Few, if any, other theologians could have written The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. The elegance of its style and the sophistication of its arguments are backed by knowledge of languages ancient and modern, familiarity with secular philosophies of the last third of the twentieth century, and a deep commitment to classic Christianity. Writing in polemic and apologetic mode, David Hart exposes the inconsistencies and inadequacies of a postmodernism that inexplicably continues to fascinate some Christian thinkers. When he turns dogmatic and evangelistic, Hart aims at an account of the faith that—like Jesus himself and his gospel—may prove strangely attractive and peacefully persuasive.
If a nutshell could contain this theological world of a book, it might suffice to put its thesis thus: Modern and soi-disant postmodern philosophies remain trapped in some very ancient antinomies and perennial dialectics that bespeak an ontology of violence; by contrast, the gospel offers an ontology of peace, whereby the unity and diversity of creation are embraced—analogically and participatively, redemptively and eschatologically—in the triune God who is manifested and imparted in historical concreteness in Jesus Christ. Such compression, however, would render banal the subtlety and richness of this remarkable work.
An introduction sketches the book’s key terms and thereby adumbrates its themes, especially the principal pair of beauty and the infinite, which (it is the author’s contention) Christian theology uniquely thinks together. God’s infinity is not formlessness but rather the beauty of a boundless agape, eternally and freely shared within the Trinity. This beauty—this exceeding weight of glory (kabod)—is displayed in the creation, which God brings into being without any “need” to do so. Created beauty—whose human form is Christ—is that in which God delights, made possible by creation’s very distance from God, a distance that can be traversed in utterly gracious gift and freely repeated return. God’s infinity is what allows the incessance of the gift and the endlessly modulated variety of the return.
The first third of the book launches into a critical history of Western philosophy—with its most recent phase of “late modernity” in the foreground—and its recurrent failure to allow itself to be opened up by “the Christian interruption.” Kant and the Romantics are guilty of a gnostic trivialization of the concretely beautiful in favor of the “sublime” as the veil of the unrepresentable. Nearer the present, the Gallic gurus and their own Germanic masters get their comeuppance. For all his passing nods to their occasional insights, he finds Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze, and Levinas massively wrong in their respective accounts of being.
While thus clearing the ground, this first main section also hints at the alternatives that will be offered in the rest of the book. There Hart provides a “minor dogmatics” arranged under the headings of Trinity, creation, salvation, and eschaton. The governing concept is the trinitarian perichoresis: the life of the divine persons is that of eternal mutual self-donation and self-reception, which “unnecessarily” overflows as the act of creation and brings home the creatures in salvation. The author’s debts in the tradition are chiefly to Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor from the East, and to Augustine and Bonaventure from the West. On the Western front, a nuanced reading of Anselm introduces some qualification into the Abelardian soteriology that is currently in favor and that (in an Eastern mode) predominates in this book. Not surprisingly, it is Hans Urs von Balthasar who emerges as the most influential theologian among the moderns.
God the Holy Trinity constitutes the aboriginal peace. The Christian understanding of God is as “a perichoresis of love, a dynamic coinherence of the three divine persons, whose life is eternally one of shared regard, delight, fellowship, feasting, and joy.” In the divine and aboriginal ontology, therefore, difference is peaceful, not conflictual, and distance allows communion rather than entailing separation. “Creation is divine glory, told anew, and so its aesthetic variety is nothing but the different modes and degrees with which participated being is imparted.” The dialogical character of God—Father and Son as address and response in the radiance of the Holy Spirit—allows the Christian story to be itself enacted, then told and thought. Theology is sustained by “the love of beauty” (philokalia). In this perspective, Bach can be deemed “the greatest of Christian theologians”: “[N]o one as compellingly demonstrates that the infinite is beauty and that beauty is infinite. It is in Bach’s music as nowhere else, that the potential boundlessness of thematic development becomes manifest: how a theme can unfold inexorably through difference, while remaining continuous in each moment of repetition, upon a potentially infinite surface of varied repetition.”
Sin and the fall are allotted no special chapter in this dogmatics (perhaps fittingly so, given that the nature of evil is a “privation of good”), but viewed as violence they run as a negative thread throughout the author’s entire argument. As Hart graphically puts it: Christian thought “treats this pervasive violence, inscribed upon being’s fabric, as a palimpsest, obscuring another text that is still written (all created being is ‘written’) but in the style of a letter declaring love.” Sin is a refusal of the invitation to taste and see the goodness of the Lord, a suppression of the divine gift possible only as “a perverse display of will.” It shows itself in the “all but impossible” failure to love God and neighbor.
