Last First Things :: Done and Done

The decline of First Things has been fairly well documented. Even before the passing of Richard John Neuhaus, the journal seemed to be cranking its ideological amplification up to 11. Nevertheless, I’ve kept a subscription going for the sake of the occasional witty or insightful article from D.B. Hart or Rusty Reno (when he’s not ranking schools, he’s often got interesting things to say). I’ve consistently disagreed with both the positions and the tones taken in its pages, but frequently in the past found it valuable reading nonetheless.

However, I received my last copy in the mail this week (or sometime while I’ve been away), and I’m quite glad that this will be the end. Apart from Hart’s positive review of Richard Dawkins there’s strikingly little to commend the issue, and much that condemns it. On the cover are three declarative statements announcing three articles within: “Cicero is a Superhero, Pete Seeger is a Communist, Mitch Albom is an Idiot.” I won’t take issue with the first, but both of the other two are simply embarrassing, as are the articles that they announce.

The article on Pete Seeger is a nostalgic trip back to the good old days of McCarthyism, exhorting vigilance against the deep-seated Marxist leanings of the folk-music revival. Neither timing nor relevance are among this articles redeeming qualities, and the author doesn’t provide us with any reason to believe that Pete Seeger’s communism is dangerous. “Communism” is simply raised as a tired old bludgeon to dishonor Seeger’s legacy by eliciting disgust in the reader that something as American as folk-music could be put to the advancement of something so “un-American” as (shudder) “communism.”

Worse is the review of Mitch Albom’s new book, Have a Little Faith. I won’t blame author Ari Goldman for the title on the cover (“Mitch Albom is an Idiot”), over which he may have had little control, but his review largely consists of pedantically proofreading Albom’s book for minute theological and historical errors. While the youth celebrating his bar mitsvah does indeed read off a Torah scroll, not scrolls, publicly exposing the scandal of a false plural mostly comes off as silly.

The stated goal of First Things, as I understand it, has been to encourage civic discourse—and particularly the inextricable role of religion within civic discourse—by providing space for dialogue and raising the intellectual bar on what passes for argument. For some time, it has been questionable whether First Things has actually been a venue for this kind of worthy project, and not simply an soap-box for various flavors of conservatism. But announcing that a particular novelist is an idiot on your cover is emphatically not civic discourse, nor does it demonstrate any kind of moral or intellectual integrity—no matter your actual opinion of the author.

I’m glad that this was my last issue; if it weren’t, this would have been the impetus to pull the plug.

‘The Suffering God Cannot Save’ :: David Bentley Hart, Right and Wrong on Impassibility (Part 4 of 4)

(Back to Part 3)

It is precisely because divine apatheia is not a possession subject to loss or diminution that God does not penuriously guard his life, but opens himself to creation and suffers with it. No one can change God or force God to act, no one can conjure or coerce God’s presence or action-God is never passive. But where God is open in love, he does not stand passively aloof, impervious to the plight of his beloved. God’s unchangeable infinitude is not at risk where God aches with longing and is pained by the dissolute state of creation-this too is an expression of the boundless variation within the unchanging generosity of God’s triune life. Thinking in this way helps us to express both God’s suffering and God’s apatheia in properly analogical terms. Hart correctly insists that “God is incapable of experiencing shifting emotions within himself” (as if manipulative ploys had any foothold), but to this similitudo, we must insist upon a maior dissimilitudo and say that God is not devoid of emotional intensity or insensitive with regard to his beloved creation (355). Likewise, if we are to speak of God’s aching solidarity with those who suffer, a solidarity that transgresses every boundary we can imagine (Hades itself), we must also insist that according to a maior dissimilitudo, God’s suffering does not incapacitate and diminish him (as suffering does to us). God never says, “It would have been better if…” with regard to God’s own boundless life; God’s life always is better in the mutual exchange and enrichment of the divine economy. 

Hart’s positive understanding of divine infinitude is sufficiently capacious to incorporate theological attentiveness to the whole of Scripture’s narrative with regard to God’s immutability and impassibility, including a nuanced account of the emotional intensity and pain ascribed to God’s experience therein. Unfortunately, Hart allows his metaphysical predilection for a more univocal understanding of divine apatheia to eclipse this conceptual openness and thereby falsely constrains his understanding of God and in docetic fashion meticulously evacuates the cross of the divinity hung thereupon. Despite himself, Hart helps us understand how Bonhoeffer is, in my estimation, finally correct: “Only the suffering God can help.” 

