David Bentley Hart’s Call to Inhabit Our Living Traditions

“‘Tradition’ …is the conviction that one has truly heard a call from the realm of the transcendent, but a call that must be heard again before its meaning can be grasped or its summons obeyed; and the labor of interpretation is the diligent practice of waiting attentively in the interval, for fear otherwise of forgetting the tone and content of that first vocation.” (142)

With Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief (February 2022 from Baker Academic), David Bentley Hart defends the old way of a living tradition amid the wreckage of Christendom’s global sprawl and collapse. Hart advances Christian practices or ways of life that are guided by a shared vision, vocation and sacrament. This lived-out longing for God powers the voluminous vessel that Hart cobbles together from amid the desperate mess of modernity’s traditionalisms, fundamentalisms and ideologies. It is no surprise to Hart that the Christian world of the classical and medieval consensus contained the apocalyptic germ of its own destruction. In fact, says Hart, this is just how Christian tradition and apocalypse are meant to function together amid a fallen history that cannot contain the good news of Jesus Christ’s upside down kingdom and empty grave—a history that must be drawn forward continually to its own judgment so that it’s original purpose might be achieved in its total transfiguration.

In constructing his compact flotilla out of a world flattened by secular modernity, Hart grasps at materials from many fronts. In addition to the shared practice and experience of a lived faith that is “both forgetting the things lying behind and also stretching out to the things lying ahead” (Philippians 3:13, as Hart translates it), his heavy little book includes a philosophy of history, a comprehensive Christian eschatology and an ancient theology of theosis or deification—all of which show up in the text regularly but indirectly. Finally, in his most open maneuver, Hart tethers his ark of gopher wood to the eschaton with the strong cord of Aristotelian teleology.

Hart describes living tradition as “a willingness to commit oneself to a path of discovery on the strength of one’s sure sense of having received a compelling vocation, a rational summons to an end one can dimly conceive but not as yet properly name” and again as an “obedience to the evidence of a real future object of intention as revealed in the rational longing it elicits within human beings, and in the partial expression of that object in the shared experience of tradition” (101-102). Near the end of the book, while defending the supremacy of love, Hart further expounds on this “shared experience of tradition” within the life of the worshiping community:

This is obvious from all of the tradition’s own sacramental and corporate claims: it has never offered itself merely as a source of information regarding the Age to Come; rather, it claims to be an initiation into that reality, oriented toward it with such fidelity that it seeks its own overthrow in the final Kingdom of love and knowledge. As Paul says, faith, hope, and love are the three great virtues of life in Christ, but the first two are destined to fall away when they reach their fulfillment in immediate knowledge; only when love alone abides will we know even as we are known. (168)

While the corporate elements are strong, this is clearly also a deeply personal calling for Hart:

Tacit knowledge, faithful practice, humility before the testimony of the generations, prayerfulness, and any number of moral and intellectual virtues are required; and these can be cultivated only in being put into action. In a very real sense, in fact, this is what “tradition” is when considered as a hermeneutical practice: an attitude of trusting skepticism, hesitant impetuosity; a certain critical hygiene of prudent reluctance, a certain devotion to the limitless fecundity of the tradition’s initiating moment or original principle, a certain trusting surrender to a future that cannot alter what has been but that always might nevertheless alter one’s understanding of the past both radically and irrevocably. It is the conviction that one has truly heard a call from the realm of the transcendent, but a call that must be heard again before its meaning can be grasped or its summons obeyed; and the labor of interpretation is the diligent practice of waiting attentively in the interval, for fear otherwise of forgetting the tone and content of that first vocation. (142)

Hart’s master plan in Tradition and Apocalypse grows extensive when he makes explicit and extended reference to two of his other recent books:

  • That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (2019)
  • You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature (April 2022)

Having read each of these other books almost twice at this point, the overall Christian vision gestured toward by Hart is breathtaking in its scope.

