Robert Wright (journalist and author of several books who has said that God is a figment of the human imagination but also that he is not an atheist) interviewed David Bentley Hart on his video blogging channel (The Wright Show, posted here on YouTube, Feb 26, 2020). Wright did an excellent job of keeping Hart down to earth and of drawing out material on a wide range of topics (although primarily focused on Hart’s latest book). Below is a fast transcription of a few portions on the new heavens and the new earth as well as philosophy of mind that I will want to return to for myself. Below the transcript, I compare what Hart shares with ideas from N. T. Wright (not to be confused with Robert Wright). So here is the hasty transcript:
(47:01) What did someone like Origen or Gregory of Nyssa think that the point of creation is? It’s ultimately to call spirits out of nothingness into an eternal divinizing union with God and within a framework of created nature which is full of the glory of God. That’s it. That’s the whole point. If you don’t reach that end, then God’s will has been thwarted.
[Criticism of the impoverished and cartoonish vision that we modern Christians put in the place of this and contrasting our impoverished vision with Paul’s “glorious cosmic vision” in 1 Corinthians 15 which “should shift your vision of what the religious imagination is capable of seeing.” (48:38)]
(49:32) …The eschatology of the whole Bible, …Jewish and Christian alike, is this worldly. The kingdom of heaven just means the kingdom of the heavenly places or the transcendent places, the places on high. If you had the cosmology of the time, it would mean the kingdom literally either of the Empyrean above the sphere of the fixed stars or Primum Mobile or the kingdom that encompassed everything above the sphere of the moon. It just means the divine place. …When the kingdom of the heavens or of heaven comes to earth, it is to transform earth so all of the language of redemption in the New Testament is of a new heaven, a new sky literally, a new earth. And all the animals are there rejoicing, and there is plant life and animal life and human life. It’s a communal, a cosmic restoration in which the glory of God now pervades everything. In the eastern Christian tradition, which has a certain pronounced mystical tendencies even at the center of dogmatic life, a very popular image is to say that the end of creation is for creation to become like the burning bush—pervaded by the glory of God but not consumed.
(51:55) …The first showing of God to Moses is in the form of a burning bush, a bush that is not consumed by the flames. …This was the vision of the purpose of creation in the New Testament or the early church. It’s not that human spirits are wafted away to an ethereal paradise, but rather that the whole cosmos—well it’s right there in Paul, chapter eight of Romans, that all of creation is groaning in anticipation of the glory that will be revealed or Revelation, I saw a new heaven and a new earth. It’s not about a heaven elsewhere.
(56:30) Wright: …Do you have a conception of what the afterlife might be like?
…No. I have none. No. Even the dogmatic pronouncements on this are worthless. It’s part of Catholic doctrine, for instance, that there is such a thing as immediate judgement. …I think all of that should be just judiciously ignored.
Wright: So you’re what—agnostic but hopeful or what?
Hart: I’m not a materialist. I don’t even believe that you can come up with a materialist reduction of consciousness let alone of anything else actually. I just don’t think that any picture we have could possibly be adequate to whatever the reality would be, so I dislike trying. …I just wouldn’t claim to know what it’s like beyond this life. I find it always results in a kind of cartoon. You always picture somebody who has a nice front garden and running orange juice from the taps. It’s everything that our limited imagination at its most guilelessly childlike can come up with, but other than that—just take those as psychological symbols of something far greater.
1:03:23 …Wright: You think consciousness is more fundamental than the material world.
Wright: So the material world depends on it more than it depends on the material world?
Hart: Most definitely, yah. It would have to be, I think.
Wright: So the material world depends on it more than it depends on the material world?
Hart: I would say that the ancient intuition that held good up until the days of the mechanical philosophy that mind is the more basic reality, the more original, the more primordial principle is correct and that the modern tendency that has become dogma for us since the seventeenth century—first in the form of a schism between a mental and a physical realm and then in terms of a sort of omnivorous physicalism which tried to explain everything including mind in terms of a material reduction—has been a logical failure and will continue to be one because it creates more problems than it answers. So yes, I’m very much with the forest ascetics and the contemplatives and the mystics when it comes to how I understand the nature of reality.
