The Beauty of the Infinite image

The Beauty of the Infinite

David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth is one of the most difficult, mindbending and yet rewarding books I have ever read. Some of its obscurity stems from the book's topic: a defence of the idea that the beauty and peace which sit at the heart of Christianity are theologically and philosophically plausible, and that they in fact present the only alternative to the (otherwise inescapable) nihilism that is the logical outcome of modernist and postmodernist thought. Some stems from Hart's very learned and often complex interlocutors, including Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, Deleuze and Lyotard (and that is without mentioning the array of ancient Christian writers on whom he draws, including at least one, Gregory of Nyssa, whom he reads in a new and creative way). And some, frankly, stems from Hart's often beautiful yet sometimes infuriating writing style; as Doug Wilson puts it, "David Bentley Hart is, by my rough estimate, about three times smarter than I am. The difficulty is that he writes as though he is five times smarter, and I find this off-putting." So, for my sins (and at risk of being taken for a numpty who cannot speak of these things and should therefore be silent), here's my summary of this brilliant but frequently complex book.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to the infinite. One is that the infinite “belongs to an ontology of original and ultimate peace,” and the other is that it should be seen “in terms of a primordial and inevitable violence.” The former is Christian; the latter is pagan. The former sees the infinite as beautiful, peaceful, rooted in Trinitarian love, goodness and affirming of the other; the latter sees it as sublime, violent, Dionysian and chaotic.

For most modern and postmodern thinkers in the Western tradition, it is incoherent to speak of the infinite as beautiful and true, because the realms of the beautiful and the true are entirely distinct, going back to the Kantian separation between the phenomenal and the noumenal (and beyond). Grouped in pairs, we could summarise these two realms as follows:

- Beauty or the Sublime
- Representable or Unrepresentable
- Phenomenal or Noumenal
- Sensibility or Reason
- Lie or Truth
- Totality or Difference
- Order or Chaos
- Apollo or Dionysus
- Parmenides or Heraclitus
- Empirical or Theoretical
- Dialectic or Rhetoric
- Finite or Infinite
- Identity or Alterity
- Control or Freedom
- Same or Other
- Beings or Being
- Peace or Violence

Anyone who has studied the key thinkers of postmodernity will recognise much of this, and even those who haven’t may find the right-hand column surprisingly familiar, given the pervasiveness of much of it in academia, journalism and contemporary literature. Part I of The Beauty of the Infinite traces all these themes and polarities, through the various contemporary thinkers mentioned above, back to Nietzsche (who first presented the stark alternatives which give the section its name: Dionysus against the Crucified) and Hegel (whose totalising narrative was the first successful attempt at swallowing up the Christian one). As he goes, he critiques them all, either for offering what John Milbank called an “ontology of violence”, or a “narrative of the sublime,” or both - and he does so with his trademark bombast:

I confess that, with the exception of the obviously barbarous ideologies of the past century, I know of no modern philosophy of “values” more morally hideous than that of Levinas.

In a sense, Kant’s “Copernican revolution” might better be called “Ptolemaic” ... again, we would stand at the center.

I am not entirely certain that the dewy opalescence of Derrida’s celebrity has not blinded many readers to the feebleness of his reasoning here.

(Once again, Heidegger almost grasped this, whenever the vulnerable theologian momentarily slipped out of the philosopher’s dimantine carapace.)

A theologian might well be tempted to read Foucault as an unwitting phenomenologist of original sin.

That Girard’s arguments suffer from an occasional want of subtlety scarcely needs to be said.

The oddity of Nietzsche’s Christ is how close he comes to a cliché on the one hand and how remote he seems from the texts from which his picture is extracted on the other: he appears in The Anti-Christ as a sort of outlandish hybrid between a fin de siècle Parisian decadent, nourished on absinthe and opium, and an autistic child.

(And that is without mentioning his stunning oino-theological critique of Nietzsche, which in many ways is the rhetorical and metaphorical high point of the book.) Pulled together and then juxtaposed with the Christian tradition, the problem is essentially this:

The critique of the Christian tradition that postmodern discourse inherits from Nietzsche and never abandons is twofold: firstly, Christianity is a “totalising” discourse that enacts a metaphysical violence against difference, and does so through an evangel of peace that dissembles its appetite for power; and secondly, given that the truth of being (rarely explicitly so called) is differential strife, Christianity is ontologically impossible on its own terms, but must be a rhetoric of conquest straining to fill out the form of an ephemeral dream, a Christ whose renunciation of power makes of him a historical nullity and an aesthetic absence.

And the solution?

