(Esther L. Meek is Professor of Philosophy at Geneva College, and Instructor of Apologetics at Redeemer Theological Seminary. Her 2003 Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People (Brazos) is a book for people considering Christianity who have questions about how we know anything at all. Her 2011 book, Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology (Cascade), proposes the interpersonal covenantal relationship as the paradigm for all human knowing. A third book is forthcoming.)
My daughter, Starr, names seasons. She names seasons, and her friends and I live into the theme she has designated. This summer is the “Summer of Beauty.” So I took it as all the reason I needed to start through David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite. The book makes me feel as if my whole life has been preparation for this event. And it catches up all of my life in its exuberant toccata on the theme of the Holy Trinity.
I’ve had a glorious late-afternoon-on-the-deck reading regimen this summer: along with Hart, I have dipped daily into Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (for an upcoming class); John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (a Christmas present); Roger Lundin’s biography of Emily Dickinson, The Art of Belief(for a faculty seminar); Gascoigne and Thornton, Tacit Knowledge (for a book review); Dostoyevsky’s Brothers K (for “pleasure”…(sigh)). But Hart’s Beauty has crowned and caught them up, too.
I half-understand what Hart says! All my years in philosophy have been vindicated in reading this book, even as they prove inadequate. All my years as a Christian believer have just opened out onto splendor, even as Hart has revealed the poverty of my experience hitherto. I have been, shall we say, surfing in high seas, tumbling off regularly, bowled over by mammoth waves, nevertheless happily splashing about. I feel that death would be, not so much “but my entrance into glory,” as Bach writes, so much as a slight adjustment of the frequency on my reality monitor (my radio-repairing dad’s hypothesis): glory is already near—very near.
Exuberance aside, in a short effort at coherence: Hart’s is a work in theological aesthetics, following up the work of Hans Urs von Balthazar. He argues that Christianity, with its unique doctrine of the Holy Trinity, alone espouses a view of ultimate reality that is both infinite and beautiful, where shalom really is the ultimate real. Other philosophies generally posit chaos or violence as ultimately real, with all human efforts toward logos and order developed in opposition to it. These warring opposites are always about power and totalizing, absolute, control. But the Christian Trinity, with its eternal dance of love and gift, mutuality and particularity, ever creative of new possibilities—all of this externalized in the rhetorical analogy of creation—ensconces and ensures harmony of one and many from all eternity. Shalom need never be wrested, ultimately, from violence or chaos, for it is original. Infinite distance and infinite variety need never be feared (contra Jorge Borges), for it is beauty—God himself. What we must do is resist persistently the totalizing forces of modern (and postmodern) Western thought and culture, and their adverse effects in our lives and theology, with the exuberance of the good news of Jesus Christ, who retells and reinscribes the story of reality. “If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this Heavenly Boy!”—the words of poet Robert Southwell.
If you found that last paragraph half-understandable but tantalizing, I have succeeded in giving you a taste of the book. I have also, hopefully, indicated why Hart’s text itself must be ever-new sentence after ever-new sentence, seemingly to joyous infinity. With the fall semester just around the corner, I don’t have much prospect of finishing the book. But I anticipate with joy another summers of surfing until—well, maybe I’ll just keep rereading it. It probably won’t matter what the season gets named; that theme will prove to have been original with God, too.