Posts Tagged ‘David Bentley Hart’

Celebrating Christmas in the wake of Newtown

December 17, 2012

A high school classmate messaged me on Saturday, asking what she promised was not a snarky question: How will I preach a “normal” Christmas sermon in the wake of Newtown? It’s a good question. There are parents like myself who are trying, perhaps in vain, to protect our younger children from the news—certainly the grisliest details. More deeply, though, she wondered how we can celebrate in the face of this kind of tragedy. (To make matters worse, did she see that I was preaching on A Charlie Brown Christmas? Would a children’s cartoon not be hopelessly beside-the-point at such a time? If you attended my church service yesterday, I hope you saw that it wasn’t.)

Regarding this deeper objection, however, I reminded her first that Christians ought to be the most realistic people on the planet about evil—its reality, its pervasiveness, its intractability. This is the very evil, after all, that God sent his Son into the world to defeat. That this victory remains elusive to us is also no surprise: the world in which suffering, death, and evil will no longer exist is discontinuous with our own. Our faith is eschatological: Christians don’t share the burden, under which our modern-minded friends labor, that our world is or should be making “progress.” As David Bentley Hart said in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami many years ago, our Christian faith sets us free from optimism and teaches us hope instead.

We celebrate Christmas in the wake of Newtown because Christmas teaches us hope.

Besides, at the very center of the Christmas story is another Newtown: King Herod, hearing reports of a rival king born in Bethlehem, sent soldiers there to murder every boy two-years-old and younger. The first Christmas proclaims hope in the midst of tragedy and suffering and unspeakable evil. Try naming any Christmas since then in which that wasn’t the case.

In yesterday’s pastoral prayer—after referring with great circumspection to Newtown—I directed our attention to a future beyond our present world, when “the blood of all your beloved children will be avenged.”

Avenged. Some Christians bristle at the idea of God’s vengeance. Isn’t that an Old Testament idea? they ask—as if they never read Revelation, not to mention the four gospels. If so, I would point them to something that Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, who lived through the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the ’90s, wrote in Exclusion & Embrace. He said that those Christian traditions (Anabaptists, for instance) most committed to non-violence and pacifism are also most comfortable with the idea of God’s vengeance. We should learn from them, he writes.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

In yesterday’s sermon, I said the following: “Among other things, Christmas means that there will come a day when the Herods of the world will face the justice they so richly deserve.”

It’s perfectly appropriate, as we reflect on the events of last Friday, for us to look forward to that day.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.

“The absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death”

August 30, 2012

David B. Hart wrote this profoundly good meditation on suffering in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2005. A friend reminded me of it in the comments section of my previous post. It applies whenever and wherever the innocent suffer. To those glib, stone-cold Calvinist answers we often hear about suffering, Hart offers this damning riposte: “It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.” He continues:

I do not believe we Christians are obliged—or even allowed—to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

October 25, 2011

I don’t even disagree with this piece written by Oprah’s favorite guru, Deepak Chopra, on science and faith. Chopra appeals to the pervasiveness of human spiritual experience as evidence for God that scientific materialists like Richard Dawkins must simply dismiss out of hand.

There is something to be said for this argument. A lot, actually.

Somewhere in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins gleefully argues that believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster is no less rational than believing in the God of the Bible. You can neither prove nor disprove either of them, after all. (The New Atheists make arguments like this frequently.) The fact is, however, that billions of people don’t believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whereas billions (around two, I think) profess to believe in the God of the Bible, and many more believe in a god who looks much more like the God of the Bible than the FSM, if you know what I mean.

Maybe there is something beyond the time, space, and matter by which scientific inquiry is bounded, which has given substance to the shape and character of a being that so many people have called “God”? (In my view, of course, God has done much more than this.)

Regardless, religious faith is a kind of knowledge you can’t really “know” without experiencing it or practicing it. This requires an open mind. David Hart picks up on this in a too-brief aside from Atheist Delusions. Of New Atheist Daniel Dennett, he writes:

It would make no sense, really, to suggest that he, say, run off to Mt. Athos to explore (by practicing) the Eastern Christian hesychastic tradition, or that he reconsider whether the testimony of so many disciplined minds over the centuries regarding encounters with supernatural reality are prima facie worthless simply because they cannot be examined in the way one might examine an animal zygote, or that he immerse himself with somewhat more than a superficial resolve in the classical philosophical arguments of religious traditions (concerning which Breaking the Spell demonstrates the he possess practically no knowledge whatsoever, despite his philosophical training). In all likelihood, these would be impossibilities for someone of his temperament and basic vision of things; he could not do them with a good will or unclouded mind, and so they would have little power to unsettle him.

David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 20.

