The Hart of Rene Girard—Part 1


There’s a Youtube interview (never mind the link) with David Bentley Hart in which Hart discusses Rene Girard’s work. Unfortunately the audio recording makes understanding Hart impossible.

I’ve kept an open ear online for announcements of an interview or essay in which Hart describes his appreciation for and criticisms of Girard, but nothing forthcoming. I did, however, manage to find enough of Hart’s thoughts on Girard in Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (BOI, 347-353), relevant portions of which I’ve reproduced below. I’ll leave this Part 1 to Hart and return with a Part 2 to reflect upon his assessment. If you have BOI and are a fan of Girard as I am, take advantage of the whole passage. Hart writes:

The myth of the cosmos as a precarious equilibrium of countervailing forces, an island of order amidst and infinite ocean of violent energy – which is also the myth of the polis or the empire – belongs principally to a sacral order that seeks to contain nature’s violence within the stabilizing forms of a more orderly kind of violence: the sheer waste and destructiveness of the cosmos must be held at bay and controlled, by a motion at once apotropaic – repelling chaos by appeasing its chthonian [pronounced /Kthounian/ or /Thounian/, meaning “pertaining to the underworld”] energies and rationalizing them in structures of Apollonian order – and economic – recuperating what is lost or sacrificed in the form of a transcendent credit, a numinous power reinforcing the regime that sacrifice serves…This is the sacrificial logic that theology is called upon to reject: the commerce of the totality, which is overcome by the infinite gesture of Christ’s sacrifice.

Can, though, sacrifice defeat sacrifice? Is not the cross of Christ another myth of peace won through violence, of chaos and death subdued by a propitiatory offering, and of, indeed (as Nietzsche said), the infinite multiplication of debt rather than its discharge? One would obviously wish to say not, but one must also have a care that, in making one’s argument, one does not fail to account for the element of oblation in the story of salvation. A salutary example, both for good and ill, of how delicate a matter it is to argue against the idea of the cross as divine violence is Rene Girard; no one else has made so great an issue of the difference between the death of Christ and the death of the “sacrificial” victim. Girard’s most extensive treatment of propitiatory exclusion is found in The Scapegoat, where he draws an absolute distinction between the mythology that dictates that religions make room, on ritual occasions, for disorder in subordination to order and those biblical narratives that tell their story from the perspective of the victim of both that disorder and that order. Mythologies, according to Girard, generally reflect the thinking of the class of persecutors; and “[s]trong in their righteousness, and convinced that their victim is truly guilty, persecutors have no reason to be troubled” (104). Not that persecutors are always creatures of malice more often than not they are guardians of the public weal, whose prudence prevents violence from erupting into riot, warfare, or internecine strife. Their sacrificial economics is simply the art of responsible politics. Of Caiaphas’s remark that it is better that one die than that the nation perish, for instance, Girard writes: “Caiaphas is stating the…political reason…for the scapegoat: to limit violence as much as possible bot to turn to it, if necessary, as a last resort to avoid an even greater violence. Caiaphas is the incarnation of politics at its best, not its worst. No one has ever been a better politician (113). And so, “Caiaphas is the perfect sacrificer who puts victims to death to save those who live. By reminding us of this John emphasizes that every real cultural decision has a sacrificial character (decider, remember, is to cut the victim’s throat) that refers back to an unrevealed effect of the scapegoat, the sacred type of representation of persecution” (114). For Girard this means that theologians who speak of Christ’s death (at least in its salvific function) as a sacrifice “once more make sacred the violence that has been divested of its sacred character by the Gospel text (126); and in so doing they lose sight of the evangel that truly sets free: “The good news is that scapegoats can no longer save men, the persecutors’ accounts of their persecutions are no longer valid, and truth shines into dark places. God is not violent, the true God has nothing to do with violence, and he speaks to us not through distant intermediaries but directly. The Son he sends us is one with him. The Kingdom of God is at hand” (189). In Things Hidden Since the Foundations of the World Girard goes so far as to advocate a “non-sacrificial reading of the gospel text”: the Bible from the beginning seeks to unwind the narrative of sacrifice, he says, taking the side of Abel against Cain, whose violence is indeed the founding of cities; the crucifixion is, thus, in no sense a sacrifice (180); for the notion of divine violence is no part of the Gospel story (189). Girard sees the profound logic of Scripture, as a whole, as lying in its constant movement away from the mythology of sacrifice (205-6), even as the presence of sacrificial and exclusionary themes causes currents of contradiction to run through its texts: he contrasts (to the former’s discredit) the stories of humanity’s expulsion from Eden and that of Johns prologue, which speaks of God’s exclusion by a violent world (247-76); and he does not hesitate to take the book of Hebrews to task for trafficking in sacrificial motifs and for, in consequence, implicating God in the persecution of the victim (227-31).

