Monday, March 26, 2007

Agressive Peacemaker - Peaceful aggressor? David Bentley Hart

If David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite is the best thing theology has to offer at present, I'm not sure that theology is in such a good place at the moment.

Don't get me wrong, large parts of it is brilliant. The Dogmatica Minora at its center is very good, even if I am a bit hesitant about elevating beauty quite to the heights Hart does. In the end of the day, one man's beauty will be another man's porn, and I'm not sure it is ever a good idea to try to contain all of Christian doctrine in just one concept. But the account of the Trinity as Peaceful Difference is a very good idea, I think and it is the one idea I will keep with me from reading Hart.

But there is a lot of stuff here that troubles me greatly. One thing is that Hart does not seem to want to acknowledge his dependence on earlier (academic) theology. He is very critical of almost everyone he mentions except for Milbank, still he operates totally within the framework created by 19th and 20th century academic theology. He does not seem to be aware of the direct continuity between his work and that of the 20th century Germans he looks down upon. Like them, Hart retells the Christian story in the language of contemporary philosophy, as when he calls Christ the Father's "supreme rhetoric".

As I said, the thing I appreciate the most is Hart's location of peace at the absolute center of the Christian dogma. However, the way he does it - in the sense of his attitude and style of writing - all but destroys this achievement. As I said in my last post on this book, Hart's attitude to philosophy (and indeed most theology) is that it is something that has to be violently torn down. I realize this is not original criticism, but I find it extremely important. You can't talk about the beauty of peace and then have this arrogant attitude towards all that think differently. It is that kind of attitude that creates violence in the world, much more than certain ethical or philosophical ideas.

The biggest problem is that most of the trashing that goes on ends up in ad hominem attacks. After several pages of intense discussion, Nietzsche in the end just has atrocious taste. Heidegger is an old Nazi. And the attack on Levinas is so over the top ("I know of no modern philosophy of 'values' more morally hideous than that of Levinas") that one can't help but thinking that Hart must be completely off the mark. If all these great names of modern and post-modern thought are such imbeciles, how come no one has noticed before?

Who does this Hart character think he is?

Some would argue that this kind of rhetorics makes for a more enjoyable read. Well, if you want to enjoy yourself, go watch TV.

I can't help but thinking that Hart's way of doing theology (as opposed to his theology) is the exact equivalent of US Foreign policy. A potential threat from the outside to the peace within should be bombed out of existence. Carthago delenda est.


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Thanks for this review, Patrik. I had wondered about tackling this book. Now, it goes in the "it can wait" pile. :-)

Halden said...

Yeah, that's what I was struck with as well when I read the book. The whole thing about God as peaceful difference is great, as is the stuff on the Trinity. I have some bones to pick with his construal of apatheia, but I think that element of his thought could be easily corrected.

It's really his engagment with 20th century philosophy and theology that is supremely problematic.

::aaron g:: said...

Interesting. I have only heard good things about the book, so this was a thought-provoking post.

dan said...


I must say that I've rather enjoyed your recent comments on both Hart and Milbank. I have had some suspicions about both fellows but lacked the desire to actually engage their major works in detail -- so it is good to see you doing so and making me feel like I'm not just totally missing the boat!

Grace and peace.

Hill said...


Regardless of how one might feel ultimately about the ideas of Hart and Milbank, they are likely the two most important theologians of the last 20 years, possibly more, so you are missing a boat of some sort. In light of the wildly differing opinions you may find on both of them, you owe it to yourself to come to your own decisions. I personally thing Theology and Social Theory and The Beauty of the Infinite are two of the most important books written in quite some time, certainly in my own life and development, but in a general sense as well. Both authors certainly have their personal idiosyncrasies, but if read charitably, there is a wealth of theology to learn from them both. The modern theological landscape would look profoundly different without them.

cynthia r. nielsen said...

Hi Patrik,

I'm glad that I am not the only one put off by Hart's tone and unsupported rhetoric.

Thanks for bringing this front and center.