David Bentley Hart Introducing Tradition and Apocalypse with Dr. Philip Gonzales

This is a short and delightfully simple interview with David Bentley Hart by Dr. Philip Gonzales (on the philosophy faculty at St Patrick’s Pontifical University in Maynooth, Ireland and author of Reimagining the Analogia Entis: The Future of Erich Przywara’s Christian Vision, 2019) in promotion of St Patrick’s Pontifical University’s upcoming conference on “The Future of Christian Thinking” in April 2022. (See the full interview and more info here.)

It’s a sweeping and helpful introduction by David Bentley Hart to his newest book, Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief. There’s much to consider, of course, but I was struck by the multiple references to an “apocalyptic imagination” as central or essential to a “Christian imagination.” Hart’s descriptions, definitions and defenses on this (even in this very short interview) are fascinating. More remarkably to me, however, as someone who has finished and reviewed two of Hart’s works of fiction in the last few months (see here for the review of Roland which was shared by Hart and here for the review of Kenogaia which at least received a typographical correction from Hart), is the fact that Hart practices what he preaches. Hart’s vision with Roland in Moonlight is profoundly apocalyptic even in the most prosaic sense, as David Armstrong attests in the first sentence of his wonderful review: “Roland in Moonlight is an apocalypse; at least, as someone who spent so much time in his graduate career thinking, reading, and writing about apocalypses, it is easily identifiable to me as such.” In very stylistically different ways (yet perhaps even more explicit), Kenogaia is a story woven from the threads of an ancient tale revealing hidden truth from beyond our age.

Not only does Hart seek to reawaken a Christian and apocalyptic imagination, but he also stands outside the city gate and exercises with some intentionality, the also ancient tactics of a holy fool. However, this was not supposed to be another excursus by me about David Bentley Hart. It is supposed to be a cheatsheet for those considering Tradition and Apocalypse. To start off, I included a little of what Dr. Philip Gonzales shared by way of introduction:

Gonzales: “It’s my pleasure to welcome David Bentley Hart. I think he needs hardly any introduction. He’s a very well-known public figure both in representing Eastern Orthodoxy within the anglophone sphere as well as a general proponent of Christianity, a kind of apologist. Everyone knows he has a tremendous ability in terms of his style and rhetoric. David Bentley Hart burst on the intellectual scene in 2003 with his now almost classic text The Beauty of the Infinite, a text, certainly, that I’ve dialogued with in my work on analogy.”

Hart: “I always like visiting Ireland, but I actually have never been to Maynooth at all. I’m looking forward to seeing the chapel. It has a reputation for being opulent without being vulgar, you know, and then being a very lovely chapel. And I’m just looking forward to seeing all of you. It’s nice, actually, to remember that human beings are uh composed of cells and molecules rather than digital code.”

Hart: “Of course, I’m in America and religiousness if not exactly Christianity, because the native Christianity of America is anything but Christian really (it’s a strange kind of Orphic cult that is centered around personal self-realization more than anything else), but in America, you know, religion is alive and kicking and killing. But on the whole, I think we’re seeing that the general long withdrawing or “melancholy long withdrawing roar” (I have to get the scansion right) of faith is both reaching its kind of final roar. In one sense, we’re seeing the faculties of theology, faculties of religious studies shut down. We’re seeing more and more public discourse trying to proceed in abstraction from centuries of centuries of the past which were shaped and formed by common religious grammars, but at the same time you can’t help but notice that there are all sorts of crises of confidence in culture at large which have had some fairly pernicious effects in revivals of authoritarian politics, racialist politics, nationalist politics, all sorts of movements seeking something to fill in the void—not only the failure of classical liberal economics to sustain equitable levels of prosperity and happiness but also a more general sort of cultural malaise that people have been predicting for a century and a half would overtake the West especially. But I think plausibly you could argue, really, now you see it accelerating with all sorts of social fragmentations we couldn’t have predicted only a couple decades ago or only five years ago in some cases. So I feel that if Christianity has a future as a living voice regarding what a human society what a human culture what human life should be, we may be in a critical moment for trying to determine how that voice is heard and what precisely it’s saying because part of the reason that we are where we are culturally are because of the grave failings—putting the successes to one side—the grave moral cultural and spiritual failings of Christendom.”

