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You Are Gods: On nature and supernature by David Bentley Hart

by
05 August 2022

Andrew Davison reads pugnacious essays by an Orthodox theologian

FEW passages of scripture currently set the running in theology quite as much as 2 Peter 1, with its language of being “participants in the divine nature”. Talk of “theosis” or “deification” is all around. In the Early Church, however, the most influential text on this theme was Psalm 82, taken up by Jesus in John 10. Those passages lie behind David Bentley Hart’s title, You Are Gods. As you might expect, if you have read even a single paragraph of Hart’s previous writing, the essays in this collection are erudite and trenchant, and full of surprises.

A fountain of essays is flowing from Hart’s pen, and his book-length publications now tend to collect these occasional pieces. Here, they gather around the relation between creatures and Creator, and what he thinks is wrong with one prominent Western way of seeing that: a certain Catholic distinction between the “purely natural” and a fundamentally different “supernatural” realm of grace. Hart prefers continuity to discontinuity, contending that human beings are always orientated to a deified existence, and have always already begun, somewhat, to share in that destiny.

The essay that least convincingly coheres with the rest is, none the less, a gem. It asks whether one must always tell the truth — for instance, in answering a Gestapo officer intent on finding and murdering a child. Lie, Hart insists. Lie boldly and lie well! To lie in that situation is to tell the truth about the good, while telling the truth would collude with a lie. This essay might offer an excellent starting point for a church discussion group.

Alongside Hart’s trenchant rejection of any account of nature not intrinsically orientated towards God, grace, and glory, there is some provocative enthusiasm for Gnosticism. (I promised surprises.) In part, that rests on his conviction that those traditions in late antiquity have been hopelessly misrepresented, and that doctrinal aversions to Gnosticisms have therefore missed their kinship with Christianity, not least in St Paul.

Hart’s warmth towards that readily demonised tradition stands alongside his sense that the plenitude of God is not exhausted by any one religious tradition: that there are important insights to be found beyond Christianity, and important dangers within it. He even describes Christianity as more than one religion. He would clearly rather ascribe to some forms of Hinduism or Islam, especially when they come closest to Platonism, than he would to Calvinism, or the sort of 20th-century Neo-Thomist Catholicism that he particularly condemns here.

I defy theological readers to deny the rare brilliance in Hart’s collection, but they may also feel frustration that there is not more of a cumulative effect across what is, fundamentally, a disparate set of essays. The first essay, for instance, could hardly be bettered as an opening salvo (military metaphors come to mind when reading Hart), but it left areas where I hoped for clarification. The subsequent pieces more echoed those themes than amplified them.

The style is so pugnacious, and the take-downs are so devastating, that the book raised many several audible chuckles from this reader; but that confident tone, perhaps, also lies behind the presence of what seemed to me to be incomplete arguments. Words such as “obviously” do a fair bit of work. Hart writes marvellous, crisp prose, but it cannot always convey quite enough, by way of argument, of what I expect genuinely does work out, if we lesser intellects could only see what he sees.


The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Associate Professor at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow in Theology and Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi College.

 

You Are Gods: On nature and supernature
David Bentley Hart
University of Notre Dame Press £20.99
(978-0-268-20194-4)
Church Times Bookshop £18.89

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