Thursday, July 28, 2005

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)

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