Sunday, April 15, 2007

David Hart: Arrogant or Brilliant?

Due to frequent travel and general busyness, I've haven't had much time to post lately. It's strange, but I often feel guilty when I go for long periods of time without posting, as if I had neglected to call my mom or ignored a letter from a close friend. I wonder if any other bloggers feel the same way....

Regardless, my travels have given me the chance to really dig into David Hart's much-discussed The Beauty of the Infinite. This book has attracted considerable praise from bloggers and real theologians alike, as well as some criticisms. I, for one, am thoroughly impressed. Hart's prose is fantastic, and his theological insights have given me a new appreciation of the importance of Christian aesthetics (something that my reading of Kierkegaard had taught me to distrust). The book has also clarified my understanding of the Trinity, for which I am grateful.

That said, I agree with Patrik that Hart's harsh treatment of modern theologians and philosophers is somewhat at odds with his frequent assertion that the Christian proclamation is one of "peace" (although I wouldn't claim, like Patrik, that his rhetoric is the equivalent of American foreign policy!). There's little doubt that Beauty of the Infinite would have been better without Hart's snarky dismissals of almost every major Protestant theologian from Luther and Calvin up to Tillich and J√ľngel. Indeed, it's hard to disagree with Halden's comment that Hart has an irrational prejudice against anything German and Protestant (he seems to subscribe to the popular notion that there has been a "German captivity of theology").

It's worth noting, though, that there are two German Lutherans that Hart cannot praise highly enough: J.S. Bach and Johann Hamann. He refers to Bach as "the greatest of Christian theologians", saying that "Bach's is the ultimate Christian music; it reflects as no other human artifact ever has or could the Christian vision of creation" (282-3). By comparison, Hart's adoration of Hamann is more restrained, but not by much. He writes that "for [Hamann], to a degree perhaps unparalleled in Christian thought, the true knowledge of God in creation - the true analogy - lay in a childlike rapture before the concrete and poetic creativity of God" (254) Elsewhere, Hart employs all of his rhetorical gifts to hail Hamann as "most amusing philosopher" of all time, possessing "a truly Christian mirthfulness".

The connection between Hart and Hamann in interesting for me, since I have been reading them somewhat in tandem. While I consider Hamann to be superior both aesthetically and theologically, there is undoubtedly a close affinity between the two authors. In fact, it has proven beneficial to read Hart in light of Hamann, since the latter provides a corrective to the excesses and omissions of the former (call it a "Lutheran corrective"). It seems to me that Hamann might serve as useful mediator between Hart and the Protestant theologians he so often criticizes. After all, given that both Hamann and Bach understood themselves as no more than orthodox Lutherans, Hart's praise of these two men may signify a closer affinity to Lutheran theology than he realizes. If nothing else, it gives me hope that Hart's theological insights can be separated from his brash rhetoric and employed for truly evangelical purposes.


Clint said...

I also feel guilt when neglecting my blog. On the other hand, I gave away my copy of Hart's book to a friend, and have felt no guilt on that end. If the medium is in any way the message, his medium obfuscates the points he hopes to make.

Clint said...

I might also add that when I feel neglectful, I tend to send hastily written postcards in recompense. Thomas tends to send beautiful and careful epistles to his blog.

timothy koch said...


I'm sure your quite busy but if you do happen to read this I will keep an eye out for a reply.

I was wondering if you could give me any idea of just what kind of impact Hamann is having upon the confessing world lately (of which realm I am not worthy to tie a sandle strap). I don't know if you are very familiar with Communion and Liberation but its founder Giussani sounds to me quite influenced by Hamann (as far as my meager talents can tell) and I am very curious as to how much. I am somewhat aware of the impact that Kierkegaard and Barth has made in current Vatican circles, at least indirectly, but I am intrigued by the notion that Hamann my have had a direct influence, especially on certain people.

Thanks in any event;your blog is cool and cutting edgy!

Thomas Adams said...

Clint –You are too kind. My guilt-ridden posts are just as hastily written, I’m sure. My most recent post is a case in point – it’s simply an extended passage from Kierkegaard, designed to obscure my lack of any original thoughts.

By the way, the friend who received your copy of The Beauty of the Infinite is a lucky fellow. Are there any other books that you’re looking to unload?

Timothy – Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure what kind of impact Hamann is currently having among either Protestants or Catholics. My guess is that it’s pretty minimal; many of his works are still available only in German and his writing style is obscure, to say the least. Thus, I would assume that he has had no influence on Italian groups like Communion and Liberation. But he has gained a modicum of popularity among the Radical Orthodox crowd – Hart, Milbank, Ward, etc. Also, to the extent that Hamann was a formative influence of Kierkegaard, he lives on in whatever role S.K. is playing in modern theology.

Clint said...

I rarely that I don't like- usually I give away books I do like, and then keep repurchasing them for my own library, only to give them away again.

In Hart's case, I gave it away out of distaste to a friend (prof at St. Olaf) who needed it and is directly engaged with such work.

My friend also happens to be quite influenced by Hamann, but as you mention, this is because he reads German theology quite a bit in German, which is how Hamann is mostly available, if at all.