily that of the academic theology of the Paris school and should not be treated as necessarily emanating from the tradition of Orthodox theology and as it existed before the twentieth century, or even today. None of this should be taken to mean that the book contains no traditionally Orthodox thought at all, but that great caution be exercised in this respect would be a wise recommendation for the Orthodox reader.
Turning to the book itself, Hart first addresses the resurrection of the phenomenon of ‘‘two-tier’’ Thomism, the division of the natural and supranatural, in what he expressively describes as the ‘’more militantly necrophile factions of traditionalist Catholicism’’. The point of contention is deification, and the claim that ‘‘grace is extrinsic to nature’’. The author offers a refutation of the same by way of an example of the transformation of a rabbit into a turnip by magical means-has the rabbit really been transformed, or rather, annihilated? Hart then continues by comparing Thomist view and the Orthodox view of human nature after the Fall, with the former stating that the Fall is a descent from a state of grace into a state of nature, and the latter proclaiming that humanity and the cosmos fell into an unnatural state of death and decay.
As far as grace and nature themselves are concerned, the author argues with some conviction that there is no German Idealism-style dialectical tensions between the two, which would make them incompatible direct opposites. So far, so good. However, the author reaches highly provocative conclusions, helpfully listed in the introduction itself, which are clearly at odds with traditional Christian teaching. As these provide both a taste of the book in general, and a summary of its core points in particular, it is worth quoting at length:
The sole sufficient natural end of all spiritual creatures is the supernatural, and grace is nothing but the necessary liberation of all creatures for their natural ends.
Nature stands in relation to supernature as (in Aristotelian terms) prime matter to form. Nature in itself has no real existence and can have none; it is entirely an ontological patiency before the formal causality of supernature, and only as grace can nature possess any actuality at all.
No spiritual creature could fail to achieve its naturally supernatural end unless God himself were the direct moral cause of evil in that creature, which is impossible. Conversely, God saves creatures by removing extrinsic, physical (that is, non-moral) impediments to their natural union with him.
God became human so that humans should become God. Only the God who is always already human can become human. Only a humanity that is always already divine can become God.’’
God is all that is. Whatever is not God exists as becoming divine, and as such is God in the mode of what is other than God. But God is not “the other” of anything.’’
These conclusions are radically different from the Orthodox understanding deification and the role of grace in salvation, and have much more in common with pantheism. Indeed, if it indeed the case that humanity has fallen from its natural state, which is in grace, how can it be argued that humanity is already divine? What did the Fall change, if nothing really changed? Furthermore, if humanity is indeed already divine then the process of deification is rendered superfluous. The author clarifies this by saying these arguments are to be considered in the context of the Thomist concept of natura pura, which cannot be right, since, if deification is something for which we already have an ingrained desire, then it must be somehow part of our nature, which means human nature must already be divine. However, it remains unclear why this must be the case and why it follows that, in order for deification to be possible, there must be no difference between nature and supernature, and nature and grace?
It would seem that author has more or less painted himself into a corner, not just with the rabbit/turnip example, but also with assertions such as: “whatever is wholly extrinsic to a human nature must remain extrinsic forever” and “we can become only what we are”, which are not statements one can easily find in any of the writings of the Holy Fathers. It is unfortunate that the author has chosen this path to refuting the Thomist notion of potentia obœdientialis.
There would have been no need to seek for Vedantic or pantheistic solutions to a problem which St Gregory of Nyssa and St Maximos the Confessor, to whom the author refers at the end of his essays, have already comprehensively addressed, and who avoid the pitfall of saying, on the one hand, that grace and nature are completely incompatible, and on the other, the pantheistic claim that there is no distinction between nature and grace, and man and God. The Orthodox way of dealing with this issue is the energy/essence distinction, which clearly explains how it is possible for us to direct communion with God and for our nature to interact with God’s grace and be deified, in a way that the clear distinction between man and God is nonetheless preserved and maintained.
Hart then deals with Nicholas of Cusa’s take on infinite desire. Put in simple terms, Cusa’s view is that man possesses an ingrained desire for the infinite, and this is what human reason is striving towards- the infinite, which this is God. An analogy is made between Christ’s human and divine natures and man and God. This is expressed in Hegelian terms, namely, that Christ’s human nature represents natural, human reason, and His divine nature represents absolute reason; thus Christ is the perfect example of the unity of human and Divine intellect, referred to as Absolute Spirit, and the end-goal of humanity. It is the author’s view that:
in Christ the fullness of human nature is revealed precisely to the degree that it perfectly reveals the divine nature of which it is the image, and that human spirit achieves the highest expression of its nature only to the degree that it is perfectly united with divine Spirit.
