Byzantine Aesthetics

I’m leading a discussion tomorrow on David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite in my Theology of Beauty class. Here’s the summary I wrote to help with the discussion:

In the tenth century, the story is told, Vladimir of Russia decided to choose a religion to help unite his country under a single faith. It is said he sent emissaries to gather information about three major religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Those responsible for Christianity traveled to Constantinople, where they observed the spiritual mysticism of devout monks and the magnificent architecture of the Hagia Sophia cathedral. The reports of grandeur, elegance, and beauty these emissaries brought back convinced Vladimir to adopt Orthodox Christianity as his nation’s religion. Such beauty was not, apparently only about honoring God, it was itself an expression to those who did not know Christ, able to bring others into the fold by the shear majesty of aesthetics. Beauty was a form of evangelism, a rhetoric speaking of a beautiful God.

Hagia Sophia

Constantinople was sacked, and renamed Istanbul. The Hagia Sophia became a mosque, then later a museum, where public prayer is against the law. Yet, the appeal for this approach was not left to history. Indeed, recently there has been a movement that seeks a return to such a stance, using words rather than architecture. This movement is Radical Orthodoxy, and it is within this movement we can place David Bentley Hart. For Hart, unlike others pursuing the Radical Orthodoxy goals, we can add another connection to the grandeur of Constantinople. He is an Eastern Orthodox writer. And yet…

I have read a fair amount of Orthodox writers and Hart does not match their style or approach, or sources. Rather, he is an Eastern Orthodox writer almost entirely emphasizing a Western theological approach, so much so it became clear that Hart is not a lifelong member of the Orthodox church, but rather a convert, a fact later confirmed. I did not discover the date or background of his conversion, however, my suspicion is it came rather late–an intellectual and ecclesial pilgrimage to Constantinople. Hart may be Orthodox but his efforts probably should not be considered as reflecting the broader Orthodox approach or emphases.

His core influences are specified in The Beauty of the Infinite, and can be identified not only by perceptible adoption of arguments, but also because such men are the only ones Hart does not add some sort of dismissal or insult when noting their contributions. John Milbank must rank among the highest of these, as he is the scholar who started the Radical Orthodoxy movement and Hart’s mentor at the University of Virginia. Hans Urs von Balthasar is also a primary influence, who not only seems to have influenced Hart’s thoughts but also his style. Added to this we can suggest the featured influence, Gregory of Nyssa, as well as Bonaventure and Anselm. For the latter he offers a rather rousing defense against his fellow Orthodox writer, Vladimir Lossky. Protestants are almost entirely dismissed, except for Johann Hamann, who is characterized by his critical stance towards the burgeoning Enlightenment.

The inclusion and emphasis on Gregory of Nyssa, as well as the occasional reference to Maximus the Confessor, might seem to counter the suggestion of Hart’s primarily Western orientation. However, it should be noted that Hans Urs von Balthasar happened to pen a small set of books on three early writers. The first was Origen, followed by Maximus and then Gregory of Nyssa. The broad, and not always noted, influence of Balthasar should be considered in any assessment of Hart’s thought. Indeed, Hart does make a fairly clear statement of this, saying that his own efforts in The Beauty of the Infinite could be considered, in essence, as “a kind of extended marginalium on some page of Balthasar’s work” (29). This is not to say Hart is merely repeating what had already been so grandly written. Hart is a very learned and creative scholar whose efforts in The Beauty of the Infinite should be considered as using his influences as a springboard to greater heights in an attempted integration of East and West.

Hagia Sophia

Just as, no doubt, those who tried to describe the Hagia Sophia felt at a loss for words, so too does anyone wishing to summarize Hart’s effort in a few pages. Indeed, a few pages could be spent on many of Hart’s single sentences. Indeed, a few of Hart’s sentences might just be three pages. The Beauty of the Infinite is made up of three main sections, with a substantive introduction that can be considered a main section in its own right. Here, Hart lays the groundwork for his ambitious project, listing the names of those he sees as primary intellectual opponents as well as offering extended definitions of how he is using key terms.

Hart suggests there are two narratives that have been offered in an attempt to describe our historical reality. The first is a rhetoric of violence, represented by a significant amount of thinkers throughout history and reaching a particularly destructive point in our era, leading us away from God and God’s fullness in this world. The second is a rhetoric of peace, the way of life and hope that propels us, continually, into an infinite discover of God’s beauty. The first is, by far, the most prevalent and accepted, not only in secular philosophies, but also, Hart claims, has influenced a great deal of Christian theology.

