Review by Dan Muth
A David Bentley Hart DigestBy David Bentley Hart
Notre Dame Press, pp. 420, $29
It’s not hard to point to your least favorite politician, cultural movement, what have you, and claim that, far from living in a time of meaningful progress, ours is actually a dark age of ignorance and superstition. What else is new? That’s what every era of man since the Fall has been. Indeed, outside the rarified climes of scientific inquiry and technological innovation, the notion of progress is one of the sillier superstitions of our age.
For the last two decades or so, theologian David Bentley Hart has provided assured and often provocative guidance on how Christians might address some of society’s errors. His colorful broadsides against latter-day atheism, with its painful ignorance of metaphysics, are well-known. He has produced noted works on theological aesthetics, theodicy, art, church history, and theism. Some — with good reason — consider him our greatest living essayist. His more recent works have included a controversial translation of the New Testament and an even more controversial defense of Origenian universalism.
In this volume, Hart gathers together a wide-ranging set of essays, most previously unpublished, many based on lectures, divided into five general sections: theology, science, culture, literature and art, and biblical translation.
The first section of the book is easily the most difficult for the casual reader. Some of the items in this section can be tough slogging for those not up on modern theological debates. This is not the case for the first piece, in which Hart responds to Rowan Williams’s The Tragic Imagination. This is a particularly important topic for Americans, given their lawsuit-addled, utopia-inspired propensity to mistake tragedy for injustice.
Hart praises Williams’s insights on tragedy’s ability to enable the audience to experience suffering without being destroyed by it. Hart mainly adds that, for the Greeks, tragedy often fulfilled a religious purpose: Antigone must die, either to ensure that Creon and Thebes are not divinely punished, or (worse yet) it be shown that there is no divine order and law is arbitrary.
While acknowledging the brilliance of Williams’s tragic reading of John’s Passion, Hart demurs. Tragedy is a hopeful art form, yes, but for Hart, the hope offered is of the wrong kind. In the tragic telling, Christ, à la Antigone, must be sacrificed to appease divine wrath and restore cosmic harmony. Christ’s death is foretold, all means of escape foreclosed, and the inevitable disaster takes place. Yet the Resurrection undermines the whole tragic structure: Christ’s sacrifice is not accepted. He is raised, overturning all judgments against him. Balance is forsaken and the stakes are radically higher after Easter than they were before.
One of Hart’s major themes throughout the book is his rejection of much of the Augustinian tradition of the West, particularly in its Calvinist and certain Thomist manifestations. These, he thinks, too easily accommodate tragic wisdom — particularly Christ’s death as necessary appeasement of God’s wrath.
For longtime readers of Hart, the second section of the book is a kind of old home week, a return to previous themes concerning theology and the natural sciences. In Aristotelian terms, science self-imposes a fixation on the material and efficient, to the exclusion of any consideration of formal or final causation. That this purely methodological limitation should be treated by some as a metaphysical necessity was probably inevitable, given the tremendous usefulness of the method and its results.
The third section of the book covers culture, and begins with a strong rejection of Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette’s defense of capital punishment as irrefragably Christian. For Hart, this flies in the face of the entire New Testament and the Church Fathers. He expends two full essays on the matter before following up with an interesting discussion of Eastern Orthodoxy in America.
The fourth section consists of some fascinating essays on relatively obscure figures, Victor Segalen, Wiliam Empson, David Jones, and Léon Bloy. The figures have in common a sense of not-fully-realized or underappreciated brilliance fully expressive of their Final Cause, which is not the biblical God in all cases. It’s a shame the Jones article contains no plates of his artwork (do consult Google), but snatches of his amazing poetry are on glorious display. The piece on Bloy is a delight. One can only say of him, as Hart does, “how French.”
The book closes with a fascinating, though at times painfully defensive, nuts-and-bolts discussion of his version of the New Testament. Hart seeks to offer a translation faithful to its time, era, and culture, which he considers irremediably strange to modern ears and very unlike what we receive through most committee-produced versions. These (particularly the NIV) he dismisses as overly influenced by later theology and thus compromised by anachronism. He seeks to restore a more immediate connection to the premodern world of Christ, with its sense of divine warfare and provisional dualism.
This is a worthy goal and no doubt marks his translation as an important contribution to biblical studies. Hart’s voice is always worth listening to. But I see no reason to abandon the RSV. For those of us in the catholic tradition (and this includes Hart), doctrinal development is as much a work of God as biblical revelation.
What, then, to make of David Bentley Hart circa 2022? It’s a shame that his last two major works have been at best unevenly received. He is probably right that his critics are being unfair, dealing with his extreme rhetoric rather than his arguments. This volume lends itself to problematic interpretation.
From Hart’s unequivocal disassociation from the conservative publication First Things through his various sniffish remarks regarding our most recent ex-president and his evangelical supporters, to his reprobation of capital punishment and of capitalism, one might readily be tempted to classify Hart as a former conservative who has now turned to the dark side or seen the light, depending on your political sympathies.
This would be a misreading, I believe. Hart’s intention is to address the interaction of theology with culture, science, art, literature, and academia. Politics may interest him, but he never directly addresses it. His rejection of capital punishment, for instance, is intended for the Church, not for Caesar. I think it entirely consonant with Hart’s muse to note that his admonitions on the matter are directed at civilized Christians, and a nation-state that countenances legalized abortion is neither. Indeed, there is something execrably unseemly in solicitude toward the guilty by a people who refuse to protect the innocent.
In his discussion of Bloy, Hart touches on his subject’s disdain of wealth and notes the matter is moral, rather than economic. Bloy did not speak of there being a fixed quantity of wealth such that one man’s surfeit requires another man’s dearth. This would seem true of Hart as well. His moral pronouncements may well have political ramifications, but his endorsement of, say, socialism is redolent of the Book of Acts’ voluntarism rather than a demand that the multicultural United States should seek to imitate the monoculture of Sweden. His approach is simply never that shallow.
Hart’s voice is prophetic as only one steeped in the life and times (and language and culture) of Christ can be. He has done the hard work of inwardly digesting the Scriptures, building formidable reasoning skills, reading widely, and thinking deeply. This is a man who has earned his place in the theological pantheon. His voice is one we do well to heed in our particular dark age, and this book is not a bad place to get to know it.
Dan Muth is a retired nuclear engineering manager. He recently relocated to Windermere, Florida, and attends St. Alban’s Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo.