Thursday, July 28, 2005

Hart's Beauty (part 3)

In Part 2 of Beauty, Hart begins by recognizing that to speak of the Christian narrative might prove an unwieldy task. He chooses in his Dogmatica Minora, to focus on what he calls the “most elementary and binding canon of catholic confession, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan symbol (in its unadulterated Greek form)…”[1] His choice of using the unaltered version of the Nicene Creed, belies clearly an ecumenical concern. The Church itself is often dragged into the enmeshments of the world, and its current division proves that. Hart’s return to a less fractured time, I think, shows a level of regard for the One Church for which we all should be striving. His effort here is unitive, recalling us all to the faith that most Christians would hold as authoritative. His appeal to the Creed as elementary and binding, might of course reach the objection, “What? Scripture isn’t good enough?” The Creed is indeed scriptural. It is a summary of the Christian narrative as explicated and expounded in the Bible. Anyone who thinks otherwise will be hard-pressed to consider anything else that Hart says. Hart engages the witness of scripture without stooping to proof-texting.

He chooses four discrete “moments” in the landscape of Christian theology, so that he does not go off unbridled into the “hermeneutical open spaces.” He sets out to describe the Trinity, Creation, Salvation, and the Eschaton. He does so by means of setting forth specific theses in each moment he considers. He says at the outset of his dogmatic essay that there is no systematic or deductive sequence, however, one should not assume that there is no direction at all to this section. In fact, as it becomes clear, the analog is brilliant. Throughout Part 2, one can see that the four parts hang inextricably from one another. Themes of Trinity show up in Salvation. Creation appears in Eschaton.

Hart employs ten theses throughout his Dogmatica. After each thesis, he includes sections that help lead the reader to understand the implications of each. Some of these sections are lengthy, which should be expected, since the entire Dogmatica takes up a majority of the book. Underlying the entire the rationale for beauty and infinity is the doctrine of the Trinity. Christian understanding of love grows out of the perichoresis of love that is central to the understanding of the Trinity. Within this pericoresis, Hart finds divine fellowship and joy and immutability. That the Trinity exists in a complete shared dance among the three persons, allows for a difference that he sees as a distance. That beauty is the true form of distance means that somehow beauty is taken up into the nature of the Trinity itself. Probably from my own indoctrination into the pondering of the mystery of the Trinity, where the different was verboten, I cringe at his use of different. He is surely not saying that the three persons are separate from one another, so I grant him this use, but I just wish there was another way.

In the Creation portion of the Dogmatica, Hart places creation solely within the Trinity. In his first thesis in Creation, Hart writes, “God’s gracious action in creation belongs from the first to that delight, pleasure and regard that the Trinity enjoys from eternity, as an outward and unnecessary expression of that love; and thus creation must be received before all as gift and as beauty.”[2] The delight that God finds in created things is the basis for a Christian theology of creation. “It is delight that constitutes creation, and so only delight can comprehend it, see it aright, understand its grammar. Only in loving creation’s beauty – only seeing that creation truly is beauty – does one apprehend what creation is.”[3] If creation is delight, then creation cannot be, Hart argues, an overcoming of something. Myths of God creating by overcoming chaos are not only unhelpful, but also hurtful. If creation arises out of conflict, then violence is inherent to its structure. If creation arises out of love and delight, then violence is nowhere to be found, and then Christian evangel can indeed be one of peace. Creation ex nihilo is meant to speak of a God who gives his bounty, and not one who is at war. The creation for delight must be apprehended as gift. Hart takes to task the Nietzschean voices that would discount and dismiss the gift language. Their argument that Hart recounts is that the role of gift in society has been thoroughly reduced. A gift becomes for the Nietzschean a token of power and superiority, one that creates a “calculus of indebtedness.” What a terrible thing for God to foist upon us! The gifts of God become a way for God to control, manipulate and oppress us. Hart removes these objections by turning to love, both agape and eros. For Hart, eros is essential, because it is central to the teleological aspect of the Christian life. Hart writes,

Creation is, before all else, given by God to God, and only then – through the pneumatological generosity of the trinitarian life – given to creatures: a gift that is only so long as it is given back, passed on, received and imparted not as possession but always as grace. This is indeed a “circle” – the infinite circle of divine love – and for that very reason capable of a true gift: one that draws creatures into a circle upon which they have no natural “right” to intrude. And if creatures participate in God’s language of love – in this erotic charity of the gift – simply by being creatures, it is all but impossible for them not also to give, not to extend love to others, not to donate themselves entirely to the economy of agape: the gift must be actively withheld not to be given.[4]

