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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Hart of Gold: week 1 reading report

The Heart of Gold was the spaceship in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which in the story was the first spacecraft to utilise the new Infinite Improbability Drive. For those who do not have HHGTG information at the forefront of your mind -- and if you don't, count yourself lucky -- the infinite improbability drive allows a spacecraft to travel anywhere in the universe instantaneously, based on a certain understanding of quantum physics and quite a lot of malarky. According to the story, the inventor, a student, was given the Galactic Institute's prize for extreme cleverness, only to be lynched by a group of scientists who couldn't abide a smart arse.

Starting off with both a non-sequitur and a bad pun might not be an auspicious beginning to a reading report on David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. But I do it -- as much for myself as my reader(s) -- to raise the question of the scope of the work before us. Is it possible that Hart (as Milbank might be accused of doing), in his critical work, flies so high above those whose work he critiques that he misses critical details or engages in indiosyncratic (or uncharitable) readings? Does he end up telling a hermetic tale of hidden conspiracies, only to present the secret which unlocks the previously-unexplained train of intellectual history -- and is it based on nothing other than a half-understanding of esoterica and a pile of malarky? Are we entertaining people who think that everyone to come before him has somehow not quite gotten it right, but that they have and can explain it in detail* -- in short, are theologians starting to think they are extremely clever, only to have everyone else see that they are really just smart arses?

I ask these (somewhat exaggerated) questions because I need to push myself to be more critical in my reading -- because, frankly, I like Hart (and, yes, Milbank) and I really think he is on to something. He makes moves that I am largely sympathetic with, and for what seem to be good reasons. But my reading and our interaction will be enriched by critical interactions more than it will be by saying 'yeah, what he said'.

On that note, let me start by pointing you to 'what he said' at Gaunilo's Island. A very capable summary of the introductory chapter that we read for today (yesterday).

The central question to which Hart means to attend in this book is as follows: "Is the beauty to whose persuasive power the Christian rhetoric of evangelism inevitably appeals, an upon which it depends, theologically defensible?" (1) He elaborates on this question with the thesis "a defense of the suasive loveliness of Christian rhetoric, as the coincidence without contradiction of beauty and peace, can be undertaken according to the opposition between two narratives of infinity: one that conceives of the infinite in terms of a primordial and inevitable violence, and one that regards the infinite as originally and everlastingly beautiful." (5)

Briefly, this first chapter introduces the book by laying out the animating question (above), and by defining (more or less) some key terms, namely postmodern, metaphysics, totality and infinity', and beauty.

I say 'more or less' not to be snarky, but simply because Hart quite reasonably gives a less-than-precise definition of the 'postmodern'. It is, in his terms, a 'certain territory in current intellectual culture, a general convergeance of various ideologies and methods, each of whose proponents might justifiably object to so tidy and comprehensive an abstraction', but he uses it because it is broadly comprehensive enough to designate a family resemblance across disciplines. (5) There is wisdom in not pushing categories beyond their capacity.

He sees postmodernity as a welcome alternative to modernity, although also an extension of it; and while Christianity need not feel threatened by postmodernity, it is also different than postmodernity.

He gives a similarly capacious definition to metaphysics, claiming that the postmodern critique of metaphysics ought not to hold much fear for Christians -- partly because Christian theology has never been dependent on one particular account of metaphysics (11), and partly because such critiques are -- as seen in Lyotard and Deleuze -- self-consuming, by positing a metaphysics in order to clear away metaphysics. (11, 13)

Hart glances at totality and infinity merely to indicate that he is turning Levinas' prioritising on its head. Briefly, totality for Hart is a kind of grasping, with the implication of control, whereas infinity is a kind of receiving of totality as a gift. (14)

Hart goes into greater detail about beauty, intending the same level of precision as his previous definitions -- trusting in part that the meaning will become clearer as the project progresses. He makes six points about beauty, which I summarize very briefly: 1) beauty is objective; 2) beauty is the true form of distance ('...the distance of creation from God and every distance within creation belong originally to an interval of appraisal and approbation, the distance of delight....[beauty] is the true form of that distance, constituting it, as the grammar of difference." (18)) 3) beauty evokes desire, 4) beauty crosses boundaries, 5) beauty guards against gnosticism (the open declaration by creation of God's beauty and glory nullifies the gnostic 'secret'), and 6) beauty resists reduction to the 'symbolic'.

Having set out his project and defined some of his key terms, he is well situated to plunge into the project itself, showing the Christian narrative to be able to encompass the secular narratives in a way which is ultimately peaceful, in which beauty and infinity ultimately coincide.

Some observations and questions:
I am not yet sure of how close Hart would see himself to Milbank, but it is clear that he is taking up Milbank's challenge (in TST) that the church outnarrate the world.

