Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth
by David Bentley Hart
William B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
448 pp., $36.00 paper, 2003
The Beauty of the Infinite is a complex and subtle work that presents an aesthetic defense of Christian rhetoric against those who embrace what David Bentley Hart calls “the metaphysics of violence”: the belief that life is inherently tragic with no possibility of redemption. Its arguments, however, repay study. Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, contends that the Christian understanding of beauty can rise above the metaphysics of violence with the promise of faith and hope. By appealing to the possibility of eternal life, Christians are able to break the cycle of violence that characterized pagan society. The entrance of God into time through Jesus Christ and sustained by the Holy Spirit in the institution of the Church offers the hope of replacing the narrative of suffering and violence with one of beauty and peace.
The book is divided into four parts, with the first section introducing the key terms of postmodernism, metaphysics, and beauty. Postmodernism is “the triumph of rhetoric over dialectics,” where philosophical arguments become reduced to rationalizations of a Nietzschean will-to-power. The hope of modern philosophy to discover a single, rational, and universal truth—a meta-narrative—is merely a rhetorical mask to disguise our desire to dominate and exploit others. According to the postmodernist, there are no meta-narratives but only a countless number of narratives, from which we can choose, and with no one narrative being superior to another. Simply put, relativism is the default position for the postmodernist philosopher.
For Hart the problem with postmodernism is really its residual modernism: the incredulity towards meta-narratives is merely a meta-narrative itself. A more radical postmodernism would not exclude theological notions like participation, revelation, and the divine. Hart’s understanding of a more radical postmodernism therefore would not be incompatible with Christian revelation: It is similar to Bernard Iddings Bell’s idea of postmodernism as religion redeeming a world of unbounded reason. Although Hart does not explicitly state his project as a more “radical” postmodern one, he is in essence following in the same footsteps of Bell but from an Orthodox as opposed to Episcopalian perspective.
Hart makes a similar argument in his examination of metaphysics as he did with postmodernism. While postmodern philosophers have proscribed the divine from their ontological account, Christianity remains open to all aspects of reality, including God and the beauty of His creation. Beauty is an especially important concept for Hart; it is both a source of goodness and enjoyment in its infinite variety for humans in their contemplation of the divine. Beauty is associated with the particular and concrete instead of the universal and abstract (what he calls the “sublime”); and it is something prior to and evokes human response as well as embodying difference and distance. Instead perceiving distance and difference as a source of anxiety and alienation, the Christian conceives of them as a form of delight that opens him to the infinite in its variety of objects, desires, and perspectives, because creation itself is a superfluous gift from God to be enjoyed. By contrast, the postmodern philosopher attempts to overcome difference and distance through his conception of a Godless metaphysics: a single and universal truth to be accepted by all. But for the Christian, beauty cannot be separated from its particular nature and consequently resists the reductive and abstract tendencies of philosophy that detaches it from it from the goodness of God’s creation.
The second part of the book is a critical history of western philosophy that starts with Kant and concludes with postmodern thinkers like Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas. According to Hart, these philosophers have remained confined to an ontology of violence in which Kantian antinomies—such as space andtime, freedom and necessity—and Hegelian dialectics—in which reality is a conflict between nature and history—dominate philosophical reflection. Such thinkers have trivialized the concretely beautiful for the abstract sublime, thereby closing themselves off to the Christian narrative of beauty and peace. Hart is particularly skeptical of postmodern claims that we have reached “the end of metaphysics,” for the rhetorical claim of the end of metaphysics is simply the introduction of another sort of violent metaphysics.
The third and main section of the book focuses on the alternative narrative of Christianity to philosophy’s story of violence and sublimity. Whereas someone like Nietzsche claimed that violence was inescapable from human existence and therefore should be embraced, the Christian narrative recognizes the world is filled with sin (which is expressed through violence) but offers an account of redemption to escape from it. Hart focuses on four particular aspects of this narrative: the Trinity, creation, salvation, and the eschaton. Indebted to Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Bonaventure, Hart presents the Trinity as one of perichoresis: the eternal life is one of mutual self-donation and reception that unnecessarily overflows into the acts of creation and salvation. Instead of viewing life as metaphysically tragic and violent, the Christian narrative presents existence as superfluous to the divine and consequently is beautiful and joyous because of it.