The theme of gift continues as Hart moves on to salvation. While the entire work is impressive, this section needs to be held up as a generally brilliant part. Hart maintains a thoroughly trinitarian scheme of salvation while also being thoroughly Christological. Again, this awe at Hart’s work here might simply be a novice’s wonder at the adept, but it seems to me that the Salvation section of the Dogmatica is the gem of the whole treatise. Jesus Christ, the God-man, is the one who brings about the restoration of the human image. Christ is the eternal image of the Father after whom humanity was created in the beginning. The restoration then of humanity is to the original beauty. Which of course, seems to play right into the hands of the Nietzscheans as they see in the cross only more violence; Hart is forced to once again ask the question of the book. Hart asks, “Does the language of sacrifice within Christian thought, inextirpable from Scripture, make of the gospel a tale that defeats itself in the telling, the beauty of whose rhetoric proves in the end to be another – and particularly meretricious – variant of the glamour of violence?”[5] Hart’s answer is a resounding “No!” Hart turns away from the use of the crucifixion as particularly salvific, but rather to the sacrifice that Christ makes. The violence that happens is the response of the powers and principalities, which Hart dubs the totality. Hart sees the sacrifice of Christ not as one of violence, but one of oblation, offering, gift. Hart wrestles with Anselm’s theory of the atonement, Cur Deus Homo, and all the baggage that it has collected along the way. Hart retells Anselm that moves away from violence, but remains embedded in sacrifice. Christ offers his life to God as a gift, which is utterly trinitarian in nature. Hart writes,

…the story of Christ’s sacrifice belongs not to an economy of credit and exchange but to the trinitarian motion of love, it is given entirely as gift – a gift give when it should not have needed to be given again, by God, at a price that we imposed upon him. As an entirely divine action, Christ’s sacrifice merely draws creation back into the eternal motion of divine love for which it was fashioned. The violence that befalls Christ belongs to our sacrificial order of justice, an order overcome by his sacrifice, which is one of peace; for though totality seeks to convert Christ into an abstract credit, in order to preserve itself as an enclosed circle of stable exchange between the life of the particular transgressor and the universal dispensation of civic stability, the donation that Christ makes of himself draws creation into God’s eternal “offering” of himself in the life of the Trinity.[6]

Hart’s argument is based on the claim that for Anselm, the redemptive element in Christ’s death is not his suffering, but instead his innocence. This retelling of Anselm is sure to find many critics, but it is intriguing. Thankfully, there is no one dogma of the atonement.

Hart closes his Dogmatica by examining the Eschaton, which really is for him brief. Unlike the other three points, the Eschaton is almost an afterthought. This section is unbelievably terse. The Eschaton is the vindication of a particular story, affirms the created goodness, and exposes other stories as false and damnable.

Finally, in his concluding remarks, Part 3, “Rhetoric without Reserve,” Hart wrestles with how we avoid persuading others. The Nietzscheans see persuasion as a veiled form of violence. Our evangelism must not become, as it too often has in the past, coercion. We must as a people find ourselves drawn into the place of the crucified one, seeking conformation to Christ’s image. Hart writes,

Theology must, because of what its particular story is, have the form of martyrdom, witness, a peaceful offer that has already suffered rejection and must be prepared for rejection as a consequence. In resisting the myth of a hermeneutical neutrality that can govern persuasions from without, theology perhaps summons the specter of holy war, of the chaos of endless persuasion and repersuasion; but the only answer Christian though can pose over against this apprehension is its own way of the inversion of violence, God’s vindication of the crucified over against the orders that crucify, and its own urging to the world of the model of peace that Christ offers. Against the violence of rhetorics, it can do no more that offer a rhetoric of peace. The cross is not an ending, merely marking the closure of all metanarratives, awaiting translation into a speculative Good Friday more radical than even Hegel contemplated; rather, it inaugurates a world, the true world restored to itself, whose particular nature binds Christians to occupy, if they must, within this war of persuasions, the place of the warred against, the excluded.[1]

Only in enduring the wounds of Christ in our body may we show the way of beauty and peace.