On page 18, Hart talks about the Christian understanding of beauty being analogical -- quite solid, I think. He sums up, though, 'the Christian use of the word 'beauty' refers most properly to a relationship of donation and transfiguration, a handing over and return of the riches of being.' I wonder if this would be enriched by completing 'donation' with 'reception'? That is, it is not merely a relationship of donation, but an ongoing process of donation and reception: or is this what he means to imply in talking about 'transfiguration' or 'return'?

I appreciate his point about beauty not being reducible to the symbolic. This seems troubling at first, but he does not mean to mitigate against symbols per se. Instead, he means to question the tendency -- Tillichian, in Gaunilo's estimate, 'common sense' in my own -- that beauty is mere ornamentation, some surface which is meant to be disposed of in order to appreciate the deep 'meaning' of it. (25) I appreciate this suspicion of the suspicion of beauty, that seems anxious to shuffle off the 'superfluous' appearances for what is 'real' 'beneath' the appearances. Perhaps the superfluity -- beauty can be superfluous without being trivial -- is part of the point of beauty. (This reduction seems quite characteristically American; one example is an advertisement I heard on Paul Harvey's radio show sometime last year for prefab metal structures which might be used for any number of functions, including a church. That a metal polebarn would be an appealing option for a church seems pretty troubling, though not at all beyond belief.)

Hart writes in that same section that 'theology should always remain at the surface (aesthetic, rhetorical, metaphoric), where all things, finally, come to pass.' (28) On the one hand, I want to say 'right on'. Gabriel Marcel has made similar statements, viz. the surface, and there is something right about paying attention to what is before you. It also allows us to, for example, insist on the priority of the narrative over our own speculations about what is 'behind' the narrative. On the other hand, I have questions, too. We do not have one set of connotations for words like 'deep' or 'profound' and another set for words like 'shallow' or 'superficial' for nothing. The greatest mystics of the tradition have been able to plunge into prayer or Scripture and find there amazing, seemingly hidden depths, which are every bit as real as the surface; the reason they were great, of course, is that in finding the depths, they did not efface or slough off the surface. So I wonder if there might be a possiblity of holding together surface and depth that Hart (at least here) doesn't seem to support? (This very point might be what he means in his comment about the 'odd confluence of the sublime and evanescent that constitutes 'the symbolic' (28): if so, fine.)

Interesting that he dismisses narrative theology (31), yet seems to be working primarily towards constructing a larger narrative that will enfold the world's story.

Penultimately, Hart writes (with a bit of Milbankian panache) "...if the Christian story is to be offered to the world as the gift of peace, it must be told in its fullness, without conceding any ground to the other narrative." Here we see a very clear expression of the opposition between narratives. But is there really such a gulf between the two narratives? Does Hart risk making the Christian story (in effect) docetic, descending from heaven and untouched by human hands, in no continuity with anything earthly? Or may we concede that there might be continuities -- perhaps surprising continuities -- between individual stories (for the 'other narrative' is really 'other narratives'), which will allow the Christian story to unfold through a discerning process of bricolage? I suppose I am uncomfortable (to some extent) with the seeming 'Christ-against-culture' paradigm that Hart seems to suggest here, at least in terms of the Christian story (he is clear that this is not world-rejecting, for the creation is made good). A process of unfolding and bricolage allows for the Christian story to be both coherent in itself and only fully seen eschatologically, while also allowing the Christian story to be one which incorporates and takes up the other stories (in some sense) ultimately: it would be a way of affirming the goodness of their creation, too, even while they aid and abet the violence and frustration of creation here and now.

My final question for Hart is the same as my question for Milbank: where is the church? Hart is keen to combat gnosticism and (a certain kind of) symbolism, he has clear notions about the church and sacraments (seen in his Orthodoxy), and he talks about the Christian story as the story of peace. How does he deal with the conflict between his notion of the Christian story and the flow of the church's history? I would imagine that we are to see the peace as eschatological, unfolding in time, yet not completely arrived: where and how do we see that present, even if imperfectly, and in a way which is exclusive to the church (as, I take it, secularists would not be able to embody the Christian story in a straightforward way)? Or is this more a matter of intellectual stories (Christianity, (post-)modern stories) contending for the life of the world? If this latter, fine, this is important too -- but how is this story then reflective of or manifested in the church? And how is it falsifiable? This latter is not impertinent even if we are prepared to concede that this case will not -- or even the Christian case ought not -- proceed by dialectic but by rhetoric.

Well, enough for now: I need to go and brew a good strong cuppa, so that I can get to Rigel 7 in time for tea.


* I imagine that this suspicion also reflects the degree to which I have been initiated into (or co-opted by?) the British theological guild -- or at least the English theological guild -- which seems to have an aversion to broad, sweeping, perhaps triumphant statements and prefers the nuanced, the qualified, and the interrogative -- cf. ++Rowan Williams.

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