Tag Archives: David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea – Part 2

Doors of the SeaDivine Victory

Hart begins the second chapter with a meditation on nature, which in the West, at least, has been disenchanted. To some extent the church is responsible for this state of affairs since nature no longer can be deified. But the Enlightenment also has played a role, desacrilising nature, making it simply a “thing,” or a fact. For modern theists or deists, creation is that of an absent God; for atheists it is not creation at all, but an entirely natural system of cause and effect. For both camps, the idea of impersonal causation is central. “To put the matter starkly, nature is a cycle of sacrifice, and religion has often been no more than an attempt to reconcile us to this reality.”(52) But Hart rejects this view, seeing instead creation as imbued in every particle of its being with the glory, love and beauty of God.

“God is love,” says 1 John 4:16, “and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in Him.” Christian metaphysical tradition, in both the Orthodox East and the Catholic West, asserts that God is not only good but goodness itself, not only true or beautiful but infinite truth and beauty: that all the transcendental perfections are one in him who is the source and end of all things, the infinite wellspring of all being. Thus everything that comes from God must be good and true and beautiful. As he is the sole source of being—as he is being itself in its transcendent plenitude, beyond all finite being—everything that is, insofar as it is, is entirely worthy of love. And it is this love and goodness of God that the Christian is bidden to find in the entirety of the created order. (54-55)

Yet there is also duality in creation, an alternate kingdom, vision and experience, and both sides of this duality are real. The created sphere has been gifted a genuine though contingent autonomy which humanity has used in opposition to God, and thereby has given itself and the physical order into the hand of another master. Hart is unapologetic in his appeal to the New Testament as the foundation of this somewhat mythological worldview (61-66). Yet before, alongside, within, and beyond this broken history into which we have fallen is a “contrary history” that pervades and will finally overwhelm this world of our fallenness. (68)

The Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation,” an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as in the beginning of days. (60-61)

God’s glory is a kind of parallel world hidden and yet present, accompanying this world but not born from its ructions and sufferings. Rather, God has come into this world of death for the purpose of conquest and victory. This is the gospel: “An ineradicable triumphalism, a conviction that the will of God cannot ultimately be defeated and that the victory over evil and death has already been won.” (66)

Evil itself has no ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all. It is a privatio boni, a privation of the good. Hart asserts it is a child of the will, a

Turning of the hearts and minds of rational creatures away from the light of God back toward the nothingness from which all things are called. … a kind of ontological wasting disease. Born of nothingness, seated in the rational will that unites material and spiritual creation, it breeds a contagion of nothingness throughout the created order. Death works its ruin in all things, all minds are darkened, all desires are invaded by selfishness, weakness, rapacity, and the libido dominandi—the lust to dominate—and thus tend away from the beauty of God indwelling his creatures and toward the deformity of nonbeing. (73)

Evil has not come from God nor is it used by God for the fulfilment of his purposes. “It has no ‘contribution’ to make.” (73) Divine providence, therefore, is not divine causation, the reduction of God to one almighty act of willing that fails to distinguish between what God wills and what God permits. Hart makes much of this distinction, arguing that God permits that which God does not will, that the integrity of the world and its limited sphere of freedom might be maintained. Providence, therefore, is not a universal teleology. Rather, providence maintains the integrity of the world and also saves the world by judging its evil. To reduce providence to an abstract omnicausality is to render God indistinguishable from the world, sin and the devil (90-91).

We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God. … God may permit evil to have a history of its own so as not to despoil creatures of their destiny of free union with him in love, but he is not the sole and irresistible agency shaping that history according to eternal arbitrary decrees. (86-87)


Ultimately, then, the origin of suffering and evil is a mystery grounded in created freedom, and in “another time” inaccessible to us (102). It is a surd within the created order and utterly alien to the being, purposes and will of God. Thus Hart’s theological vision is one of the infinite beauty and infinite goodness of God, a beauty and goodness so all encompassing, it is utterly impossible that God could do evil or even make use of evil in the pursuit of his will. It is on account of this vision of God that Hart rejects all attempts at theodicy which endeavour to make sense of evil or find a place or purpose for it in the overarching purposes of God. Evil remains evil, so we are permitted to hate it with a perfect hatred.