Salvation comes by and in Christ, whose presence and history affect our entire race. His incarnation repeats the divine gift of creation; his life and death render the perfect human response; his resurrection inaugurates a new world, the true world restored to itself. The Christian claim and gospel is that the peace associated with the beginning and end of things “do[es] not merely stand outside human history, but enter[s] into it decisively in the resurrection of Christ; 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 into 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. The Christian tradition is nothing if not the evangel of this eschatological peace offered in the present moment, as the true form of difference and the style of its transmission: the evangel, that is, of the crucified as the Lord of history, in the perpetual power of the Spirit.”
For the human being, subjective entry into the “new” world occurs when one is attracted away from the earthly city, founded (as Augustine knew) upon violence, and one’s hitherto misdirected desires are aroused by the objectively, divinely beautiful. One is thus restored and reshaped according to the image of God now manifest again in Christ. The perfection toward which one strives—St. Paul being interpreted in light of Gregory of Nyssa’s notion of epektasis—is limitless, given the inexhaustibility of the God to be enjoyed.
The positive exposition in the dogmatics is offset by the criticisms made of twentieth-century theologians whose chief indebtedness in intellectual history is to Hegel. Against any move that makes the world and its history constitutive of God, rather than revelatory of Him, Hart insists upon the divine apatheia, the doctrine that the divine nature is beyond suffering and change, the status of which he rescues from that of a contemporary theological swearword. In a brilliant chapter that sets against Attic tragedy the “trinitarian drama of the cross and empty tomb,” the author castigates Donald MacKinnon and, to a lesser degree Nicholas Lash (Jürgen Moltmann is not dignified with a mention), for offering a suffering deity who in the end is not able to save. The resurrection is not to be considered as the vindication of the crucifixion but rather of the crucified Christ. The divine kenosis (God’s self-emptying) is always simultaneously a plerosis (God’s fullness). Even Balthasar is slyly rebuked for his “Holy Saturday” theology “with its broad rejection of the traditional triumphalistic imagery of hell’s harrowing (a rejection, mercifully, that is progressively moderated in successive volumes of his [Balthasar’s] Theodramatik).”
In concluding the book, Hart returns to the philosophical attack. He effectively deconstructs the deceptively benign hermeneutics of pluralism that is patterned after “the market’s endless fluidity” and has, in fact, its own clandestine master narrative (“the story of no stories”), its own metaphysical assumptions (“the truth of no truths”) that set limits to the claims of other narratives. In truth, no neutrality is possible. Some other master narratives (Hart does not say which or how) may have features that make them a preparation for the gospel, but they are all there, at any rate in part, to be defeated by the Christian story. At least in the context of Western culture, Nietzsche’s “Antichrist” is the ultimate rival, whose story of violence the Christian story includes and contradictingly surpasses. The “war of the narratives” is a fight to the death that—in the nature of the case and counter to some historic instances—must be conducted by Christians without violence, peacefully. The cost may be martyrdom.
Despite “the Church’s frequent failure to embody the good it proclaims,” the “loveliness of the practice of Christian charity” belongs to evangelical witness. The “motion of charity,” exemplified in the saints, may draw the viewer into “another radiance, another ambit of vision, a different aesthetic of being, in which one finds some measure of liberation from the self and its baser impulses.”
My most substantial hesitation about the book concerns its failure to put a brake on the drive toward universalism that Gregory of Nyssa propels. Hart coyly admits that “Orthodox tradition does not authorize” him to defend Gregory’s “inevitable” universalism. But he himself seems relieved, on his own account, to notice a tendency in Eastern theologians to view hell, if not as (with Gregory) simply “purgation,” then as self-inflicted privation rather than perdition. That, however, may not take seriously enough what Maximus says about the eschatological encounter of all persons with the kingdom of God, either according to grace or apart from grace—which might make hell “the absolute proximity of God’s glory without the interval of the gift.” It is not clear that an account of evil as nonbeing requires that nothing shall in the end be lost.
If it were possible to wish that an already long book should be longer, I might plead for a somewhat thicker description of the “beauty of Christ” beyond the few allusive strokes Hart offers. The transfiguration of Jesus receives no attention, which is odd for an Orthodox writer. The systematician’s characteristic task, of course, differs from that of the exegete, the iconographer, the liturgist, and the hagiographer—yet one could wish for more passages like the biblical encomium on wine, the interpretation of Peter’s tears, and the last-page evocations from the Gospel stories of the risen Lord’s encounters: with Mary Magdalene in the garden, with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and with the seven fishermen at the lakeside.
The book makes dazzling use of the riches of literate English, while shunning the puerile puns of the postmoderns. It is also studded with instances of splendid invective, all of it, of course, grounded in an aboriginal—and leading to an eschatological—peace.
Unless you have a week to spare, don’t—yet—pick up this book. If and when you are ready to devote several days of close study to it, read it and you will be amply rewarded. This magnificent and demanding volume should establish David Bentley Hart, around the world no less than in North America, as one of his generation’s leading theologians.
Geoffrey Wainwright holds the Cushman chair of Christian Theology at Duke University.