That Girard’s arguments suffer from an occasional want of subtlety scarcely needs be said; in particular, his failure adequately to distinguish different senses of sacrifice from one another leads him all too often to treat the history of Israel’s faith as a stark opposition between a sacrificial cult and a prophetic tradition that has rejected sacrifice, causing him in consequence to overlook the manifold meanings inherent in Israel’s many sacrificial practices, the dependency of the prophetic tradition upon the language of sacrifice, and the ways in which the life and death of Christ are received in Christian thought as perfecting God’s covenant with Israel – even insofar as that covenant involves sacrifices. If Christ’s death overcomes a certain sacrificial order, it also fulfills one. Still, Girard’s observations must not be casually dismissed: it would obviously be repellent, for instance, for a Christian theologian to make of the crucifixion a kind of justification for capital punishment; but within a certain understanding of sacrifice, the immolation of the hostia and the execution of the criminal belong to the same motion of exclusion, the same inhibition of chaos, the same economic gesture; and this is a distinction that cannot be ignored. If the language of sacrifice in Christian thought did properly refer to an economy of exchange, such that God were appeased in the slaughter of a victim and his wrath were simply averted by way of a prudential violence of which he approved (and Flagellation of Christ, ca. 1900.who can deny that many Christians have imagined their faith in just these terms?), then indeed the Christian God would be a God of violence, and the Christian evangel of peace would simply dissemble another economy of violence and debt – one that, in fact (Nietzsche winning the field), has been monstrously magnified. Here, as nowhere else, this book’s initial question proves most perilous to ask: 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 glamor of violence? And this is by no means an easy question to answer: contrary to Girard’s contention, the presence of sacrificial language in the New Testament is so deeply constitutive of Christian soteriology (even in its overcoming of sacrificial models of cosmic order) that it cannot simply be dispelled by drawing a firm demarcation between the site of the persecutor and the site of the victim, between the place of eminence and the place of abjection. Girard is right to make this distinction, of course, and even right to do so with a degree of prophetic fervor; but the dangers of his method are many: he risks leaving Israel behind and so, in consequence, the world.

The Christian story of salvation concerns not the descent of some gnostic savior bearing tidings of an alien God, but the covenant that God makes with Israel and the covenant he makes, consequently, with all flesh; it is in the history of the world he elects; it is in his people, the Jews, that God instates an order of infinite giving that responds to the infinity of his gift in creating, and that stands apart from the hierarchies of worldly power. It is only in fulfilling – indeed, in being the substance of – this covenant that Christ makes the story that God tells concerning creation triumph over the false and violent stories that sinful humanity tells of the world. Girard’s treatment of the matter, however, in its most extreme moments, makes out the salvific motion of Christ’s life to be almost purely negative, a motion of alienation, running dialectically against history. Not that this is Girard’s intention: he intends that the story of the victim be recognized as a true story and one that must be liberated from the narratives of the persecutor; but the effect of his account of salvation is that Christ comes to look almost like a Marcionite savior, who does not so much inaugurate the liberating history of God with us as describe a path of flight from time. Rather than the form that stands in the midst of creation to declare the true shape of creation, Christ looks suspiciously like a figure who saves simply by pointing beyond every economy – and every world but society is exchange, giving and taking, even in some sense sacrificing one thing for another, offering one thing up for another. Does Christ then offer a new order of exchange and sacrifice, or is he simply the abnegation of human solidarity, a revolutionary outcry that forever interrupts the story of the world but tells no story of its own? Is salvation merely the liberation of souls from the bondage of the world? Again, Girard intends to say no such thing; but where, in the world, does the victim have a story of his own?…

There are many sacrificial moments in Israel’s response to God, of course, and so Israel’s cultic practices cannot be reduced to one essential thing univocally termed “sacrifice.” There are indeed practices of violence and exclusion, but also practices of sanctification and reconciliation, thanksgiving and adoration. Before all else, though, sacrifice is a qurban, a drawing nigh, an approach to God who graciously approaches his people in love. If there are currents of stress in the history of Israel’s cult, they do not run between the idea of sacrifice as such and a prophetic rejection of sacrifice, but between different ways of understanding the motion of sacrifice that Israel is, the gift it makes of itself – of its body – to the God who gives it its being and its name…

…For Christian thought the true order of sacrifice is that which corresponds to the motion of the divine perichoresis, the Father’s giving of the Son, the Son’s execution of all the Father is and wills, the Spirit’s eternal offering back up of the gift in endless variety, each person receiving from and giving to each other in infinite love. The pagan or secular sacrificial regime obeys the logic of the boundary, the “justice” of demarcations, the blow with which Romulus slays Renus; the sacrifice that Christ is obeys the life of the God who is apeiron, aperilepton, boundless, impossible to “leap over,” but crossing every boundary in absolute freedom to declare his love…

This is why the cross of Christ should be seen not simply as a sacrifice, but as the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice. It is pure crisis, a confrontation between worlds, the raising up of one out of the grip of the other. Within Israel’s history the most important practice of sacrifice is ultimately confined to the temple in Jerusalem alone, and this is entirely appropriate. Israel’s offering does not express a sacrificial logic simply inherent in being, practicable in any setting, for purposes of auspication or haruspication or private benefit, but is the single action of God’s people, the extraordinary motion of Israel’s ceaseless exodus toward God, to whom all being belongs, peacefully, and who therefore has no need for it to be portioned to him in an economy of violence. It is this same motion toward God that is made perfect in the life of Christ, in the gift he makes of himself to the Father by the entirety of who he is. The crucifixion is what happens to this sacrifice, even as its seal and perfect accomplishment, but not as such its event; the cross is the response of political power to Christ’s self-oblation, which is the entire kenotic and faithful unfolding of his mission. There is a double motion in the crucifixion, of gift and immolation: Christ giving himself to God in the entirety of his life lived toward the Father, unto death, and the violence of worldly power folding back upon this motion in an attempt to contain it.