Within Christian theology there is a thought - a story - of the infinite that is also the thought - the story - of beauty; for pagan philosophy and culture, such a confluence of themes was ultimately unthinkable ... But the true infinite lies outside and all about this enclosed universe of strife and shadows; it shows itself as beauty and as light: not totality, nor again chaos, but the music of a triune God. Nietzsche prophesied correctly: what now always lies ahead is a choice between Dionysus (who is also Apollo) and the Crucified: between, that is, the tragic splendour of totality and the inexhaustible beauty of an infinite love.

In other words, the Christian doctrine of God - particularly of the Trinity, but also of Creation, Salvation and Eschaton - brings together apparently irreconcilable elements of the two columns above. Pagans could never think or talk like this, and neither can their modern successors, but for the Christian, God-in-himself is both One and Other, both Beauty and Infinite, both Truth and Peace, both Gift and Giver. And because Nietzsche was right, and the Truth is found in rhetoric (telling the story of Christian truth aesthetically) rather than dialectic (demonstrating why it follows propositionally), Hart can spend the rest of the book putting this picture of God on display, rather than arguing from first principles why it must be the case:

To speak of the beauty of the infinite is genuinely to name the Christian difference in aesthetics, a thought of the beautiful inconceivable in the terms available to non-Christian philosophy, ancient and modern alike. In the story the church tells concerning God and his creatures, beauty and infinity both are narrated as nowhere else, in such a way as to show how each belongs to the “grammar” of the other, and how both belong to a common language of delight and peace.

The Trinity is, of course, the foundation for this. In God’s perichoretic union, “the true form of difference is peace, of distance beauty.” In human terms, difference means otherness means violence, whereas in divine terms, difference means other-regard, gift, love and peace. In human terms, transcendence means inaccessibility and chaos; in divine terms, as Hart shows building on Gregory of Nyssa, transcendence (and even infinity) mean beauty. Being itself, in fact, involves not just beauty but difference, since it is found within the one God:

... the very difference of creatures from God - their integrity as the beings they are, their ontological “freedom” - is a manifestation of how God is one God. The analogy of being begins from the belief that being itself always already differs, within the very act of its simplicity, without any moment of alienation or diremption; to be is to be manifest; to know and love, to be known and loved ...

Creation, then, is gift, wholly unnecessary, prompted by nothing more than the overflow of divine delight (as Christians have always recognised), and the fact that it is fundamentally different from God, far from being a reason to posit fracture or violence, is itself an echo of the difference that already exists within the one God:

As God is Trinity, in whom all difference is possessed as perfect peace and unity, the divine life might be described as infinite music, and creation too might be described as a music whose intervals, transitions, and phrases are embraced within God’s eternal, triune polyphony.

Salvation, similarly, brings together the particular and the universal, most obviously in the incarnation, as Hart points out in a beautiful paragraph:

There really is no other instance of a figure like Christ, in whom attributions of such extravagance and details of such mundane particularity not only coincide, but indeed inhere in one another: the story of Christ is immovably fixed within a social and historical context of absolute specificity, apart from which there is no path to salvation. His history is his universality; his humanity is appropriate to his divinity ... For this reason there is in Christian thought regarding Jesus a marvellous simultaneity of the “high” and “low”, the infinite and finite, the dogmatic and the historical ...

The rest of the section on salvation contains a fascinating (although to my mind ultimately unconvincing) treatment of sacrifice, including a robust response to Girard, a surprisingly forceful defence of Anselm, and an emphatic affirmation of divine apatheia at the cross, which Hart sees as essential if one is to preserve an orthodox view of the incarnation; for Hart, the cross is a collision between two different types of sacrifice, as “the self-donation of Christ” meets “the sacrificial regime of the totality, its economy of violence,” and the defeat of the latter by the former. Finally, and most briefly, we have the Eschaton:

Christian eschatology affirms the goodness of created difference, reveals divine truth to be inseparable from beauty, and exposes the totality as false and marked with a damnable finitude.

Thus, over against the modern (and postmodern) challenge, we have a Christian story - a Trinity, a Creation, a Salvation and an Eschaton - that bears witness to the beauty of the infinite. Peace, truth, love, infinity, rhetoric, oneness, otherness and beauty can and do coexist, both in God and in his dealings with the world. Totality, violence, the lie, and the schemes of Apollo and Dionysus can all be jettisoned, along with the philosophies, ancient, modern and postmodern, that they have sired. Good riddance.

Keats insisted that “beauty is truth, truth beauty”; Nietzsche and his successors insisted that no, it isn’t. In the light of the central tenets of Christian truth, and David Bentley Hart’s retelling of it, it would seem that Keats was even more right than he realised.

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