Just in Time for Advent: Hart’s Own Summary of Kenogaia with Some Commentary

With the season of Advent and Nativity approaching quickly, I hope that you might consider reading this wonderful story of a young boy entering a dark world carry light and salvation. On October 21, 2022, Michael Martin invited Mike Sauter to join him in interviewing David Bentley Hart on Hart’s novel Kenogaia (A Gnostic Tale). The entire interview is well worth hearing. Martin has edited three of Hart’s books with Angelico Press and authored several of his own including Sophia in Exile (which, for anyone familiar with the story of Kenogaia, is a remarkably relevant topic). Early in the interview (at about 12:05), Martin asked Hart to “give our audience maybe a little overview of what the book is about, what happens in the book, without giving away too many things.” Hart responded:

Well, let’s see. This is the thing, I used the book to be a commentary and a satire on just about everything. So it’s set in a world called Kenogaia (not Kēnogaia because it’s an epsilon) that is literally a clockwork universe. I mean, it literally is built from springs and gears and swinging weights by a demiurge. And in this world, a young protagonist or two protagonists, Michael and his friend Laura, [are in] a world that’s authoritarian where there’s an official religion that’s a kind of curious combination between deism and early modern mechanistic metaphysics but enforced by the most draconian, if incompetent, means. And into this world comes a visitor from  beyond, called Oriens, who reveals that, in fact, this world is an artifact of a sorcerer created, principally, by the abduction of his sister and the use of her dreams to fabricate the world. And the rest of the book that follows, on the one hand, is Michael’s quest to rescue his father from the authorities (who come and arrest his father early in the book) but also the quest to set free this visitor’s sister. I don’t know, I mean in a sense, the plot simply is the plot that almost inevitably follows from using “The Hymn of the Pearl.” It’s about what someone who goes—although, rather than from the perspective of the one sent out, [it is from the perspective of those to whom he comes]. It is someone who journeys from his kingdom into the alien land where something precious has been stolen that must be rescued and restored. The book follows from that. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot because I actually think it’s fairly cleverly put together.

A little earlier in the conversation (about 8:03), Hart had shared:

“The Hymn of the Pearl” does capture a kind of pathos that is recognizable and that sticks: with a sense that we all have at times of being out of place in this world and suspecting that our true story is one that has been told elsewhere. For that reason, I think, it stuck with me. In fact, once in 1992, while I was waiting for a friend whose plane was very very late, I wrote a kind of children’s fantasia narrative-verse version of it out, parts of which turn up in Kenogaia in the transitions between the eight parts to the book.

At one point (about 25:20), Hart is asked about the place of “memory” within the story, and he responds in part:

There’s a reason why the central rite of Christian worship is correctly called “anamnesis” as well as “anaphora.” It’s a “calling back into the present” or “making present.” But it’s funny, the act of anamnesis, as you know no doubt because you know the Orthodox liturgy, the act of remembering becomes an act of remembering not just the past but the future because you remember the second coming, you know.

[Mike Sauter: “John Zizioulas, I recall, called the Eucharist ‘a memory of the future.’”]

Yeah, Zizioulas is very good on that. So was [Alexander] Schmemann. But by memory what we don’t mean is simply personal recollection of psychological histories. That’s a small and local phenomenon within what’s really the engagement of the Spirit in a living and conscious community of spiritual beings within the embrace of the mind of God, which is the history of all things.

Do you know the Confessions when Augustine’s friend Nebridius dies young, and he wonders if Nebridius, now drinking from the fountainhead of divinity and union with God, remembers me? But then he says, but of course he remembers me because he drinks from you, oh God, who art the memory of all things; you are the fountainhead of all knowledge. So Nebridius is mindful of me because he is mindful of God. It’s probably one of the loveliest moments of the Confessions for me. For all the nasty things I say about the late Augustine, which aren’t nasty: they’re actually mournful. It is lamentation for a great mind that simply got caught in the trammels of bad arguments.

For my final excerpt, Hart speak (around 34:55) about one reason why some of the sensibilities of gnosticism that it shared with Christianity are so relevant today:

But it is I think true that—as children of late modernity, having inherited a mechanistic metaphysics but one that’s in a sense in decay both because it’s not a useful paradigm in the sciences, I think both the life sciences and physics, but also because it’s been so damn disastrous not only because it’s alienated us from the natural world around us, it has given us the power to destroy it on a scale (I mean, we’re murdering the world) but first our destruction of the world happened gradually enough to elude our notice but then it turned out also to have been happening quickly enough to have escaped our control—and in that world, then, suddenly the gnostic story has a different meaning in a sense, and we no longer have to think: well, are we talking about two Gods here? We’re talking about a demiurgic reality right? There is some governing spirit of modernity that has created a false reality, a mechanized universe, a universe that’s nothing but an endless reservoir of dead material elements to be exploited by the acquisitive will. And I think, in that way, they speak to us, some of these texts, like I think the Apocryphon of John does, the Acts of Thomas, speak to us in a way that they didn’t necessarily ages ago. It has a different meaning for us and maybe a more important one. If nothing else, they prompt us to return to the early Christian world and say, well, wait a minute, that protest against the principalities and powers seen from the perspective of the present is incredibly poignantly relevant because of the encompassing reality, say of capitalism, of the nation state, of mechanistic thinking. It’s Heidegger (not a moral resource to be consulted too credulously) but nonetheless, even Heidegger, has the age of technology, the enframing, the reduction of material existence to inert matter that is nothing more than an object of the exertions of the human will. And maybe that’s my part of my fascination with the gnostics is, I think, we are trapped in false reality now, a technologically constructed machine with extraordinary pervasiveness power and plausibility because we’ve been indoctrinated into it in which we have been entirely cut off from the real vision of things that at one time was the universal patrimony of all of humanity, pagan or or otherwise. Indigenous faiths, pagan faiths, early Christian, most of early Indian or East Asian religions had this sense of belonging to a spiritual community that is also the community of nature and creation. We’ve been cut off from that altogether where our spirit was first reduced to a ghost in a machine and then into algorithms in a computational structure or functionalist illusion and the world has become a machine of endless production (although it’s not endless; it’s exhausting itself and dying) and all the beautiful spiritual mysteries that inhabit it, including the the spiritual mysteries of other creatures, other ways of being conscious (of say the way that an octopus is conscious) is being extinguished by that demiurgic monstrosity that has created this evil order of things, the capitalist late modern nation-state model of human existence within a mechanized, disenchanted views of human consciousness. [This] is something that suddenly makes this gnostic protest seem very plausible again, poignant, real. And it reminds us that this was also part of the essence of early Christianity, something obscured and occluded by bad theology, bad translation and doctrinal authoritarianism at the worst moments. I don’t mean the healthy development of dogma. I mean dogma reduced to a sterile set of propositions that are used to expel any sort of speculative or imaginative attempts to reappropriate the lost world.

Finally, in a oddly ironic (and certainly anticlimactic) conclusion to this post given these last points about technology, here are a few images inspired by the story of Kenogaia that I created recently using the Midjourney artificial intelligence tool:

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