The beatitude of sacrifice

Th5179290237_63633e1bd7_bis, then, is the sacrifice of Christ – this is its infinite extravagance and its essential peace. The saving exchange that occurs for us in the incarnate Word is perfectly expressed for Cyril in John 20:17, when the risen Christ says, “I am going to my Father and your Father; to my God and your God”: for here we see how the Son’s Father by nature has become our Father by grace, precisely because our God by nature has become his God through condescension. Indeed, for Cyril, whenever Christ calls upon his Father as “my God,” He does so on our behalf and in our place: especially in the cry of dereliction from the cross. And this is our salvation: for when the infinite outpouring of the Father in the Son, in the joy of the Spirit, enters our reality, the apatheia of God’s eternal dynamic and replete life of love consumes every pathos in its ardor; even the ultimate extreme of the kenosis of the Son in time – crucifixion – is embraced within and overcome by the everlasting kenosis of the divine life.  Because divine apatheia is the infinite interval of the going forth of the Son from the Father in the light of the Spirit, every interval of estrangement we fabricate between ourselves and God – sin, ignorance, death itself – is always already exceeded in him: God has always one infinite further in his own being as the God of self-outpouring charity than we can venture in our attempts to escape him, and our most abysmal sin is as nothing to the abyss of divine love. And as the Word possesses this trinitarian impassibility in his eternal nature, and so as God cannot change or suffer, as a man he can suffer all things, bear any wound – indeed, bear it more fully than any other could, in absolute depth – not as wrath or defeat but as an act of saving love: as Easter. And while God’s everlasting outpouring, which is for him a life of infinite joy, in assuming the intervals of our estrangement from God, appears for us now under the form of tragic pain and loss, the joy is the original and ultimate truth of who he is, is boundless, and cannot be interrupted – and so conquers all our sorrow; he is already higher than the vaulted heavens of the gods and lower than the most abysmal depths of hell – as bliss, as love; our abandonment of God, and the abandonment of the Son and of every soul in death, is always already surpassed by the sheer abandon which the Father begets the and breathes forth his being. And the terrible distance of Christ’s cry of human dereliction, despair, and utter godforsakenness – “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” – is enfolded within and overcome by the ever greater distance and always indissoluble unity of God’s triune love: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

– David Bentley Hart (The Beauty of the Infinite)

As I thought about this passage, about the way God’s trinitarian beatitude cannot be divided or estranged from itself in the triune act of God’s self-knowing and love, I thought of fractals – the whole in every part – every part the whole. It’s impossible to fragment a fractal, to disrupt its infinitude. If you break off a piece, the whole is present in it. Even if the contentment of the divine identity is subjected to the horrors of human crucifixion, even in this apparently fragmented moment, the whole truth, beauty and goodness of God are fully present.

Falling into consciousness

maxresdefaultI’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to each of the presenters at David Bentley Hart’s NDIAS Colloquium “Mind, Soul, World: Consciousness in Nature.” All excellent presentations – and there’s the added benefit in most cases of having the Q&A follow the presentations. Most are on Youtube. One enjoyably provocative presentation was that of Duke’s Warren Professor of Catholic Thought, Paul Griffiths.

Hearing of Paul Griffiths’ view of consciousness being a result or an artifact of the Fall, I wasn’t inclined to find much in his presentation to agree with. But hearing him describe his point of view, I appreciated it a lot. I’m still reflecting on it, but I will say this much – those aspects of consciousness that Griffiths suspects are fallen because they reflect deliberative acts that occur at a distance from an immediately of knowing and which objectify the being of the world over and against the being of the self, needn’t be viewed as artifacts of a fall into consciousness even though such deliberation is something less than ideal.

Consciousness as a deliberative enterprise aimed at constructing an understanding of the self is, it seems to me, God-given in the sense of being the necessary beginning context in which are moved to final rest in God. But it is fall or failure to be finite in this sense. Maximus got it right – we could not be created already in possession of the beatific vision. That vision and the rest it gives are a creative achievement of divine and human cooperation, the end of a certain kind of conscious movement that will surely end when it rests fully in a vision of itself as indwelt in, by and as Christ. What will a consciousness at rest look like? Imagine being conscious of yourself and the world without your identity ever being at stake, without needing to invest a single thought in establishing who you are or having to negotiate your identity in terms of any doubts whatsoever, or in light of survival needs or anxieties about relationships, of motivated by even the possibility of threats or fears of loss, or struggling against the slightest impediment to you fullest, imaginable existence – yourself, whole, at rest, and one with God and all things (as the Christian vision has it). None of the energies of consciousness nor the cognitive powers of perception or imagination will be spent deliberating any of these preoccupations that now consume 99.99% of our attention.

The problems and impediments Griffith points out are themselves best thought of as the structure that makes gnomic (deliberative) willing possible, and that kind of deliberative movement is itself a necessary aspect of a good but finite creation that must “move” (in the Maximian sense) toward deification and final rest. But it’s not an evil or privation of its being to do so, though it is the possibility of evil. So while the aspects Griffiths complains about are not our end as such, they are our God-given beginning and so needn’t be viewed as a primeval fall into consciousness.

Dancing debris

0320c07f49bcc209af673b9e6c210231I happened upon this portion of a David Bentley Hart interview and it brought me back to the center – to the truth of God’s immeasurable and undiminished delight accessible in and to all things.

Question to Hart: So where was God in the tsunami?

Where was God? In and beyond all things, nearer to the essence of every creature than that creature itself, and infinitely outside the grasp of all finite things.

Almost all the reviews of The Doors of the Sea that I have read have recognized that, at the heart of the book, is a resolute insistence upon and adoration of the imperishable goodness of creation, an almost willfully naive assertion that it is the beauty and peace of the created world that truly reveal its original and ultimate nature, while the suffering and alienation and horror of mortal existence are, in an ultimate sense, fictions of fallen time, chains and veils and shadows and distortions, but no part of God’s will for his creatures. This is why, at one point in the book, I grant the Gnostics of old the validity of their questions, though I go on to revile the answers at which they arrived.

