Thursday, June 9, 2011

'Beauty of the Infinite' - Review

I finally completed Beauty of the Infinite. As I've mentioned in other posts, it was a difficult read for me in terms of my lack of familiarity with the works of many of the philosophers and theologians -- and the epochs of thought -- which Hart's argument builds upon. Though, I imagine it's also partially due to Hart's style, most notably his unrestrained erudition and massive vocabulary (spanning multiple languages), though this could be a false perception. In any case, the read became much easier as the book progressed, though I'm not sure if the latter half of the book is "objectively" less difficult, or whether I just became accustomed to the language and style of thought by that point.

This text doesn't seem to be intended for a lay audience at all, but it was an extremely rich, rewarding and perhaps revolutionary read for me. I never really thought that Christian tradition was lacking in theological richness, or in philosophical resources, but Beauty of the Infinite took my appreciation for that tradition to new heights. Much of that richness was undoubtedly already present in tradition, and I had just never encountered it. This is evident in the sections where Hart merely summarizes the thought of various theologians -- such as Gregory of Nyssa and Athanasius -- and those mere summaries of their thought gave me a greater appreciation for the Christian intellectual tradition.

On top of this mini-revelation are Hart's own theological and philosophical contributions which -- again from my vantage as a member of the laity -- are thorough, brilliant and enlightening. Hart's discourses on the analogia entis (the 'analogy of being'), Trinitarian dogmatics and the aesthetics of Christian truth particularly opened my mind just what it is that fundamentally differentiates Christian thought from other forms of thought, and the radical possibilities that open up as a result.

Specifically, the notion of the supremacy of surfaces and rhetoric (over and against 'essences' and 'dialectic') in Christian thought was something I had never fully grasped and which this text clarified for me. That the 'form' of Christ -- in all his particularity and beauty -- is fundamentally everything that Christianity has to offer. And how contrasting this style of thought to both the reductionist tendencies of modernity, as well as the nihilistic totalizing of postmodernity, reveals how Christian thought can accept that it is a kind of rhetoric, only one without peer.

This elevation of rhetoric -- the rhetoric of the Father as incarnate in Christ -- leads directly into the idea that Being is an expression of the Trinitarian God, as opposed to it being a 'univocal' expression. I had never fully considered the consequences of this. For if Creation is a truthful expression of its Creator then that Creation should express certain characteristics in its very fabric, and a 'univocal' expression of being would be very different from a Trinitarian expression. The Trinity possesses an internal dynamism, a life, an intrinsic grace, and when this conception of God is analogized to Creation, Creation should take on a certain form which also contains an irreducible dynamism.

So many discourses on being -- virtually all of them, even some Christian ones -- according to Hart, fail to completely grasp the implications of this "theological interruption" and what it consequently makes possible. In other words, Christian thought can, in many ways, consider itself immune to the critiques of modernity and postmodernity, once the critiques are properly understood. Not that it can evade engaging those critiques, but that it can answer them in a way that other forms of thought can not. Once the project of modernity -- to dissemble and distill reality into sets of self-evident truths, by way of "disinterested rationality" -- failed, Christian thought knew that this was inevitable because Truth is contained in the surface. And that surface is a a reflection of the Trinitarian God who similarly can not be reduced to principles or 'truths' that are more essential than (and therefore less than) the totality of Himself, as expressed in the form, the surface, the particularities of Christ.

This is a very inadequate summary of some aspects of Hart's arguments, but hopefully you get the general idea. This understanding of Christian truth was a revelation for me as the implications of this understanding have actually proved to be quite extensive. For anyone with any theological or philosophical training, Beauty of the Infinite is essential reading. For any lay person with a fairly intense intellectual curiosity and dogged persistence, the text can prove extremely rich and rewarding as well.


  1. Hi, Nathan. I finished TBOTI this week. All in all, a stunningly erudite and beautiful work. My one reservation is that in places it became so rhapsodic about the beauty of Being and God's love and Creation as music etc. that when I put the book down and contemplated the world we live in with all of its horrors, I felt something of a disconnect. I also wonder about Hart's methodology. He seems to construct his vision of God around the Greek Patristic fathers more than the Bible itself.

    Anyway, these are just first impressions and I'll have to reflect on it more.

    1. Hey Karl. Those are sound observations that definitely have merit. On Hart's understanding of evil as having no ontological substance, of it being wholly a privation, a shadow, as essentially *nothing* in itself, then it makes sense that his meditations on Christian aesthetics and beauty can have no part for evil to play. But, as you note, in our lives 'it' looms ever-present. I don't think Hart would deny that it does, and he has addressed the topic elsewhwere (Doors of the Sea), but in this work he appears to be setting his gaze on God and his peaceful and good nature, and on the eschatological horizon of peace of the triune infinite, rather than intermediate detours (I.e. evil & death which Christ has defeated). As a practical, pastoral endeavor the work may leave something to be desired because of that, though for myself, attempting to gaze 'past' evil can be a valuable spiritual discipline. Although, if it goes as far as downplaying or somehow ignoring the seriousness of sin then there's a problem.

      I think it's a refreshing angle because it seems many sorts of theologians and thinkers spend too much time on evil.

      As for his method, I think it's more Biblical than you seem to. Check the sections about 35% into the book where he really lays the grounds for his 'positive' theological work and he cites a plethora of verses his thought is building upon. And, obviously, as an Orthodox he would not make quite so stark a distinction between Scripture and the Tradition that reads it, as you or I probably do.

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Nathan.

    I must admit to having problems with the view of evil as 'nothing' or a 'privatio boni', however necessary such a description may be for theological purposes. When you contemplate something like the Holocaust, a four-year concerted campaign for genocide, it appears to possess a palpable, positive content ('positive' as in substantial, of course) rather than being just a lack of something. If Creation is a symphony, then is something like that merely a horrific, atonal symphony? Does it really do justice to its victims to describe it thus?

    Anyway, the old questions.....