[1] Ibid, p. 441

[1] Ibid, p. 153

[2] Ibid, p. 249

[3] Ibid, p. 253

[4] Ibid, p. 268

[5] Ibid, p. p. 349

[6] Ibid, pp. 371-372

Hart's Beauty (part 2)

Nietzsche confronts theology with a story this is diametrically opposed to the Christian story. And for this Christians should be thankful, since through Nietzche’s opposition, the reminder exists that there is another story to tell, Hart writes, “in which the being of creation is an essential peace, hospitable to all true difference, reflecting the infinite peace of God’s triune life in its beauty and diversity.”[1] Hart’s story here is that the Christian evangel (not always Christianity mind you, but the kerygma of the faith) is one of beauty because it brings peace to a world held in subject to other stories that keep up the violence against one another. With all of the energy that Hart employs against Nietzsche’s Dionysian story, it almost appears that for Hart, if the Christian evangel is not the one true story, then there is no story that would better describe our reality than Nietzsche’s.

But Hart’s concern is actually in beauty, and he goes through great lengths to lay out and unfold (beauty cannot be defined) what he means, and gives some boundaries as to how beauty operates. In section 3 of his Introduction, he undertakes this task. Hart writes, “beauty is a category indispensable to Christian thought; all that theology says of the triune life of God, the gratuity of creation, the incarnation of the Word, and the salvation of the world makes room for – indeed depends upon – a thought, and a narrative, of the beautiful.”[2] His first theme into beauty is “Beauty is objective,”[3] meaning beauty is not something ephemeral. Beauty possesses as Hart says, “a phenomenal priority, an indefectible precedence over whatever response it evokes.”[4] The beautiful is a vehicle for communicating God’s glory, and as such, one finds it to be delightful (the theme of delight/joy arises again and again). The second theme is “Beauty is the true form of distance.” While reading through Beauty, this distance theme arises again and again, and by the end, it is certainly resonant that beauty is the true form of distance, but for me, it remains elusive, slipping through my fingers whenever I try to make it more concrete. This elusiveness is most likely my inexperience with the concepts. To help elucidate this theme, Hart writes,

If the realm of created difference has its being for God’s pleasure (Rev. 4:11), then the distance of creation from God and every distance within creation belong originally to an interval of appraisal and approbation, the distance of his delight. God’s pleasure – the beauty creation possesses in his regard – underlies the distinct being of creation, and so beauty is the first and truest word concerning all that appears within being… beauty does not merely adorn an alien space, or cross the distance as a wayfarer, but it is the true form of that distance, constituting it, as the grammar of difference.[5]

At its heart, it would seem that the distance Hart speaks about is one that will allow for the procession and return, a continual donation and response brought about by beauty. Without that distance, that boundary, how would we know that we are not in the end curved in on ourselves, wrapped up in the continual struggle and violence that grasps every other story.

His other themes of beauty that follow after this are, “Beauty evokes desire.”[6] Here Hart quotes Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine in his support. Once one tastes God’s glory, then one is led to stretch out ever more toward a greater and greater embrace of the divine glory. This sort of thing is truly one of the strengths of the book. Hart, being Eastern Orthodox, is clearly ingrained with the teaching of the Church Fathers, but not to the exclusion of the West, exemplified here, by the use of both a Cappadocian and Augustine. Hart seems to be fluently bilingual in both Eastern and Western Christianity. Perhaps this sort of argument is precisely what is needed to answer the modern voice of Nietzsche, a return to the voices before the Enlightenment and the split between East and West. Then, as much as now, the Church sought to be a formative voice in the creation of a Christian people. Perhaps it is to that time that the Church must return to find once again the voice that shares this story of peace to a people mired in sin.

“Beauty crosses boundaries.”[7] Because beauty is about revealing God’s glory, it cannot be held back by any obstacle we try to set in its way. “Beauty’s authority, within theology, guards against gnosticism.”[8] Hart gives two reasons for this. First, beauty in the real world shows the world to be the theater of God’s glory. If beauty exists here, then God must not eschew this world. It is not irretrievably bad. Second, the revelation of God’s glory in the beautiful shows this world to be unnecessary. God’s expression is free and for God’s pleasure alone. Finally, “Beauty resists reduction to the ‘symbolic.’”[9] The aesthetic moment, when the beautiful is regarded, cannot later be appropriated to create a more vital meaning. The symbol “arrests the force of the aesthetic, the continuity of the surface, in order to disclose ‘depths.’”[10] At the moment beauty is apprehended, one is to attend to the glory proclaimed there, and avoid seeking some secret gnosis.