Hart: “A Christianity that has lost the will to speak in a certain kind of apocalyptic intonation is going to be a moribund Christianity in the modern world. It’s not going to be speaking from within a firm and sheltering institutional redoubt, right? I mean, that’s the past. It’s going to have something of the quality of the “vox clamantis in deserto” [voice calling in the wilderness], right? This isn’t necessarily an unhappy situation though because of course the great danger of a moment like this is a retreat to a kind of uh jealous fideism or traditionalism which tries to recapitulate the very errors that brought us to this impasse. The greatest enemy I would say of a renewed Christian voice in western culture at the moment isn’t secularism. It would be something more like, you know, Catholic traditionalism or a Protestant support for bourgeois late liberal, classical liberal, capitalist culture or Orthodox blood and soil nationalism. All of these things are attempts to retreat to what was always a false understanding of a Christian culture to begin with but that in an hour of crisis like this become exaggerated into extremisms that are nothing but destructive.”

“By the apocalyptic imagination, I suppose (which isn’t exactly what the book is about) but I would say that [it is] a willingness to go outside the city gate. Christ suffered outside the gate to recognize that, starting from a position in which we have no enduring city in which we’re strangers and sojourners in the earth but without forsaking all the good things of the Christian past—I mean all the all the truths that were incubated and sheltered and preserved in Christendom and then that to some degree (albeit in a diluted form or often in a distorted form) were passed over into secular western conscience—without forsaking any of that, nonetheless to recover a more at once primordial more radical more constructive notion of what a christian understanding of social life and political life and cultural life should be but as in one sense we’re at the end of an age and at the beginning of the process of trying to reconstruct without recapitulating—it’s hard to say what that is but again remember what made christianity a vital living reality in the first centuries was not a cannon of scripture which they didn’t possess, a cannon of dogma which had not, as yet, been enucleated (and in many ways would have been a disaster to try to isolate in the first century because of the diversity of views), but what they did have was an apocalyptic sense of the imminence of god’s revelation in history and the revelation of eternity in the present as yet coming and yet already here.”

“In some sense, the labor of recovering that sort of imagination outside the city gate as i said is, however nebulously, the work that we have to devote our imaginations to i think.”

Hart: “In [Tradition and Apocalypse], I tried to deconstruct what have become the traditional and almost canonical arguments for the trustworthiness of tradition: [John Henry] Newman and Newman as improved upon but ultimately not rescued by [Maurice] Blondel. There are other thinkers on the topic, but I just think that those are the two who have to be dealt with directly. The problem was, in each in his way was attempting to legitimate Christian tradition first of all as as an obvious, perspicuously, identifiable institutional continuity with the past and a past that could be reconstructed in such a way as to demonstrate the inevitability, one way or the other, of what emerged from it. I think this is fundamentally wrong. For one thing, I think, historically speaking, if you would look at the tradition, trying to reconstruct it from the past forward, all you’re going to find is a series of broken links at times, what looks like arbitrary saltations, strange disjunctions. But when you look at it, so to speak, from its final cause, from its end, from the picture of the kingdom and of the meaning of the language of Christianity (which in the patristic era is of a mutual indwelling, a deification of the creature and a God who becomes His own creature), that you see not only a rational continuity in dogmatic theology: (not one that’s unrevisable, now, not one that’s incorrigible, not one that has necessarily the grand, overwhelming authority of infallible tradition) one that because it’s been placed in perspective as always a proleptic attempt to express a revelation that as yet—a seeing face to face rather than in the glass darkly—as yet has not [been] known. [This] allows us to rethink the past not to abandon it certainly, not to set ourselves loose on an ocean of just a spontaneous religious desire. But nonetheless, when you understand how tradition actually is a living thing and it’s a living organic unity, you realize that you’re always engaged with an apocalyptic horizon that has been shaping the past in the sense that it’s a force of breaking in from the future and from the eternal. And it has always been the case that with each movement forward the meaning of the past has altered for us in perspective. Things that were inconspicuous become either briefly or permanently central. Things that were central receded somewhat. There’s a constant remaking of the past, sometimes in a bad way there can be an ideological reconstruction in which an institution pretends that a dogmatic or an institutional settlement reflects a consensus that was there from the beginning or something that was implicit in the doctrines of the past when it wasn’t. And that’s part of what we have to shed, but also, in other ways, you can see that there’s a profound, clarifying unity of perspective when you have some sense of this grand narrative: deification that allows us always ever again to re-engage with the past, reconstruct it, understand it better, understand it better in light of the apocalyptic horizon towards which it’s oriented so that’s what I mean by saying “remembering the future”—remembering that apocalyptic enunciation that is the first movement of Christian consciousness in history in order to anticipate the past or how we’ll understand it ultimately from a perspective other than the present situation in the flow of history.”

One thought on “David Bentley Hart Introducing Tradition and Apocalypse with Dr. Philip Gonzales

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s