David Bentley Hart on Trinitarian Infinity

This, the third post in our series on David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite, brings us to the heart of Hart’s…proposal, the beauty of divine infinity. Again, Kent and I invite your comments and corrections.

Before we proceed, however, we should note that Halden has attempted to locate the difference between Hart and Robert Jenson: the former is protological in orientation whereas the latter, eschatological.

James’ Quote and Commentary

Hart has been developing a trinitarian and therefore dynamic ontology in dialogue with and dependence upon Gregory of Nyssa. Here, he makes the most use of the youngest Cappadocian to the point where his argument is largely an interpretation and recommendation of Gregory’s.

Hart attempts a positive account of divine infinity. It is important to note that this often results in describing divine infinity somewhat indirectly, that is, by explaining how finite creatures are sanctified and deified. Specifically, he examines the relationship between human desire for the beautiful and the infinity of God:

Creation’s “series,” its [akolouthia] (vide infra), is at an infinite distance from the “order” and “succession” of the divine taxis, but that distance is born of God’s boundlessness: the Trinity’s perfect act of difference also opens the possibility of the “ontico-ontological difference,” as the space of the gift of analogous being, imparted to contingent beings who, then, receive this gift as the movement of an ontic deferral.

God’s transcendence is not absence, that is, but an actual excessiveness; it is, from the side of the contingent, the impossibility of the finite ever coming to contain or exhaust the infinite; the soul must participate in it successively or endlessly traverse it, “outstretched” by a desire without sucrease, an “infinition” of love; but God pervades all things, and all is present to his infinite life. Because the difference between God and creation is not simple metaphysical distinction between reality and appearance, but the analogical distance between two ways of apprehending the infinite – God being the infinite, creatures embracing it in an endless sequence of finite instances – the soul’s ascent to God is not a departure from, but an endless venture into, difference.

The distance between God and creation is not alienation, nor the Platonic chorismos or scale of being, but the original ontological act of distance by which every ontic interval subsists, given to be crossed but not overcome, at once God’s utter transcendence and utter proximity; for while the finite belongs to the infinite, the converse cannot be so, except through an epektasis toward more of the good, which can be possessed only ecstatically; possessed, that is, in dispossession (pp. 193-194).

Similarly:

God’s transcendence is the supereminent fullness of all blessings, which gives analogical expression to itself in creation: God sets it at a distance – and so it is created – but is himself the infinite distance that measures out all its differences within the abundant harmony of trinitarian peace.

As Trinity, his is always somehow a determinate infinity, so that each thing’s determinateness is actually an advance “quantitatively” toward the fullness of the infinite he is; but each thing is also always at that qualitative distance that makes it free, determinate, finite, pleasure, and gift. Indeed, the infinite qualitative difference is, in a sense, an effect of the infinite quantitative distance: not, that is, because God is simply the coincidence of every series (in a pantheistic sense), but because he is the infinite in which every series moves, and lives, and has its being.

For Gregory, therefore, the always remaining infinity is not simply the interval between created and divine natures (statically conceived), but is the ever new infinity of the ever present God in distance, and the infinite dynamism of one nature being transformed toward another. This is so because divine infinity is that infinity, full of form, that belongs to the Trinity, whose unity is also a differentiating love (p. 210, emphasis added).

Whereas “infinity” is usually employed to describe how creation is unrelated to God, here Hart does the reverse. This means, it seems, describing infinity in terms of “excess” and “abundance” but also “boundlessness.” More specifically, for Hart, God’s endless, boundless trinitarian self-differentiation is divine infinity. Creation’s finitude, therefore, is its infancy. As Hart revealingly states, the qualitative difference is an effect of the quantitative difference.

Kent’s Quote and Commentary

Hart’s correlation between creaturely peace and divine motion is quite compelling. The results of which would move us, perhaps, to envision an eschatological vision of communal peace spun straight out from God’s own ceaseless motion of being. From Hart’s vision of the infinite, the wedding feast of the Lamb isn’t dissolution into some all-encompassing and dissolving infinity, but the celebration of that difference constitutive of God’s being. He begins with a vision of the infinite mined from Gregory of Nyssa:

the beautiful…is not an enfeebling, deceptive, or violent stilling of the prior tumult of being, but is itself the grammar and element of an infinite motion, able to traverse all of being without illusion or strife. According to Gregory, creation is in its every aspect a movement (p. 189)

Creation is movement (i.e. “difference”) precisely because God is fundamentally (ontologically) “ceaseless motion”; as the triune God, he is always-involved, always in relation, always music. As we have seen, this is the center around which Hart’s trinitarian ontology turns and one of the keys to getting what he is doing here. As Hart explains,

For Gregory God is not only infinite, but Trinity, whose self knowledge is an entirely ‘adequate’ – equally infinite – Logos, toward which he is utterly – equally infinitely – inclined in the movement of his Spirit. And it is the trinitarian shape of Gregory’s thought that makes all the difference (p. 191).

When Hart finally arrives at a discussion of peace, notice that he defines “sin, violence, cruelty, egoism, and despair” both in musical as well as communal terms; sins are “discords” of “privation” and “failures to love; they are not part of the being’s deep music” but…  

only shrill alarms and barren phrasings, apostasies from music altogether. Evil, for all its ineradicable ubiquity, is always originally an absence, a shadow, a false reply, and all violence falls within the interval of a harmony not taken up, within which the true form of being is forgotten, misconstrued, distorted, and belied (p. 208)

So primordially and eschatologically…

the measure of difference is primordially peace, a music whose periods, intervals, refrains, and variants can together (even when incorporating dissonances) hymn God’s glory…Everything has an unforclosable disseminative seriality [i.e. difference, movement] implicit within it, and any series…can be mediated into consonance with every other series, not dialectically, but by a shared measure of peace, by the charity that makes way. Primordially and eschatologically, this is the true form of being, discoverable even amid discords that fabricate series of their own, intonations of nonbeing, irredeemable magnitudes of noise; for in the light of Christ, following after him, limitless possibilities of peace appear to view (p. 208, 210. Emphasis mine.)

Back to where we began: How do we conceive peace? Far too often in our late-modern world, it seems to me, we imagine peace – this worldly and in the next – as the ceasing of motion or of isolation and quiet (a beach, a mountain lake, silence – I am especially prone to this). By way of Gregory of Nyssa, Hart offers another quite different vision, a peace that is motion-ful and communal precisely because the difference between individuals isn’t dissolved but harmonized and celebrated. And this is as it should be because God is “ceaseless motion.” The marriage feast of the lamb, then, is a reflection of the motion of God’s own life with which we share – both with God and with each other. Peace.

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