To see the world in the Christian way – which, as I say in the book, requires the eye of charity and a faith in Easter – is in some sense to venture everything upon an absurd impracticality (I almost sound Kierkegaardian when I say it that way). But, as I was writing the book, I found myself thinking again and again of a photograph I had seen in the Baltimore Sun. The story concerned the Akhdam, the lowest social caste in Yemen, supposedly descended from Ethiopians left behind when the ancient Ethiopian empire was driven out of Arabia in the sixth century, who live in the most unimaginable squalor. In the background of the photo was a scattering of huts constructed from crates and shreds of canvas, and on all sides barren earth; but in the foreground was a little girl, extremely pretty, dressed in tatters, but with her arms outspread, a look of delight upon her face, dancing. To me that was a heartbreaking picture, of course, but it was also an image of something amazing and glorious: the sheer ecstasy of innocence, the happiness of a child who can dance amid despair and desolation because her joy came with her into the world and prompts her to dance as if she were in the midst of paradise.

She became for me the perfect image of the deep indwelling truth of creation, the divine Wisdom or Sophia who resides in the very heart of the world, the stainless image of God, the unfallen. I’m waxing quite Eastern here, I know, but that, I would say, is the nature of God’s presence in the fallen world: his image, his bride, the deep joy and longing of creation, called from nothingness to be joined to him. That child’s dance is nothing less than the eternal dance of divine Wisdom before God’s throne, the dance of David and the angels and saints before his glory; it is the true face of creation, which God came to restore and which he will not suffer to see corruption.

Divine Sophia and the experience of wonder

54bc1ecec0311_-_hbz-sophia-loren-20-1964-rexusa-210677bq-xlBack in 2013 at Biola’s Art Symposium, David Bentley Hart suggested that true beauty isn’t always reducible to the predictably neat and tidy forms of beauty classically understood as ‘right proportionality’. An example Hart gives of disproportionate beauty is Sophia Loren’s face, “magnificently beautiful,” he says, but “nothing in it of classical proportion.” Conversely, he notes, objects that possess all the ideal features of proportionality often “bore us with their banality.” Rembrandt’s obscure canvases are beautiful, while the glittery canvases of Thomas Kinkade are repellent.

It was while listening through Hart’s Biola presentation, together with working with staff on our upcoming Advent sermon series, that I got to thinking again on the experience of “wonder” (which Aristotle believed to be the beginning of philosophy).

The reason Hart’s talk and our Advent series planning meeting got connected in my mind is because our Advent theme is “Capture the Wonder.” There ya go. So obviously I asked: What really is the experience of wonder? Why do we desire the experience of wonder so irresistibly? And what ought an Advent sermon series branded “Capture the Wonder” urge upon listeners regarding the satisfaction of this desire?

As I thought on our theme I couldn’t help but invert it to “Captured by Wonder.” It seems to me there’s a mistaken presumption in the standard phrase. A more proper perspective on the order of grace and creation, I think, sees the experience of wonder not as captured by us, but as capturing us. After all, “there is no one who seeks God.” (Rom 3.11) It is God who seeks, his beauty that captures, his wonder that entices, enthralls, and defines us. Wonder precedes us, creates us, arouses our desire, draws out our hunger. There’s a real danger (a threat to true wonder) then in supposing that God is found by us or that wonder is somehow captured by us at all. At best these are as true of the experience of God as is “sunrise” a true description of what the earth and sun actually do when we look eastward every morning. The deeper, more revealing narrative is that we, not the sun, are doing the moving. Similarly, our search for meaning and fulfillment ends precisely in the realization that we are sought by God, captured by him, and that if there is any evading going on it is we who evade the wonder that frees and fulfills us. The “advent” of Christmas, then, is creation’s arrival at its intended end, earth’s being caught up into heaven, humanity taken up into divinity. We don’t capture the wonder. It captures us.

What is ‘wonder’? Synonyms pop up—awe, astonishment, fascination, amazement. These all describe a certain ineffable pleasure, the satisfying of an appetite of the heart, a beatitude possessed (or let us now say, as possessing us) in the perceiving of beauty. It might be some event in the natural order of things or encountered through a work of art. But the proper order of grace and creation is important. Why am I so inclined to invert “capture the wonder” to “captured by the wonder”? Because a proper perspective on the relation is precisely where ‘grace’ is encountered. There’s a gratuity and graciousness to our existence that is present and offered to us in every experience of wonder. We intuitively know when we experience the beauty of a sunset, or are caught up in the rapture of a musical composition, or sit before a Renoir unable to exhaust the ways it mystifies us, that we are being addressed and possessed by something not under our control, something we do not define but which defines us precisely in its power to draw us out of ourselves and in drawing us out of ourselves define our most inward depths. This is as true for the artist who paints or composes as it is for the art aficionado, as true for Monet as for the tourist who visits him in the Musée d’Orsay.

da408ced982d40d63e022733cf831ad9First of all, then, the experience of wonder is an experience of grace, the realization that I am at home in the world, that I am welcome in it, and that the truest thing about my being here at all is the experienced beauty of the world in its gracious giftedness and goodness.

Secondly, the experience of wonder is also beautifying. When we wonder at some beauty, we are made beautiful. The experience of beauty is itself beautiful. So anyone experiencing beauty is beautiful to the extent one perceives and opens oneself to beauty’s transforming wonder, for there is something beautiful in/to us as well, in our very openness to the world. In our experience of wonder we reflect the beauty around us and so experience not only the world but ourselves as beautiful. We wonder at ourselves wondering and so become all wonder. We experience ourselves as painted into being.