 

 

‘The Suffering God Cannot Save’ :: David Bentley Hart, Right and Wrong on Impassibility (Part 3 of 4)

(Back to Part 2)

Yet, despite insisting that divine apatheia does not override God’s scriptural self-revelation or make the divine pathos out to be an illusion, Hart insists that even the cross holds no suffering for God (355).  Through the Son, God attends and possesses the human suffering of the cross (and does so “inseparably” according to Chalcedon), but, he insists, God (qua God) does not suffer pain there. Hart rightly upholds patristic paradoxes like that of Melito of Sardis, “in Christ the impassible suffers,” but mistakenly goes further to assert that Jesus’ cry of dereliction (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) is only his “human voice,” words uttered in the place of all humanity, rather than as a expression of God torn from God.  He argues, somewhat strangely, that if this cry fits into the divine economy at all, it ought to be heard as a darker expression of the same interval whereby the eternally begotten Son is differentiated from the unbegotten Father (360). Hart insists that only the God who is beyond all suffering is capable of saving us. By restricting the suffering of the cross to the Son’s human nature, Hart (like Cyril before him) draws the blinds on the view that his own thinking about God’s infinity has opened up for him. In so doing, he foregoes an opportunity for greater theological fidelity to Scripture by a manifest preference for restrictive metaphysical preconceptions of divinity. Yet, we must be clear, Hart (again like Cyril) is not wrong in his affirmation of divine impassibility; it is just that impassibility is not a univocal description of God capable of expressing God’s character without the qualification of analogical difference. 

(On to Part 4)

‘The Suffering God Cannot Save’ :: David Bentley Hart, Right and Wrong on Impassibility (Part 2 of 4)

(Back to Part 1)

Hart’s positive expression of God’s infinity opens the space to speak about divine pathos, not as a deficiency, but as another modulation of his unconquerable and incorruptible love. The fullness of divine revelation is found in Jesus Christ and as the gospels tell it, God’s life as a human being progresses inexorably, almost magnetically, toward the cross in Jerusalem where God joins humanity (and all creation) in suffering, alienation, torture, death, and in the very depths of hell. Suffering and pain are not thereby to be understood as an attribute of the unchangeable God, like an incurable affliction, but as yet one more expression of divine openness and sharing of life. The cross is God’s glory (John) precisely because it makes visible the fullness of God’s triune openness and love. The same self-giving love by which the Father begets the Son and sends forth the Spirit (and receives the joy of his life in their return) is the self-giving love that knowingly, willingly, freely, and obediently swallows the suffering and death of creation because it pains God to see his creation languish. God’s pathos is an amplification of his love rather than the weakness of a God subject to the violence, control, or coercion of others. The resurrection shows that even in stretching to encompass pain, death, and the depths of hell, God’s peace is unbroken, God’s love is unconquered, God’s infinity is undiminished. The persistence of Christ’s wounds on his Resurrected body demonstrate that wounded-ness is no diminution of God’s life and that God’s bliss cannot be etiolated by exposure to violence. Nor can it be said that death is a necessary player in this drama, or that suffering is the attribute of God whereby his love is eternally demonstrated; death is exposed as nothing, suffering is revealed to be only the short darkness of a night bounded by endless day. To recognize that God genuinely suffers in Jesus Christ is not to subject God to change because (1) this suffering is not imposed upon God but freely borne, and (2) because God’s immutability is not a flat stasis, but the tireless repetition of a fathomless generosity found both in the Trinity and in the history of salvation.

(On to Part 3)

‘The Suffering God Cannot Save’ :: David Bentley Hart, Right and Wrong on Impassibility (Part 1 of 4)

Over the next few days I’m going to post the verbal fruit of my wrestling with Hart on the issue of divine impassibility. The reflections here are meant to be experimental—to see whether this line of thinking might be successful, or whether it will fall flat.

Thesis: David Bentley Hart’s strong advocacy of a positive and determinate understanding of divine infinitude provides the framework for an affirmation of divine pathos (in fidelity to scriptural descriptions of divine emotion and pain) that does not negate the traditional ascription to God of impassibility (apatheia). Unfortunately, not only does Hart pass this opportunity by, he also scorns it as he does so.

