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The Beauty of the Infinite :A Review

I posted this at Amazon over a year ago, but recently I’ve noticed this book getting a fair bit of attention on different blogs, so I thought it might be worth duplicating here. Against the stream of most who have read this book I must name myself as one of Hart’s detractors. His book, though an incredible achievement and in many ways beautiful and groundbreaking is, in my opinion significantly flawed.

This work is a remarkable and groundbreaking piece of theological work if it is anything. David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian offers here a potent critique of postmodernism through a Christian theological aesthetics.

In brief, Hart’s argument is that Christian thought offers a rhetoric of peace which stands in contrast to Modernity and Postmodernity (indeed all autonomous philosophies) which propound a rhetoric of ontological violence. Rhetoric is a central theme that unifies Hart’s work. Foundational to his argument is that all metaphysic’s, ontologies and narratives must eventually resort to an “appeal to beauty” to legitimate their claims. Claims to truth are not based on some myth of disinterested rationality, but rather are rhetorical constructions that seek to persuade others on the basis of their aesthetic appeal.

On this basis, then Hart goes on to demonstrate that Christian thought offers the most compelling account of beauty conceivable. He argues that the Trinitarian God in his dynamic infinity is pure beauty. To establish this, Hart spends the bulk of his work articulating a dogmatica minora focusing on the doctrines of the Trinity, Creation, Salvation and Eschaton. Hart focuses first on the doctrine of the Trinity, arguing that because God is Triune he is infinitely beautiful, being a perichoresis of love, joy, delight and feasting. He develops his doctrine of the Trinity largely by focusing on the nature of the divine perichoresis as infinite peace and plenitude from which an economy of mutuality and self-donation emerge. Cutting against the grain of much of contemporary theology, Hart rejects any theology of divine passibility or temporality, arguing instead for the classical notions of impassibility and timeless eternity. This stems from his understanding of divine infinity as the lack of all boundaries in God. (See below for more on this).

Following on the heals of this discussion, Hart moves into a fascinating discussion of Creation. He situates the doctrine of creation firmly in the context of the perichoretic dynamism of the Trinitarian life which freely and unnecessarily flows forth in creating a world out of nothing save Triune love. An excellent discussion of the concept of the gift follows. The gift, much debated in phenomenological discussion has become quite an issue of controversy for theology and philosophy. Basically, critics of the possibility of giving the gift argue that all giving is motivated by the desire for the gift to be reciprocated and thus is not truly and economy of gift, but one of exchange. Hart does a good job of exploding this argument by showing how thoroughly Kantian it is. The fundamental element of the gift lies not in some subjective motivation, but in the act of giving itself. The desire for reciprocation does not invalidate the gift, because the gift has been given. In fact the desire for reciprocation is actually part of the economy of gift which is inherently erotic rather than apathetic. Hart goes on to offer an interesting discussion of Creation as participating in the music that is God’s Trinitarian life (on the point the work of Robert Jenson is perhaps a bit more helpful and coherent).

Hart then goes on to discuss Salvation. He offers a great discussion of salvation as recapitulation in which God’s Triune movement toward the world in Christ Also included here is a fascinating treatment of the atonement through the work of Anselm. Hart argues quite cogently that Anselm’s “satisfaction theory” of the atonement is not the product of Anselm himself, but of his interpreters. Rather, Hart shows, Anselm’s doctrine of the atonement is centered on an economy of gift wherein God’s self-donation in Christ exceeds any debt that could have been counted against us. Hart’s arguments are interesting, and I think very possibly correct.

Finally, Hart offers some brief reflections on eschatology. He argues that Christian eschatology affirms created reality and exhibits the infinite beauty of God in the final coming of the kingdom. There is also some very interesting discussion of hell. It seems that Hart very much wants to hold to some kind of universalism, but shies away from it out of deference to the Orthodox tradition. The book concludes with some final discussions of the nature of Christianity as a rhetoric of peace in the context of Postmodernity and the possibilities of the church’s practice of the peace of Christ as being a viable alternative in a world of violence.

