Philosophy’s divestment

Trinity

Western thought had attempted to rise from this superstitious subjugation to the world’s mere event: Plato and Aristotle, however imperfectly, were both shaken by that effulgent moment of wonder that can free reflection from here animal dread; perhaps the one could not quite transcend the dialectic of change and changeless essences, the other the dialectic of finite form and unrealized potency, nor either the still “sacrificial” economy of finitude, but both stood within the opening in Western thought that theology could transform into a genuine openness before the transcendent God. Still, Heidegger may be somewhat correct in seeing, even in this openness, the inauguration of Western reason’s long journey toward technological mastery as the highest ideal, toward instrumental control as the governing model of all truth, toward—in short—nihilism. Perhaps there truly was, precisely in the birth of philosophy as a self-conscious enterprise of rising above the ephemerality of the phenomena to take hold of their immutable premises, a turning away from the light toward the things it illuminated, a forgetfulness of being within philosophy’s very wakefulness to being. And perhaps in this fateful moment of inattention to the mystery of being’s event, the relentless search for being’s positive foundations commenced, and then proceeded along a path that, in the end, would arrive at the ruin of philosophic faith. All of this may be—indeed, in some obvious sense, in—quite true. But the Platonic eros for the beautiful, good, and true was also a longing for something more than mere “grounds”; it was a desire for being’s fullness, though one not yet able to understand being as gift. Other ancient schools of thought were generally less precocious in their advances toward Christian theology. Stoicism, for instance, however magnificent, humane, and sophisticated it was in its most developed forms, was still somewhat retrograde in this regard, and was bound to a vision of the cosmos as a fated economy of placement and displacement, and to a more transparently sacrificial cosmic mythology of eternally repeated ekpyroseis (the universe as an eternal sacrificial pyre); but Stoicism too was profoundly marked by philosophical wonder before the goodness and loveliness of cosmic and divine order. The syncretism of late antiquity may often have produced monstrosities of occult “wisdom” and grotesque aberrations of philosophy and religion alike, but in the case of the Platonic tradition it also made it possible for a philosopher like Plotinus to reflect upon the generosity of the good and the convertibility of the good and being, and thus press against the boundaries of the totality. But it was only when Christian thought arrived, and with it the doctrine of creation, that the totality was broken open and, for the first time ever, philosophy was granted a glimpse of being’s splendid strangeness within its very immediacy and gratuity.

With this “Christian interruption” of metaphysics, every principle of necessity was made subordinate to the higher principle of grace. Christian thought, then, in its long history of metaphysical speculation, far from constituting just another episode in the genealogy of nihilism, was in fact so profound a disruption of many of the most basic premises of philosophy, and so audacious a rescue of many of philosophy’s truths from the impotent embrace of mere metaphysical ambition, that it is doubtful yet that philosophy can grasp what has happened to it, or why now it cannot be anything but an ever more indignant and self-tormenting flight from that interruption. The language of creation—however much it may be parodied as a language regarding efficient causality and metaphysical “founding”—actually introduced into Western thought the radically new idea that an infinite freedom is the “principle” of the world’s being and so for the first time opened up the possibility of a genuine reflection upon the difference between being and beings. And the Christian understanding of God as Trinity, without need of the world for his determination as difference, relatedness, or manifestation, for the first time confronted Western thought with a genuine discourse of transcendence, of an ontological truth whose “identity” is not completed by any ontic order. The event of being is, for beings, a pure gift, into whose mysteries no scala naturae by itself can lead us. And if the world is not a manifestation of necessity, but of gratuity—even if it must necessarily reflect in its intrinsic orderliness and concinnity the goodness of its source—then philosophy may be able to grasp many things, but by its own power it can never attain to the source or end of things. If being is not bound to the dimensions prescribed for it by fate or the need for self-determination or the contumacity of a material substrate, then the misconstrual of the contingent for the necessary constitutes philosophy’s original error.

The_Thinker_Musee_RodinIt is for this reason also that theology’s interruption of the “history of nihilism” was philosophy’s redemption, immeasurably deepening its openness to being and increasing the intensity of its highest eros. Within Christianity’s narrative, the world acquired a new glory; for all that it had been robbed of the imposing dignity of metaphysical necessity, it had been imbued with the still more extraordinary dignity of divine pleasure; the world had become an instance of what could only be called beauty—beauty of a kind more absolute and irreducible than any known to pagan Greek culture. A God whose very being is love, delight in the glory of his infinite Image, seen in the boundlessly lovely light of his Spirit, and whose works are then unnecessary but perfectly expressive signs of this delight, fashioned for his pleasure and for the gracious sharing of his joy with creatures for whom he had no need, is a God of beauty in the fullest imaginable sense In such a God, beauty and the infinite entirely coincide; the very life of God is one of, so to speak, infinite form; and when he creates, the difference between worldly beauty and the divine beauty it reflects subsists not in a dialectic between multiplicity and unity, composition and simplicity, shape and indeterminacy, but in the analogy between the determinate particularities of the world and that always greater, supereminent determinacy in which they participate. Thus it is that theology alone preserves and clarifies all of philosophy’s most enchanting prospects upon being: precisely by detaching them from the mythology of “grounds,” and by resituating them within the space of this peaceful analogical interval between divine and worldly being, within which space the sorrows of necessity enjoy no welcome Thus, for Christian thought, knowledge of the world is something to be achieved not just through a reconstruction of its “sufficient reason,” but through an obedience to glory, an orientation of the will toward the light of being and its gratuity; and so the most fully “adequate” discourse of truth is worship, prayer, and rejoicing. Phrased otherwise, the truth of being is “poetic” before it is “rational” (indeed, it is rational precisely because of its supreme poetic coherence and richness of detail), and thus cannot be known truly if this order is reversed. Beauty is the beginning and end of all true knowledge: really to know, one must first love, and having known, one must finally delight; only this “corresponds” to the Trinitarian love and delight that creates. The truth of being is the whole of being, in its event, groundless, and so, in its every detail, revelatory of the light that grants it. In a strangely impoverished and negative way, Heidegger—the apostate from theology—almost understood this, but ultimately proved to be only a “metaphysician” after all. Then again, Heidegger, like Nietzsche, was unable to see that his own revolt against metaphysics was itself really nothing but a necessary moment in metaphysics’ recovery of itself from theology. Philosophy could not, after all, accept the gift Christian thought extended to it and remain what it had been—a science of mastery, an interrogation of the “ground”—but neither could it ignore Christianity’s transformation of its native terms: once the splendor of truth had been assumed into the Christian love of beauty, its philokalia, once the light of the world had been taken into the discourse of ontological analogy and divine transcendence, and once the difference between being and beings had entered thought and disrupted every attempt to “deduce” from the world its metaphysical identity, philosophy could not simply reassert itself as an independent project, but had to discover a new foundation. Philosophy, like a king in exile, would have to suffer the most extreme divestment and privation before it could reclaim its lost privileges. This is the true sense in which theology is part of the history of nihilism: it leaves nothing good behind in the philosopher’s hands; it plunders all of philosophy’s most powerful interpretive instruments for its own uses (despoiling the Egyptians, to use the classic metaphor), and so makes it necessary, in the aftermath of theology’s cultural influence, that philosophy advance itself every more openly as a struggle against the light, an ever more vehement refusal of the generosity of the given. If nihilism is indeed the hidden core or secret vocation of metaphysics, in the post-Christian age nothing but that core, that vocation, remains: and so it must become ever less hidden, ever less secret.

(From David Bentley Hart, “The Offering of Names: Metaphysics, Nihilism, and Analogy,” in The Hidden and the Manifest)

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