Thoughts about Hart’s “You Are Gods”

Thoughts about Hart’s “You Are Gods” August 20, 2022

Thoughts about David Bentley Hart’s “Introduction” to “You Are Gods”

Hart, an Eastern Orthodox Christian and general Christian intellectual, here advances a stringent critique of the whole Western Christian tradition of separating nature and grace, the natural from the supernatural. He complains that the old “two-tier system” of nature and grace of neo-Thomism is making a comeback in spite of the 20th century’s “Eastward turn” of Catholic nouvelle theologie which was based on a vision of nature and grace as belonging together intrinsically. This “comeback” he decries as unchristian.

After nodding somewhat uncomfortably to gnosticism, Hart writes that “According to Christian scripture, we live in the aftermath of an intrinsically divine reality’s alienation from its source, not in an order of nature that is the direct work of God’s creative will, perfectly innocent in itself, into which we were precipitated from the unnatural ‘superelevation’ accorded us by an extraordinary grace at the inception of humanity’s spiritual history.” (xv)

Hart critiques gnosticism for making this “estrangement of creation” too radical, such that nature is viewed as alien to God. Against that, he avers that “whatever possesses a supernatural destiny must be supernatural—must be divine—‘naturally’ while anything truly outside the sphere of this natural divinity…could never be joined to God.” (xvi)

The upshot is that, for Hart, Christianity’s vision of nature is that it has no real existence in and of itself but possesses any actuality only through supernature (grace). “God is all that is. Whatever is not God exists as becoming divine….” (xviii)

Well, these assertions certainly grab attention! I have already read Chapter One: “Waking the Gods: Theosis as Reason’s Natural End” so I have some idea where Hart is going. But, surely, only the whole book with all its essays will reveal it fully.

These claims remind me of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s assertion that there is no such thing, and never has been, as “pure nature” devoid of grace. For both Hart and Balthasar, apparently, grace goes “all the way down.” Nothing that has being is alien to God and all that has being is being drawn by grace, which is supernatural, toward union with God.

Fine. So far, so good. But three problems jump out to the naïve reader like myself. First, does Hart fall too close to gnosticism when he says that “God saves creatures by removing extrinsic, physical (that is, non-moral) impediments to their natural union with him” (xviii), and second, is Hart guilty of “monism,” the idea that all is one substance and that one substance is God? If so, how can this account for the fallenness of creation and for the existence of “physical impediments…?” Finally, third, what room is there in monism for creaturely free will?

As always, we will have to wait for the answers until we read more. Here, in this Introduction, Hart has simply whetted our (theology nerds’) theological appetites.

But allow me to add my own “footnote” to Hart’s Introduction (and maybe to his whole book). What about creatio ex nihilo? If God created the entire universe by his word, out of nothing, then how can we avoid thinking of it all as in some sense God? But, then, how can we avoid thinking of evil as an illusion?

Well…Hart admits that one chapter of this book might have been called either “Studies in Vedantic Christianity” or “Neoplatonic Christianity.”

If Hart were not Hart but an esoteric thinker like, say, Rudolf Steiner, I would not be interested in this book. I’m interested because he is Hart and presumably not an esoteric Christian like Steiner. Let’s continue on.

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