The author then concludes that we can only be said to exist as rational creatures by being in communion with God and by becoming divine ourselves. He then re-iterates that we must be able to become divine because we are divine from the very first. It is not clear whether the author is suggesting that Nicholas of Cusa was a proto-Hegelian thinker or whether this is a Hegelian reading of his work. A further question that needs to be asked is whether it is helpful to compare man’s fallen intellect, defined by passions and limitations, to that of Christ’s, and make analogies on this basis. The main issue, of course, remains the necessity of the existence axiom that man is already, in some way, divine. Unless we assume this to be so, which would be contrary to traditional Christian teaching, but which the author does, then many of these analogies become rather problematic indeed.
The essay on aesthetics deserves a special mention and is undoubtedly the best in the book, although it too is not free from controversial positions and, in this instance, political vitriol. Hart adroitly scrutinises the ubiquitous modern assumption that ethics and aesthetics are quite distinct fields that only ever interact rarely, and only accidentally at that. It is aptly pointed out that Plato’s Symposium is, indeed, is as much of a text on morality as it is one on aesthetics, to the extent that there is, in fact, and indivisible unity of the two at play.
Hart places the blame for the change in this attitude, and the present estrangement of aesthetics and ethics that is found in Western thought today, on Kant and the forced divorce he instigated between these two concepts, which he achieved by his creation of the distinct realms of pure reason, practical reason and judgement. At some point, aesthetic judgement reaches its limit and cannot offer a guide to the ethical or even less so, lead us to God. The author convincingly contrasts this view with the classical one, namely, that it is the human experience that these realms are very much in a complementary relationship and that the Unity of the True, Good and Beautiful constitutes “the transcendental horizon of consciousness”. Beauty is, in fact, the most morally pure concept out of the three—the True and the Good can be desirable for consequential reasons, whilst beauty is “the very splendour of transcendentality as such, morally pure because it is never reducible to a mere moral purpose, or to any purpose beyond itself”.
The Beautiful connects us with the transcendent by not just elevating our minds and commanding admiration, but by also requiring us to make judgements, and engaging our minds in critical discernment. At this at this stage the morality and ethics become intimately involved with beauty- by passing judgements, we open ourselves to being judged for the same by others. A judgement we pronounce is a judgement by which we shall be judged, and a disinterested judgement that does not follow a set standard is not possible. By judging, we reveal who we are and what our standard is. The failure to recognise beauty leads to beauty passing a judgement on us for our failure to see it.
It is deeply regrettable that then the author departs from what was an excellent defence of the unity of beauty and morality in order to comment on the immigration policy of arresting asylum seekers under the Trump administration, in which the President and his followers are described as:
our foul, degenerate, vicious, contemptible, worthless, brutishly stupid sociopath and dropsical orange goblin of a president and the little horde of oleaginous fascists who slithered out of the spiritual sewer by his side.
This ignores the fact that such policies were also employed by Democratic administrations in the past and has no special significance to Donald Trump.
It is clear that this is put forward as an example of the application of a joint aesthetic and moral judgement, and those who disagree with this comprehensive condemnation are relegated to the status of ‘children of the devil’. Without wishing to make a political point, the reader is referred to other examples of the exercise of judgement in the book, as applied to Rilke’s poetry and the Gospel of Matthew, which do possess a far superior explicatory value of the subject-matter at hand than the above quotation.
The author concludes that our encounters with beauty are always encounters with judgement and delight, and by extension, with divine truths; an interpretation against which it would be difficult to argue.
It is in relations to ethics where the author’s syncretistic credentials really come to the fore. Christ, the Qu’ran and the Vedas are all on an equal footing when dealing with the question of God’s apparent silence in history. Most of the world fails to listen to God’s voice. What does it mean to always tell the truth in such a world? Kant’s deontological ethical system is hereby put on trial- how can a person always tell the truth when there would be an evil outcome? The author asks, rhetorically, whether the facts of our evil reality, about which we are called to tell the truth, in fact amount to ontological falsehoods.