Not only is the experience of wonder firstly an experience of the grace that gives and welcomes our being, and not only is it a beautifying (sanctifying) wonder, but, thirdly, wonder is also an experience of the essential unity of all things. Not only are there beautiful things in the world, but all beautiful things are a single, unified beautiful “thing,” a single beautiful act of being.

Fourthly, every experience of wonder is irreducible to itself (and I confess here the influence of David Hart’s piece “The Mirror of the Infinite” on Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of creation). That is, no beauty in creation that excites true wonder in us, not even the whole of creation contemplated as a single beautiful thing, can offer an account of itself. The experience of wonder is an experience of transcendence and thus a token and reflection of an Artist (not just art), a primal Gift Giver (not just gift), a Beautiful One who makes beautiful (but who is not made beautiful by the things he makes).

Finally, in all this I was drawn back to Celia Deane-Drummond’s comments about divine wonder, about the fact that God also ‘wonders’, that he is wonderful, that he is a God of Wonder, and to comments I then made:

I imagine God to be ‘wonderful’, to experience and know himself with an infinite sense of wonder, not because he is forever discovering things about himself he hasn’t always known, but because there is nothing possibly boring or redundant about God. God is never bored with himself. That is (partly I suppose) his infinitude. The Father’s eternal begetting of his Logos is an exclamatory act (!), an eternal “Wow!” whose utterance is God’s own existence.

Mirroring the Infinite: No tain, no pain

mirror-art-kaleidoscope-3-468x468A couple of lines from David Bentley Hart’s “The Mirror of the Infinite: Gregory of Nyssa on the Vestigia Trinitatis” (Modern Theology 18:4 | October 2002) from a piece I read some time ago but which I picked this week in an attempt to occupy my mind with something as far and as different as possible from the madness which is American politics.

It’s a splendid piece. The first quote below is from Section I which summarizes trinitarian theology. The second quote is from the first half or so of Section II. Enjoy!

Our being is synthetic and bounded; just as (again to borrow a later theological vocabulary) the dynamic inseparability but incommensurability in us of essence and existence is an ineffably distant analogy of the dynamic identity of essence and existence in God, the constant pendulation between inner and outer that constitutes our identity is an ineffably distant analogy of that boundless bright diaphaneity of coinherence, in which the exteriority of relations and the interiority of identity in God are one, each Person wholly reflecting and containing and indwelling each of the others. Because for us personality is synthetic, composite, successive, and finite, we are related always in some sense “over against,” in a fragmentary way, and to be with others always involves for us a kind of death, the limit of our being. In God, though, given the simplicity of his essence, there is an absolute coincidence of relation and unity. For God, the “inwardness” of the other is each Person’s own inwardness, the “outwardness” of the other is each Person’s outwardness and manifestation.

One word came to mind upon finishing this paragraph—“fractal.” Can you see why? Fractals both contain and are contained by their content and form. They are a “coincidence of relation and unity,” a visual diaphaneity of coinherence. This shouldn’t surprise me, I thought. Wouldn’t the source and ground and giver of a world whose being and nature manifest such fractality need to be infinite as well?

mirror1A second more lengthy portion spoke to me. Honestly, after this past year’s election cycle and particularly the role my own faith tradition played in the final result, I have wanted to give up on the Church (which my entire adult life has been dedicated to vocationally). I’m still struggling. I know it sounds weird, but I was enjoying this next portion of Hart for the escape that it provided my wanting to leave all thought of the church behind when the passage came to an uncomfortable rest in the final sentence’s nearly final word: “church.” “Crap,” I thought. There’s no escaping Christ’s Body in the earth.

Certainly if one were to attempt to isolate the one motif that pervades Gregory’s thought most thoroughly, and that might best capture in a single figure the rationality that unifies it throughout, it would be that of the mirror: the surface in which light is gathered, creating depths where none previously existed, and by which it is reflected back to the source of its radiance. One might say, to being with, that for Gregory all knowledge consists in theoria of the reflected, and this is in some sense so even within the life of God: the Son is the eternal image in which the Father contemplates and loves his essence, and thus the Father can never be conceived of without his Son, for were he alone he would have no light, truth, wisdom,, life, holiness, or power; “if ever the brightness of the Father’s glory did not shine forth, that glory would be dark and blind.” This “mirroring” is that one original act of knowledge in which each of the Persons shares; the Only Begotten, says Gregory, who dwells in the Father, sees the Father in himself, while the Spirit searches out the deeps of God. God himself is, one is tempted to say, an eternal play of the invisible and the visible, the hidden Father made luminously manifest in the infinite icon of his beauty, God “speculating” upon himself by way of his absolute self-giving, in the other. And it is from this original “circle of glory” that the “logic” of created being unfolds: a specular ontology, according to which creation is constituted as simply another inflection of an infinite light receiving God’s effulgence as that primordial gift that completes itself in summoning its own return into existence. Creation is only as the answer of light to light, a created participation in the self-donating movement of the Trinity, existing solely as the manifestation—the reflection—of the splendor of a God whose own being is manifestation: recognition and delight.