Among several other things, it struck me that Hart sounded similar to N. T. Wright’s thesis in Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. For example, Hart says:
The eschatology of the whole Bible, …Jewish and Christian alike, is this worldly. …When the kingdom of the heavens or of heaven comes to earth, it is to transform earth so all of the language of redemption in the New Testament is of a new heaven, a new sky literally, a new earth. And all the animals are there rejoicing, and there is plant life and animal life and human life. It’s a communal, a cosmic restoration in which the glory of God now pervades everything. …It’s not about a heaven elsewhere. …It’s not that human spirits are wafted away to an ethereal paradise, but rather that the whole cosmos—well it’s right there in Paul, chapter eight of Romans, that all of creation is groaning in anticipation of the glory that will be revealed.
Compare that to N. T. Wright:
Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about. …“God’s kingdom” in the preaching of Jesus refers not to postmortem destiny, not to our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming “on earth as it is in heaven.”
More recently, N. T. Wright took Hart on for what Wright described as an overly spiritualized translation of Paul, specifically Paul’s description of the resurrection body as a spiritual body (a debate that I have considered at length here). Wright implied that Hart was too neoplatonic or gnostic—something such as what N. T. Wright criticizes generally in this passage from Surprised by Hope:
Most Western Christians—and most Western non-Christians, for that matter—in fact suppose that Christianity was committed to at least a soft version of Plato’s position. A good many Christian hymns and poems wander off unthinkingly in the direction of Gnosticism. The “just passing through” spirituality (as in the spiritual “This world is not my home, / I’m just a’passin’ through”), though it has some affinities with classical Christianity, encourages precisely a Gnostic attitude: the created world is at best irrelevant, at worst a dark, evil, gloomy place, and we immortal souls, who existed originally in a different sphere, are looking forward to returning to it as soon as we’re allowed to. A massive assumption has been made in Western Christianity that the purpose of being a Christian is simply, or at least mainly, to “go to heaven when you die,” and texts that don’t say that but that mention heaven are read as if they did say it, and texts that say the opposite, like Romans 8:18–25 and Revelation 21–22, are simply screened out as if they didn’t exist.
There is something elusive about the distinctions between David Bentley Hart and N. T. Wright in their recent disputes over the nature of the resurrection body as described by Paul. Hart sounds just like Wright when he says that “the eschatology of the whole Bible, …Jewish and Christian alike, is this worldly” and that “it’s not about a heaven elsewhere” or “that human spirits are wafted away to an ethereal paradise.” At the same time, Hart regularly describes himself as a neoplatonist (in this interview excerpted above and in many other places), and Hart is regularly criticized for this.
I find the key in the title that Hart gave his essay when he defended himself against N. T. Wright: “The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients” (more here including links to all the related articles between Hart and Wright). Hart clearly does not think that the standard criticisms of the neoplatonist position are correct about what neoplatonist believed. In this interview with Robert Wright, Hart mentions gnosticism once (not in my transcript and just in passing as a description of a film that Robert Wright brought up, The Matrix). Hart would no doubt agree that certain neoplatonists and gnostics (not to be conflated) were wrong to be dismissive of everything about this earthly realm (all of which clearly matters eternally in some real sense for Hart). Neoplatonism is misunderstood according to Hart. While it does insist on the greater substantiality of mind and spirit, not all neoplatonism therefore dismisses or despises the stuff of earth.
I love Hart’s allusions to the importance of the burning bush in the understanding of the purpose of all creation, and I can’t close this essay without citing the opening lines of “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins: “THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;” which I’m sure were written with an awareness of this standard image from the early church authors.
Finally, here’s an excellent quote about this idea of the burning bush among the early church fathers (shared with me from this fantastic blog):
St. Maximos says that “the unspeakable and prodigious fire hidden in the essence of things, as in the bush, is the fire of divine love and the dazzling brilliance of his beauty inside every thing.”
The logoi of created things, the presence of the invisible within them, is at the same time their hidden beauty that can be apprehended by noetic vision.
The beautiful, then, is “a shining forth, an epiphany, of the mysterious depths of being”—the visible illuminated by the invisible.From Bruce Foltz in The Noetics of Nature.
All are part of the shared redemption of humanity and nature through the disclosure of divine beauty.