Once again, David Bentley Hart on suffering

September 6, 2011

In my previous post, I recommended David Bentley Hart’s book on theodicy to Trevin Wax. That book grew out of this essay that Hart wrote in the wake of 2005’s St. Stephen’s Day tsunami. I just re-read the essay, and it’s as powerful as I remember. Hart attacks the hyper-Calvinist view that the end of history will justify its means. No matter the evil, we will see in retrospect that it was really for our own good, and that without it, life in God’s kingdom wouldn’t be as sweet.

One key to understanding Hart’s line of reasoning is the traditional Christian understanding of evil: It is not something in and of itself; it is the absence of something—specifically, the absence of good. With that in mind, Hart writes, evil “can have no positive role to play in God’s determination of Himself or purpose for His creatures (even if by economy God can bring good from evil); it can in no way supply any imagined deficiency in God’s or creation’s goodness.” He continues:

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality—in nature or history—is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. Better, it seems to me, the view of the ancient Gnostics: however ludicrous their beliefs, they at least, when they concluded that suffering and death were essential aspects of the creator’s design, had the good sense to yearn to know a higher God.

I do not believe we Christians are obliged—or even allowed—to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

 

Getting drunk on God’s sovereignty

September 6, 2011

These New Calvinists are a weird bunch. They take the most unspeakably evil tragedy and say not merely that God allowed it, not merely that God will use it to bring good, but that God caused it. They remind me a little of conspiracy theorists: the very lack of evidence for—or evidence directly contradictingtheir point of view is further proof of their belief. The more incomprehensible the evil—the more reluctant any sane person would be to say, “The God revealed to us in Jesus Christ must be the author of this”—the more satisfied they are that “God is in control” and “God’s will is done,” so praise God!

I try to give them the benefit of the doubt from time to time, but then I read something like this post from Trevin Wax. If I’m misinterpreting what he’s saying, please tell me how.

My favorite part is this:

Is it worth it having free will just so God can be loved without force? Isn’t there something bigger than our love for God?

I would ask that Wax refrain from using the word “love” because without freedom the word has no meaning. Coerced love isn’t love.

Good, evil, love, hatred, indifference… From Wax’s point of view, what’s the difference? A sovereign God wills what God wills, so praise God. In many ways, this extreme form of Calvinism isn’t much different from Hinduism: Whatever happens is really good, because it’s all God. What you see is what you get. If you don’t like what you see, that’s your problem, not God’s.

I would also recommend that Wax read David Bentley Hart’s Doors of the Sea. Christian thinking on this subject didn’t begin in the sixteenth century.

“The infinite wellspring of all actuality”

February 4, 2011

I recently recommended this essay, written a couple of years ago, to someone with whom I was discussing Christian faith and atheism. My interlocutor wondered why David Bentley Hart was getting so worked up by Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell—as if Dennett’s harmless little book were hardly worth the attention that an intellect so fierce as Hart’s lavishes upon it. As someone who argues passionately about the nuances of The Gilmore Girls, I’m unsympathetic with that view.

I like this paragraph especially (even though, yes, I had to look up a couple of words):

Certainly the Christian should be undismayed by the notion that religion is natural “all the way down.” Indeed, it should not matter whether religion is the result of evolutionary imperatives, or of an inclination toward belief inscribed in our genes and in the structure of our brains, or even (more fantastically) of memes that have impressed themselves on our minds and cultures and languages. All things are natural. But nature itself is created toward an end—its consummation in God—and is informed by a more eminent causality—the creative will of God—and is sustained in existence by its participation in the being that flows from God, who is the infinite wellspring of all actuality. And religion, as a part of nature, possesses an innate entelechy and is oriented like everything else toward the union of God and his creatures. Nor should the Christian expect to find any lacunae in the fabric of nature, needing to be repaired by the periodic interventions of a cosmic maintenance technician. God’s transcendence is absolute: He is cause of all things by giving existence to the whole, but nowhere need he act as a rival to any of the contingent, finite, secondary causes by which the universe lives, moves, and has its being in him.

Taking “counterintuitive assertions purely on faith”

January 18, 2011
Over at First Things, the lovably polemical David Bentley Hart has a column about the strangely universal experience of religious believers throughout the ages doing extreme things (like castrating themselves and worse) for the sake of their faith. Nothing terribly insightful here, but I want to file his last few paragraphs away for the next time we argue about atheism.
I know, obviously, that purely Darwinian explanations of religion have been attempted, and that some kind of evolutionary rationale can be devised to explain just about any phenomenon if one is sufficiently inventive. Most such explanations are utterly impressionistic, of course; and, as with most attempts to use Darwinian theory to explain more than it really can, they are largely exercises in making the implausible sound somehow almost kind of likely…
Anyway, I am not interested in that argument just at the moment; it would take too long and would prove inconclusive. It is simply part of the intellectual burden of modernity, now that every concept of final and formal causes has been explicitly abandoned, that persons of a rationalist bent have to try to see everything (including, impossibly enough, existence itself) as the effect of blind material or physical causes, even if that means taking a shockingly great number of counterintuitive assertions purely on faith.

