Some tools should hold up even with a lifetime’s tasks. My shovel might. Its forged blade and all steel handle worked with the ground and my father and my brothers to burry my mother. Planting flowers just now, its turning of the earth recalled the place of her rest so that my shovel held that place with this and my mother to these flowers.
To wield willingly ever works wonders. In Latinate language: labor dignifies. Glory blooms with flowers from ground where we once bent, shoveling soil for seed and sprout. Why am I winding words this way? In days when all daily bread was toiling won, would any have written such lines after planting only a few flowers from a friend? But many gardeners sang, and a few rhymed. And would not most past planters have moved earth with stout blade to burry mother (and even every second child)?
Surely their spades, too, turned up common ground, revealing a shared life beneath each light of parent, child, bloom.
Hell is with us at all times, a phantom kingdom perpetuating itself in the wastes of sinful hearts, but only becomes visible to us as hell because the true kingdom has shed its light upon history. In theological tradition, most particularly in the East, there is that school of thought that wisely makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement. Hell is the experience (a possibility in each moment) of divine glory not as beauty, but as a formless sublimity; it is the rejection of all analogical vulnerability, the sealing off of the “self” (or the cosmos) in univocal singularity, the “misreading” of creation as an aboriginal violence. The “fire” of hell is that same infinite display of semeia [signs] by which God is always declaring his love, misconstrued (though rejection) as the chaotic sublime rather than the beautiful, not susceptible of analogical appropriation, of charity; it is the soul’s refusal to become (as Gregory says) the expanding vessel into which the beauty of God endlessly flows. For exile is possible within the beauty of the infinite only by way of an exilic interiority, a fictive inwardness, where the creature can grasp itself as an isolated essence. Hell is, one might almost say, a perfectly “Kantian” place, where the twin sublimities of the star-strewn firmament above and the lofty moral “law” within remain separated by the thin tissue of subjective moral autonomy: where this tissue has become impervious to glory, the analogy of the heavens is not the transforming voice of God but only a mute simile, an inassimilable exteriority, and so a torment. Hell is the perfect concretization of ethical freedom, perfect justice without delight, the soul’s work of legislation for itself, where ethics has achieved its final independence from aesthetics. Absolute subjective liberty is known only in hell, where the fire of divine beauty is held at by, where the divine apeiron [limitlessness] miraculously divests itself at the peras [boundary, end, extremity] that, in Christ it has already transgressed and broken open, and humbly permits the self to “create” itself. True, though hell is the purest interiority, it is also by contagion a shared interiority, a palpable fiction and common space superimposed upon creation, with a history of its own; but still, it is a turning in, a fabrication of an inward depth, a shadow, a privation, a loss of the whole outer world, a refusal of the surface. For Eastern Christian thought, in particular, it makes no difference here whether one speaks of death, sin, or hell: in each case on speaks of the same privation, the same estranging history, the same limit shattered by Easter; and hence there can be no aesthetic explanation of hell (something that few of the Fathers occasionally foolishly attempted) that would make of it a positive moment in the exposition of divine beauty, a part of the universe’s harmonious ordering of light and darkness. Hell cannot serve as an objective elements of the beautiful—as source of delight—because it is an absolute privation of form and quantity; it has no surface, nor even a shadow’s substance; its aesthetic “place” is the sealed outside of an inside.
The Christian should see two realities at once—one world, as it were, within another. One, the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, gandure and dreariness, delight and anguish, and the other, the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply nature but creation, an endless sea of glory radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty but as glimpsed through the veil of death. It is to see creation in chains but beautiful as in the beginning of days.
…Whether or not one believes in such glory or has faith in its final advent or can in fact see it even now through the veil of death and our estrangement from God (though I suspect that all of us see it at times whether our internal dispositions permit us to recognize what we see or not), one should be able to grasp that it is not a glory immediately revealed in cosmic or human history but is rather one that appears before, alongside, within and beyond that history, always present yet also for now deferred and so visible to us only through a glass darkly. This glory is not simply the hidden rationality of history but a contrary history that pervades and that will finally overwhelm the world of our fallenness. It is not the sublime or sacred logic of nature but what shines through the promise of nature’s loveliness, a beauty of which nature as we now know it is only a spectral remnant or a delightful foretaste.
The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart. [Transcribed from the audible book version with my own punctuation.]
