McDermott’s Ignorant Slander

[Note: I’m honored to have had this article shared here by David Bentley Hart (along with one other on this topic).]

Gerald McDermott has published a review of Tradition and Apocalypse by David Bentley Hart that is riddled with lies of which McDermott must be aware. I think I counted over twenty books by Gerald McDermott, and I’ve read two of them in my youth with some lasting appreciation. Therefore, this demonstration of sad desperation (perhaps mixed with some abject ignorance), has me genuinely disappointed. Since McDermott’s review is so dense with gross and intentionally misleading falsehoods, I am tempted to go through it sentence by sentence, but I will resist and only start that way.

With the first sentence, McDermott should have considered that anyone making their living as a writer and yet happy to leave behind those to whom he was “once the darling” might be worth reading carefully. David Bentley Hart has happily alienated every conceivable sector of his readership repeatedly and with no signs of remorse.

McDermott’s second sentence, declares that Hart’s book “argues that the Christian tradition is bankrupt.” This immediately demonstrates that McDermott is writing not to share his careful reading of Hart but simply to cut down and malign, because any remotely attentive and informed reader would know that Hart’s book does exactly the opposite. Hart’s purpose is to demonstrate that Jesus Christ provides those in the Christian tradition with an inexhaustible and limitless good by which to guide our ship if we would only retain the eyes to see. Hart explicitly says, over and over in his book, that he is defending tradition. In the first chapter, Hart expresses genuine gratitude to Newman for opening tradition up—for the first time in such a powerful way—as a critical topic of theological reflection. Hart also says, in plain English, that the enemy is not tradition but traditionalism.

Pathetically, McDermott not only fails entirely to note any of these critical contradictions to his first sentence summarizing the point of Hart’s book, but McDermott then goes about illustrating almost perfectly the simultaneously terrified and malicious mindsets that drive traditionalists in their desperate attempts to circle the wagons and to snuff out the bad guys. In what has to be intentional viciousness, McDermott goes even further in misrepresenting Hart as having written a “polemic against creedal Christianity.” I read Tradition and Apocalypse twice, and both times I shed tears over the beauty and profundity of Hart’s defense of the creeds as potent “symbols of the faith” (the traditional orthodox term for the creeds) that more and more gather up the meaning of Christ’s incarnation and offer it to all future history as worthy of further contemplation and exposition. In truth, Hart’s book is an astounding and moving defense of creedal Christianity. And this is hardly a subtle or hidden fact. Hart consistently praises the fathers of the early councils and the fruits of their spiritual labors:

They were engaged in a patient practice of critical anamnesis, a discipline of recollection that was also a synthesis of the full testimony of earlier generations of the faith; but that very synthesis and the conceptual and confessional revolution it produced required a standard of judgment that could render the whole tradition intelligible by drawing its various elements into a rational unity and directing them toward a more clearly understood end. That end, that final cause, was a model of deification adequate both to revelation and to reason. (125)

…By their openness to what was more than merely the settled orthodoxies of previous ages, the Nicene party discovered a deeper logic written throughout the tradition they had received, but in a language that had to be deciphered, and for which they only now were able to produce the key. And I wish to be clear here: to the most unforgiving historicist it might seem that the Nicene symbol and the stream of theological tradition that followed from it and thereafter became dominant were merely clever constructs that arbitrarily or accidentally created a new faith out of the old. But here the evidence of history is sufficient to say that what happened in the ascendancy of Nicene orthodoxy can be read as a genuinely rational and perhaps necessary synthesis of the tradition of the past. Even then, however, if the faith inherited by believers in the fourth century possessed a true inner coherence stretching back to its most primordial sources—a coherence that was real and durable and capable of accounting for all its seemingly diverse elements without contradiction or confusion—it was one that could be discovered, manifested, preserved, and confessed only by being reconstructed in light of that more eminent finality: that future, as yet to be fully revealed, but always in the process of being revealed. (126-127)

…The history of dogma is, at its most elementary, the narrative of the generation of (to use the technical conciliar term) confessional ‘symbols’ of the faith. That word should be accorded its full significance when one considers what doctrinal tradition is. A symbol, speaking purely etymologically, ‘brings together’ things that otherwise would remain separate; and it does this by providing a new form of expression that unifies disparate realities without being reducible to any one of those realities. …It is a sign as much as an idea, a promise, an inexhaustible conceptual and linguistic ellipsis that sustains hope and faith by its very irreducibility, its persistent impenetrability, its invitation to be understood ‘ever more.’ Every symbol is pregnant with its own future. (93-94)

I could go on for pages with these passages from Hart that so powerfully defend the Christian creeds as being true and rational and an ongoing blessing to the church. His only point here is that this “gathered up” truth of the creeds required a discernment that involved the prayerful contemplation of Christ’s transcendent kingdom. Hart also writes with reverence for Christian traditions of worship, sacrament, contemplation and prayer (see pages 144 and 168 among many other examples). Again, in praise of the fathers of the early councils, he says of their work:

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. (142)

It is astounding that McDermott could accuse Hart of saying that “creedal Christianity radically contradicts Jesus and the apostles, who—according to Hart—taught anarchist communism, pacifism, and the rejection of all political authority.” This sentence reeks of both a deep desire to smear Hart with any boogeyman that McDermott can conjure and an abject ignorance of what Hart has actually written about any of these topics. How can McDermott not know that Hart’s Christian anarchism is a radical dismissal of secular statism and a love for the vast layers of organic authority endemic to most healthy human cultures throughout history? Hart loves authority as it is praised by the likes of Augusto Del Noce in keeping with its original meaning: anyone who promotes growth and flourishing. How can McDermott not know that Hart’s communism is ideally represented in the community of Saint Macrina the Younger (or the community described in the Acts of the Apostles) and a flat out rejection of the statist world factory advocated in the later writings of Karl Marx? Again, I’m tempted to write more. However, McDermott’s flailing attempts to sully Hart continue on apace and so must my brief notes regarding reality.

