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The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in theology and metaphysics by David Bentley Hart

25 May 2018

Andrew Davison reads piquant essays by an Orthodox theologian

THE problem with a culture built on thrift, David Bentley Hart writes in one of these essays, is that it seeks, through moderation, for “certain truths that cannot be found in the middle, but only at the extremes”. From Hart himself, however, and his writing, we receive nothing of the bland or cautious middle. He dwells naturally at the extremes: in style and in rhetoric, in wholehearted celebration and sharp denunciation, and in joyous advocacy of patristic tradition.

The Hidden and the Manifest collects a substantial part of Hart’s occasional academic writing published between 1996 and 2015. They come from journals and edited collections (the significant majority), alongside three previously unpublished pieces. Among the more theological contributions, the essay on slavery stands out, as does one on the fundamental closeness of the Eastern and Western Christian traditions.

One of the new pieces is that essay on thrift, or — to be more accurate — almost against thrift: at least, if thrift is mistaken for being a virtue in itself, and deflects us from the unthrifty practices both of largesse and feasting, and of fasting (since true asceticism, Hart argues, is inherently incandescent, and not thrifty at all).

This essay is one of the most accessible of those gathered here. It would make excellent material for a study group, not least in Lent. The similarly brilliant essay on death, eschatology, and the resurrection occupies a comparable register. In contrast, several of the more specialised metaphysical essays — and especially the two on naming and language — are seriously demanding. They are not likely to yield their full promise for any reader without a substantial background in philosophy.

As is once again obvious from this collection, Hart is one of those thinkers who can address seemingly any question or topic that comes his way, with both insight and wit. All the same, certain themes and resources recur across this volume, and it is evident — as Hart notes in the preface — that he worked on some of them concurrently, or in close proximity. Common themes include sacrifice (and its transformation in Christianity), the relation of creatures to Creator (conceived in terms of analogy and participation), eschatology and the resurrection, the doctrine of the Trinity, divine impassibility, the nature of infinitude, universalism, and freedom and predestination.

His resources, besides the Bible, are patristic, most of all St Gregory of Nyssa and St Augustine. Gregory is received with unalloyed enthusiasm; Augustine is both hailed and excoriated. A distinction between “topics” and “resources”, however, is only half useful in summarising his approach. For Hart, doctrines are as much resources as they are questions to be addressed: for instance, when it comes to working out a Christian response to politics and economics. A Trinitarian outlook is particularly foundational.

In the preface, Hart mentions a “new resolve to strike a more emollient tone whenever I can”. In presenting earlier writing here, he writes, he has not toned down what he had written previously, but — it seems — we might expect a more eirenic tone in future.

I acknowledge that “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace”; so I would not want to urge Hart against his new resolve too strongly. All the same, the world of contemporary theological writing would be less invigorating without comments to the effect that Western theology is crippled by ideas that imbue “the works of Augustine’s senescence with an inexpungable tincture of tragic moral idiocy”, or his description of an “incautious and vulgar ‘Hegelianism’ prodigally displayed in the loose, rhapsodic, paranetic discourse of Jürgen Moltmann, with all its chaotic sentimentalism”.

Looking back at his occasional output, Hart lays claim to the heritage of Christian Platonism: indeed, more so in retrospect than in these essays themselves. “I really cannot imagine”, he writes, “an alternative metaphysics for theology that does not ultimately collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.”

Today, there are few more learned and eloquent advocates than Hart for this golden thread running through Christian intellectual history, and beyond and before. That “beyond and before” is important: Hart is at once forthright in defending the excellence of the Christian tradition, and entirely unafraid to acknowledge the truth of God refracted also elsewhere.

Canon Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Science at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Corpus Christi College.

The Hidden and the Manifest: Essays in theology and metaphysics
David Bentley Hart
Eerdmans £34.99
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