On Monism and Becoming Uncreated in Hart’s You Are Gods

On December 14, 2022 the Notre Dame Department of Theology co-hosted a conversation between Catholic theology professor Jennifer Newsome Martin and David Bentley Hart focused on Hart’s book You Are Gods. It contained some helpful material for better understanding this book which Hart claims is a fairly simple and even obvious articulation of Eastern patristic thought (although also present in the West with figures like Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, and John Scottus Eriugena) over against Thomistic theology (the inventions of later interpreters of Thomas Aquinas) and this school’s radical divisions between nature and grace or nature and supernature (divisions that are taken for granted in much of contemporary Christian thought). I have excerpted a few portions below with some transcriptions. But first, here is the full recording:

Martin says in her second question that she is most concerned or uncomfortable with the idea of monism, and she asks Hart to explain what he means by this claim. In part of his reply, Hart notes:

I quote Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa and supremely a thinker who’s never really taken at his word for some reason, Maximus the Confessor, who says that, in the union with God, we ultimately are destined to become uncreated.

This claim by Maximus, by the way, is from Amb. 10.48, where Maximus refers to Melchizedek: “what was once created can somehow become uncreated …and thus he becomes without beginning or end, no longer bearing within himself the movement of life subject to time, which has a beginning and an end, and which is agitated by many passions, but possesses only the divine and eternal life of the Word dwelling within him.” Jordan Wood cites Anna Williams in The Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas (Oxford: OUP, 1999. p. 89) in his “Introduction” to the Whole Mystery of Christ. Gregory Palamas says the same in Triads 3, 1, 31. There is, of course, much within Orthodox Christian contemplative traditions about our ultimately becoming transfigured by the uncreated light of God. Hart, however, most appreciates how Sergei Bulgakov gets to this, and he moves to this point over the course of his explanation:

…I don’t see analogy as an alternative to monism. I see it as being necessarily grounded in a prior monism. The question is, you have to decide what you understand the terms of unity to be. If you believe, sort of vaguely in some kind of unificable being, you know, the thing that the Analogia Entis was written against, you would try to locate the union of all things in some sort of bare category of existence that wouldn’t possess sufficient definition, actually, to provide an explanation of different actualities. Where is the unity located? Well, you mentioned the Analogia Entis, the book that John and I translated. …The point there is not, as is often the caricature of Przywara that you would get say in Barthian circles, that he was claiming that there is an overarching category of being where, under God, and creatures are severally placed and that their analogy and the union lies in a prior ends univicum or essa univicum, you know, but rather that being itself becomes analogical in the relation between God and creatures. There’s not even that category.

Where, then, does the unity lie? It lies in the union of God and creatures in the Word, in the Logos, and that’s the ground of the unity. If you look at the word, the chiasmus, there is a reason why that’s the title [in You Are God]. …[In] an X figure, there’s a point of indistinction, but of course, obviously, there’s the Christ indication of the chiasmus. And where is that point of indistinction located? Now, to my mind, there are different ways you can go about this. But it’s a christological monism in Christian thought, surely, right that there is, from everlasting, already, in Christ the oneness of God in his own nature and God as becoming God in creatures. God doesn’t become God, but God in those who are becoming God. But that’s important.

I mean, for Maximus, there’d be no union between God and creatures if creation were not becoming God, and it’s all of creation for him. He’s clear about this. All of creation is incarnation in Maximus. But it’s precisely that becoming God, that infinite, as he ultimately calls it, “ever moving rest” (which he borrows from Gregory of Nyssa), it is that movement of becoming God which is the difference between creatures and God. God does not become. God is the one to whom history doesn’t happen, you know, but we are always becoming God. …The analogical difference is the difference between God in the fullness of the trinitarian perichoresis and creatures who are becoming God. Now, in addition to this, of course, I take the greatest interpreter of this tradition to be Sergei Bulgakov who recognizes that this can’t be an extrinsic unity that’s achieved posteriorly in Christ by the hypothesis alone without the hypothesis being grounded already in a unity of the divine and human natures in the divine essence itself. So that’s where the argument is going to crop up most conspicuously probably, but I think his arguments are pretty solvent. …And the analogy that I want to hold on to is grounded in that prior unity rather than a prior unity of say a category of existence as if God were an existent over against us which can’t possibly be.

A little after this, Jennifer Newsome Martin says: “I really appreciate your turn to the christological. That makes sense to me, and then, I wonder, you have all these other kinds of grammars at work, right? Non-dualist religions, like Advaita Vedanta or Mahāyāna Buddhism, which are not christological, but they also seem to be informing [your work]. Or maybe they are, like, radically christological? I don’t know how you’d answer that question.”

Hart replies: “Yes, let’s go with that.”

Near the end, on another topic, during some of the Q&A, Hart noted:

History is the history of nothing happening, which is to say it is the happening of the nothing that’s being overcome in creation, and the end of history is to be history no more.

Finally, some philistine asked Hart how his theological writing would ever help anyone to better understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. They added: “Why should I care?” Hart’s answer was typically modest and hysterical. And thankfully Jennifer Newsome Martin said afterward that Hart was “selling himself short” and went to bat for him reading a heart-wrenchingly meaningful passage from You Are Gods as a an example. Anyway, here is part of Hart’s answer to this question:

If you read it and you find something in it that moves the heart, then that’s good, but that’s not really my primary concern. …I do think it makes a difference, probably, to say that it’s not the case that union with God is simply extrinsic to your nature. That’s not the good news is it? Because then it becomes a rather arbitrary thing. God might as well have turned you to dust or—in the grand tradition of these things—predestined you not to receive efficacious grace. Since you don’t have in your nature the possibility of anything apart from that efficacious grace, he could have consigned you to hell. You know, I think maybe there’s something there, but on the whole, I don’t think it’s theology for preaching. Except in the case of those really ingenious theologians who know how to transform speculative theology into evangelical proclamation. I don’t have a great gift for that. That’s why I don’t have a collar, you know.

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