McDermott merely does Hart a favor, I suppose, in reiterating Hart’s claims that:

Paul’s account of salvation is closer to the gnostic Valentinus’s ‘understanding of salvation’ than to much of the Thomist tradition or to Calvin’s doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Marcion, who repudiated the Old Testament, practiced a faith ‘more consistent’ with Paul’s beliefs than did Luther.”

It is certainly sensational when you pull all of this together from page 150 of Hart’s book, but Hart piles on these examples on that page with an obvious attempt to be as provocative as possible. You cannot, however, accuse Hart of not having written about all of this extensively in many places and for many years now. See his 2018 article “Everything you know about the Gospel of Paul is likely wrong” or his translation of the New Testament or his 2021 novel Kenogia: A Gnostic Tale (where one of the great heroes of the story is named after Valentinus) or his seven long essays about gnosticism and modernity on his subscription Substack newsletter from September 3 through October 1 of 2021:

  1. “Machine and Spirit: A Few Humbly Apocalyptic Aphorisms: Gnosticism and Modernity, Final Part”
  2. “Imprisoned: Gnosticism and Modernity, Supplement 2”
  3. “The Gnostic Turn: Gnosticism and Modernity, Supplement 1”
  4. “Absolute Immanence and the Immanent Absolute: Gnosticism and Modernity, Part Four”
  5. “Whose Orthodoxy? Which Gnosticism?: Gnosticism and Modernity, Part Three”
  6. “The Modern Invention of an Ancient System: Gnosticism and Modernity, Part Two”
  7. “Our Age is Most Definitely Not “Gnostic”: Gnosticism and Modernity, Part One”

This study on Hart’s part goes back many, many years in other publications that I could list (and some of which you can find here and here on my old blog). Clearly, there would be much to consider with these topics. However, I’ll simply note, for my topic now, that McDermott demonstrates interest only in fear-mongering while showing no interest at all in understanding or engaging with Hart. I will also note that:

  1. Hart’s understanding of gnosticism consistently distinguishes between the dualism of gnosticism’s many heterodox forms and the participatory metaphysics of Christianity. (All that God creates is good and real. Also, God’s life is, through Christ, in participation with everything).
  2. Hart strongly advocates for the substantive embodiment of glorified and resurrected bodies.
  3. Hart is also entirely in line with all of the Christian patristic opponents of the various false gnostic faiths who, from Irenaeus onward, defended Christianity by calling it the true gnosticism.

Moving on to Hart’s reading of Genesis, I’ll agree that this portion of Tradition and Apocalypse did leave me wishing that Hart had filled out the picture more completely. His brutally pagan version of the creation and fall narratives is bitter medicine for fundamentalists, but Hart leaves it at that and moves on without any consideration of the many ways in which later Jewish sages were countering earlier pagan myths with theological claims of their own. Moreover, these texts were expounded with layers of theological meaning long after they moved from oral traditions to written scriptures, so that Jewish teachers—who would have understood the original pagan dynamics that Hart reads back into the stories—would have also layered on many spiritual readings that would bring the text into full resonance with the later writings of the prophets. All of this, finally, was read by Christians after Jesus Christ as being strictly about Christ. John’s Gospel opens, of course, with a profound echo of the first chapter of Genesis, and John ends up powerfully suggesting—from the start to the end of his Gospel—that the world was not created until the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the human person in whom all things are created. But now, I suppose, I am starting to reiterate material on which Hart has written for years (alongside close scholars such as Fr. John Behr and Jordan Wood). This “reading of Genesis” by John the Theologian is the ultimate response to the pagan reading that you can find within the underlying oral traditions to which Moses and the Jewish sages of centuries were themselves responding. While it is frustrating to me that Hart does not unpack all of this in a passage such as his treatment of the paganism of Genesis in Tradition and Apocalypse, it is very likely Hart’s assumption (old fashioned as it might be) that his readers would consider such a passage in the light of his entire published corpus. That, at any rate, is something that McDermott made absolutely no effort to do.

McDermott instead goes on a bit of a rant about biblical criticism and how laughable Hart’s ignorance is with regard to all of this. Finally, McDermott shares an insight into what has so corrupted Hart that he would slowly have rotted from the inside out in this way upon the public stage: he was always a universalist. Well, tell that to Gregory of Nyssa and Richard John Neuhaus, I suppose. Neuhaus, of course, was the founder of First Things where McDermott published his pile of lies and Neuhaus was a lively defender of a very hopeful universalism.

(As for Gregory of Nyssa, what I had hoped to post next on this blog was a reflection on my recent reading of The Life of Moses, but that has been a little postponed by McDermott. Incidentally, Tradition and Apocalypse clearly owes a great debt to the vision of God in The Life of Moses. God for Gregory must always be in front of us and pursued ceaselessly as limitless in the wonders into which He can welcome us if we will but believe and continue to desire Him anew. Such an endlessly alive, good and beautiful God can only be revealed as a glorious mystery for whom as much is hidden as is revealed.)

Well, I grow distracted, and I should conclude with a prayer (in all sincerity): May God have mercy upon the soul of his servant Gerald McDermott.

(Note: if interested, you can also find my own poor review of Tradition and Apocalypse here from a few months back.)

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