02 October 2004

beauty of the infinite

Over recent days, when I've had a chance, I've been wending my way through David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans 2003). It really is a marvelous read, even if rather difficult at times.

After the introduction, the opening section of the book is entitled "Dionysius against the Crucified," by which Hart borrows a phrase from Nietzsche in order to describe the encounter between Christ and varieties of postmodern thought. Thus he begins a very helpful discussion of Heidegger, Kant, Lyotard, Derrida, Deleuze, Nancy, Levinas, and Nietzsche. The discussion is much too rich to even attempt to summarize.

Still, Hart does have occasional paragraphs and passages that are incisive and concise enough to quote. In one section he is interacting with Nietzshce's attempt to paint the Christian faith as a kind of "other worldly" Platonism that despises material existence in favor of some kind of pure spiritual experience. In a footnote he writes:

Does "another world" that is truly other enter Christian thought except in the theology of someone like Bultmann, for whom the demolition of the architecture of the antique cosmology, in which the heavenly and the earthly were seamlessly joined, leads to the discovery of a truly separate realm of spiritual (or existential) interiority, where faith is enacted not among the concrete contingencies of time but within a secret inner core of time, an inner sanctuary of disembodied illumination? Prior to the turn in modern Protestantism, is not such thought a phenomenon only of gnosticism? (105, n.123)

I can't help but think that a certain bent in certain sorts of Reformed theology also points down the Bultmannian path described here, long before Bultmann's own day.

In his 'A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven': Covenant Theology and Antinomianism in Early Massachusetts (Wesleyan, 1978), William K.B. Stoever describes the conflict between Anne Hutchinson (and other Antinomians) and her fellow Puritans as one involving, among other things, God's use of created means of grace in order to bring sinners to salvation. In particular Stoever describes one mainstream Puritan position as maintaining that "spiritual rebirth is accomplished through created means, including [the sinner's] own distinctively human faculties," as they are addressed in word and sacrament (63).

Others, however, incluing John Cotton, tended to downplay such created means in light of the inner operation of the Spirit in accord with God's sovereign purposes. This, in turn, opened the door for people like Hutchinson to call externals into doubt in favor of a kind of spiritual inwardness that, in some respects, doesn't end up very far from Bultmann's later existentialized sense of spiritual interiority.

Whatever the case, the gnostic temptation seems to have nipped at the heels of Protestantism and, in the case of some Puritan theology, perhaps was fed by an at times overly one-sided emphasis on the secret, interior, and immediate work of the Spirit upon the individual soul that downplayed created means. We must take care, I suppose, lest we become the caricature that thinkers like Nietzsche attempt to paint us as.