[1] Ibid, p. 127

[2] Ibid, p. 16

[3] Ibid, p. 17

[4] Ibid, p. 17

[5] Ibid, p. 18

[6] Ibid, p. 19

[7] Ibid, p. 20

[8] Ibid, p. 20

[9] Ibid, p. 25

[10] Ibid, p. 25

D.B. Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite

A book that caught my attention over a year ago, Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans), finally got read cover to cover a week ago. Hart's book is a beast. However, it is entirely satisfying, even if I have some issues with it. I am posting a summary of it here, because I think it is well worth it.

Hart gets to the issue quickly, wasting little time in the Introduction. This quick move at the beginning is perhaps the one and only quick moment in the entire work. The rest that follows is carefully planned, thorough, intricate and at times, wordy. One might wonder if when he wrote this treatise (book, almost seems to diminish Hart’s effort), he had made a wager to use all of the GRE vocabulary words (The Beauty of the Infinite did require the use of an unabridged dictionary several times). As the pages went by, it did seem obvious that it was more the case that every word Hart employed was done so because it was exactly the right word with the right connotations for the right explanation.

As stated though, he does get to the point at the very outset. Hart writes,

Is the beauty to whose persuasive power the Christian rhetoric of evangelism inevitably appeals, and upon which it depends, theologically defensible? Admittedly, at first, such a question might appear at best, merely marginal, at worst somewhat precious; but, granted a second glance, it opens out upon the entire Christian tradition as a question that implicitly accompanies the tradition’s every proclamation of itself. Christianity has from its beginning portrayed itself as a gospel of peace, a way of reconciliation (with God, with other creatures), and a new model of human community, offering the “peace which passes understanding” to a world enmeshed in sin and violence.[1]

Is it theologically defensible? Hart believes so, and thus does in fact open, if not the entire Christian tradition, then the core of it, most notably in Part 2 of Beauty, where he tackles the Trinity, Creation, Salvation, and the Eschaton. Hart seeks to delve into each of these theological wells, exploring them for an understanding of true beauty and what that might say to a world enmeshed in sin and violence.

Much of Hart’s work is done particularly with engagement of the world keenly in the forefront. After setting the stage nicely in his Introduction, lays the question before the reader, defines terms, which is unbelievably helpful, explicates what he means by Beauty, Hart’s Part 1 “Dionysus against the Crucified: The Violence of Metaphysics and the Metaphysics of Love” engages the postmodern narratives of violence in the world. The primary representatives Hart picks for postmodernism are, of course, Nietzsche and Heidegger (Hart follows Milbank here), or at least the philosophers who most propound their form (e.g. Deleuze, Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida). Hart takes one of Nietzsche’s favored typologies, Dionysus and Apollo. In his work, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche points to a dipole in human nature, typified by the classical figures of Dionysus and Apollo. Apollo was the god of light, meditative, restrained, signifying all that is ordered. Dionysus was seen as the god of wine, unrestrained, orgiastic, crossing boundaries, and losing one’s self. These figures are both necessary, creating a structure where the unbridled energy of Dionysus is subject to the reasoned authority of Apollo. Dionysus is the creative force, and thereby is necessary.[2] At the heart of the relationship between Dionysus and Apollo is violence. The two are ever locked in a struggle. Violence, therefore, becomes the world’s essential creative power. Against this figure of indestructible life, ecstasy, joy, and power, Nietzsche places the figure of the Crucified. Hart quotes Nietzsche from The Will to Power,

Dionysus versus the Crucified: there you have the antithesis. It is not a difference in their regard to their martyrdom – it is a difference in the meaning of it. Life itself, its eternal fruitfulness and recurrence, creates torment, destruction, the will to annihilation. In the other case, suffering – the “Crucified as the innocent one” – counts as an objection to this life, as a formula for its condemnation. – One will see that the problem is that of the meaning of suffering: whether a Christian meaning or a tragic meaning. … The tragic man affirms even the harshest suffering: he is sufficiently strong, rich, and capable of deifying to do so. The Christian denies even the happiest lot on earth: he is sufficiently weak, poor, disinherited to suffer from life in whatever form he meets it. The god on the cross is a curse on life, a signpost to seek redemption from life; Dionysus cut to pieces is a promise of life; it will be eternally reborn and return again from destruction.[3]

To be weak is the worst for Nietzsche since he sees the will to power as the motivating force in humanity.

[1] Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2003, p. 1

[2] Ibid., p. 40

[3] Hart, ibid, p. 97 (again, quoted from Nietzsche’s Will to Power)