“The curtain of history rises on a world already ancient, full of ruined cities and ways of thought worn smooth. Mediterranian peoples knew there had been disasters, but remembered little in detail” (2). These opening lines of Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy mesmerized me, and the spell remained throughout the book. Clark participates throughout his book in philosophy’s true task: “Philosophical discussion and reflection are not simply means for solving intellectual problems (though they are and must be that). They are also charms, counter-charms, for the deliverance of the soul” (41, quoting Hilary Armstrong). To put it more modestly, “what we need—tradition says—is to awaken insight” (36).
Clark does not remain modest in his claims for philosophy, however. Reflecting on the death of Socrates, Clark claims that he practiced “a kind of philosophy at once more dangerous and more obscure than moderns now remember” (43). The deadliness of philosophy was a commonplace as we see with Zeno who was “one of those who perished as philosophers were meant to do: defying a tyrant with such courage that, after his murder, the tyrant was overthrown” (63-64). This standard carried through to Christian sages as well. Describing Saint Maximus (who had his right hand removed and his tongue cut out to prevent his writing and speaking), Clark points out that “parrhesia, ‘outspokenness’, was the hallmark and privilege of the awkward holy man in all periods of Byzantium” (203, quoting The Byzantines by Averil Cameron). Stephen R. L. Clark clearly advocates the practice of what these sages preach, saying in his preface, “I have my own beliefs about the only truth that matters, but it is the nature of that truth, as Plato recognized, that it cannot be conveyed by writing” (xi).
The book moves chronologically overall but with a fluid topical arrangement providing enough systematic clarity to make me imagine using this book in a classroom with students. Although sweeping in its scope, Clark is not shy about identifying a center and taking sides. The chapter on Plato is titled “Divine Plato” and is placed at the center of a chiastic structure, with four chapters before and four after, each with some reverberating echoes in their content leading up to Plato and receding from him. Chapter ten functions more like an epilogue that places the entire ebb and flow of Mediterranean philosophy into active contact with our own world—one of a long-crumbled Christendom and of established modern superstitions (as Clark calls them, more below). Echoing his opening lines, Clark points out that we are once again “being brought up among the ruins” and that we are likely soon to pass through another period of youth which is always an opportunity to “rediscover glory” (208).
In a further example of taking sides, Clark calls Plotinus “probably the greatest” of Hellenic sages (196) and provides a delightful section of chapter9 (“The way we didn’t take”) which considers what Rome might have looked like had it become a “Plotinian empire” (200). It would at least have been kinder, Clark says, than the attempt at a pagan renaissance made by the emperor Julian. Despite his love for Plato, Clark gives a thoughtful and positive treatment to all the schools of wisdom seeking within the Mediterranean world. He gives none of them a corner on the market and recognizes multiple threads that link them together.
Although the book is not polemical, Clark quietly points out modernity’s blindspots at several points. For example, he says:
The story that has most affected recent writers is that our ancestors were enmeshed in superstition, that ‘the Greeks’ invented science to escape, then lost their nerve and succumbed again to ‘Oriental’ fantasies. Popular works on science refer disparagingly to the ‘Dark Ages’ and to ‘Medieval Superstition’. This story too is a fable. (5)
Another critique of the modern world is its greed. Clark notes that “‘wanting more’ (Greek morealists called it pleonexia) is the disease of progress” and that “not everyone has succumbed” (3) and goes on to say:
The very realism of much Greek thought was not friendly to the growth of anything we could call ‘science’. It was better not to disturb things, not to image that we could control the world, or always evade disaster. Even if we succeeded in the short term, the effects might not be good. (19) …Most philosophers gradually concluded …that …only small groups of friends, or even solitaries, could live well. (72)
Part of the solution for Clark is recognizing that we occupy a world that is more than material. Sounding like my hero Wendell Berry, Clark says that “in the merely material world, there are no privileged places, times or scales: there is nowhere that is uniquely here, no time that is uniquely now, no reason to suggest that the human scale of things is especially important” (116). As I have already pointed out, the way forward that Clark holds out for us is to rediscover glory. Based on the many examples of courageous sages that Clark holds up, however, any recovery of glory would seem likely to require a high degree of personal sacrifice, commitment and self-imposed limits (again very much like Wendell Berry). A modest assessment of ourselves as those who should “contemplate and imitate the world” in part “by building things” can open up “a mode of understanding” (176).
Clark insists that “we [moderns] should acknowledge our own superstitions: that each of us is competent to reason our way to truth and good behavior, and that we can identify ourselves entirely with particular human bodies. These are the errors that Socrates—maybe—spent his life rebutting.” (93) These are lessons that do not come easily to any of us today. We still believe the Enlightenment promise that reason can single-handedly provide solutions to all of our blindnesses and failures, and we consider our “particular human bodies” to be the ground of all ethical, economic, political and medical reasoning.
