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Hart, David Bentley
The Beauty of the Infinite. The Aesthetics of Christian Truth.
Grand Rapids-Cambridge: Eerdmans 2003. XIV, 448 S. gr.8. Geb. US$ 55,00. ISBN 0-8028-1254-6.
It is an erudite book and, within the confines of a - by now - orthodox agenda, ambitious. David Bentley Hart is magisterially dense and opaque like John Milbank and other conservative postmodern theologians who combine the postmodern attack on the Enlightenment, Theism, Subjectivity with a Barthian-Balthasarian reassertion of Christian Dogmatics, only Augustine is replaced by Gregory of Nyssa. H. is writing as an Eastern Orthodox theologian. There is a Radically Orthodox mode of highjacking the arsenal of the poststructuralists for the sake of orthodox theology and firing broadsides against modernity, humanism and capitalism with postmodern artillery. Here we find labyrinth of sermon, dialectical reversals - oscillating between vigorous polemic, and rehearsals of wide but obscure learning. The writing is vigorous - sometimes too polemical, e. g., the eighteenth century infatuation with Longinus's distinction between the beautiful and the sublime (15). But there is also much substantial theology - especially an interesting discussion of the great Donald Mackinnon and the profound and incisive contribution of Nicholas Lash in a consideration of salvation. H. has produced a substantial apology for Christian theology against its Postmodern despisers. He writes: I presume that a credible defense of Christian rhetoric can be undertaken only from within Christian doctrine; because the Church makes its appeal to the world first by pursuing its own dogmatics, by narrating and renarrating itself with ever greater fullness, hoping all the while that the intrinsic delightfulness (and of course, truthfulness) of this practice will draw others into its circle of discourse. (30)
But to do this is to assume the idiosyncratic historiography and ecclesiology of Radical Orthodoxy and its bizarre view of the secular as satanic. Moreover, is it true that the modern world has accepted Nietzsche's Will to Power beyond the fantasies of the ageing avant-garde? The closest analogues of Nietzsche's vitalistic antifoundationalism, National Socialism and Stalinist-Leninist Marxism, were signally defeated in the 20th century. Those early 20th century secular prophets of the end of Occidental bourgeois society were unduly pessimistic about the powers or reason and co-operation. And yet H. takes such pessimistic account of nihilism as the core of Western thought as foundational. One might also remark that the parameters of Heidegger's own aesthetics, like that of Adorno, is formed by the categories and Geist of German Idealism.
H. develops his counter Nietzschean-Heideggerian dogmatica minora around the topics of Trinity, creation, salvation and eschatology. Learned and cultured. But also infuriating if the reader cannot assume the postmodern premises. And though H. draws on a rich theological tradition and is often illuminating, the rhetoric can be less than helpful. We are told that Nietzsche's metaphysic is more crudely monistic than Hegel, and no less dependent on the circular myth of negation (155). But even his most visceral opponents must admit that Hegel's philosophy of Absolute Subjectivity is not a crude monism and the principle of negation as a motor of dialectic is explicitly non mythical, a position that Hegel would denigrate as Romantic. What does it mean to accuse Nietzsche of being even cruder in his monism? Again on p.273 we have neither the hegelian Concept, presiding emptily over the diremptive dialectics of Geist, nor that of the emanative abyss of the One. Nietzschean postmodernism's "affirmation" might just as well be oblivion of the One of Plotinus, turned unrelatedly inward (Enneads 6.8.17) or of Aristotle's prime mover; Dionysius cannot be concerned - in the midst of being's wanton and extravagant play - with lost sleep (272). Yet one has to ask: what Gregory of Nyssa's theology would have looked like without Plotinus, especially the great treatise on the Will (n. b.) of the One- or for that matter, with book lambda of Aristotle's prime mover? To refer to the Freedom of the supreme principle of Plotinus as an abyss or Aristotle's concept of Divine noesis as oblivion is either crass polemic or crude error. On Heidegger we read of his fabled Ereignis (219) his stunning vulgarity on actus (219), his concatenation of wild assertions (21) - yet H. is biting the hand which is feeding his own theology. The very project of The Beauty of the Infinite presupposes the adequacy of the procrustean Heideggerian account of the history of metaphysics. It is not clear to me whether these polemics are the fruit of admirable academic verve and brio or a descent into journalism.
