The Beauty of the Infinite The Aesthetics of Christian Truth
By David Bentley Hart
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company Copyright © 2004 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-8028-2921-X
Introduction I. THE QUESTION
The rather prosaic question that initially prompted this long, elliptical essay in theological aesthetics, stated most simply, was this: Is the beauty to whose persuasive power the Christian rhetoric of evangelism inevitably appeals, and upon which it depends, theologically defensible? Admittedly, at first, such a question might appear at best merely marginal, at worst somewhat precious; but, granted a second glance, it opens out upon the entire Christian tradition as a question that implicitly accompanies the tradition's every proclamation of itself. Christianity has from its beginning portrayed itself as a gospel of peace, a way of reconciliation (with God, with other creatures), and a new model of human community, offering the "peace which passes understanding" to a world enmeshed in sin and violence. The earliest confession of Christian faith - [TEXT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] - meant nothing less radical than that Christ's peace, having suffered upon the cross the decisive rejection of the powers of this world, had been raised up by God as the true form of human existence: an eschatologically perfect love, now made invulnerable to all the violences of time, and yet also made incomprehensibly present in the midst of history, because God's finaljudgment had already befallen the world in the paschal vindication of Jesus of Nazareth. It is only as the offer of this peace within time, as a real and available practice, that the Christian evangel (and, in particular, the claim that Christ crucified has been raised from the dead) has any meaning at all; only if the form of Christ can be lived out in the community of the church is the confession of the church true; only if Christ can be practiced is Jesus Lord. No matter how often the subsequent history of the church belied this confession, it is this presence within time of an eschatological and divine peace, really incarnate in the person of Jesus and forever imparted to the body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, that remains the very essence of the church's evangelical appeal to the world at large, and of the salvation it proclaims.
A certain current within contemporary philosophy, however, asserts that violence is - simply enough - inescapable: wherever Nietzsche's narrative of the will to power has been absorbed into the grammar of philosophical reflection, and given rise to a particular practice of critical suspicion, a profound prejudice has taken root to the effect that every discourse is reducible to a strategy of power, and every rhetorical transaction to an instance of an original violence. From this vantage a rhetoric of peace is, by definition, duplicity; subjected to a thorough critique, genealogy, or deconstruction, evangelical rhetoric can undoubtedly be shown to conceal within itself the most insatiable appetite for control; the gesture by which the church offers Christ to the world, and bears witness to God's love for creation, is in reality an aggression, the ingratiating embassy of an omnivorous empire. Of course, if power's pathos were indeed the hidden wellspring of every act of persuasion, Christianity, as it conceives of itself, would be an impossible presence within history: the church as the earnest of the "peaceable kingdom" could never communicate itself in a way that would not contradict its own evangel, and the "city of peace" that the church tries (or at any rate claims) to be could never actually take shape, except mendaciously, as a dissimulation of power's arcane operations behind an apparent renunciation of power (such, at least, is Nietzsche's accusation in The Genealogy of Morals). What this book interrogates, then, is the difference between two narratives: one that finds the grammar of violence inscribed upon the foundation stone of every institution and hidden within the syntax of every rhetoric, and another that claims that within history a way of reconciliation has been opened up that leads beyond, and ultimately overcomes, all violence.
Nor, it should be added, can the question of rhetorical violence simply be ignored by theology, because the challenge raised by the Nietzschean reading of Christianity is one that the gospel implicitly invites: Christian thought has claimed from the first that in a world in bondage to sin, where violence holds sway over hearts and history, the peace of God made present in Christ is unique; the way, the truth, and the life that alone can liberate the world from the tyranny of greed, cruelty, egoism, and aggression is none other than a particular Nazarene rabbi put to death under Pontius Pilate. Precisely because the church has always explicitly maintained that the world lies under the authority of thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers whose rule is violence, falsehood, and death, over which Christ and Christ alone has triumphed, the suspicion that passes from Nietzsche to various "postmodern" theorists is justified. And insofar as the church has at its disposal no means whereby to corroborate its wildly implausible claim, except the demonstrative practice of Christ's peace, it can scarcely be said incontrovertibly to have proved its case; in this regard, Christianity's record has been - to put it mildly - mixed. As Origen observed, the marvel of Christ is that, in a world where power, riches, and violence seduce hearts and compel assent, he persuades and prevails not as a tyrant, an armed assailant, or a man of wealth, but simply as a teacher of God and his love (Contra Celsum 1.30). Christ is a persuasion, a form evoking desire, and the whole force of the gospel depends upon the assumption that this persuasion is also peace: that the desire awakened by the shape of Christ and his church is one truly reborn as agape, rather than merely the way in which a lesser force succumbs to a greater, as an episode in the endless epic of power. Christian rhetoric, then, is already a question to itself; for if theology cannot concede the intrinsic violence of rhetoric as such, neither can it avoid the task of framing an account of how its own rhetoric may be conceived as the peaceful offer of a peaceful evangel, and not as - of necessity - a practice of persuasion for persuasion's sake, violence, coercion at its most enchanting. Such an account must inevitably make an appeal to beauty.
