I was going to begin this post with an apology for procrastinating as long as I have in writing it, but, frankly, I’m not sorry, at least not this time. Allow me to explain.
On March 31st, Ed Feser published a review of David Bentley Hart’s newest collection of essays—You Are Gods—in Public Discourse. The review, entitled “David Bentley Hart’s Post-Christian Pantheism” accuses Hart of “collapsing the distinctions between the natural and the supernatural, between nature and grace, and between God’s creating us and his orienting us to the beatific vision” and in so doing arguing for a pantheism that “collapses the distinction between God and his creatures.” It elicited at least three critical responses that I’m aware of: one from Seth Hart (henceforth Seth) published here on Jesus and the Ancient Paths on April 1st; one from David Armstrong (henceforth David) published on his Substack—A Perennial Digression—on April 8th; and one from David Bentley Hart (henceforth Hart) himself published on his Substack—Leaves in the Wind—on April 17th in the form of an open letter. Feser responded to Seth and Hart’s critiques in two posts on his personal blog. Thus far David has avoided Feser’s seemingly compulsive need to respond to anyone who writes about him online, and I hope this post won’t set off the Google Alert that Feser no doubt has for his own name and notify him of the oversight. I suppose we’ll find out.
Anyway, if I had written this post much earlier than today, I might have missed one or more of Feser’s responses to his critics and failed to recognize that in them and in his review Feser seems less interested in debating philosophy or theology than in engaging in performative outrage on behalf of the Neo-Scholastic Thomists he seems to regard as the arbiters of Chrsitian orthodoxy. For example, Feser argues in the conclusion of his review that: [You Are Gods] continues the trajectory away from historical Christiantiy evident in Hart’s recent work … And it is striking how dramatically it confirms the fears of Pius XII, Garrigou-Lagrange, and other mid-twentieth-century Catholic thinkers about where the novel theological developments they resisted were leading.” If the juxtaposition of “historical Christianity” and Pius XII and Garrigou-Lagrange seems suspect to you, then you’re in good company (mine to be specific), but we can’t determine why Feser seems committed to treating these and other “mid-twentieth-century Catholic thinkers” as representatives of Christian orthodoxy until we attend to an omission in Feser’s review: an omission of a definition of pantheism.
Feser never defines pantheism in his review of You Are Gods. When he does offer some possible definitions in his response to Seth, he culls them from the Catholic Encyclopedia and concludes that “Hart’s position is pretty clearly pantheist by the Catholic Encyclopedia standard” and that “Hart’s views fall within the range of doctrines that Pius IX, Vatican I, Pius X, Pius XI, Pius XII, et al. would condemn as ‘pantheist,’’ to which we might respond: who cares? Obviously, Feser cares, or he cares about seeming to care given that in the same response referenced above he describes himself as a “reactionary unreconstructed Baroque Scholastic manualist Thomist” with a vested interest in “what the Catholic theological tradition has had in view when analyzing and criticizing pantheism.”
Perhaps then we should conclude along with David in his Substack post that given his commitment to such a narrow vision of Catholicism generally and Thomism specifically, “Feser does not know what he is talking about when he talks about pantheism” and that he “does not recognize that what he is has a much longer pedigree in Christianity than he realizes,” but I think this lets him off the hook too easily. After all, Feser authored Five Proofs for the Existence of God, which, as David notes later in his post, argues for a “classical monotheism” that “is not other than a nondualism.”
Without reading more into the term “nondualism” in this context than that God and creation are not two discrete beings in a relationship of identity or disjunction, I don’t see how such a “classical monotheism” could be anything else, but rather than rely on my own arguments, let’s borrow one from Feser himself. If as he argues in Five Proofs for the Existence of God, “God, being purely actual, is devoid of parts … and therefore … does not belong to a kind of which there could be more than one instance” (Kindle, 186). If God cannot belong to any kind of which there could be more than one instance, then God cannot belong to the most general kind: beings or things that are given that there are multiple beings and that those beings consist of some combination of parts, i.e. of possibility and actuality. If God cannot belong to the kind that includes all beings, then the relationship between God and all beings in general or of some being in particular cannot be one of either identity or disjunction. Neither the distinction between God and creation that Feser maintains in his review and his responses nor the collapse of that distinction that he attributes to Hart are metaphysically tenable, for, as Hart argues in the opening essay of You Are Gods, “God is not ‘the other’ of anything,” or as Feser argues in Five Proofs for the Existence of God: “[God] is … unique, so that the theism to which the arguments defended … lead us is a monotheism” (Kindle, 186).
But I digress. Seth, David, and Hart himself have exposed the philosophical shortcomings of Feser’s review in their critiques, and given his familiarity with the metaphysics of classical theism, Feser himself ought to know that speaking of a distinction between God and creation at best obscures the difference between necessary and contingent being, first and secondary causation, etc. and at worst posits that God and creation exist as beings opposite one another, each with their own respective ends unto themselves and capable of conditioning one another in and through whatever relationship they have.
So why then does Feser insist that Hart is a pantheist? What motivates his repeated references to Catholic thinkers of the mid-twentieth-century as arbiters of orthodoxy and harbingers of encroaching heterodoxy? I can’t say for sure other than that it seems Feser is genuinely committed to Catholicism as exemplified (apparently) in Garrigou-Lagrange or the Piuses and that his performative outrage serves to draw attention to the ways in which the theological concerns of that Catholicism are being validated, but I can’t help but see parallels between Feser’s scattershot references to the Stoics, Hegel and Spinoza and his highlighting of Hart’s favorable assessment of Vedantic Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist traditions as potential sources of instruction for Christian theology and the endless series of intellectual boogiemen invented by the Republican political apparatus to secure their voting base through fear of Critical Race Theory (CRT) or illegal immigrants, etc. The rhetoric functions in the same way. The performance is the same. One only wonders who the audience might be. Can there be that many adherents of “unreconstructed Baroque Scholastic manualist Thomis[m],” and what would be the use of stoking their fears of, in this case, pantheism?
Maybe Feser can clue us in.