One of the central tenets of The Beauty of the Infinite is that the infinity of God’s triune life cannot be understood as something like a lack of finitude, or a negative sort of transcendence cognizable as absence from everything immanent. God is not infinite in a way that is bland and indeterminate—like an endless powerful fog—but in sheer abundance and excess. Moreover, God does not suffer from a failure to be finite, nor can infinitude be defined in dialectical opposition to created finitude—God and the universe are not opposites divided by any boundary. In other words, God’s infinity pervades the finite and always exceeds it. God’s transcendence crosses all borders and overcomes all limits. The freedom of God’s love is expressed ever anew in unspeakable creativity, transformed and transfixed in the endless self-giving exchange between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The surfeit of God’s life is marked by an infinity that cannot be exhausted or circumscribed, but repeats itself in endless modulations and harmonies on the theme of love. Far from standoffish loftiness, God’s infinity is closer than we can dare to think, yet beyond simple capture in any concept, picture, or image.

(On to Part 2)

words I learned while reading The Beauty of the Infinite

David Bentley Hart has expanded my vocabulary to include the following list of obscure, polysyllabic words: 

ordonnance
parataxis
diegesis
chthonic
amphiboly
caducity
inspissated
nisus
diremption
aleatory
orphic
subtend
debile
velleity
risible
tabescence
piscine
oneiric
eidetic
indiscerptible
obsecration
temenos
concatenation
identism
crepuscular
estaminet
probatively
decortication
Taboric
foison
opalescence
porrection
persiflage
sublate
syntagma
griseous
catalectic
anacolouthic
metonymy
asymptotic
ambit
recrudescence
melismatic
apotropaic
mactate (and mactation)
farrago
galvanism
medicament
peripety
appanages
demesne
soupcon

To the first person who can correctly define 12 of these words without using a dictionary, I will mail a Snickers bar.

 

David Bentley Hart :: Nietzsche and the Market

In a book that I’ve enjoyed immensely, I came across what is likely the most ingenious footnote I’ve ever read. Hart is in the midst of an argument connecting the postmodern deconstructionist philosophers and the logic of capitalism, arguing that both reinforce the absolute freedom of choice for selves increasingly isolated and punctual. According to both, no power may be allowed to dominate the public space in such a way that choices are determined for the others—every identity is held in check by the inviolable “other-ness” of every other; thus, every self must be given the space to choose between all the possible identities available (all of them bound in place side by side as equivalent products on the shelf, each with a different wrapper). As Hart was dealing with Nietzsche in particular, he offered the footnote that delighted me at the tail end of this sentence: 

Nietzsche, however much he detested bourgeois values, perhaps knew not which god he served.

And here is the note itself: 

Nietzsche’s avowed god, Dionysus, is of course an endlessly protean and deceptive deity and a wearer of many masks. When he makes his unannounced appearance at the end of Beyond Good and Evil, as its secret protagonist, whose divine irony has occultly enlivened its pages, he exercises his uniquely divine gift, the numinous privilege of veiling and unveiling, concealment and manifestation; he is the patron deity, appropriately of the philosophical project of genealogy. But perhaps another veil remains to be lifted, and the god may be invited to step forth again, in his still more essential identity: Henry Ford. After all, Ford’s most concise and oracular pronouncement—“History is bunk!”—might be read as an exquisite condensation of the theme of the second of the Unzeitgemasse Betrachtungen (…). And there could scarcely be a more vibrant image of univocity’s perpetual beat of repetition—of eternal recurrence, the eternal return of the same—than the assembly line: difference here is certainly not analogical, but merely univocal, and the affirmation of one instance is an affirmation of the whole. It is moreover, well documented that Ford was a devotee of square dancing, which is clearly akin to (perhaps descended from) the dithyrambic choreia of the bacchantes; Ford was a god who danced. 

Hart’s argument is, of course, quite serious, but it is refreshing to see someone argue with such a wry smile visible between the lines. And one can hardly help but laugh at the picture of Nietzsche as the devotee of a square dancing magnate of the auto industry. 

David Bentley Hart,  The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 435.