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David Bentley Hart’s Post-Christian Pantheism

The debate over whether it is grace or nature that directs human beings towards the beatific vision was one of the most contentious intra-Catholic theological disputes of the twentieth century. David Bentley Hart’s 2022 You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature shows that the debate is alive and by no means merely academic and inconsequential—pantheism, tradition, orthodoxy, and heterodoxy are all very much at stake in the argument.

What is the purpose of human existence? Both Christianity and classical philosophy in the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions answer that our highest end is to know God. But there is, according to Roman Catholic theology, a crucial difference between the knowledge of God that philosophy makes possible, and the kind that Christian revelation promises. Unaided human reason can establish that there exists a divine first cause of the world. It can infer God’s unity, perfect goodness, omnipotence, omniscience, and many other divine attributes. But it cannot afford us a direct (as opposed to merely inferential) knowledge of God’s very essence or nature. For example, it cannot reveal the Trinitarian inner life of God as three divine Persons.

The direct apprehension of God’s essence is known as the beatific vision, and Catholic teaching holds that it is not something we are naturally capable of. Attaining it requires grace or supernatural assistance in the sense of special divine action to raise us above or beyond (hence the prefix “super-”) what our nature makes possible. Since it is not an end we are naturally capable of achieving, neither is it an end we are by nature made for. Rather, it is a supernatural end (again, in the sense of above or beyond our nature), to which God has graciously raised us. By nature alone we are aimed only toward an incomplete knowledge of God, such as the kind that philosophy provides. By grace we are directed toward the most intimate knowledge of him that is possible for a created thing.

I have left out various nuances and details, but some readers are bound to find even these distinctions dry and academic. Yet they were the subject of one of the most contentious intra-Catholic theological disputes of the twentieth century. On one side were Thomist theologians (that is to say, followers of St. Thomas Aquinas) such as Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (1877–1964), who developed and defended the account just summarized. On the other were nouvelle theologie writers like Henri de Lubac (1896–1991), who challenged this account and argued that in some sense the supernatural end of the beatific vision is something that all human beings are directed toward by nature. Pope Pius XII, in the 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, favored the Thomist position, which led de Lubac to qualify his views. However, de Lubac’s influence would grow after the Second Vatican Council, and the traditional Thomist view went into eclipse—only to be revived in recent years by a new generation of Thomists.

 

The influential Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s alarm at this Thomistic resurgence has led him to write You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature (University of Notre Dame Press, 2022). Whatever else might be said about the book, it has the merit of showing that the debate is by no means merely academic and inconsequential. Hart, like the Thomists he criticizes, thinks that what is at stake is nothing less than the true message of Christianity. To be sure, he also claims, oddly, that the dispute is merely a parochial Catholic affair “of no consequence to [him] at all.” “None of this concerns me personally,” says Hart, so that his “motives are entirely sincere and disinterested.”

One indication that this is not entirely true is that Hart has, after all, devoted an entire book to the subject. Another is the remarkable torrent of invective he directs at what he calls “two-tier Thomism” (so labeled because of its insistence on a sharp distinction between the natural and the supernatural). This tradition, Hart declares, is “infamous,” “sordid,” “diseased,” “grotesque,” “depressingly sterile,” “morbidly barren, impoverished, and unattractive,” evocative of the “thin, acrid waters of Wormwood,” a “damned monster,” “veiled . . . behind a curtain of . . . sickly puce,” in need of someone to “drive a stake through its heart and cut off its head,” and worthy of being “permanently laid to rest, in the deepest, dankest, and most dismal of theology’s unvisited crypts,” amounting to “among the most defective understandings of Christianity imaginable—in many ways the diametric opposite of everything the Christian story has to say about reality.” Clearly, Hart knows a lot of words, but he may want to double-check the meaning of “disinterested.”

