Review: David B Hart’s “The Beauty of the Infinite”
David Bentley Hart – who seems to be something of a theological rock-star these days (as much as that’s possible) wrote this first book of his (subtitled “The Aesthetics of Christian Truth”) of out his dissertation, considerably expanding it, while keeping that dissertation feel in the first part of the book. It is a compelling volume I have to say (except for his ponderous writing style), and it has really made me think through some basic issues in regards to very foundational Christian claims.
The book starts with the assumption that “beauty [is the] measure of what theology may call as true” (3). He says this is the reason why postmodernity should be welcomed by orthodox Christians: it has vindicated “rhetoric” over “dialectic” (in non-philosopher’s terms: truth is ultimately about persuasion, rather than proof) through the postmodern deconstruction of Enlightenment values. It has taken on the myth of “disinterested rationality” and burned it to the ground. Fortunately Christians have no stake in that argument, since “the church has no arguments for its faith more convincing that the form of Christ; enjoined by Christ to preach the gospel, Christians must proclaim, exhort, bear witness, persuade – before other forms of reason can be marshaled” (ibid).
In other words, the postmodern should not scare us because it merely points out how all claims to truth ultimately work: as rhetoric, rather than reasonable (note: this does not mean reason is not a part of it – nor even the greater part – but that there is no ultimate ground outside of rhetoric). Hart argues throughout most of the book that Christianity’s is a rhetoric of peace, and thus is beatiful in itself – and hence is true.
For Hart – as for most post-modern thinkers – the first person to recognize this was Nietzsche. Indeed, Nietzsche was the first philosopher not only to recongize this, but to recognize a collorary to this. If rhetoric is the ultimate ground, if Christianity is to be opposed, if this great disease of humanity is to be cure, an entire new story will have to be created that can oppose such rhetoric of Christ. Nietzsche recognized that this rhetoric can only be opposed by creating a story so compelling that humans will find truth just by looking at it – thus his Zarathustra, and his entire development of a new myth to live by. One of the real pathetic things about the New Atheists is that they basically keep the old story, the Christian one, but just get rid of the author and lead actor (Nietzsche called their 19th century ancestors, the positivists of his day, the new priesthood).
Of course Nietzsche’s new story – and as Hart shows, Derrida’s, Deleuze’s, et al – ends up being one of the oldest stories out there: the myth that at the foundation of being is chaos and violence, and it takes an act of counter-violence to bring order (one doesn’t need to read much Derrida or Deleuze to get this – Derrida of course bemoans the fact, while Deleuze celebrates it). This is right out of the playbook of the Babylonian, Greek, and Roman myth cycles, myths that interestingly enough Jewish thought explicitly opposed itself to in those ponderous states about God breathing life into all things.
Instead, Hart tries to show how “the peace of God – the shalom of creation and of the day God declares his rule out of Zion – has a real historical shape and presence, a concrete story, one which has entered human history as a contrary history, the true story God always tells, in which violence has no place but rather stands under judgment as provisional, willful, needless: nonbeing” (127).
The rest of the book is an argument for this. He gives us a “Dogmatic Minora” in which he starts with the Trinity, moves to Creation, Salvation, and Eschatology. There’s a lot there, much of it convincing, some of it not so much. What I really like about Hart is that his theology starts from Creation, and takes this doctrine with utmost seriousness; what I thought was a weakness was his not taking quite so seriously eschatology (a mere 14 pages!).
In any case, for just posing this question of beauty, and then arguing that Christianity is an argument from peace, while those others are arguments from violence, is worth the entire book. I’m sure I’ll be coming back to him often.