08 October 2004

more from hart

The week has been busy, with a number of meetings, grading, and various distractions on campus and at home. So I've not been keeping up with reading Hart's book as I would have liked. Nonetheless, I did a bit of reading and was intrigued by this passage in a section entitled "The Covenant of Light":

Every act of knowledge is, simultaneously, an act of faith (to draw on Hamann's delightful subversion of Hume); we trust in the world, and so know it, only by entrusting ourselves to what is more than ourselves; our primordial act of faith meets a covenant that has already been made with us, before we could seek it, in the giving of the light. No one can shut his eyes to that splendor, or seal his ears against the music, except as a perverse display of will; then, naturally, knowledge can be recovered again only as an exertion of that same will. But one then has not merely lost the world momentarily, so as to receive it anew as "truth." One has lost the world and its truth altogether, and replaced it with a phantom summoned up out of one's need for a world conformable to the dimensions of one's own power to establish meaning--a world that is nothing but the ceaseless repetition of otherwise meaningless instantiations of that power. (138-39)

The context here is the collapse of Christian ontology and, with it, a view of knowledge that Hart suggests is rooted in the kind of entrustedness that receives everything as a gift, so that, in the words of Aquinas, "in every act of knowledge and will, God is implicitly known and desired." After all, Christian thought had always affirmed the essential goodness of creation as a giftedness that disclosed the glory of God and could only be rightly apprehended from within that sense of wonder and gratuity the world arouses in us, directing us beyond itself to its transcendent ground and end.

The collapse of this perspective was precipitated, Hart argues, by the rise of nominalism in the late middle ages and was fully underway by the time we read the pages of Descartes, where he rejects that call of God's good creation, withdrawing into his own subjectivity. As Hart notes, Descartes writes, "Now will I close my eyes, I will stop up my ears, I will avert my senses from their objects, I will even erase from my consciousness all images of things corporeal; or, at least...I will consider them empty and false."

It is in this sheer act of will that the world is lost beyond all possible recovery on our part. As Hart implies, such an act of will is a rejection of grace--the gratuity of creation--and leaves us only a world of our own making, invoked out of our own subjectivity and suited to it, all as an exercise of power.

What I find intriuging, however, about Hart's description of this, is his use of the language of "covenant," the way in which Adam's fall resonates through his account, and the implied understanding of knowledge and reality. Hart, it seems, posits humanity's initial and proper relation to the world as one of faith, countenancing God as the giver of grace, above all the grace of creation itself in and through which God himself is known.

But through a "perverse display of will," this initial relation is lost so that any subsequent attempt at recovery must itself remain "an exertion of that same will," by which one uses "one's own power to establish meaning." To recreate reality in one's own image and to thereby find ultimate meaning in that act of will is, of course, nothing short of idoltry, biblically speaking.

Clearly, then, if one is to recover the world, it can only happen as it did at first: as a gift of grace. And so, Hart notes, "the incarnation of the Logos, the infinite ratio of all that is, reconciles us not only to God, but to the world" (133-34).