Gratuitous abuse of his opponents is one of the well-known hallmarks of Hart’s style. It’s on full display in this new book, as is Hart’s frustrating habit of attacking sweeping caricatures rather than the specific arguments of specific thinkers with whom he disagrees. It is quite absurd that a book purporting to refute the Thomistic revival nowhere even mentions, much less addresses, the work of the scholars behind it, such as Lawrence Feingold, Steven A. Long, and Reinhard Hütter.

Hart gets away with these shortcomings because of his undeniable strengths. At his best, he can certainly turn a phrase. His learning is vast, enabling him to marshal an impressive array of authors and texts in his defense, even if his reading of them is often tendentious. One always learns from Hart, even when disagreeing with him utterly. Moreover, he presents arguments that are important and deserving of a response, despite being (from my Thomistic point of view) seriously wrongheaded. Nor, in this secular age, can any Christian fail to be impressed by someone as God-intoxicated as Hart evidently is. Regrettably, though, he is so in much the same way that the pantheist Spinoza was.

Does Grace Replace Human Nature?

Let’s first consider the arguments, then the pantheism. As I read Hart, he has two main objections against the Thomist position. The first is that the Thomist view entails, not the transformation of human beings by grace, but their replacement. If we are not by nature oriented toward the beatific vision, then in raising us to this end in a supernatural fashion, God would be substituting for us some new, non-human rational creature—just as to change a rabbit into a turnip would not be to add something to the rabbit, but rather to obliterate it and replace it with a turnip.

The traditional Thomist response to this sort of objection is to say that human beings are not, by nature, completely closed off to the beatific vision. They do by nature have what is called an “obediential potency” for it, a built-in capacity to have a supernatural end added to them. But Hart dismisses this notion as doubletalk. If we really have such a capacity, he says, then this would after all amount to a natural orientation toward the beatific vision; whereas if it would not amount to that, then we are back to the problem that, by raising us to that end, God would be replacing us with some other kind of creature rather than transforming us. The notion of an “obediential potency” is supposed to be a middle ground between these options, but, Hart insists, there is no such middle ground.

Yet that Hart is wrong about this is clear even from simple analogies drawn from everyday modern life. Consider the laptop computer on which you might be reading this. There is an obvious sense in which it is complete all by itself, with its operating system, other software installed in the factory, built-in Wi-Fi capability, and so on. Yet it has the capacity to have added to it all sorts of new software and accessories (via download, or through USB and HDMI ports and the like)—including, if it is old enough, some that had not even been invented at the time the computer was designed and manufactured. Since software and accessories of the latter sort were not even in view when the computer was designed, they cannot be said to be ends for which the computer was made. All the same, they are ends that might be added to it, because it does at least have the inherent capacity to have such ends added to it.

This is analogous to the notion of an “obediential potency,” and it indicates the sense in which there is indeed a middle ground of just the sort Hart claims is impossible. In what Thomists call a state of “pure nature,” human beings would not have the beatific vision as an end to which they are directed, any more than a computer is oriented toward running some application that did not even exist when it was manufactured. But just as a computer does nevertheless have a capacity to have such applications added to it, so too are human beings made in such a way that an orientation toward the beatific vision might be imparted to them.

Knowing God’s Essence

Hart’s second main objection is that any rational creature would, just by virtue of being rational, desire to know the very essence of the first cause of all things, so that such knowledge would be its natural end. There is a sense in which the premise is true, but the conclusion does not follow. To borrow an example from the philosopher Thomas Nagel, consider that there is an obvious sense in which a human being might desire to know what it is like to be a bat—to fly through the air the way a bat does, to get around via echolocation, and so on. Yet there is also an obvious sense in which it is simply not part of our nature to do these things, so that human beings can live complete lives as the kind of creatures we are without doing them. For that reason, our curiosity about what it is like to be a bat does not entail a sense of deprivation or loss in the way that, say, a missing limb would.