Even “material” nature, for Gregory, is entirely subsumed in this economy of reflectivity: the physical world, he says, in its interminable dialectic of constancy and change stands on the one hand in absolute contrast to divine reality, but, on the other hand, it mirrors within its extraordinary intricacy, magnitude, and inscrutability the incomprehensibility and majesty of God. And the beauty that perdures in the midst of the world’s ceaseless becoming excites in the soul a longing for the infinite beauty that it reflects. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that, for Gregory, apart from that reflex of light that lies at creation’s heart, there is no world to speak of at all. Gregory, like Basil before him, in various places denies that the world possesses any material substrate apart from the intelligible acts that constitute its perceptible qualities: the world of bodies is a confluence of “thoughts,” “bare concepts,” “words,” noetic “potentialities,” proceeding from the divine nature; its esse, one might say, is percipi. The phenomenal realm is not, says Gregory, formed from any underlying matter at all, for “the divine will is the matter and substance of created things (υλη και ουσια των δημιουργηματων),” the “matter, form (κατασκευη), and power (δυναμις) of the world.” The here below, it seems, is like a mirror without tain, a depth that is pure surface, and a surface composed entirely of the light that it reflects. Otherwise said, the physical world is a “primordial, archetypal, and true music,” a purely rhythmic and harmonious complication of movements—in which, adds Gregory, human nature can discover an image of itself.

The intelligible creation, however, is an even more thoroughly specular reality. For one thing, all talk of human “nature” most properly refers, in Gregory’s thought, not merely to some abstract set of properties instantiated in any given individual, but to the pleroma of all persons who come into existence throughout time, who together constitute, as in a single body, the one humanity that God first willed in fashioning a creature in his image, the ideal anthropos who dwells eternally in the wisdom and foresight of God, comprehended “altogether in its own plenitude.” This alone is truly that “God like thing (το θεοεικελον χρημα)” in whom God has condescended to impress his likeness. When, eschatologically, its temporal unfolding is complete and it is united to the Logos as his pure and glorious body, subjected to the Father, the form of Christ will be proclaimed, made visible in a body stamped with his shape, in whose every part the divine image will shine with equal brightness. Humanity, then, is nothing, either ideally or collectively, apart from its power to display in itself the “form and fashion” of its creator; and this final beauty—this unveiling of the divine likeness—can be glimpsed even now in the church, which Gregory describes as the mirror in which the face of the sun of righteousness, Christ, has become visible within creation…. (bold emphasis mine)

Vita ex nihilo

val-hammond-coeurFor a moment, think of creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) as vita ex nihilo (“living out of nothing”). It might let some light in on the what I’ve been trying to get at in exploring the Void.

In a comment intended to clarify the relation between the ‘natural’ and ‘gnomic’ will (between our ‘will’ as given and sustained by God as its ‘natural’ end, on the one hand, and its ‘deliberative’ capacity to determine itself relative to God, on the other), David Bentley Hart writes:

In the interval between these two movements [natural and gnomic] – both of which are rational – the rational soul becomes who God intends her to be or, through apostasy from her own nature, fabricates a distance between herself and God that is nothing less than the distance of dereliction. For, whatever we do, the desire of our natural will for God will be consummated; it will return to God, whether the gnomic will consents or not, and will be glorified with that glory the Son shares with the Father from eternity. And, if the gnomic will within us has not surrendered to its natural supernatural end, our own glorified nature becomes hell to us, that holy thing we cannot touch. Rejection of God becomes estrangement from ourselves, the Kingdom of God within us becomes our exile, and the transfiguring glory of God within us – through our [gnomic] refusal to submit to love – becomes the unnatural experience of reprobabtion. God fashions all rational natures for free union with himself, and all of creation as the deathless vessel of his eternal glory. To this end, he wills that the dependent freedom of the creature be joined to his absolute freedom; but an indispensable condition of what he wills is the real power of the creature’s deliberative will to resist the irresistible work of grace.” (emphasis mine)

All I want to pick out from this is its perspective on hell as the unwilling soul’s experience of God’s glory and beauty. I believe this is the standard Orthodox view of hell. What constitutes the torment of hell is not any kind of absolute absence of God to which the wicked are exiled, but rather the presence of God revealed to a heart and mind unwilling to receive him. Hell is unwelcomed intimacy. (Think of Sartre’s play “No Exit” which tells the story of three people bereft of eyelids and condemned to spend eternity together in a single room, hence Sartre’s “Hell is other people.”) Similarly, hell is how those who refuse God’s beauty in this life experience the revelation of it within themselves in the next. Their posture with respect to God, not God’s with respect to them, is their self-determined agony.

I think this is a kind of general principle true of all our struggles and difficulties throughout life. I’m not interested here in the doctrine of hell per se. I’m more interested in the idea that we create torment for ourselves by misrelating “within” a certain truth of God’s glory and beauty. I’m wondering if some of the difficulty that my passibilist friends (those who believe we are in a position to diminish and improve God’s experienced beatitude) have with the notion of an undiminished divine beatitude might be a reluctance to embrace the Void, i.e., the truth of our nothingness and contingency. It’s a very peculiar sort of self-awareness that goes beyond any academic recognition that we are not eternal, or self-sufficient, and that we depend upon God as Creator.

We want to mean something, to be something permanent. Fair enough. That’s our ‘natural’ will/desire at work. But for passibilist believers, this natural desire precedes rather than follows the truth that grounds it, and when that happens we misconstrue our ‘meaning’ as the difference we make to God rather than the difference God makes to us and so misinterpret our God-given desire to make-meaning. We may recognize that we “live and move and have our being in God” (Acts 17.28), but we live by construing our fullest meaning otherwise, partly at least, as the sense or measure in which God lives and moves and has his being in us. So to be in the presence of a beauty and delight that doesn’t need us, that isn’t improved upon or completed by us, ends up being viewed by passibilists not as the fulfillment of desire but as its denial and so as a kind of torment. Such was my own experience.

