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Evil is always God’s enemy

The thoughtful theology of David Bentley Hart

People worth knowing
What does today’s theological landscape look like? Who is influencing modern churches?
This is the second in our series of five contemporary Christian theologians. Each piece will introduce a major figure in the theological world and explore his or her sphere of influence, most well-known works and most helpful insight on God’s word.

The contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart was unknown to me when I first encountered The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? I was given the book – an advance proof – while working at a bookstore in Michigan. There’d been a welter of less than inspiring theological commentary in the press about the tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia in 2004, and I cynically consigned it to that schlock heap.

What a nice surprise it was, then, to crack the book open a few days later, and encounter a thoughtful, profound, trenchant theological voice. Hart’s prose initially hooked me; he’s a prodigiously gifted writer who composes sentences that satisfy you like Christmas dinner. Rich, substantial and kind of exhausting, too. Reading Hart’s books will definitely, as they say in Reader’s Digest, “increase your word power.”

The content that supports the prose is just as substantial. In Doors of the Sea, Hart pushes back at two tidal extremes: on one hand, the secular writers who, with peculiar, discomfiting self-satisfaction, filled newspaper columns with the opinion that the tsunami’s wake was – at last! – God’s coup de grace. How could someone believe in a good God in the wake of such a tragedy? On the other side were theologians – purportedly speaking on behalf of the Reformed tradition – who obliquely affirmed the calamity in the South Pacific by stating that it was, like all things, the outworking of God’s sovereignty, and part of his good plan, no matter how inscrutable or baffling it may look to us.

Hart dismisses the secular writers, finding little in their “inept cavils” that great Christian thinkers haven’t dealt with time and again throughout the past two millennia. He directs much stronger words at the Christian writers, who, in their attempts to rationalize and understand the disaster, grant a legitimacy to the non-believer’s critique. Hart resists finding a “moral intelligibility” in these horrors, affirming the ancient Christian insight that evil – whether natural or human – is God’s enemy, parasitic on goodness, and a force that defaces our trust in God. The implication for Hart is that we ought to be extremely careful in applying prepackaged theological insights to these sorts of events, lest we unwittingly end up eliding the difference between God and his enemy. The Doors of the Sea is a slim volume, yet it is thick with insights into the thought of Voltaire, Aquinas, Calvin and Dostoevsky. Regarding the latter, Hart’s articulation of the force of Ivan Karamazov’s theological rebellion is a powerful check against blithely optimistic theodicies. Hart resolves his argument warmly and pastorally, reminding us that in the wake of great tragedy, “charity is our portion,” and that God’s kingdom will be established here, though creation roils and churns in so many ways.

The ‘Christian revolution’
A few years later, Hart published Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, a book that arrived at the high watermark of the New Atheists’ popularity. Responses to the New Atheists formed an apologetics cottage industry for Christian publishers, though Hart’s is the finest, by some measure. It’s also the largest in scope. Instead of moving through a point by point rebuttal of the New Atheists’ arguments, Hart is more interested in history, in what the “Christian revolution” has bequeathed to Western civilization (and what the ramifications might be, should we choose to shuffle it off at Richard Dawkins’ request). Hart argues that Christianity “invented the human” in Western culture; our conception of what sorts of creatures we are, which includes such important concepts as charity and dignity, is a product of Christianity. Along the way, Hart cleans up some of the nonsense that is often circulated about the history of Christianity. His recollection of the conflict between Galileo and the Catholic hierarchy is a welcome clarification of one of the modern myths used to support the apparent antagonism between Christianity and science.

I suppose I should note that Hart isn’t a great fan of the Reformed tradition. In one of his essays, he refers to John Calvin as his bête noire (as I say, increase your word power!). I suppose that’s to be expected, on some level, given his Eastern affiliation, since the Reformed tradition and the Eastern tradition have some significant differences. In my estimation, that’s all the more reason to read him, though. Hart doesn’t criticize the Reformed tradition from a lazy liberal vantage point, or by offering hastily constructed caricatures. His tradition is a venerable one – perhaps the most venerable of all iterations of Christianity – and reading critical work like his is to our benefit. In addition to the two books I all-too-briefly described in this piece, you can check out his regular column in the Catholic magazine First Things, and in the collection In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments. His latest book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss is a profound exploration of what we talk about when we talk about God. If you really want to sound the depths of Hart’s thought, his first book The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth will challenge you as much as any piece of recent, serious theology. Much of it may sail over your head, as it did mine. That’s ok, though; I’ve always found that the deep woods are lovely, even if I’m only able to climb a few of the trees.

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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