SOMETIMES, a book defies description or, rather, refuses to settle into a conventional genre. David Bentley Hart’s prodigious mind and imagination has given us just such a book. Perhaps, here, Sophie’s World meets Alice through the Looking-Glass, or Don Quixote meets The Wind in the Willows.
Yes, it’s an autobiographical recounting of episodes in the life of one of the most original and prolific of religious thinkers, honestly facing up to his struggles with ill-health and depression, besides celebrating the joy of living. Yes, it’s an exercise in philosophical polemics, especially in opposition to accounts of human consciousness which purport to reduce mind to matter. Yes, it’s a flight of fancy, with a philosophically sophisticated talking dog as Roland, the eponymous hero.
But, above all, it’s a challenge to Western modernity, and a plea to re-enchant the world around us: “In the modern world, flooded as it is at all times by shrill, brittle electric incandescences, lit by the leprous white glow of computer screens, we definitely need more shadows . . . more love of shadow as such. We need those places and moments in which the mind sees nameless things moving in the obscurity, in the dusk, and occasionally even knows itself as conjuring the world out of a more primordial, more timeless dreaming.”
It is spiced with Hart’s own poems, mostly attributed to his fictional great-uncle Aloysius, whose esoteric pagan beliefs add a degree of normality to Roland’s canine reflections.
Flashes of humour complement extended passages of philosophical speculation, thereby ensuring a level of accessibility seldom associated with studies in the philosophy of mind. His tirade against Donald Trump and all he stands for is not to be missed.
The book is shaped around autobiographical updates ingeniously interspersed with advanced philosophical dialogues led by the dog — a device that only a writer of Hart’s unrivalled combination of wit, erudition, and sensibility could pull off to such memorable effect.
At times, his demonstrations of encyclopaedic knowledge can feel somewhat ostentatious, and his fondness for eclectic allusions spanning the widest possible range of religious and philosophical concepts is a bit daunting.
Yet, even so, Roland’s patience with his bipedal interlocutor rubs off on us as well, so that we end up as better people for knowing him or, better still, for his knowing us so well. At one point, he wonders why we humans always need to be on a lead when walking out with our canine companions — touché!
Commenting on the variety and historical contingency of religious traditions — and the variety of each tradition’s many schools and factions — Roland concludes that “your kind has to learn the art of having faith intelligently.” Indeed, and this book can be recommended as as good a place as any to learn that art.
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.
Roland in Moonlight
David Bentley Hart
Angelico Press £19.50
Church Times Bookshop £17.55