The schematic quasi-heideggerian historiography tends to marginalise the powerful impact of Byzantine thought on the West. From Eriugena to Cusa, Western Christians have been deeply influenced by Eastern Christianity. On p. 95 H. claims that Nietzsche sees Christianity in terms of the still emerging discourse of German liberal Protestantism. Melanchton's humanistic legacy and the persistence of the German mystical tradition in Bild speculation of German Idealism means that much of the theology of German Idealism is rather close to Byzantine sources. Lessing's Erziehung des Menschengeschlechtes is a striking index of the influence of the Eastern Christian tradition. The centrality of the concept of Bild: Einbildungskraft, Bildung, etc. is an index of a strikingly Byzantine or iconic element in German thought of the late 18th and early 19th century. The emphasis upon the aesthetic in this period consciously fuses Hellenic and Christian themes in a rather Byzantine manner: Das älteste Systemprogramm des deutschen Idealismus (in Hegel's handwriting) states that beauty unites all the ideas. Schelling presents art as the expression of the Absolute and the apex of thought in System des Transcendentalen Idealismus. Perhaps one might observe that it is no accident that Hans Urs von Balthasar, a talisman in H.'s project, started his career with German Idealism in his early book Apokalypse der Deutschen Seele (1937-39).
It is not true that H. could only have learned from the Orthodox tradition that theology begins only in philokalia: the "love of beauty". There is an Anglo-Saxon philokalia in the Cambridge Platonists, Thomas Traherne up to Coleridge, Wordsworth, Ruskin and Hopkins, in which the concerns of Theology extend beyond the Church into nature. Kallistos Ware appeals to Traherne (1636-74) as a useful guide to the Orthodox tradition (The Orthodox Way, London: Mowbrays, 1979, 24). For Traherne the world is a form of divine disclosure. The chapel in Emmanuel College Cambridge has a stained glass window portrait of Origen.
The West has not always been oblivious to the beauty of the Byzantine tradition but has drawn upon it in crucial periods of its own history. Although H. sniffs at the Qabbalism of the Florentine Academy ( 61) Ficino was correct to say that the Spirit of Plato, having dwelt in Byzantium, until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, flew to Italy. The role of George Gesmistus Pletho, adviser to the Byzantine Emperor at the Council of Florence 1438-1445 is telling for the Western Renaissance (according to Ficino, the inspiration for Cosimo Medici to found the Platonic Academy), and indeed, the origins of modernity. The Patriarch and Emperor visited Florence for the council of the Eastern and Western Churches in 1439. According to legend this event is captured beautifully in the frescos of Benozzo Gozzoli in the Medici Palace in Florence. Whether the depiction is literal or not, the Medicis certainly saw themselves as contributing to a fertile interaction between Eastern and Western Christianity. The enormous upsurge in human creative subjectivity in Florence of the 15th century was deeply indebted (however paradoxically) to Byzantium. Byzantine theologians were, of course, traditionally suspicious of the humanism of Hellenism - as the fate of figures like Johannes Italos testify. And, indeed in H.'s book we find little account of human creativity.
H. is impressive when discussing the Divine epiphany in a theocentric manner, but gives little insight into the human perception and appropriation of that revelation. Perhaps it is the problem of the truth of Christian aesthetics which he needs to address rather than the aesthetics of a presumed and immunised Christian truth. But this is to query the whole antifoundationalist post-metaphysical theological project. H. appeals to wonders whether ultimately the traditional Orthodox hostility to imagination has forced H.'s hand into an unnecessarily rigid position.
The book is attractively produced. A bibliography in this learned and wide ranging work would have been helpful.