To more fully understand what Clark means by the modern superstition “that we can identify ourselves entirely with particular human bodies,” we would need to turn to another book of his where Clark says, “A human person requires a cosmos to sustain it: of anyone it is literally true that the whole world is her body, since the light of the sun, and the respiration of algae, are essential to her bodily survival” (God, Religion and Reality, 108). This idea is touched upon in Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy from an ethical angle when, for example, the Mishnah is cited as evidence that Hebrew scriptures say “each person is himself/herself a world” (149) and that “it is the duty of everyone to say: for my sake the world was created” (165).
This concept recalls what Dale Martin has to say about the Apostle Paul in The Corinthian Body (Yale UP, 1995, reviewed here):
The human body was not like a microcosm; it was a microcosm—a small version of the universe at large. (16) …No ontological dichotomy between the individual and the social can be located in Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians 5. One may argue that the modern concept of the individual is simply unavailable to Paul. In any case, the logic underlying 1 Corinthians 5 depends on the breaking down of any possible boundary between the individual body and the social body. (173)
Likewise, contemporary Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith has written about this in many places. See, for example, this passage from How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor:
At this point Taylor introduces a key concept to describe the premodern self: prior to this disenchantment and the retreat of meaning into an interior “mind,” the human agent was seen as porous (35). …Just as premodern nature is always already intermixed with its beyond, and just as things are intermixed with mind and meaning, so the premodern self’s porosity means the self is essentially vulnerable (and hence also “healable”). …To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace. “This sense of vulnerability,” Taylor concludes, “is one of the principal features which have gone with disenchantment.” (36)
Although Clark is clearly not opposed to modern science, he suggests that “we are looking in the wrong place to find traces of experimental science” (11) and says that “it was not the Ionean theories that marked them as experimentalists but the engineering skills that they had learned from older societies” (12). The atomism of Democritus “was less a physical theory than a mystical conclusion” (58), and all the theories of the great Mediterranean sages “were not lisping attempts at modern science, but meditations on the transience of commonsensical subjects, and the strangeness of what comes ‘before’ our world” (60). Identifying the roots of modern science in examples such as “the technical skills of Thales, who enabled Croesus of Lydia to bypass the river that was in his army’s way” (19-20), Clark only suggests that such powers of experimental engineering should always be subject to “the moral lessons that the Greeks preferred (especially ‘don’t go too far’)” (20).
While issuing such warnings, Clark is not shy to point out the beauties of modern science as a potential source for rediscovering glory:
Plato’s demand for beauty in our equations was not vindicated until first Copernicus (following Aristarchus of Samos) and then Kepler devised a better mathematical model for the system of stars and planets. Even now, we are often faced by the ugly or the arbitrary in the heavens: stars may appear and disappear and matter falls together in whirls and clouds in unpredictable ways. The distant ideal is still a Platonic or Pythagorean one, to grasp the numbers that lie behind the phenomenal and also the physical world. (118)
…The Platonistic View is the only one tenable. Thereby I mean the view that mathematics describes a non-sensual reality, which exists independently of the human mind and is only perceived, and probably perceived very incompletely, by the human mind. (111, quoting Gödel’s “Some basic theorems on the foundations of mathematics and their philosophical implications” from 1951)
Likewise, Clark quotes Stephen Hawking at length on the self-sustaining power and beauty of a unified theory and suggests that Plato would have approved (118-119).
While supporting modern science in these ways, Clark asks us not to read the ancient Meditteranian sages and “label one speculative thinker ‘a philosopher’ and another only ‘a poet’ or ‘mystic’ merely because they speak of ‘elements’ instead of spirits’” (10). He turns our attention instead toward how they might help us to see the glory that lies hidden in our world. “We shall not see things straight, so Platonists supposed, until we see their glory” (199). Aristotle agrees in so far as concluding that “beauty is visible, for those who care to look, even in the smallest and the vilest of creatures (Aristotle, De Partibus Animalium, 1.645a15f). Every visible creature is, in a way, an image of the divine” (193). In the current state of this world, truth and glory are hidden. “The Greek word that we translate as ‘truth’ is Aletheia, and a stream of puns makes clear that the Greeks could, if they chose, hear this as ‘the Unhidden’, or as ‘the Unforgotten’” (57). Finding the truth requires the perception of what is hidden within and the recollection of what might easily be forgotten. “What Plato conceived as a proper dialectic …[was] to test hypotheses against each other and against the basic rules of logic, and so at length prevent good arguments from escaping or being forgotten” (63). Yet much is missed and forgotten.