However, before considering this sweeping vista, I should double back and give a focused overview of the specific case in Tradition and Apocalypse. Hart defends the idea of tradition by critiquing two of the first and best defenses of tradition made by John Henry Newman and Maurice Blondel. Hart makes clear his debt of gratitude to Newman for being the first to identify tradition as a theological category and to open it up as a critical field of contemplation. Although grateful to both (and pointing out several ways in which they served the church well, including their effective cases for how the church can make an ally out of modern historical studies), Hart ultimately concludes:

Newman and Blondel erred principally in attempting either (in the case of the former) to reconcile history and dogma or (in the case of the latter) to synthesize them. Both tasks are impossible. Both lead in the end either to a final, fatigued appeal to an authority that somehow already exists outside of historical causality or to a surrender to the meaninglessness of pure historical contingency. (170)

While I’m not versed enough in Newman or Blondel to evaluate Hart’s critiques of them, the positive case that Hart makes is compelling, and it is fascinating to watch Hart develop his case for the church’s living tradition being moved by a teleological and Aristotelian logic that both Newman and Blondel failed to articulate in Hart’s estimation.

That being said, it’s clear that Hart would agree with Newman’s objective in defending a living tradition. Hart doesn’t critique Newman’s objectives so much as the strength of Newman’s case. As one positive example of just how nuanced Newman was with regard to tradition, Hart could have cited how, in 1854, as Newman founded and served as first Rector for the Catholic University of Ireland, he gave a lecture to the school’s first faculty and told them that they themselves were the curriculum. Newman used the famous phrase “ad fontes” but said that this pointed not to the ancient texts or sages but to the hearts of each faculty member. It was the love of each faculty member for all that is good and beautiful in the tradition that would ultimately inspire and shape the students.1

However, Hart focuses on only the most familiar text with Newman and on the relationship between history and tradition. Basic to Hart’s critique of both Newman and Blondel is Hart’s dismissal of fallen time2 as being incapable of meaning in and of itself. Death-bound time (as Hart also calls it) has only a short list of redeeming features: its continual destruction of our falsehoods, it’s imperfect but true life as a cyclical icon of eternity, and therefore its inability to entirely obscure the fullness of  life with God. Within Tradition and Apocalypse, Hart has a brief but beautiful passage describing how tradition and liturgy connect each moment of fallen time to eternity (144).3

Hart’s view of fallen time is bleak indeed on the surface. As he wrote in an October 24, 2021 post on his Leaves in the Wind substack newsletter, “there is no such thing as a science of history, in the sense of some theory or experimental regimen that could reduce the flow of human events to a set of invariable laws—economic, social, political, anthropological, or whatever—or produce reliable models for predicting what comes next.” A little later in the same essay, he maintains that “historical eventuality is a vast, tumultuous, uncharted river carrying all our fragile vessels along—hazardous, scarcely navigable, and with unanticipated bends always just ahead” and that “all we can really be certain of is that there will be moments of acute crisis when all the river’s currents will be forced together in a particularly turbulent confluence or precipitated down a particularly steep chute.”

Hart clearly shares a sense with C.S. Lewis that history lacks explanatory power or rationality within itself and that it must instead await transformation of its every moment only in the full light of its end or totality. This is seen most clearly in C.S. Lewis with his October 1950 essay “Historicism” where Lewis says that “The mark of the Historicist is that he tries to get from historical premises conclusions which are more than historical; conclusions metaphysical or theological or …atheo-logical.” While being the true seed of eternity to come, history currently serves essentially limited functions. This is a position for which Lewis took a lot of criticism. For example, the close friend of Lewis, Owen Barfield, in his 1975 essay “C. S. Lewis and Historicism,” lamented and tried to somewhat qualify these beliefs of Lewis (over a decade after Lewis had died). David Bentley Hart, however, is clearly every bit as anti-progressive with regard to history as C.S. Lewis. In one of his criticisms of Newman for painting too rosy a picture of doctrinal progression in history, Hart even wonders if Newman’s theory of doctrinal evolution may have been influenced by Charles Darwin (47).