With this, then, Hart’s goal is first to explore and describe the rhetoric of violence, especially as seen in the writings of continental postmodern philosophers, suggesting that, in essence, this rhetoric is not as much a dismissal of metanarratives, but rather are continuations of what he sees as Nietzche’s counter-evangel. Although, he acknowledges their distinctions, Hart reduces their contributions to what he sees as their essence, a narrative of the sublime that expounds an ontology of violence. Everything is different, there are no inherent connections, leading to an unbridgeable existence within this world, undermining all analogy, and creating a ‘radical discontinuity’ with the world and with each other that allows only for opposition and isolation. Distance is the defining characteristic of this totality, a distance that repulses one from another within the confines of existence, not unlike the accelerating, expanding universe, the violence of the distancing leads to an inherent coldness and entropy. Think C.S. Lewis’s description of Hell in The Great Divorce. Beauty is lost, undermined by a supposed underlying sublimity that rhetorically justifies the entropic pursuits even as it opens the door for dominating counter-narratives that, in essence, hide the strife of domination beneath words of distinction. The rhetoric of violence is one of divide and conquer.

This distinction between sublime and beauty is at the heart of Hart’s understanding. The sublime, long the preferred aesthetic term as opposed to the perceived superficiality of the ‘merely’ beautiful, is considered a deeper reality that is inexpressible, impenetrable, unrepresentable, surpassing the power of comprehension, a disruption of imagination, emphasizing an insurmountable distinction between form and the infinite. The sublime has four contributing ‘narratives’ that are brought out by postmodern philosophers.

The first is the “differential sublime” (52). Difference itself is a sublime reality, with distinction, change and perpetual liberation perceived as perpetual states. Exploration of this sublime emphasizes disruption, a tearing apart of perceived connections in order to establish clear perception and supposed objectivity. Derrida is, for Hart, the key figure to be discussed. Rejecting the overarching denial of essential difference by traditional Western metaphysics as being violent and imperious, the entire emphasis upon difference becomes itself violent, allowing for nothing apart from difference.

The second is the “cosmological sublime” (56). Here Deleuze and Foucalt are put forth as representatives of this rhetorical violence. Here ‘inescapable chance’ and ‘uncontrollable results’ are said to dominate our existence, difference is dispersal and change. In other words, repetitious chaos, constant motion but not towards anything other than more disruption and shattering, that contains only temporary form before indecipherable reorganization. In such ambiguity and aimless existence there can only be amoral acceptance. The more accepting of this purposeless state, the more joy in present existence can be possible. The hope is that there is no hope, without the controlling burden of a defining past or eschatological expectation. This opens the door for the violence of domination, where one is either dominated or dominating in the experience of this chaotic state.

The third narrative is the “ontological sublime” (72). The sublime, viewed through a Heideggerian lens, and more specifically developed by Jean-Luc Nancy, is not what is beyond what appears and we experience, not a sense of infinity, but rather the result of difference that forms the world in its totality. The world is open as it arrives, but is without meaning. Sublime is an experience of “unlimitation” where one perceives the void and thus the shape of forms that are defined by this nothingness. The universe expands beyond its borders into nothing, not infinite, becoming more itself as it goes into nothing. I say that acknowledging that while analogy is apparently impossible, it is still helpful to struggling minds.

Hart finishes his list with the “ethical sublime”75). Here we find Emmanuel Levinas as Hart’s particular foil. The sublime, which is always that deep unrepresentable reality, is emphasized in the “Other”, never approachable, always transcendent demanding an response that can find no satiation. This other is outside the totality, commanding us but not, by definition, approachable, with this profound insatisfaction being itself an experience of the sublime. The quest itself is the goal, rather than comfort or accomplishment. We are driven onwards to do what is responsible without any return, and obligation without expectation. Distance is total, with no bridging or traversing, with no relationship whatsoever besides itself, a service to a good never possibly seen. Derrida, Hart suggests, attempts a more moderate versions of this, where the other is a mystical absence that is defining without relating, calling us towards justice by deconstruction, a violent separation, “war upon war”, a struggle for differentiated freedom.

The sublime is a totality closed within itself, the space between other and others, that cannot be bridged and which itself defines the knowable by its unknowability. This is not expanding to a prescribed direction or goal but is rather chaos, constantly in flux, a “pagan exuberance tempered by Gnostic detachment”(91).

It is here, then, that Hart turns to Nietzsche as the most direct proponent of a rhetoric of violence. In purposeful contrast to the supposed peace and spiritual virtues of Jesus, Nietzsche offers not only an alternative, but an opposition, a counter-Gospel. He is, according to Hart, establishing his own ‘critical vantage’ to overturn what he sees as Christian contradiction of Christ’s actual message and, added to this, dismiss the actual message itself as being ultimately weak and ineffective. Instead, he encourages a move back to noble virtues. Rather than meekness and humility there is pride and strength, the will to power. This is an aesthetic preference rather than a clearly reasoned position.
The modern and postmodern (which is “modernity fully realized”) perspectives on a closed totality are directly opposed to the Gospel of Christ, and are, in fact, inherently violent in their rhetoric as domination becomes inherent to their goals.

