Today, we start a new series in which every Friday we will post selections from David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth for discussion. Kent and I (James) will simply provide a quotation followed by a few lines of commentary. Disagreement, correction, or affirmation are all welcome.
If you are not familiar with Hart, you should be. Why? Well consider that his first book received the following commendations: “David Hart is already the best living American systematic theologian” – John Milbank; “A remarkable work…This magnificent and demanding volume should establish David Bentley Hart, around the world no less than in North America, as one of his generation’s leading theologians” – Geoffrey Wainwright; “I can think of no more brilliant work by an American theologian in the past ten years” – William Placher.
James’ Quote and Commentary
After a sustained critique of Robert Jenson‘s trinitarian theology, Hart arrives at his definition and defense of divine impassibility (apatheia):
God’s impassibility is the utter fullness of an intimate dynamism, the absolutely complete and replete generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit from the Father, the infinite “drama” of God’s joyous act of self-outpouring – which is his being as God.
Within the plenitude of this motion, no contrary motion can fabricate an interval of negation, because it is the infinite possibility of every creaturely motion or act; no pathos is possible for God because a pathos is, by definition, a finite instance of change visited upon a passive subject, actualizing some potential, whereas God’s love is pure positivity and pure activity.
His love is an infinite peace and so needs no violence to shape it, no death over which to triumph: if it did, it would never be ontological peace but only metaphysical armistice (p. 167).
The great strength of this definition, apart from the fact it was penned by David Bentley Hart, of course, is that it defines divine apatheia immediately in terms of the trinitarian life of God, specifically the relations of origin. Hart is an Orthodox theologian, and so the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone (no filioque – note the witty parenthetical jab on p. 153 where he says he will be using the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed “in its unadulterated Greek form”!). Here, impassibility is not emotionlessness, but the eternal joy, love, and passion of Father, Son, and Spirit in holy communion. Thus, Hart avoids metaphysical abstraction by allowing the concreteness of God’s triune life to define the term. Mystery determines metaphysics.
The other strength is that it avoids making God’s trinitarian life dependent upon history. Hart fears that Jenson, in historicizing the being of God, has drawn evil into the identity of God (for an evil world is necessary for his God to be God, that is the God known in Jesus Christ). This not only legitimizes the postmodern suspicion because “in our story violence would prove necessary, belonging to who God is,” (p. 166), it, despite attempting to make God comprehensible after Auschwitz, ironically makes God “the metaphysical ground of Auschwitz” (p. 160). Impassibility is thus a guard against a god who needs evil to be himself, the redeemer, rescuer, and reconciler of the world. The wholeness and perfection of God’s triune love grounds the cross, not empathy. Thoughts?
Kent’s Quote and Commentary
Having reflected at some length on the divine ‘joy’ of the triune life, Hart draws the connection between beauty and God’s triunity.
The most elementary statement of theological aesthetics is that God is beautiful: not only that God is beauty or the essence and archetype of beauty, nor even only that God is the highest beauty, but that, as Gregory the Theologian says, God is beauty and also beautiful, whose radiance shines upon and is reflected in his creatures (Oration28.30-31). As Dionysius insists, we should not distinguish between God as beauty and as infinitely beautiful, the splendor that gathers all things toward and into itself (De divinis nominibus 4.7).
The beauty of God is not simply ‘ideal’: it is not remote, cold, characterless, or abstract, nor merely absolute, unitary, and formless…God’s beauty is delight and the object of delight, the shared gaze of love that belongs to the persons of the Trinity; it is what God beholds, what the Father sees and rejoices in in the Son, in the sweetness of the Spirit, what Son and Spirit find delightful in one another, because as Son and Spirit of the Father they share his knowledge and love as persons.
And this is the critical move…
True beauty is not the idea of the beautiful, a static archetype in the ‘mind’ of God, but is an infinite ‘music,’ drama, art, completed in – but never ‘bounded’ by – the termless dynamism of the Trinity’s life; God is boundless, and so is never a boundary, his music possesses the richness of every transition, interval, measure and variation – all dancing and delight (p. 177).
Little comment is really necessary here. By grounding beauty in the interrelations of delight between the divine persons, Hart brilliantly overturns the Kantian divorce between beauty and the infinite by offering a framework for beauty that isn’t formless, shapeless, or wholly unrepresentable but the formful beautyof intratrinitarian love revealed in Jesus Christ. Simply put, beautiful!
(Jeremy Begbie argues similarly, “Created Beauty” in The Beauty of God : Theology and the Arts (2007), 23-24)