There is certainly much to commend in this incredibly creative and innovative book. The following are some of the major features of this book that I found helpful:

  • The way that Hart establishes Christianity as a form of rhetorical persuasion is very helpful. Understanding the nature of Christian proclamation and divesting Christianity from the myth of disinterested rationality is absolutely essential for the church to proclaim the gospel in the postmodern context.
  • Hart’s formulation of Trinitarian doctrine highlights perhaps better than any other work the radical implications of the Trinity as the fullness of peace. Understanding that peace is the most ontologically primary reality and violence is nothing more than the privation of God’s greater peaceableness has huge implications for Christian theology and practice. Since peace is the form of Christ and the way in which he confronts evil through the cross and resurrection, so our lives muse engage evil in the same way, not capitulating to violence, but embodying God’s order of Trinitarian peace animated by the hope of the resurrection. 
  • The musical ontology that Hart develops is also a wonderful image that I think merits much further reflection in Trinitarian discussions. It also offers the fascinating opportunity to expound a theological aesthetics that is not primarily visual, but aural, that is to say musical. 
  • As mentioned above, Hart’s work on the concept of the gift is superb. I think he has decisively turned the philosophical debates about the possibility of the gift by taking it out of a Kantian context. 
  • Finally, Hart’s treatment of Nietzsche is quite engaging and helpful. I think he is quite right to recognize that Nietzsche is the paradigmatic postmodern philosopher and indeed the most radical one of them all. Hart’s critique of his is also incisive.

Nevertheless, despite this book’s many strengths and contributions, however I see a number of crucial problems that attend Hart’s work as well.

 

 

  • Perhaps most central is Hart’s definition of divine infinity which is largely negative: the lack of any boundaries. This militates against a more positive and biblical definition which would hold that divine infinity is the overcoming of all boundaries. Hart’s missing this crucial detail is what debilitates him in his discussion of impassibility and timelessness. These notions are of course, thoroughly Greek in their origin. They have no biblical support whatsoever (on this see Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology: The Triune God and Colin Gunton, Act and Being: Toward a Doctrine of the Divine Attributes). Hart’s understanding of divine infinity in negative terms keeps him from being able to embrace the biblical descriptions of God as suffering and as being temporal. If Hart were able to realize that divine infinity is God’s overcoming of all boundaries it would become clear that God’s experience of time and suffering does not detract from his infinity, but rather his infinity expresses itself precisely by fully experiencing suffering and overcoming it (in the death and resurrection of Christ) and by bringing history to its eschatological destiny through time. If Hart could make this connection, I think it would alleviate most or all of the problems and contradictions that attend his project.
  • Related to the previous issue, there is a troubling lack of serious engagement with Scripture and particuarly the biblical narratives of the workd of Christ that pervades Hart’s account. The incarnation and the theology of the cross only come up occasionally in Hart’s treatment and are then artificially circumscribed within Hart’s convoluted Greek notions of divine impassibility and timelessness. Hart even goes so far to make the absurd argument that the Son is, in some real sense from all eternity past incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth. Hart also engages in a rather heinous misreading of Cyril attempting to argue that in his human career, Christ only suffered in his humanity with his diety remaining unmoved and impassible. This neo-Nestorian Christology represents a horrible failing on Hart’s part to reckon with all the truths that Athansius, Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa formulated so well regarding the humanity of Christ. The importance of this Christological failure in Hart’s account can hardly be overstated.
  • All of this is symptomatic of the fact that Hart has not been able to totally divest himself of the influence of neoplatonic though and its notions of divinity. Hart is at his best when he is expounding the dynamic nature of the Trinitarian life of eternal joy, plenitude, and peace. But always on the heals of such reflections he ends up oscillating back to neoplatonic notions of divinity which subvert his desire for a truly dynamic (indeed truly beautiful) Trinitarian aesthetic. 
  • Another puzzling issue that attends this book is the rhetoric that Hart employs in his own attempt to make his case. I find it utterly ironic that a book dedicated to establishing Christianity as a rhetoric of peace would employ the kind of rhetorical violence that Hart seems to exult in. He is constantly demeaning and virulently mocking his dialog partners. Indeed this often becomes a substitute for actual dialog with them. One is left wondering if all postmodern philosophers are really as dumb as Hart makes them out to be. Or perhaps he has not read them closely enough?
  • There is also an unfortunate neglect of ecclesiology in this book. When Hart does reflect on the nature and purpose of the church, his reflections are helpful, but they are far to brief and vague to be of any real aid to those seeking to integrate his theological claims with Christian practice (and the implications are quite important, so this is no small flaw).  
  • I was also thoroughly disappointed to see Hart constantly backpedal on the ethical implications of his ontology of peace. After arguing brilliantly for the ontological priority of peace to violence and the full reality of the cross and resurrection of Christ as forbidding violence, he then goes on to blast any form of pacifism and argue instead that we should simply seek to limit coercion to a minimum (p. 342). It seems that Hart does not really believe the radical implications of his Trinitarian ontology are a reality that can or should be lived out when the rubber meets the road. I certainly hope that I have read him wrong on the point and later claims in the book may indicate that I have (p. 349), but it seems more likely that Hart has simply backed his “political realist” sensibilities into a theological corner but refuses to give them up. A healthy dose of Stanley Hauerwas would help Hart on this point quite a bit.
  • Finally, I was disappointed by the ways in which Hart caricatures his theological interlocutors whom he critiqued (particularly Eberhard Jungel, Karl Barth, and Hans Urs von Balthasar). There was a surprising lack of serious engagement with the important aspects of the work of these thinkers which Hart simply dismisses or scorns. This is simply bad scholarship and an unfortunate stain on a remarkable book.