Theirs is a rhetoric of violence that cannot be simply dismissed or rationally opposed. Because this is a counter-narrative, an aesthetic choice, there must be a return to what is seen as the original response, a rhetoric offered by Jesus, a rhetoric of peace. The true Gospel must be re-asserted. Postmodern philosophy rejects the Christian message as being “totalizing”, a “metaphysical violence against difference” that hides beneath words of peace (150). The Christian vision is one of conquest for an “ephemeral dream”. Instead of following the lead of this perspective, Hart offers a different way, a way that abandons the pursuit of dialectical truth and, at the same time, rejects the totality that postmodernity offers. Persuasion here is not violent, but peaceful. Instead of strife and chaos being the “primordial” truth, there is beauty, a beauty that is infinite in scope as it reveals the “music of a triune God” (151). Christian theology, then, rather than being a dialectic is a rhetoric of peace that coherently expresses this beauty and light.

And so Hart turns to his second section, a minor dogmatics, touching on four key themes of Christian theology and places these within the field of battle that had been opened up in the first section. Although deeply theological this second section is not systematic. It is, rather, more like variations on themes. Each section offers Hart’s theological points at the beginning then what he sees as related musings on the theme, not fully exploring the particular theological point as much as being riffs as they occur to him. Nor does he see a consistent method of response as important (154). In developing his themes Hart makes a key point, then writes about what comes to his mind about that point, in whatever way he feels like doing in the moment. Although more specifically directed towards the positive development of a renewed theology, these sections contain a significant amount of critical study of assorted philosophers and theologians. Hart’s effort seems to be establishing a rhetoric of peace by demolishing those he sees as not fitting into this; the form of his argument coming in part from, we might say, their formlessness and chaos.

This second section is divided into four main considerations: trinity, creation, salvation, and eschatology. At the heart of Hart’s rhetoric of peace is his strong preference for beauty instead of the sublime, and the infinite instead of a totality. “Beauty is prior to sublimity and infinity surpasses totality” (413). God is himself beautiful and Christ is God’s supreme rhetoric of this beauty and peace. The beauty of the infinite is the Christian aesthetics, a holistic vision of being that leads to delight and peace.

Countering the perspective of chaos, and the search for power that chaos leaves us with, Hart offers a counter-narrative, one that rejects chaos as turmoil and anarchy, within which all is a struggle for dominance, power, and asserted identity. Instead, chaos is defined more according to the recent scientific use of the term, where apparent disorder and randomness contains, in fact, an infinite complexity and order. This is not a closed totality, but rather an open infinity.

Instead of the expanding, enervating universe that propels each form farther and more distant from each other, beginning in violence and ending in cold, isolation, the beauty of God places us in his orbit. We are constantly falling towards him, but instead of arriving we circle, in a perichoretic dance. Rather than distance being a form of alienation, distance becomes an expression of intimacy as we are continual drawn to God, who is not in constant retreat from us but rather in constant participation.

The final section of The Beauty of the Infinite offers Hart’s concluding thoughts on the war of persuasions. Here he explores more closely what it means for there to be competing rhetorics, examining more specifically the idea of pursuing a rhetoric of peace amidst violence and strife. This persuasion, as has been noted, is not about escapism away from prevailing philosophical influence and cultural seductions of power, but rather about offering a new perspective within the old, a way of peace that counteracts the violence through expressions of eternal values of beauty and light. This subversive expression of beauty of the infinite provokes the violence even as it disarms it by refusing to play the same game. Christian rhetoric, a rhetoric of profound peace, persuades by inducing rapture, reorienting vision towards infinite beauty, a quest that is always satisfying and never satiated.

Overall, I’m very mixed about the book. I agree with Hart on a great deal of what he says, and yet I’m almost entirely put off by the way in which he says it. He promotes, rhetorically, a rhetoric of peace but in almost every written way possible does not himself follow a rhetoric of peace. He uses alienating arguments, offputting (and rarely necessary) vocabulary, dismissive and insulting interaction, and baroque prose. Which suggests to me that while I, in part, agree with a lot of his efforts, he does not agree with his own conclusions. Had he agreed with himself we would see this in his approach to theology. Instead of a rhetoric of peace, however, we have rhetorical violence that seeks domination and acclamation. Hart is a very smart fellow, and he’s desperate, it seems, to be acknowledged as such, more desperate for such attention than getting his basic message across.

Curiously, when I think of a true rhetoric of peace in action I think of The Shack. Like it or not, agree with it or not, it seems to be significantly closer to Hart’s goal than Hart is.

And this likely dooms Hart to relative obscurity. Unless, of course, Hart really reads his own book and puts it into practice.

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