Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief by David Bentley Hart (Review)

Who Should Read This Book – Readers interested in the past and future of Christian faith and practice.

What’s the Big Takeaway – Tradition is not about looking into the past to find some imaginary line of faith and practice that has never changed, the beauty of tradition is opening new paths and avenues in the future moving towards the ultimate Good.

And a quote – “The tradition has always advanced not only by discovering new implications in what at present it understands as orthodox Christian confession and practice, but also by learning to shed a great man of the conceptual forms and expressions that until a given moment – a moment that always seemed like a ‘completed’ present in the course of dogmatic evolution – had been considered part of the faith’s essence” 151)

When we speak of Christian tradition what are we talking about? This is the question with which Hart begins his latest book, a concise (only 188 pages!) essay (as the subtitle says) on Tradition. Hart identifies the problem in part being that while everyone talks about tradition, its hard to define what it is. A large part of the challenge is that the findings of history rarely support the ideas of tradition we have. Rather than one clear line of orthodoxy that goes straight back to the beginning and never wavers, we see a variety of ideas all with equal sway in their own time. It is only after the fact, once the issue is settled, that the losing voices are marginalized (and deemed heretical).

Along with this, when we look at the earliest Christians to whom we might imagine we are wholly of one mind, we quickly, if we are honest, recognize their faith and practice is completely foreign to us. Hart demonstrates this early on (p. 34-36) with a description of the truly radical nature of the apostolic church – nonviolent, renouncing wealth, refusing military service and so on. He writes, “It would be no exaggeration to say that, viewed entirely in historical perspective, cultural and institutional ‘Christianity’ has, for most of its history, consisted in the systematic negation of the Christianity of Christ, the apostles, and the earliest church” (36).

One similar memorable phrase comes near the end of the book:

Only in cases of moral departure from the explicit teachings of Christ can one easily identity what one can rightly call heresies. A professed Christian, for instance, so detached from the teachings of Jesus that he or she is willing to argue in favor of capital punishment, or to claim that Christians may blamelessly acquire and keep vast personal wealth, or to embrace libertarian social theory, or to support a certain recently unseated Republican president of the United States…beyond such obvious examples as those, however, judgment is best withheld” 169)

He notes other cases throughout the book. One such is Arius, remembered as the arch-heretic who opposed the Nicene formulation of God as three coequal persons. Hart argues that what Arius taught was not out of bounds in his day and actually had precedents in Clement and Origen. Only after the Nicene settlement was history reinterpreted to portray Arius as the obvious blatant heretic he always was.

Hart’s point is that the best moves of tradition are the ones that do not close all doors (such as closing out the heresy of Arius) but open new doors for bountiful theological growth and speculation. The Nicene settlement did not end the discussion, it opened it up to move and grow in new and exciting ways.

Hart argues for a needed future component in our understanding of tradition. He first talks about this in chapter two (Tradition and Causality). Here he talks about the four types of causes taught by Aristotle and recognized as how the world works throughout the medieval era. Key in this is the element of teleology, or final causality. A thing is not known in its brute mechanical force of what it is now, but is only fully known when its final purpose is revealed. This understanding of final causes was lost in the transition to the modern age, with our scientific worldview looking only at things as they are. Here Hart is touching on something I’ve read about elsewhere, in the likes of Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre, and it seems a basic and accepted truth of the modern over against the premodern world.

When Hart talks about two previous works (by Newman and Blondel) that tried to define Christian tradition (and the chapters summarizing these works are the slowest part of the book), one of the main problems is they only look to the past. But tradition has an unfolding, future element:

It is the future’s reciprocal and more original openness to tradition that endows tradition with whatever intrinsic rational unity it might possess. Only by seeing something of the end of tradition’s course – something of its final cause – can one see its unity as a formal truth rather than as a mere confluence of material and mechanically efficient forces” (92).

What this may look like takes us back to Arius. Hart argues that tradition, just like scripture, always need be interpreted. In digging deeper into this tradition, “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” (126). The question is, how are humans to be brought to God (deified)? If the Son brings us to God (the Father) then the Son must be fully God. But to bring US to the Father, the Son must be human as well.

When Hart turns to the Cappadocians, specifically Basil, he writes, “Every step of Basil’s argument is governed by a single compelling question: What do Christians mean when they say that they have been saved in and by Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit? What does it mean to speak of being deified in Christ? By the end, his case – and there simply is no more systematic treatment of the issue in patriotic literature – powerfully suggests that only the full ‘homoousian’ Trinitarian position makes it possible to view Christian belief as a coherent vision of God’s action in Christ” (127).

In other words, the tradition is not merely seen in looking back at who was more faithful to the beliefs of those even further back the line. The tradition is seen in how this innovative belief opened up avenues for new steps in theology that makes even better sense of what came before.

I haven’t even gotten into the last two chapters, where my pen died due to underlining so much!

The last two chapters kind of bring it all together and provide a way forward. Well, as much a way forward as a theologian and philosopher such as Hart will give us. There is a lot to ruminate on here, with gems such as this:

By remembering a first interruption, awaiting a last interruption, and attempting to sustain the theme uniting them in the interval” (145).

And,

The tradition has always advanced not only by discovering new implications in what at present it understands as orthodox Christian confession and practice, but also by learning to shed a great man of the conceptual forms and expressions that until a given moment – a moment that always seemed like a ‘completed’ present in the course of dogmatic evolution – had been considered part of the faith’s essence” 151)

And, recognizing he does not know what the future holds, he argues we might have some idea:

There is an entire language and conceptual grammar of divine proximity and intimacy not only in the New Testament but in scripture as a whole that indicates the only kind of end that Christian faith could possible stretch out toward: the divine image in humankind…” (157)

It is no surprise that Hart encourages Christians listen to voices that the past tradition may have silenced:

Reflective believers should always feel lincensed to return to what went before and to reclaim certain things formerly rejected or forced to the margins, while perhaps at the same time demoting other things from the eminence formerly conferred upon them” (180).

Here he lifts up John Scotus Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, Origen and Nicholas of Cusa. He mentions Sergei Bulgakov. I know I’ve noted that theology would be much better to listen more to Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor and Isaac the Syrian which is a point I admit I learned from Hart.

One of the more provocative statements comes in the last few pages, as Hart argues Christians ought to look even outside our own historical and cultural continuum to learn from other religious resources, specifically mentioning Vedanta. As with his discussion of causality above, this argument is based on noting that the idea of “religions” as unified ideologies either wholly true or wholly false is a modern creation. In other words, thinking the religion “Christianity” is true while another religion, say “Hinduism” is false makes little sense (and even CS Lewis noted this, in his own way, by recognizing the commonalities in religions).’’

Hart cautions that he is not speaking of appropriation. He also says he is not saying Christianity rob a few ideas from other faiths. This is often how the relation of Christianity and Platonism is explained in the early church, with Christianity borrowing a few ideas from Platonism. He argues:

Christianity did not plunder Platonism. Christian and Platonism traditions converged, because both were summoned by and aspired to a horizon of spiritual intimacy with the divine, one that for Christians is understood as the final realization of what was achieved in the person of Christ. Each tradition, by practicing the universal human virtue of religion, found the other along the way” (186).

This way, Hart says, is still open. In this we move towards the cosmic ending where faith and hope fade and love remains.

Overall, this is a brilliant book. During those chapters discussing Newman and Blondel, I was kind of bored. But the rest is brilliant. There is a lot to chew on. Perhaps what I appreciate most though, from such a thoughtful scholar, is the emphasis on action. The worst heresy is anti-Christian action much more than wrong belief.

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