In sum, this book exhilarates, provokes, and energizes while also disappointing, puzzling, frustrating and often enraging the discerning reader. It is without doubt a very important work and deserves to be widely read and remembered as such. However, this book is not the last word in the discussion it enters, and I fear its many problems cast far too heavy a heavy burden on its helpful points.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the contemporary theological scene in North America. This book is an inestimably interesting and important contribution to that discussion. This book is fruitfully read in conversation with Alan Lewis’s Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday and Oliver Davies’ A Theology of Compassion: Metaphysics of Difference and the Renewal of Tradition. Both of these authors engage in similar theological and philosophical work on the nature of the Trinity, ontology and redemption while beautifully succeeding in some of the places where Hart falls short.

4 Comments

  1. WTM wrote:

    Thank you for your thoughts. I too have noticed the favorable blog “press” that Hart has been getting recently and wonder whether another viewpoint might soon emerge. As one who spent the better part of a semester engaged with Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite, I think that you have laid your finger on many of the problems. But, I have further doubts about how Hart’s metaphysical conceptions hold up. They seem, at least on the basis of Protestant and especially Reformed concerns, to be questionable.

    In any case, thank you for your voice on this topic.

    Friday, August 25, 2006 at 12:34 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    What metaphysical questions would you put to Hart? Would this be the question of the analogia entis or some further questions. I’d love to hear whatever else you might have to say about it.

    Friday, August 25, 2006 at 6:13 am | Permalink
  3. D.W. Congdon wrote:

    As I have told you before, Halden, great review. I couldn’t agree more. I think your criticism of infinity as a negative concept in Hart’s theology is really the brilliant smoking gun in your review. I also think it is a fantastic addition to my theses on divine passibility. My problem with metaphysical doctrines of God, when derived on grounds other than God’s self-revelation, is that they are almost invariably negative in character, rather than positive and actualistic.

    Friday, August 25, 2006 at 10:51 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    I can’t agree more about metaphysics and negative theology. Perhaps we shouldn’t have expected anything different from an Eastern Orthodox theologian, given their emphasis on apophaticism. Although Hart’s enthusiasm for the analogia entis is pretty out of the norm for an orthodox theologian.

    Interestingly I’ve been reading Aristotle Papanikolaou’s Being With God: Trinity, Apophaticism and Divine-Human Communion which compare the theologies of Zizioulas and Lossky on the issue of apophaticism and divine-human communion. Lossky is critiqued rightly for his apohatic theology that seeks a form of communion with God “beyond being” which is essentially non-trinitarian. This contrasts Zizioulas who holds that the Triune God is truly encountered, known and communed with insofar as he makes himself know to us through revelation, and centrally in the Eucharist. Hart seems in danger of the same apophatic methaphysical abstraction that Lossky falls into.

    Friday, August 25, 2006 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

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