I strongly agree with him that philosophical materialists use Darwinian theory to “explain more than it really can,” without evidence or proof. Of course this means “taking a shockingly great number of counterintuitive assertions purely on faith.” Many atheists have a hard time conceding that they take anything on faith.

A conversion to the “blindingly obvious”

October 15, 2010

Theologian David B. Hart discusses philosopher Joel Marks’s “conversion” to amoralism—that there really is no such thing as right or wrong in any objective sense. Marks has always been an atheist, but he realizes now, apparently, that apart from God, there is no foundation for morality. Marks is happy to keep on acting morally, but he does so hedonistically. It pleases him, for example, to oppose child molestation and animal vivisection.

Not to be completely subjective about it, but Marks’s point of view kind of grosses me out.

Hart isn’t convinced that, deep down, Marks really feels that way; and to his credit, Marks at least wishes that there were some objective truth. He’s glad that, culturally at least, we are programmed to be averse to much of what the Church calls sin and evil.

Anyway, I’m glad that Hart’s essay puts the atheist position in such sharp relief. In my discussions with atheists, I try to show them that the moral high ground on which they stand is nothing but air. It seems like an obvious point to me, at least. Atheists are often the most sentimental hypocrites.

Hart writes,

Anyway, you can read the piece for yourself if you wish. For myself, I am not entirely sure how to react to it. The more uncharitable side of my nature wants simply to remark that a conversion to the blindingly obvious does not really constitute one of the more momentous events in intellectual history (even if it does constitute an important psychological episode in the life of Joel Marks).

Why does it seem like justice and right and wrong are objectively meaningful? Why do people like Marks, who ought to reject this meaning, find it so hard to do so? If someone believes that justice and ethics—not to mention love, beauty, and relationships—are meaningful, why wouldn’t this count as evidence for believing in God? The alternative, which even the most hardened atheist is reluctant to face, is nihilism.

Please note, as Hart does, that this discussion has nothing to do with the question of whether atheists or irreligious people can be good, moral people. Of course they can! But what’s their foundation for that morality?

One person in the comment section calls atheism a “sinful luxury that freeloads on the moral wealth bought at often great price by the Faithful.” I couldn’t agree more.

David Bentley Hart on the New Atheists

May 1, 2010

In his otherwise bracingly insightful, if mistitled, book about the Christian faith, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, Hart wrote as if he shouldn’t dignify the New Atheists’ arguments with a direct response. I’m glad he reconsidered for this relatively brief First Things article. Hart may wish for better atheists, but these New ones are the ones we’re stuck with.

From the concluding paragraph:

One does not have to believe any of it, of course—the Christian story, its moral claims, its metaphysical systems, and so forth. But anyone who chooses to lament that event should also be willing, first, to see this image of the God-man, broken at the foot of the cross, for what it is, in the full mystery of its historical contingency, spiritual pathos, and moral novelty: that tender agony of the soul that finds the glory of God in the most abject and defeated of human forms. Only if one has succeeded in doing this can it be of any significance if one still, then, elects to turn away.

If you want to go deeper

February 24, 2010

Here are a couple of books that I found very helpful as I reflected on the recent earthquake in Haiti. One, David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea, was written just after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. It is short (109 pages), polemical, and deep. Hart is not someone you’d want to face in a debate. He elaborates on an op-ed he wrote shortly after the tsunami in the Wall Street Journal. Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, is deeply critical of the extreme sovereignty position of hard-line Calvinism, which says that there is no difference between what God wills and what God allows. Everything that happens, Calvin argued and some Calvinists still believe, is God’s will—a position that strikes me as deeply unbiblical, not to mention just plain weird.

Hart also blows apart a couple of related, but perhaps more seductive, ideas. First, as bad as the world often is, God needs everything to happen just this way in order to reach his desired (good) goal. All this suffering will make sense, in other words, at the end of history as we know it. This is the foundation of the platitude, “Everything happens for a reason.” I like this idea in the sense that it emphasizes humility, which surely we need to bring to any discussion of God’s ways in the world. The problem is that it turns evil, suffering, and death into God’s secret allies, the biblical witness to the contrary. If evil is necessary to achieve God’s ends, then it’s not really bad after all. It just seems bad. Read the rest of this entry »