In an analogous way, had human beings been created in a state of “pure nature,” without a divinely imparted orientation toward the supernatural end of the beatific vision, they might in a sense nevertheless wish that they could have a direct knowledge of God’s very essence. But they would also judge that this is simply no more possible for them than it is possible for them to know what it is like to be a bat, and thus they would not feel this impossibility as a deprivation of something they were by nature made for. The indirect knowledge of God that they are capable of would suffice.

 

Now, like other critics of the Thomist position, Hart insists that an orientation toward the supernatural end of the beatific vision is natural to us. Taken at face value, this is simply incoherent. If an orientation toward a certain end really is natural to us, then it makes no sense to describe it as supernatural (that is to say, beyond our nature). Or, if it really is supernatural, then it makes no sense to describe it as natural.

However, in fairness to Hart, I don’t think he is actually guilty of this particular sort of incoherence. In order to be guilty of it, you have to acknowledge that there really is a distinction in reality between the natural order and the supernatural order. Catholic thinkers like de Lubac do acknowledge this, which is why it is difficult for them to formulate a coherent alternative to the Thomist position. But Hart does not acknowledge it. He insists on collapsing the distinctions between natural and supernatural, between nature and grace, and between God’s creating us and his orienting us to the beatific vision. And this is where his position becomes truly radical—indeed, as I have said, pantheistic.

Collapsing God and Creation

To understand how and why Hart goes in the extreme direction he does, it is useful to note that one of the motivations for the Thomist position he rejects is the thesis that the vision of God’s very essence is natural only to God himself, and not to any created thing (as Aquinas says in Question 27, Article 2 of De Veritate). This implies that to attribute to human beings a natural capacity to know God’s very essence would be to identify them with God.

And that is exactly what Hart does. He asserts that “whatever possesses a supernatural destiny must be supernatural—must be divine—‘naturally’” and that “whatsoever enters into the life of the divine must always already have been divine,” so that “our being in God and God’s being in us are both also and more originally God’s being as God.” Lest it be insufficiently obvious that what he is arguing for is a collapse of the distinction between God and human beings, he summarizes his position in the book’s Introduction as follows:

Only the God who is always already human can become human. Only a humanity that is always already divine can become God. . . . God is all that is. Whatever is not God exists as becoming divine, and as such is God in the mode of what is other than God.

But the collapse extends beyond human beings to the created world in general. Hart insists that “nothing can exist that is not always already, in eternity, divinized” so that “all that exists has its being as God’s knowledge of himself in his Logos.” He implies that the incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity extends beyond Jesus of Nazareth, so that “all created things are contained within the scope of the incarnation, so much so that one must say that creation is the incarnation in the fullness of all its necessary historical and natural dimensions.” “Creation,” he proclaims, is “revealed as being ‘located’ nowhere but within the very life of God as God.” The “eternal Yes” of God to creatures, of creatures to God, of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to one another, “in the end . . . are all one and the same Yes.”

Parts of You Are Gods read like a compilation of “greatest hits” from the history of pantheism. Echoing the Stoics, Hart tells us that nature stands in relation to the supernatural as “matter to form,” so that “nature in itself has no real existence and can have none” apart from the divine that informs it. Channeling Hegel, he speaks of God’s “‘return’ to himself [in] our integration into him” and says that “nothing in nature or history can be simply extrinsic to this movement of the Father’s ‘achievement’ of his own essence in the divine life.” To be sure, there are also critical remarks about Hegel, but they amount to the complaint that Hegelianism collapses God into history rather than the other way around.

Beyond Deism and Pantheism

Like Spinoza, Hart takes creation to follow of necessity from the divine nature. For in God, he says, the distinction between freedom and necessity collapses, and “creation inevitably follows from who [God] is.” This is consistent with the thesis that “creation might not have been,” he says, as long as what this means is simply that creation derives from God, albeit of necessity. Yet it is hard to see how this is different from the Trinitarian claim that the Son is of necessity begotten by the Father; and if it isn’t different, then creation is no less divine than the Son is.