This all makes me think of hell as passibilism’s last stand, as the experience of wanting to mean something prior to and independent of what God means (to himself and to us), of wanting one’s meaning to be a meaning one introduces into the Meaning-Maker (God) who is source and giver of life, as opposed to an utterly receptive mode of meaning-making as vita ex nihilo, i.e., as accepting and celebrating one’s existence as a mode of divine self-expression. When this is thought not to be enough, glory and beauty become torment.

Freedom as creative liberty among loving options


I want to try to express something I’m unable to make sense of in David Bentley Hart’s view of choice and freedom. I’ll start with very briefly stating his view of human “freedom” as the flourishing of created nature in its telos or end in God as the Good (with which I agree). Then I’ll summarize his qualified view of “libertarian” choice as the “possibility of freedom, not its realization” (with which I also agree). Thirdly, I’ll re-introduce (having done so previously) his response to my question regarding the nature of human choice once the will is perfected in the Good. This is where my difficulty gets introduced. Lastly, I’ll try to express what I think is an inconsistency or at least an unresolved issue (or perhaps my own stupidity) at the heart of his objection to a certain understanding of creative liberty as spontaneous.

First, what is true freedom? To restate it simply – freedom is the uninhibited, unhindered flourishing of nature in its final and proper end. It is the teleological fulfillment of nature. It is not an unqualified voluntarism or pure spontaneity free from all givens, unconstrained by any orientation of the will towards transcendent ends. We are finally free when our will rests fulfilled in God, when we want nothing but God. Our truest freedom, then, cannot be an absolute libertarianism or unrestricted voluntarism.

Second, though our truest freedom is not an unrestricted libertarianism, a certain libertarian exercise of the will is the necessary means for realizing our final freedom. Hart seems to be clear on this as well. We don’t start our journey toward fulfillment already free. We must “become” free, and that becoming entails being at liberty explicitly and intentionally to determine ourselves with respect to the Good. This exercise of will is the gnomic will. The ‘natural’ will is the will’s fundamental and irresistible teleological orientation toward the Good (God). It is the will in its givenness. The ‘gnomic’ will is the will in its less-than-perfected state, subject to ignorance and mortality and thus capable of misrelating to (or perhaps rather “within”) the Good.

As passionate as Hart is about exposing the philosophical and theological bankruptcy of any absolute voluntarism, he has on several occasions made it clear that the will must exercise its way into its final rest and freedom. I’ll use “libertarian” (because Hart does) to express this gnomic, deliberative capacity for self-determination and as that context in which the will must resolve itself finally in its ‘natural’ orientation.

Third, with this distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘gnomic’ in mind, let me reintroduce here a question I put to Hart over at Fr Aidan’s place last year and which I’ve reflected on here. I asked:

On p. 320 of Beauty of the Infinite, with reference to Michel de Certeau’s “Autorités Chrétiennes et Structures Sociales,” you concede the possibility that in our final fulfilled form Christ offers (in Certeau’s words) “a style of existence that ‘allows’ for a certain kind of creativity and that opens a new series of experiences” as opposed to, say, Christ specifying every particular of our continuing existence without remainder (even if, as you say, Christ comprises the fullness of every contingent expression).

My question has to do with created agency as fulfilled in Christ and enjoying a ‘scope of loving possibilities’ within which to freely/creatively determine how it shall reflect divine beauties. Going with Certeau’s suggestion, might we imagine the logoi of created beings as embodying or specifying a “range” or “scope” of beautiful expression and not the particular of every form? The divine will (or logoi) would terminate not in the final form of creaturely expression but in the range of creative possibilities offered to creatures to uniquely shape their expressive form. Would the gnomic will retain a unique function in this case? (emphasis mine)

Hart’s reply:

Sure, works for me. I know that Maximus often speaks of the gnomic will as simply the sinful and deviating will. Something tells me – more a phenomenology of consciousness than a moral metaphysics – that it might be better to think of it as the “third moment” of the conscious act, so to speak, the first two being the primordial intention of the natural will and the power of intellect (both being rational). Then the gnomic will is that supremely rational moment of (ideally) assent or love or creative liberty that completes the “trinitarian” movement of the mind and makes it genuinely rationally free. That is obscure. Sorry. But, yes, I prefer to think that, healed, [the gnomic will] remains, and that it makes each soul’s reflection of and participation in divine beauty a unique inflection or modulation of the whole, which makes each individual indispensable, of course, to that glory. (emphasis mine)

fullsizerender-44This is where something very curious arises. As I then argued, the relevant point here is the terminus of the divine will being the provision of a ‘scope’ or ‘range’ of beautiful expression, not the specific form that expression finally takes in created particulars. Please think on that. Once the gnomic will is definitively fixed in its desire for God, its deliberative capacity for “creative liberty” is left to self-determine within a scope of beautiful possibilities, what Hart calls “creative liberty.” That liberty is of extreme metaphysical interest to me.

Lastly then, let me try to express what I think is a problem here for Hart’s articulation of things. I’m probably misunderstanding him, but the problem as I see it has to do with Hart’s description of any choice between equally good ends as voluntarist and thus as not truly free, on the one hand, and the “creative liberty” of the will to determine itself within a scope of given possibilities on the other. If the divine will offers us a range of creative expression within which to uniquely self-determine, and those possibilities are all equally reflective of the good, and our truest freedom is equally instantiated in them all, then neither the principle of sufficient reason nor any aspect of nature entails one expression over the other. It is not enough to say the will is not impeded or hindered or that it does not suffer from any lack in its movements, though all that is true. There is the additional and very interesting question of the nature of the resolution of that movement ‘within the given’ when what is given is a scope or range of possibilities.

