Tradition and apocalypse:
Essay on the future of the Christian faith
by David Bentley Hart
academic baker, 208 pages, $24.99
DThe avid Bentley Hart was once the darling of postliberal theologians for his brilliant books on divine beauty and the illogicality of atheism. But in his new book, Tradition and apocalypse, he argues that the Christian tradition is bankrupt. Using Newman Doctrinal Development Essay as a foil, he insists that the “rational unity” of the Christian tradition cannot be known with certainty, and that what we consider to be apostolic is little more than the result of a “political compromise”, of “rhetorical evasion” and “opportunity.” Simply put, creed Christianity radically contradicts Jesus and the apostles, who Hart says taught anarchist communism, pacifism, and the rejection of all political authority .
The “institutional form” of the Church throughout history, Hart insists, has been “often almost comically corrupt and divisive.” It would cause Hart “not a moment of distress” to “walk away from . . . Christian beliefs and institutions” if he were to find them “false or inconsistent”, and he is “more than willing to conclude” that “the intrinsic unity of the Christian tradition . . . is an illusion or maybe even a lie. Contrary to traditional accounts, he sees Christianity as containing “an inner force of dissolution” that incubates movements of disbelief and nihilism, but tends to “begin again in the formless realm of spirit rather than flesh, the spirit and not of the letter. No wonder Hart praises the early Gnostic enemies of the Church and complains of being misunderstood.
Christians must beware of thinking that they see a rational unity in Christian tradition, for “living tradition is essentially apocalyptic: an original disturbance of the historical past remembered in the light of God’s final disturbance of the historical (and cosmic) future”. The past is “always dissolving,” according to Hart’s account, and the future apocalypse will surprise us with an altered theological understanding that is both “radical and irrevocable.”
As part of his polemic against creed Christianity, Hart argues that Arius, the fourth-century heretic, was “a much more faithful representative of the oldest and most respectable Trinitarian school of speculation than is were the supporters of the eventual colony of Nicaea”. The Arian claim that the Son was a creature was “not particularly exotic”. The Nicene Settlement on homoousios lacked “biblical attestation” and the Arians were “very plausible. . . more faithful to Scripture” than their Nicene adversaries. In the end, Nicene Christology was “only one of many possible conceptions of the meaning of the Gospel”.
In the same vein of revisionist ideas, Hart insists that the apostle Paul’s salvation account is closer to the “salvation understanding” of the gnostic Valentin than much of the Thomistic tradition or doctrine. Calvinism of substitutionary atonement. Marcion, who repudiated the Old Testament, practiced a faith “more consistent” with Paul’s beliefs than did Luther.
Hart repeatedly denounces the doctrine of eternal damnation of those condemned to hell. Those who accept it – that is, the vast majority of Christians who have ever lived – “invite psychosis” and the destruction of their “moral intelligence”. Their misunderstanding of eschatology corresponds to their naïve assumptions about the rational coherence of the Christian tradition, of which it is the foundation. Tradition and apocalypse to show is an illusion.
Following this modern tradition of scholars who imagine they have discovered the true meaning of the Bible for the first time, Hart tells us that Christians have failed to understand that the “true story of Eden” has nothing to do with a fall, original sin. , or diabolical interference. It was originally the story of a chief god Yahweh who lied to his “two pitiful serfs” to keep them in the dark about better things. The great god tried (awkwardly) to make the snake a companion for these serfs. The serpent told these “peasants” in all truth that Yahweh was “exploiting” them. They discovered after eating from the tree that the serpent was right, so Yahweh fled in a panic to the council of lesser gods to warn them that Adam and Eve could now eat from the tree of life and move by also becoming immortal. That’s why they had to be kicked out of the garden.
A reader can only laugh at this whimsical reading. Hart’s interpretation of Genesis 3 betrays a startling inability to distinguish between background Near Eastern myths and their subtle refutations by the biblical author. He frequently invokes “reason”, the “historical-critical method” and “historical scholarship” to obtain mandates. Again, the knowledgeable reader smiles knowing that the “historical scholar” changes from generation to generation, often producing wildly contradictory judgments, but always put forward with great confidence that the scholar-genius has finally settled the matter and put end to the notions of the ignorant. fools who preceded him.
Hart pursues other biased readings of Scripture that claim to be informed by historical reasoning, often to support his claims that “true Christianity” is anarchic, socialist, and pacifist. Yet the role of the professor of modern German theology is not enough for Hart. He makes a metaphysical leap towards a philosophical perennialism which is reminiscent of that of the American transcendentalists of the 19th century. Emerson, for example, postulated an inner unity in all the religions of the world and a final metaphysical unity opposed to all dualism. Hart does the same. The distinction between God and creation is illusory. Christians should learn this monism, according to Hart, from Hindu thinkers like Shankara, developer of Advaita Vedanta. Or we should go to Islamic Sufism, which sees the truth of metaphysical monism “with unprecedented brilliance.”
Why did Solomon turn to idolatry after God used him to lead Israel and after writing some of the most profound parts of Scripture? Why did Gideon make a golden ephod that became an idolatrous snare for himself and for all of Israel after Yahweh used it to deliver Israel? We will never have a definitive answer to these questions. But we can see a similar turn in a former Orthodox theologian who now embraces a Gnostic reading of Genesis and heterodox views of Christology, creation, and salvation.
Perhaps Hart’s turn toward heterodoxy dates back to his embrace of universal salvation. Not all Universalists have come to heretical conclusions about other Christian dogmas. But in his masterful analysis of the history of universalism (The Devil’s Redemption), Michael McClymond shows that Universalism begins with the ancient Gnostics and, once embraced by Christians, tends to unravel all major Christian dogmas. This powerful trend helps us understand – if not explain – Hart’s downfall in Hindu metaphysics and Gnostic theology.
Gerald McDermott recently retired from Beeson Divinity School.
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