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Prolixity and Precision: Reading David Bentley Hart Fast and Slow

You Are Gods:
On Nature and Supernature
By David Bentley Hart
University of Notre Dame Press, 2022. pp. 162. $25.

Review by Jonathan R. Heaps 

Reading David Bentley Hart’s recent book, You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature gave me occasion to think of a joke. It goes like this: a young, earnest philosophy student approached his eminent teacher and asked, “Professor, what is the nature of contingency?” The professor looked up from her book and replied, “It depends.”

Like the professor’s gnomic reply, You Are Gods is easy to misread. For one thing, if one identifies or even merely sympathizes with the target of Hart’s notoriously sharp-elbowed polemics, he or she is liable to be wrong-footed immediately by his tendency to clear his throat by giving offense. The pointy end of his pen finds its way, among others, to the 45th U.S. president and his supporters, Reformed soteriology in its penal substitutionary mode, approximately 500 years of Roman Catholic theological anthropology, and all of German Idealism.

But even more than the boldness (and occasional bluntness) of Hart’s condemnations, what is likely to produce misapprehension is how, as in the joke above, behind facial colloquialism there lies a deeper, even covert precision. For when Hart accuses a position or its advocate of stupidity, for example, at a rhetorical level he clearly means to evoke a slanderous image of slack-jawed dimwittedness, while at the same time he undergirds his jibe with a philosophical literalness that non-specialist readers might miss, where “stupidity” means obtuseness to the nature and function of intellect itself. One gets a sense as well that, in Hart’s heart of hearts, this latter, philosophical indictment should be the more offensive of the two.

This double significance (or, to borrow one of Hart’s boutique terms, this “amphibology”) is not restricted to his polemics. When Hart pivots to his positive philosophical and theological vision, he largely eschews a technical apparatus or systematizing framework. In addition to his contempt for neo-scholastic metaphysics (spelled out in the book’s first chapter), Hart seems to have no truck with their rarified rhetorical techniques either. Save the architectonics of the final chapter (a chiastic trinitarian theology of creation), he tends to move from idea to idea with the casual grace of an essayist, only occasionally indicating where he’s headed (as, for example, with his series of questions for Cyril O’Regan in chapter 5).

Consequently, one might be carried along by the expressiveness of his writing to get the gist of his “unreconstructed Neo-Platonist” theology but overlook how his firm grip on the metaphysical principles beneath it allows such fluidity and floridity of prose. Thus, for example, one might be taken with the playful metaphysical poetry of a line about how images, symbols, dreams, the arts, and myths are “all memories of the spirit’s last end, anticipations of the spirit’s first beginning” to suppose that Hart is dealing in paradox, rather than illustrating what he considers the quite stringent logical entailments of, as he says on a preceding page, observing “with absolute exactitude” the “disproportion and qualitative difference between the eternal and the temporal.”

This is not at all to say that Hart is writing in the common parlance of our time or avoiding a technical terminology altogether. His preferred philosophical and theological idiom is borrowed from Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor, and so Gods may be easier going for readers familiar with patristic sources than I have suggested above. For others, Hart’s fabled erudition provides helpful points of triangulation, whether by way of his affectionate invocations of the Vedantic traditions or his encomia to the elasticity of Hegelian philosophy. In any event, readers would do well not to cheapen Hart’s work by allowing his verbal enthusiasms to be nothing more than an exciting (or aggravating) thrill ride. Instead, there’s probably something for most readers to gain by slowing down and trying to grok the basic judgment holding the whole thing up: All created realities, but especially spiritual realities, have their being and meaning in radical and total dependent relationship to God. This, for Hart, is the necessary shape of our contingence.

Jonathan R. Heaps (Ph.D. Marquette University) will be a Bernard J. F. Lonergan Fellow at Boston College for the 2022–2023 academic year.


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