In the question and answer portion of his presentation at Notre Dame (57:47 to 1:00:30), Hart clarifies his view, stating that divine freedom “suffers no limit, inhibition, impediment or lack” (which is certainly true) “and therefore isn’t reducible to any sort of spontaneous choice between differing but morally indifferent ends.” He’s talking about divine will here, but he holds the notion as meaningless when expressing created freedom as well. All talk of a truly free determination within the Good, i.e., between equally loving (and thus morally indifferent with respect to each other) ends, is nonsense? This is what I question. As a possible example, consider my being faced with equally lovingly options relative to my wife; i.e., dinner out or a show on a particular evening (but not both). Flowers or chocolate on a particular occasion (but not both). Would spontaneity in this situation be a violation of freedom if the motivation remains love throughout? What else would a perfected creative liberty be but a certain species of playful spontaneity if God’s will for us terminates in a scope of beautiful possibilities and our truest freedom amounts to a creative choice among them? It seems to me that if our perfected wills can creatively express themselves in this sense, then spontaneity per se would be a fulfillment, not a violation, of our truest freedom. Perhaps there is a certain natural spontaneity to loving expression, i.e. God wills our improvisation. The wonderfully troubling question of course would be, Does God improvise? What must the divine freedom to create be if its reflection is us includes our capacity for indeterminate, creative, spontaneous expression?

My first evening with David Bentley Hart


I was visiting family in Baltimore and I needed a break. So on an overcast evening I found Theosis or Bust, a small, dimly lit library pub covered wall to wall in books and boasting a fine selection of libations (including Ouzo). They played an assortment of Catholic and Greek chants. A pub for intellectuals. As I waited for the barman Max (Maximus) to serve up a 16 year old Lagavulin (no ice), I turned to scope out a quiet corner near the Philokalia, and there he sat, a bearded man with a dark walking cane, wearing an ill-fitting sport coat with a “Do not disturb” sign on his table. He was reading Charles Hartshorne’s Creative Synthesis. DBH reading CH? Now that’s interesting, I thought. Max came through just then, so I strolled over and intruded:

“με συγχωρείτε” (Pardon me), I said, “but you wouldn’t happen to be Professor David Hart would you? And that wouldn’t be Charles Hartshorne you’re reading there, would it?” (careful to pronounce it “Hart’s Horn,” not “Hart Shorne”).

“Ποιος ζητά?” (Who’s asking?), he muttered without looking up, reaching for his cane and pulling it a bit closer.

Without saying a word, I lowered the volume of my own choosing that I brought along to cry over, Greg Boyd’s Trinity and Process: A Critical Evaluation and Reconstruction of Hartshorne’s Di-Polar Theism Towards a Trinitarian Metaphysics.

“Πρόστιμο” (Fine, whatever) fell out of him as he slowly raised his gaze above Hartshorne to check me out. “τραβήξτε μια καρέκλα” (Take a seat), he offered, training his eyes on the open bench opposite him. I slid in.

I’m sworn to secrecy about the conversations that followed. We were there until I know not when. All I can say is we spilled our souls to each other that night, drained Max of all his Lagavulin, singing all the Greek chants (while ignoring all the Latin ones) and cheering each other’s glass with “Opa!” At one point I toasted him with “На здоровье” (Na-zdorovie, “Cheers!”) which brought him to his feet in tears shouting “Bulgakov!”

We continue to meet at Theosis or Bust annually on cold, rainy nights. I can’t say when.

Hart-Norman on morality


I shared a portion of Hart’s comments re: consciousness. Toward the end of their discussion, Norman asks DBH about the proper grounds for morality, namely, whether some transcendent good is required to intelligibly ground morality. Normal doesn’t think any such transcendent ground is necessary. Hart responds:

“You say that what counts is compassion/charity. Why does it ‘count’? I’m asking this in a formal sense, not in a moral or emotional sense. It counts because in addition to that groundedness in sympathy, without which a moral life is impossible, there’s something else that can translate that into an imperative that goes beyond [recording break], and I’m talking about just the structure of moral desire. I’m not saying the good is necessarily there. I’m just saying how we encounter the world. It’s like the old issue with John Rawls, the political philosopher, his theory of justice—we can achieve a just society if we withdrawal to an original position where we pretend that we don’t know how we’re situated in society and then try [from there] to construct the just society. It’s an eminently sensible approach. The problem is he can’t account from within that system for the moral impulse to make that initial withdrawal. And so the question for me is, What happens in the structure of moral desire? (Just as in the structure of aesthetic desire, the desire for the truth…) And I’m saying you’re not going to be able to give an account of it. It simply rests in the facts on the ground. There will always be that element that’s found nowhere within the ensemble of natural facts, which is a transcendental structure. It’s an ecstatic movement towards that which is not simply concrete but that which allows you to see the concrete. “The light of the good,” is what Plato talks about, and I like that image. It allows you to see it as more than a momentary ebullition of emotion, sense, or impulse. But again, it’s the structure of moral desire that I’m talking about. How we encounter moral desire. How we experience moral desire.”

Objecting to Hart’s complaint that having compassion without any appeal to a transcendental moral ground is ‘not enough’, Norman asks how contemplation of a Platonic ideal helps? Hart responds:

“[W]hen I say it’s ‘not enough’, I mean it’s not enough as an actual phenomenological description of what we’re doing. I’m not recommending contemplation of Platonic ideals as the path to the moral life. I’m saying that horizon is already implicit in our moral desire and our moral action. You point to that when you say we’re trying to construct a more sophisticated and refined ethos on the basis of this experience of sympathy, and [you] talk about justice and honesty. Well, justice and honesty then become other names for obligation that makes itself felt even in at times, in spite of, the absence of sympathy.”