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of 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 one should 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 (and so on). It is a strange thing indeed to seek peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. (98-99)

No! God is utterly good and goodness itself. His work in Christ is a work of judgement and victory, and his eschatological revelation will be the same. God will not bring every event in history into “one great synthesis but will judge much of history false and damnable … and will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes.” (104) He will wipe every tear from our eyes and make all things new.

David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea (Review)

Doors of the SeaAlthough just 104 small format pages, there is much to admire in this book. This, my first foray into a David Bentley Hart book, was intended as some brief light reading in the midst of a busy semester programme. It took only a page or two to disabuse me of this assumption. Hart is a literary artist, a man of letters, exhibiting a breadth of knowledge encompassing diverse disciplines and several languages, writing with a beautiful, literary hand, all the while straining and extending not only the limits of my vocabulary but those of my theological vision as well.

The book had its origin days after the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami in the Indian Ocean, when Hart wrote a small piece entitled “Tremors of Doubt” for the Wall Street Journal on Friday December 31, 2004. A longer article appeared in First Things in March 2005, with this book coming to press shortly afterwards, born as it were, on account of the response his initial article generated. Hart wonders whether, in fact, he should have spoken at all; surely the most apt response to such devastation would have been to remain silent? (6, 92) Yet he does not:

I still find myself less perturbed by the sanctimonious condescension of many of those who do not believe than by either the gelid dispassion or the shapeless sentimentality of certain of those who do. (92)

Thus the book is both a reflection on the critical issues of God’s goodness and sovereignty in light of this catastrophe, and a polemic against what Hart considers to be defective views of these very same issues.

Universal Harmony
The Doors of the Sea contains just two chapters—“Universal Harmony” and “Divine Victory”—each comprising five short sections. The first chapter surveys various responses to the tsunami, and varieties of such responses to other tragedies in history. He takes aim first at those vocal atheists who used the devastation and consequent suffering of the tsunami to “prove” there is no God. For Hart,

There is no argument here to refute; the entire case is premised upon an inane anthropomorphism—abstracted from any living system of belief—that reduces God to a finite ethical agent, a limited psychological personality, whose purposes are measurable upon the same scale as ours, and whose ultimate ends for his creatures do not transcend the cosmos as we perceive it. (13)

Although the arguments of Christianity’s critics have emotional and even moral force, they are utterly bereft of logical force. In a wry conclusion Hart states, “For the secret irony pervading these arguments is that they would never have occurred to consciences that had not in some profound way been shaped by the moral universe of a Christian culture.” (15)

For, if we are honest in asking what God this is that all our skeptics so despise, we must ultimately conclude that, while he is not the God announced by the Christian gospel, he is nevertheless a kind of faint and distorted echo of that announcement. It is Christianity that not only proclaimed a God of infinite goodness but equated that goodness with infinite love. The atheist who argues from worldly suffering, even crudely, against belief in a God both benevolent and omnipotent is still someone whose moral expectations of God—and moral disappointments—have been shaped at the deepest level by the language of Christian faith. (24-25)

Though this line of argument might give some superficial comfort to Christians, this is not Hart’s intent. Worse than the rants of shallow atheists and the protests of Voltaire against a deist God, are those Christian “explanations” of evil that seem to justify the evil and suffering by appeal to some kind of eschatological calculus, whereby the ultimate purposes of God will make all this suffering along the way somehow “worth it,” as though divine ends justify the most horrific means (see 25-29). Here, and throughout the book, Hart takes particular aim at certain versions of Reformed theodicy.