This understanding of the Trinity as perichoresis creates “a dynamic coinherence of the three divine persons, whose life is eternally one of shared regard, delight, fellowship, feasting, and joy.” The ontology of Christianity therefore is one of peace rather than conflict and celebrates distance and difference because it makes possible communication and community. Difference is not to be feared or empathized with but rather rejoiced because, as part of God’s creation in its aesthetic variety, it sustains a theology that loves beauty. The particular and concrete are infinite in diversity that is continually manifested throughout time as participating in God’s superfluous love. This is particularly true with Christ whose resurrection restores the world to one of peace, as God enters into history as a concrete story and as a contrary history in which “violence has no place but rather stands under [God’s] judgment as provisional, willful, needless.”
Hart’s account of the Christian narrative of peace and beauty not only is an alternative to the ontology of violence, but it is also an attack of twentieth-century theologians who follow in the path of Hegel. Hart specifically criticizes Donald MacKinnon and Nicholas Lash, who argue for a suffering God Who is not able to redeem the world: the resurrection is not a redemptive act but another dimension of the crucifixion. This tragic interpretation of the resurrection is required in order to inoculate theology from ideological schemes. For Hart, however, tragedy itself is an ideology: a closed system of violence that sustains the scared order of pagan society. Tragedy therefore does not offer wisdom but “emotional exhaustion”: the Greek chorus resigns itself to the inevitable violence of the state in the restoration of the status quo ante.
The Christian narrative resists the tragic outlook on life in its historicizing of evil that had obscured the original goodness of creation. Sin is a refusal of the will to enjoy God’s beauty and goodness. The resurrection therefore is not some Pollyannaish optimism in the denial of the tragic but rather exposes the tragic as something that is hollow by asking the believer to accept faith and hope of eternal life. In the Christian context, loss and death are stripped of their Nietzschean heroism and revealed as empty and meaningless until faith and hope are restored. God is not tragic but one of love that is both kenosis (self-emptying) and plerosis (fullness), which in turn creates the superfluous beauty of creation. By inaugurating a new history and order of peace and beauty, the Christian narrative recognizes the ontology of violence in the world but never reconciles itself to it.
In the final section of the book, Hart criticizes the claim that the diversity in existence demonstrates the relativist claims of hermeneutics. For Hart, the metaphysical assumption that truth does not exist is itself a truth claim that remains tucked away in its own narrative of violence. When confronted with claims of truth, neutrality is not possible: We are confronted with a series of narratives with different ontological claims from which we must choose. According to Hart, this conflict of narratives is one in which the Christian account must engage but without violence. Ultimately, for Hart the Christian account prevails because only the Christian narrative, with its appeal to sainthood and martyrdom, provides an escape from the endless cycle of suffering and violence.
In the end The Beauty of the Infinite seeks to rescue the joys and beauty of the resurrection from the tragedy of the crucifixion. Strangely, especially for an Orthodox theologian, Hart does not touch upon the transfiguration of Jesus; nor does he discuss the role of Christian comedy as a foil to the tragic “wisdom” of pagan society. Nonetheless, Hart’s book is a substantial response in the recovery of the concrete, the particular, and the beautiful against the abstract claims of violence and suffering of both postmodern philosophy and theology. While philosophy remains beholden to an ontology of violence, the Gospels offer an ontology of peace whereby unity and diversity, infinity and particularity are embraced in a participatory, redemptive, and eschatological fashion modeled after the triune God and in particularly after the historical concreteness of Jesus Christ. The Beauty of the Infinite therefore is more than a piece of apologetics. It provides an alternative metaphysics that directly engages and overcomes the postmodern discourse of our world.
Lee Trepanier is an assistant professor of political science at Saginaw Valley State University. He is author of Political Symbols in Russian History: Church, State, and the Quest for Order and Justice (Lexington Books, 2007).