What follows is the classical critique of Situation Ethics vis-à-vis Kant’s deontological ethics. Hart, however, does not clearly commit to either Kantian or Situation ethics, although he clearly prefers the latter in a modified form. He gives the emotive example, which is usually used to great effect in High-School and Sixth-Form debates, of the Nazis knocking on the door requesting information about Anne Frank’s whereabouts, for the Kantian and the Thomist to conclude that, due to lying being a sin or a violation of the categorical imperative, one must give the Nazis the information they require. According to the author, any person with a conscience would ‘lie’ in this situation, and that it is a pretence that we would not. There can often be a difference between what is true and what is factual. Indeed, as the author puts it: “sometimes facts are the lies this world tells about the nature of reality, and so to speak those facts are to serve the father of lies rather than God”. To this he places the law of love in opposition, which is “a kind of anarchic escape from all such rules into a realm of direct responsibility before reality in its transcendent plenitude”.
However beautiful and desirable this transcendental version of Situation Ethics may appear, it is difficult to see its application in the, unfortunately, fallen and evil reality which we inhabit. It also requires that we reject this reality as an illusion, a feat the average reader might find rather difficult to achieve.
The author’s take on the concerns about the return of Gnosticism, a subject which also pre-occupied Erich Voegelin in relation to its secular manifestations, is that the term Gnosticism was misappropriated and misused by proponents of German idealism. In fact, what is called Gnosticism has always been present within Christianity, which he traces back to the apocalypse. He correctly identifies Hegel and Heidegger as being important thinkers within this tradition, but are also behind what the author calls the “usurpation of Christian theology by its own double phantom”, an alternative theological system based on Hegel’s philosophy and dialectical thinking.
Hart posits that all ancient belief systems were in some sense ‘gnostic’. He then proceeds in providing details of such systems and their similarities with early Christian thought, going through the Gospels in the process, only to then return to Hegel and Schelling and their dualism, and analyses it in this light. We are then invited to consider that, if we find it difficult to define the term “Gnosticism”, would we find it equally as difficult to define the term “orthodoxy”? How do we tell the ‘true’ Christian story from all ‘false’ ones? It appears to the author that this a difficult nut to crack, as, apparently many of the teachings we now hold dear and consider Orthodox are, in fact, incompatible with what Paul believed happened in Christ. This is, of course, a radical claim but it is certainly not the most radical to which we are about to be exposed.
It is the author’s position that when it comes to these matters the defined dogmas of the Church are of little assistance. The author then proceeds to offer a defence for the ancient heretic Arius. This defence is worth quoting to elucidate the author’s attitude and basis for his arguments:
Arius was in many respects a profoundly conservative theologian; certainly, in the context of Alexandrian theology, he was a more faithful representative of many of the most venerable schools of Trinitarian thought than were the champions of the Nicene settlement… the Arians and Semi-Arians were theological conservatives, not wild innovators.
This, of course, runs contrary to the Orthodox Church’s dogmatic position. Indeed, the Orthodox Church re-iterates the eternal condemnation of Arius and his teachings annually on the first Sunday of Great Lent, known as the “Sunday of Orthodoxy.”
It is not surprising that Hart seeks to portray the defined dogmas of the Church as generally unhelpful in these debates and of having dealt with specific matters in relation to specific theological controversies, without much to say beyond that. It is indeed the system of dogmatic theology that not only excludes ‘gnostic’ thought, but it is also there to prevent any attempts at revisionism, re-discovery or ‘remembering what has been forgotten’’. A departure from, and a rejection of, the infallibility of dogma, is the only way to engage in these activities.
You are Gods is a work that would be of great interest to the student of theology, and it is also one that opens up a number of important debates which are worth having, and it already appears to have stirred up the Thomist circles which Hart scrutinises.
From an Orthodox point of view, especially for the Orthodox in the West, this work can serve as a turning point and have wide-raging consequences. If the faithful heirs and successors to the Paris school of theology are now openly turning to non-Christian religions for inspiration and argumentation, has the time not come to admit that this theological school has finally exhausted itself? Or, could it be, that this is, in fact, the Paris school’s moment of natural consummation, in that it was never truly Orthodox at all?
The post The End of “Orthodox” Theology in the West? A Review of David Bentley Hart’s “You Are Gods” appeared first on VoegelinView.
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