It may seem…that I have made Calvinism into my particular bête noire, though that was never my intention. In part, this merely reflects the reality that, after the appearance of my column, those among its critics who exhibited the most exuberant callousness regarding the dead—even all those tens of thousands of dead children—and who reacted with the greatest belligerence and most violent vituperation to any suggestion that God might not be the immediate cause of all evil in the world were all Calvinists of a particularly rigorist persuasion. (92-93)

So Hart rails against every form of explanation that justifies the evil, the suffering, the tragedy, or the darkness which afflicts creation and history by appeal to some final balancing of accounts. There can be no final resolution which ultimately explains evil and suffering such as to remove its offence and thereby make it meaningful. Certainly God can bring about his good ends even in spite of evil (29), but for Hart, God is not in any way implicated in the evil itself, and especially by schemas which predicate the entirety of history on the outworking of the pre-determined divine will.

Such a God, at the end of the day, is nothing but will, and so nothing but an infinite brute event; and the only adoration that such a God can evoke is an almost perfect coincidence of faith and nihilism. Quite apart from what I take to be the scriptural and philosophical incoherence of this concept of God, it provides an excellent moral case for atheism. (30)

The hero in this search for universal harmony turns out to be Dostoyevsky, for whom there is no explanation of or justification for suffering—and so no universal harmony, rationally conceived, either. For Hart, Dostoyevsky makes a Christian prophetic protest: if the cost of eschatological shalom is all the suffering endured in and by creation—or even simply the suffering of one innocent child—the price is too high.

Whatever the case, for the Christian, [Dostoyevsky’s] argument—taken simply in itself—provides a kind of spiritual hygiene: it is a solvent of the liberal Protestantism of the late nineteenth century, which succeeded in confusing eschatological hope with progressive social and scientific optimism, and a solvent as well as of the obdurate fatalism of the theistic determinist, and of the confidence of rational theodicy, and—in general—of the habitual and unthinking retreat of most Christians to a kind of indeterminate deism. And this, again, marks it as a Christian argument, even if Christian sub contrario, because in disabusing believers of facile certitude in the justness of all things, it forces them back toward the more complicated, “subversive,” and magnificent theology of the gospel. [Dostoyevsky’s] rage against explanation arises from a Christian conscience. …

Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoyevsky sees—and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his irreducibly Christian view of reality—that it would be far more terrible if it were. (43-44)

(Continued on Thursday…)

Reading a Wordsmith…

David Bentley Hart 2In the last week I have been reading David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea, which I bought because (a) I had heard more and more of Hart as a theologian with a growing reputation, and (b) it looked like a popular treatment of theodicy, the subtitle being Where Was God in the Tsunami?. Hart is an eastern orthodox theologian, philosopher and cultural commentator who has taught at a number of institutions in North America.

The Doors of the Sea is only a short work (109 small-format pages), and although I am only halfway through the book, I now know more than I did previously—for example, that Hart is a wordsmith—a man of letters, exhibiting a breadth of knowledge encompassing diverse disciplines and several languages, writing with a beautiful, literary hand, all the while straining and extending the limits of my vocabulary with words such as supererogatory, mellifluous and littorals (at least I have seen them before), as well as catenate, captious, longanimity, irrecuperable and vegetal (I can guess what these last two mean), apotropaic, delitescent and umbratile; this, together with his very long sentences making for quite dense prose—and which I am trying to emulate in this sentence!—has further enlightened me that this is also probably not the popular level book that I had initially anticipated.

But it is a very good and thought-provoking book, and I will write a review on it when I am finished. In the meanwhile I will keep the trusty dictionary.com at the ready (though even that was insufficient for three of the words, and I had to go to the Oxford English Dictionary!). To finish, and to further whet your appetite, let me give a sample of a long sentence read yesterday:

As soon as one sheds the burden of the desire for total explanation—as soon as one has come to see the history of suffering as a contingency and an absurdity, in which grace is ever at work but upon which it does not depend, and has come also to see the promised end of all things not as the dialectical residue of a great cosmic and moral process, but as something far more glorious than the pitiable resources of fallen time could ever yield—one is confronted with only this bare choice: either one embraces the mystery of created freedom and accepts that the union of free spiritual creatures with the God of love is a thing so wonderful that the power of creation to enslave itself to death must be permitted by God; or one judges that not even such rational freedom is worth the risk of a cosmic fall and the terrible injustice of the consequences that follow from it (68-69).