Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Hart on Tillich

I'm about half-way through David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite, and I will reserve my judgement of the whole book for a later post. Since Hart's criticism of Tillich is, as far as I can see, fairly irrelevant for his intentions, I will treat it separately.

I'm really curious as to what provoked this attack (it comes so surprisingly that an attack is exactly what it is). It can't be Tillich's use of the concept of symbols, since Hart makes no attempt to understand it. Rather than discussing this concept, Hart quickly moves on to a quote about demythologization, which Hart misunderstands completely. Tillich was not really doing demythologization. Hart is reading Tillich through Bultmann, who actually did reduce some myths to existential philosophy - notably the resurrection. Tillich did not do that. When Tillich is defending demythologization, as Tillich understands it, it is because unlike the literalists (fundamentalists as we call them today) demythologization, resists the temptation to reduce myth to propositions. In more modern vocabulary (that did not exist in Tillich's time), Tillich is defending the narrative structure of the biblical texts against those that read the bible as a science-book.

This is really ironic, since this is part of Hart's program as well. And it is not the only area where similarities can be found. Harts ontology is really similar to Tillich's, though Hart does ground his better in the trinity (a real weakness of Tillich's). Both work out their theology in dialogue with the present-day philosophy.

It is often the case when theologians criticising the theologians of the preceding generation, that what is criticised is not so much what they say, but what they do not, i.e. that they do not answer the same questions. Tillich has little to say about theology in the post-modern discussion - as understood by Hart.

I guess this attack is just another example of how Tillich in America has become a symbol for liberal theology - which is odd since he of course was part of the first (real) post-liberal generation.

Of course there are real differences between Tillich and Hart. Tillich used philosophy as a means of communicating theology to the secular. Hart uses theology to do battle on philosophy as a proponent of the secular.

I, for one, prefer Tillich's attitude.


Lawrence of Arabia said...

i think you are right on target with this reservation concerning hart's critique of tillich (and for that matter the irrelevance of that section of the book to hart's overall project).

i also tend to think that tillich has become one of the most overlooked theologians in the current theological climate. and i say this without being any great fan of tillich...i just think that he remains a voice that ought to be taken seriously but is largely ignored.

best wishes,

Halden said...

Ok, you've convinced my to actually read some Tillich. I've been given the 'Barthian aversion' to him in my theological upbringing, but I'm growing to question Barth more and more these days.

Anyways, the reason Hart attacks Tillich is the same reason he attacks any and all German protestant theologians mentioned in that book. He just seems to feel that he must destroy all things protestant for the sake of the analogia entis.

Now, I do have a lot more sympahty with Hart's project than I did when I first read the book, but I still think its a great example of how to write a book that doesn't really engage any of the interlocutors with whom one disagrees.

Patrik said...

Yeah, but its odd that he pick's Tillich because the analogia entis is really central in his thought.

Having read about three thirds of the book now, I'm starting to specualate that Hart must have been told several times by senior theologians that he mus "Check out Tillich" because they have so much in common. The attitude is very different, but their sense of Being is very similar. Then he probably did, got irritated by something and decided to try to get out easy from having to really engage with him.

But really the only modern theologian that is not attacked in this book is Milbank, which is probably the source of his viscous attitude... When did theology become so aggressive?

Halden said...

Well, Hart did his Ph.D under Milbank and they obviously have a lot in common in their theology.

But I'm sure Hart picks Tillich because Tillich is protestant. :)

D.W. Congdon said...

Patrik, you're quite right to point out this problem in Hart. And Halden is entirely correct to see that it is Protestantism in general that Hart wishes to disparage. But I don't think it is simply to set up the analogia entis, though this is surely right in its own way. It seems to me that Hart's more general project is to see ancient Eastern theologians as the answer to modern problems, and his method of reaching this end is to disparage anything and everything "modern." This is truly unfortunate, most of all because Hart is himself radically modern, as I think the revisionist readings of Anselm and others amply demonstrates.

Halden said...

Well, what's particularly ironic about Hart's treatment is his complete lack of engagement with Eastern thinkers, especially contemporary ones. But, even the patristic and medieval sources with whom Hart does interact are almost exclusively Western, or prior to the schism.

And frankly, I don't think that his EO collegues are going to be so stoked about his enthusiasm for the analogy of being. That's way too Thomistic for them.

Anonymous said...

yes, but whose beard to you prefer?