For all this, Hart is an optimist with staggering dreams for the future. As he joked on the “Actually, It’s Good” podcast (November 17, 2020): “You know I’m trying to come up with a form of Vedantic Christianity to carry us into the next century.” David makes this case more seriously and fully in Tradition and Apocalypse as he makes connections to You Are Gods (as he has also done with portions of Roland in Moonlight). Hart’s hope is clearly that Christianity in the future will learn from many other world wisdom traditions about the ultimate significance of Christ’s incarnation just as Christianity did in its early years with Platonism and other pagan schools of thought and practice. Hart argues in Tradition and Apocalypse that:

Christianity did not plunder Platonism. Christian and Platonist traditions converged, because both were summoned by and aspired to a horizon of spiritual intimacy with the divine, one that for Christians is understood as the final realization of what was achieved in the person of Christ. Each tradition, by practicing the universal human virtue of religion, found the other along the way. And that way is still open, and has yet to pass through many hitherto unexplored regions, and the final destination toward which it leads is still far beyond what anyone can see or imagine. (185-186)

If Hart’s dream for the future is a convergence of all the great living wisdom traditions from our global human past, his assessment of our current situation is just as all-encompassing:

If the teachings of Christ form the indispensable standard of Christian spiritual life, then it is clear that Christianity as a historical project has been in many enormous respects a ghastly failure, and in no way more conspicuously than in many of the terms its institutional embodiments accepted as the price of alliance with empire and state. This introduced a contradiction and inner stress into Christian culture that could never be overcome, and that led inevitably to Christian culture’s disintegration into various forms of intolerant laicism or intolerant fundamentalism (both of which are differing forms of a very particular kind of modern nihilism) and to the modern social order’s tendency to reduce all civic and communal existence to a bare dialectic of the state and the individual. Late modern secularism did not, after all, enter Christian culture as an invader from some other land; it was itself the fully ripened harvest of Christendom, its inevitable terminus, the completed historical destiny of the impossible alloy of Gospel and empire.

…This is not to say that a Christian social order could not have been created on very different terms—perhaps a kind of subsidiarism so radical as to look like an anarcho-communist utopia—or even to say that such an order could not conceivably be created in the future if the tradition were to recover sufficiently from the cataclysm of Christendom. That, however, is a question for now best answered in some other possible world. In this one, Christian culture suffered shipwreck, even if some of its wreckage has carried generations across the flood.

With his many nautical illusions, Hart sometimes conjures a vision oddly similar to that of G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy when he describes the life of the church in the centuries after “Constantine nailed the cross to the mast” of the ship of state:

It is perfectly true that afterwards the ship sank; but it is far more extraordinary that the ship came up again: repainted and glittering, with the cross still at the top. This is the amazing thing the religion did: it turned a sunken ship into a submarine. The ark lived under the load of waters; after being buried under the débris of dynasties and clans, we arose and remembered Rome. If our faith had been a mere fad of the fading empire, fad would have followed fad in the twilight, and if the civilisation ever re-emerged (and many such have never re-emerged) it would have been under some new barbaric flag. But the Christian Church was the last life of the old society and was also the first life of the new.

While Hart’s book expounds a very different Christian vision from that of G.K. Chesterton in many critical ways, the differences are not as drastic as might be assumed. I’ve not read a more beautiful defense of Nicene orthodoxy in terms of soteriology and theosis than we get on pages 123 to 124. This is despite the fact that Hart spent the previous several pages showing how Arius was a faithful traditionalist with a very understandable and defensible theology who needed to give way in the end to the fresh theological consensus that allowed for the meaning of the incarnation to be even more fully envisioned.

At the outset of this section, Hart argues that dogma rightly gives us creeds which are symbols of the faith—meaning an agent capable of “drawing together” separated parts and of giving expression to something “more than can be said by pure proposition” in the form of promises that “sustain hope” and that are to be “understood ‘ever more’” (93-94). This is simply the original understanding of creeds as the symbols of our faith, to be sung and chanted in community. During the Divine Liturgy of John Chrysostom, immediately before the creed is intoned corporately, the priest declares: “Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess.” Hart is simply reminding us that the prerequisite and the purpose of the creed is love. As he concludes: “Every symbol is pregnant with its own future.”