In this plight of an unrecognized ignorance, we need harsh measures to awaken us:
We should attend more sympathetically to such dialogues as Cratylus and Enthydemus. In the former, familiar words are deconstructed by random etymologies (so that alethea becomes ‘a godly wandering’). In the latter, wildly fallacious arguments—including ones that seem to show how falsehood is impossible, and that anyone who knows anything must actually know everything—are greeted with mounting hostility by Socrates’ young companion, but with continued respect by Socrates himself. Confusion and not clarity may be the goal: the moment when we find ourselves entirely at a standstill, knowing that we know nothing.
After all, “only when we are dumbstruck by our own incompetence is there much chance of hearing what the Truth will tell us” (90).
In his analysis of Plato, Clark claims that “the principle effect of Plato’s work, in many differing schools, lies not …in his ideas, but in the figure of Socrates, and his delight in argument” (109). This figure was best captured in dialog:
Plato was correct, in Phaedrus and elsewhere, to say that writings, on their own, are easily misunderstood, especially if we don’t practice what their authors preached. So also in the Hebraic tradition, the oral teaching is the medium through which the written is to be interpreted. ‘The Talmud is essentially an activity, not a book: you engage in it, rather than read it as you would a piece of literature.’ The same should be true when reading any philosophy. (104-105)
Clark does justice to Plato’s ideas, nonetheless, and reminds us that “however abstract or pedantic Platonic Forms may seem, especially when they are identified with Numbers, we should remember that they are the objects of passionate love. They are Beauty in its several forms, and derive their being from the Good Itself.” (112) Describing the nous (or perceptive mind or intellect) that can “look at what transcends” the things that it typically perceives, Plotinus says that this is “the Intellect in love, when it goes out of its mind ‘drunk with the nectar’” (115).
Much of my own poor intellectual life could be summarized as a quest to find out what C. S. Lewis meant when he had Digory Kirke say, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” (The Last Battle). I’m therefore happy to see a chapter devoted the “divine Plato” and to hear his claim that:
The immortal Mind in me is just the same as the immortal Mind in you. That mind, in fact, is a god—though the way a particular corporeal being thinks is only intermittently, and waveringly, the immortal mind. We do not think the truth: when we do, there is only one thought in each of us, and that thought will survive our mortal bodies. (112-113).
Speaking of “our particular corporeal being,” however, it is critical to note that Clark clarifies one important misunderstanding of neoplatonism. These philosophers did not despise the material world:
Both pagan and Abrahamic Platonists have found corporeal nature sacramental. Plotinus was vegetarian, refused medicines made from animals, and denounced those ‘gnostics’ who despised the earth. Porphyry, his pupil, was until recently the only ‘professional philosopher’ to write at length in favour of ‘the rights of beasts’ (Porphyry 2000). Nor was this at odds with Plato. (110)
In describing all the schools of gnosticism, David Bentley Hart confirms that “there is none that has an explicit metaphysics of participation” (see this podcast transcript where Hart identifies this lack of “a metaphysics of relation between God and creation” as the “one thing that these schools had in common so that you could classify them as gnostic”). Plotinus likely would have identified Christians as belonging among these gnostic sects (199 in Clark), and David Bentley Hart notes that Christians identified themselves as true gnostics. Nonetheless, this sacramental understanding of corporeal nature (this “metaphysics of participation” in the divine) is actually something that all pagan and Abrahamic Platonists (including early Christians) held in common over against the gnostics sects who did not see this world as a revelation, in any respect, of glory and truth.