Beauty, that is, rather than simply "truth"; or, rather, beauty as inseparable from truth, as a measure of what theology may call true. Christian thought always already stands in what might be considered a "postmodern" position: if one conveniently oversimple definition (or aspect) of the postmodern is the triumph of (in classical terms) rhetoric over dialectic, or at least the recognition that the dialectical is always essentially rhetorical, theology should welcome this as a word of comfort. The great project of "modernity" (the search for comprehensive metanarratives and epistemological foundations by way of a neutral and unaided rationality, available to all reflective intellects, and independent of cultural and linguistic conditions) has surely foundered; "reason" cannot inhabit language (and it certainly has no other home) without falling subject to an indefinite deferral of meaning, a dissemination of signification, a play of nonsense and absence, such that it subsists always in its own aporias, suppressions of sense, contradictions, and slippages; and "reason" cannot embody itself in history without at once becoming irrecoverably lost in the labyrinth of time's interminable contingencies (certainly philosophy has no means of defeating such doubts). But Christian theology has no stake in the myth of disinterested rationality: the church has no arguments for its faith more convincing than the form of Christ; enjoined by Christ to preach the gospel, Christians must proclaim, exhort, bear witness, persuade - before other forms of reason can be marshaled. Lessing was undoubtedly correct, in his Über den Beweis des Geistes und der Kraft, to place Christ on the far side of that wide ditch that separates contingent historical facts from universal "truths" of reason; and no less than enlightened skepticism, theology has need of Lessing's ditch. Christian thought must remain immovably fixed alongside Christ, in his irreducible particularity, and precisely insofar as the temper of "postmodernism" runs against confidence in universal truths of reason, postmodern theory confirms theology in its original condition: that of a story, thoroughly dependent upon a sequence of historical events to which the only access is the report and practice of believers, a story whose truthfulness may be urged - even enacted - but never proved simply by the processes of scrupulous dialectic. What Christian thought offers the world is not a set of "rational" arguments that (suppressing certain of their premises) force assent from others by leaving them, like the interlocutors of Socrates, at a loss for words; rather, it stands before the world principally with the story it tells concerning God and creation, the form of Christ, the loveliness of the practice of Christian charity - and the rhetorical richness of its idiom. Making its appeal first to the eye and heart, as the only way it may "command" assent, the church cannot separate truth from rhetoric, or from beauty.
Of course, to justify evangelical rhetoric by way of beauty as such, in the abstract, in no way serves to answer the question posed above. Who is to say that the beautiful is self-evidently free of violence or subterfuge? How can one plausibly argue that "beauty" does not serve the very strategy of power to which it supposedly constitutes an alternative? An "aesthetic" response to a postmodern insistence on the inescapability of violence is adequate only if it gives a coherent account of beauty within the Christian tradition itself; only if beauty belongs already to the Christian narrative, fully and consistently developed, and in such a way as to allay the suspicions it arouses, can the beautiful conceivably mediate Christian truth without the least shadow of violence. Only if the theme of beauty, as essentially peace, adheres to every moment of the Christian story, at its every juncture, without lapsing into equivocation, is Christian beauty one with Christian truth, rather than deceit, false enticement, aggression. It is just such a continuous theological account of beauty that is this book's task, and the conviction that guides it is that the Christian tradition embraces an understanding of beauty unique to itself: one in which the thought of beauty and the thought of infinity uniquely coincide. I shall argue that it is possible to see vast portions of Western philosophy, from antiquity to the present, as moving within the confines of two ontologies - two narratives of being - which are really only two poles of a single ontological vision, whereas the church's story of being - arising from Scripture and its own understanding of what has been revealed in Christ - is simply alien to the world this vision descries. And nowhere does this difference appear more starkly delineated than in the understanding of the infinite that becomes possible (indeed necessary) within Christian thought; the Christian infinite belongs to an ontology of original and ultimate peace, and as a consequence allows a construal of beauty and of peace inconceivable in terms of the ontology that Christian thought encountered first in various schools of pagan metaphysics, and encounters again in the thought of Nietzsche and his heirs. Hence the title of this essay: a defense of the suasive loveliness of Christian rhetoric, as the coincidence without contradiction of beauty and peace, can be undertaken according to the opposition between two narratives of infinity: one that conceives of the infinite in terms of a primordial and inevitable violence, and one that regards the infinite as originally and everlastingly beautiful.
Excerpted from The Beauty of the Infinite by David Bentley Hart Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.