All in all, Hart has written a passionate (and even simple) defense of the living tradition of the church in opposition to various forms of traditionalism:

The Protestant fundamentalist clinging to literalist scriptural inerrancy, the Catholic traditionalist clinging to a brutally reductive concept of infallible dogmatic pronouncements, the Orthodox traditionalist clinging to the nonexistent unanimity of the fathers—all are merely clutching at whatever bits of flotsam seem to them most buoyant atop the ocean of historical contingency, following the shipwreck of Christendom. Real faith, by contrast, is something at once far less frantic but also far less certain of itself. As an awareness of and attentiveness to a future that is always summoning the tradition and the believer to itself, it is also the condition of living in transitu, moving toward a promised land not yet seen. (179)

Hart’s criticisms are largely aimed at those outside his own Orthdox Christian tradition. (The most obvious exception being his withering critiques of the Orthodox myth of a patristic consensus on most matters—although even there Hart grants that there is consensus on some key topics.) While critiquing neo-Thomists and Calvinists and fundamentalists of all varieties, Hart is certainly not leaving the tradition closed to any branch of the church or even to any other schools of human wisdom and virtue. He consistently insists that, to remain living, all sides must become more open to a future that allows the significance of the shared loves in each tradition to be discovered and explored so that these shared loves might enrich the doctrines and the lived experience for each community.

I would have loved to see Hart expound upon and interact with the long history of reflection on tradition among Orthodox thinkers (as outlined, for example, in chapter 7 “Tradition: the Memory of the Discerning Community” from Looking East in Winter: Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition by Rowan Williams) as well as with other Catholic thinkers such as Josef Pieper. However, Hart arguably goes straight to the source with John Henry Newman (as even Orthodox theologians who have reflected on tradition were responding to questions on the topic that were first raised in the Western church), and one of Hart’s standard modes of engagement is to forego a substantial survey of the field and to simply interact with whatever pivotal moment or figure best suits his purposes.

Having ambled about so freely now through the many topics of this little book, I want to reiterate in closing that Hart’s first love is not theology or even metaphysics. He has recently said that he hopes to write more fiction and has referenced Roland in Moonlight and Kenogaia as among his favorite books to write and share. Hart’s first love is life itself, the shared task of recognizing God’s presence with us beneath the veil of death. It is no surprise, then, to find the passages in Tradition and Apocalypse that I cited at the start where Hart appeals to “faithful practice, humility before the testimony of the generations, prayerfulness” and other such virtues that “can be cultivated only in being put into action.” While Hart often protests that he himself lacks any capacity in such virtues, he clearly loves to praise them. We see this with his typically bombastic quip during an October 2, 2017 lecture at Fordham University (titled “Orthodoxy in America and America’s Orthodoxies”):

On the whole, theological issues have little effect on the daily lives of the faithful. Theologians aren’t really nearly as important as they imagine themselves to be, and the church as a whole would probably be better off if they were all periodically exterminated.

Such points by Hart are helpful to keep in mind when reading and contemplating the heady vision and lively intellectual banter of a book such as Tradition and Apocalypse. In the end, Hart’s readers should hear his call into the life of prayer and longing and humble service among the patient people of God who are, even now, more than just earthly citizens because “the Anointed One Jesus co-raised us and co-seated us in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6 from Hart’s translation).

End Notes:

  1. With my references here to this lecture by Newman and his meaning of “ad fontes,” I am just going from my memory of a wonderful lecture at a regional Alcuin Fellowship retreat that I heard about a month back by Brian Williams.
  2. This is a term used by Hart in The Doors of the Sea from 2005 and in “The Devil’s March” within Creation “ex nihilo”: Origins, Development, Contemporary Challenges from 2017. This concept shows up in multiple other writings and recorded conversations by Hart as well.
  3. Hart’s language here is strongly reminiscent of much in the book Transfiguring Time: Understanding Time in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition by Olivier Clément.

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