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Ökumenik, Konfessionskunde


Hart, David Bentley


A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays.


Grand Rapids u. a.: Wm. B. Eerdmans 2016. XII, 297 S. Kart. US$ 35,00. ISBN 978-0-8028-7264-7.


Ola Sigurdson

The Eastern Orthodox theologian, philosopher and cultural commentator David Bentley Hart, who has taught at a number of pres­-tigious universities in the U. S., is the author of quite a few books. Previously, I have read The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (2004), in which a dialogue or perhaps rather a confrontation is staged between traditional Christian Platonist theol-ogy and current critical theory, such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Deleuze and others. This is in many ways a brilliant book, densely written and highly interesting, but I must confess I did not see this coming: the stylistic talent and – more often than not – acerbic prose of H.’s occasional writing. Maybe a reader of his philosophical treatise The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (2014) would be more aware of this; from reading a few introductory pages, in which H. denounces the understanding of God as ›a being‹ rather than the more classical ›being itself‹ in the current de-bate about atheism, one suspects that this he is someone with a talent for understatement and satire. But nevertheless, A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays, has been a rare experience to read, combining as it does deep literary as well as philosophical and theological learning with H.’s both passionate and ironic observations on the state of quite a lot of different things.
H. is a columnist for the U. S. journal First Things, and I suspect that this where a lot of the 51, mostly short, essays (plus a coda) of A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays have been previously pub-lished. In his preface, H., in a common trope, compares them to ›songs written on leaves and then carried away to become the ludibria of the rushing winds‹. Even if true, however, ›leaves‹ might be an understatement to describe what is going on in this collection, as it gives quite an extraordinary insight what H.’s philosophy and theology might mean in more concrete terms. H. is philosophically a platonic Christian with an appreciation of classical metaphysics; politically an ›anarcho-monarchist‹ and a conservative who might appear radical in his anti-capitalism; religiously Eastern Orthodox with an ecumenical appreciation that includes Gnosticism and Hinduism and Paganism; aesthetically someone who prefers the sweet melancholy of English, French and Russian poetry and prose. If his The Beauty of the Infinite is admirable in its lucid but mostly abstract argument, A Splendid Wickedness truly shows what this might mean translated into a way of life. Even if many of these essays treat subjects that might well appear quite theoretical or even speculative (because that is what they are), they are mir-rored in H.’s own existential meditations. A few of the more abstract arguments of the collection could be found in the reoccurring theme of H. being woken at night by his dog Roland’s philosophical musings on consciousness, materialism and free will. To H., this seems not to be only a form of making an abstract argument more accessible; there is in the essays an argument and even a sensibility for the spiritual kinship between human beings and animals, in­cluding, of course, dogs.
The impression from his more theoretical work that H. is an at­tentive reader of philosophy and theology is reinforced by his read­ings of Russian literature –Tolstoy, Dostoevsky but mainly Nabokov. He reads Don Juan as a measure of the spiritual temperature of our contemporary age: so petit bourgeois that Don Juan’s ›splendid wickedness‹ becomes impossible. There are a few (funny) essays on his one pagan great-uncle Aloysius, some poems by a mock French poet and a film script for ›the perfect Catholic film‹. I am not equally impressed by all of his essays in A Splendid Wickedness, however. There is a longish essay on Heidegger, »A Philosopher in the Twilight« that seems to me to be neither here nor there. It is not without insight, to be sure, but in this essayistic format without footnotes it becomes a bit imprecise. An emphatic and ironic rebuke of one of his secularist critics in »Gods and Gopniks« as ›colossally silly‹ might be true but presupposes some additional insight into the context, not given by the essay, so as not to appear overbearing. And his dog Roland’s critique of Freud’s metapsychology and what he calls ›the Freudian superstition‹ in »Roland on Free Will« gives quite a superficial picture of what Freud was up to. How come the intellectual and religious generosity that H. extends to so many different philosophical and religious traditions could not also be extended to psychoanalysis? And how could H. (or Roland the dog) not see the af-finity between the Freudian death-drive and the ›splendid wickedness‹ that is a returning theme? At the same time I must confess that I thoroughly appreciated his critique of Jung in »Jung’s Therapeutic Gnosticism«. But H. is not only an attentive reader but also an attentive observer of nature – I have learned that New England autumns are more beautiful than European! – and sports – baseball is not only »America’s main contribution to civilization« but also »an instance of what the later Neoplatonists called ›theurgy‹.«
The main target of H.’s essays are, however, neither this or that thinker, but rather the mechanistic and soulless homo faber of modern society. This idea of the essence of being human is the main obstacle of apprehending and appreciating the immortal longings that, H. thinks, makes us human in the first place. It is through beauty that we foremost perceive this longing for transcendence, and beauty is directly or indirectly the topic of most of H.’s essays. This is a theme – no, the theme – that conjoins literature, philosophy and theology. Consequently, he is very aware of style and luckily, both for the matter in question as well as for the enjoyment of reading his essays, he is not only aware of this but also able to modulate style according to topic. H.’s ability to combine profound meditations with a light touch reminds me of Kierkegaard (an author oddly absent from these essays) who once suggested that »true earnestness is the unity of jest and earnestness«. H.’s acerbic comments and his drastic comparisons are often hilarious. Even if the tone of A Splendid Wickedness is a bit autumnal, it does not leave me in a melancholic mood. Well aware that this might not be the utmost criterion in philosophical theology, reading these es­says made me happy. How often do you get the chance to say this of an academic writer?