Hart pretends that he is simply laying out the consequences of the Christian teaching that human beings can come to know God’s very essence. In fact he completely misses precisely what is distinctive about Christianity, what makes it a middle ground between the erroneous extremes we find in other religious traditions. On the one side we have the idea of God as a remote and standoffish first principle, to be contemplated and worshiped, but with whom we can never have an intimate relationship. On the other side we have the view that we can attain perfect union with God, but only because God is all there really is in the first place, and we are merely his manifestations. One side says that because God and man are distinct, the latter can never know the essence of the former. The other side says that because we can know the essence of God, God and man must not really be distinct.

Christianity says that this is a false choice. It teaches that though God and man are by nature truly distinct, we can via supernatural assistance nevertheless attain to a communion with him that is so deep that we will know his very essence, his inner Trinitarian life. We can, by adoption, thereby become sons of God—not mere servants, as the one view holds, though also not identical with God, as the other view claims. Hart essentially chooses one of the erroneous extremes—the pantheist one that collapses the distinction between God and his creatures—rather than opting for the authentically Christian middle ground.

 

Dissolving Heterodoxy and Orthodoxy

But then, it is clear that a concern for distinctively Christian orthodoxy isn’t really what drives Hart in the first place. He tells us that among the influences on his book is the Vedantic tradition in Hinduism, from which Christian thinkers “have a great deal to learn.” Indeed, he allows that “Vedantic Christianity” might be an apt label for his position. In fact, he assures us, “the religion historically called ‘Christianity’ is not a ‘truth’ that exists among and in competition with ‘false’ non-Christian religions.” For in reality, he judges, Christianity is “only one limited trajectory within history’s universal narrative of divine incarnation and creaturely deification, superior in some ways to alternative trajectories, vastly inferior in many others” (emphasis added). “The bodhisattva ideal unfolded in the [Mahayana Buddhist texts] Lotus Sutra and the Bodhicaryavatara” have, in Hart’s view, more to teach us about Christology than many Christian theologians do; “indeed, the latter [work] in some very real sense attests, under the veil of the unfamiliar, to the truth made present in Christ.” And this truth is in Hart’s judgment also more evident from “the metaphysics of classical Vedanta, in either its Advaita or Vishishtadvaita form,” than anything Thomism can teach us.

Meanwhile, Christian tradition and dogma are in Hart’s estimation far from sure theological guides. Tradition, he says, “can serve as a justification for anything” and “boasts an almost limitless plasticity”; and “what we come to regard as ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’ are retrospective and (to be honest) transparently ideological constructions.” In fact, doctrinal formulations “rewrite” history, “refashioning the past” rather than codifying and preserving it. For example, the Nicene Council’s claim to be upholding ancient teaching about Christ’s nature was, Hart assures us, “pure fiction” peddled for political reasons. Arius, whom the council condemned, “was in many respects a profoundly conservative theologian” and “a more faithful representative of many of the most venerable schools of Trinitarian thought than were the champions of the Nicene settlement” (even if, Hart agrees, the latter ultimately had better arguments than Arius).

Meanwhile, Gnosticism, Hart argues at length, has been unjustly demonized as heretical, and represents an authentic early expression of Christianity. In fact, he tells us, the “two-tier Thomism” Hart deplores “is far more extravagantly heterodox” than Gnosticism! How Hart can be so confident that Thomistic views are heterodox, while writing off all other judgments about orthodoxy and heterodoxy as “ideological constructions,” is something he never explains. And though Hart is too polite to say so explicitly, his argument implies that the charge of heterodoxy can also be leveled against Catholicism in general, at least since Pius XII’s rebuke of de Lubac (who, in Hart’s view, was never able coherently to reconcile his insights with what Pius declared to be Catholic orthodoxy).

In any event, this latest book continues the trajectory away from historical Christianity evident in Hart’s recent work, such as his book on universalism. 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. For that reason alone, Hart’s book deserves our attention. It lays bare what is at stake in what might at first glance seem to be a long-dead controversy of merely academic interest.

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