Clark puts this sacramental understanding of the cosmos on display with language from Plutarch that exactly lines up with many passages in C. S. Lewis where he describes the “motions of the universe …not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one” (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature). Here is Plutarch (De Tranquillitate Animi):
I am delighted with Diogenes, who, when he saw his host in Sparta preparing with much ado for a certain festival, said, ‘Does not a good man consider every day a festival?’ and a very splendid one, to be sure, if we are sound of mind [nous]. For the universe is a most holy temple and …into it man is introduced through birth as a spectator, not of hand-made or immovable images, but of those sensible representations of knowable things that the divine mind, says Plato, has revealed, representations which have innate within themselves the beginnings of life and motion, sun and moon and stars, rivers which ever discharge fresh water, and earth which sends forth nourishment for plants and animals. Since life is a most perfect initiation into these things and a ritual celebration of them, it should be full of tranquillity and joy, and not in the manner of the vulgar. (quoted in Clark 239)
When Clark speaks of Abrahamic Platonists, it is clear that he identifies himself among them as a Chrisitan Platonist. From what I have read elsewhere, Clark is a devout Anglican, and he gives full consideration to Jesus Christ among the Medditeranian sages that he covers. In distinguishing Christians from most of the other “Hellenistic Schools” who “offered a way of life,” Clark cites Clement of Alexandria: “I long for the Lord of the winds, the Lord of fire, the Creator of the World, He who gives light to the sun. I seek God himself, not for the works of God.” (154-155)
In another passage, Clark identifies Jesus Christ with “the very Word of God, the thing that the Omnipresent has been saying, is saying, from the beginning and through whom all things were made.” Clark frames the revelation of Jesus Christ in this way, with characteristic modesty and stopping just short of an absolute claim to knowledge:
We cannot, in short, work out what the world is like merely by examining our own ideas of it, as philosophers often hoped. Is there any chance of locating God’s idea of it? Later writers conceived that Jesus himself was the very Word of God, the thing that the Omnipresent has been saying, is saying, from the beginning and through whom all things were made. Rabbinic speculative poetry or metaphysics proposed that Zion, which is Jerusalem, was the very first thing to be made: Jerusalem the City was the centre of history, even if — in human history — it came late. Muslims similarly were to suggest that the heavenly Koran was written ‘before’ all worlds. Christians concluded instead that Jesus was the center, the very first bit of the story as it is conceived in God. In all these cases, there were some features of the story, the place, the text as it was enacted in human history that really could have been otherwise, and other features that really could not have been different, since they were what God always is and says. Is this a story that Jesus himself could have told, as the gospel writers suggest he did? It is at least not clear that he couldn’t have: either the story is true (and clearly He could have told it) or it is at least a story that Hellenized Jews could tell (as Philo of Alexandria almost did). (168-169)
In the end—although this broken and transitory cosmos does contain within its every least and ugliest part a revelation of the divine and although God is even revealed perfectly within history by Jesus Christ—we circle back time and again to the need for small human communities with strong self-limiting practices and a deep desire to see the glory around them. This life is only possible when we remain intentionally modest, recognizing that a human scale is necessarily limited:
Solon told King Croesus that the best the gods could offer in answer to a mother’s prayers was the prompt death of her sons—though he also acknowledged that the unassuming life of a peasant farmer (in good times) was good (or at least was better than the life that Croesus lived). Similarly, in Plato’s Myth of Er, where he imagines how discarnate souls select the earthly life they will be living next, Odysseus shows his wisdom by searching out an ‘ordinary’ life, unnoticed by all others during the choice and destined to be unnoticed during life. The very worst life is one in which we do everything that we momentarily wish, seduced by sense. (194)
What, then, is our right course? We should pass our life in playing games—certain games, that is, sacrifice, song and dance. …[Mankind should] live out their lives as what they really are—puppets in the main though with some touch of reality about them, too. (Plato, Laws 7.803-4 quoted by Clark 120)
This survey of Clark’s book, though wordy, does no more than give a brief glimpse into the wealth of his short work. I’ve not covered the many schools of thought that he surveys with a myriad of bright insights or mentioned the breadth of the relationships that he suggests between the Mediterranean world and its neighbors. Clearly, this is a book that I commend. For my part, I will be looking for other books of his as well. The list is long. His most recent is Can We Believe in People?: Human Significance in an Interconnected Cosmos. Others include: God, Religion, and Reality, From Athens to Jerusalem, Aristotle’s Man, Plotinus: Myth, Metaphor, and Philosophical Practice, and G. K. Chesterton: Thinking Backward, Looking Forward. Clearly, Clark has spent some time laboring to point out glory amid the ruins that we inhabit. One small fragment of this is Clark’s own translation of a famous line from a song composed by Pindar (Pythian 8 line 95 is quoted by Clark on page 186 without citation). It was was commissioned by the family of an aristocrat named Aristomenes as a celebration of his victory in the wrestling event at the Pythian Games of 446 BC: “A shadow’s dream is man, but when a god sheds a brightness, shining light is on earth and life is as sweet as honey.”
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.
All are part of the shared redemption of humanity and nature through the disclosure of divine beauty.
This is the entire last passage from “The Weight of Glory” by C.S. Lewis. [Preached originally as a sermon at the Oxford University Church of St. Mary the Virgin on June 8, 1941. First published as a single transcribed sermon called “The Weight of Glory” and appearing in the British periodical Theology, 1941. First published in book form by Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1942.]
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.
We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves—that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendor of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy.
From “The Weight of Glory” by C.S. Lewis. (Preached originally as a sermon in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on June 8, 1942: published in THEOLOGY, November, 1941, and by the S.P.C.K, 1942.)