David Bentley Hart: «The theologian is a quiet rioter»

Why can’t philosophy and theology do without metaphysics? Is there a border between created and uncreated realities? Can God be a hero and a villain at the same time? What is wrong with Orthodoxy in America? These and other questions are answered by orthodox theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart, an expert in theological aesthetics, the author of the book «The Beauty of the Infinite: the Aesthetics of Christian Truth».


Dmitry Biriukov (DB.): What is the situation with Orthodox theology in USA? Which contemporary theological trends could you mention, which are interesting for everybody? Does American theology have some connection with Paris theologian thought?

David Bentley Hart (DH.): With Parisian theology? If we talk about Orthodox theology historically it always has. Orthodoxy has been in America since the 18 th c. — Russian missions and the large number of Greek immigrants in the East Coast regions. But the dominant theological influence for many decades came out of Paris, out of Parisian Russian community: Schmemann, and Meyendorff. It bore the marks as the result of the Neo-Palamite synthesis, for both good and bad. It served its purpose, it’s  something I think we need to get beyond

DB. In what sense it was bad?

DH. I think that the Neo-Palamite narrowed the Orthodox theology down to a rigid system. And a system of questionable coherence, because it formed in three steps: The fathers, but as interpreted only through the Palamite tradition—ignoring all of the Orthodox scholastic tradition and things like the Russian religious philosophers and other movements in the Orthodoxy—and then interpreting Palamas in a very particularly, equally rigid way, one that is, I think, historically questionable. Both because I don’t Palamas was a particularly systematic thinker—he was more a mystical thinker with philosophical impulses, who had moments of genius and moments of obscurity—but also I think the way he was interpreted is sort of analogous to the way French Thomists used to interpret Thomas as a system, rather than as an exploration of ideas. The formal division between essence and energies became fixed as a kind of – in some formulations of Neo-Palamism – something like a Nominalism. If we think about this, Palamas was arguing for the real presence of the trinitarian God in his energies, whereas more and more in the American version of Neo-Palamism the energies become a kind of boundary wall that cuts us off from God in his own true nature, and are treated and sometimes spoken of almost as there is no analogy that can be drawn between energies… I think in many ways it was a narrow, philosophically unsophisticated movement – in this country especially, because I think it became more simplified here, because for many who converted to Orthodoxy it was the first exposure to Orthodoxy, so they received it as a dogmatic system. They weren’t aware that, just a handful of decades earlier, had they looked at the state of Orthodoxy around the world before that Parisian period, they would’ve found far greater diversity, and far greater division. It also meant accepting uncritically George Florovsky’s hostility towards Bulgakov and others. The situation now is different: while the Neo-Palamite synthesis has remained sort of the dominant grammar of theology for the Orthodox in this country, more and more we associate it with converts to Orthodoxy from American Evangelicalism. Unfortunately, American Evangelicalism is an extraordinarily crude and fundamentalist religion. And so they’ve taken on their Palamism almost like a faith statement, just an unarguable set of propositions. And the state of Orthodoxy in America right now is absolutely catastrophic, precisely because it’s been so successful in gaining converts. What’s happened? Let me put it this way: Christianity never succeeded in America. Most Americans think of themselves as Christians. But the only religion in America that ever flourished was America. And it twists everything into its own image. And Orthodoxy now is going through the process Catholicism went through in earlier generations: it’s being Americanised. It’s being turned into a version of the American religion, which is about civil order, prosperity, capitalism, a moral code that is not premised on forgiveness so much as upon judgement. And the influx of former Evangelicals has made this something of a disastrous situation, because they bring with them very narrow habits of thought—the way they were taught to think about religion, about faith. And also, like converts everywhere, to everything, the version of the religion to which they converted they cling to more fiercely than people who were born Orthodox. If you are born Orthodox, it’s just a place where you live. For them it’s an ideology they’ve adopted, so it must be pure. And because they’re evangelicals, that also means simplified, inflexible and cruel. On the other hand, another development in American Orthodoxy among the theologians, if not among this large and growing contingent of Evangelicals, has been the discovery of Bulgakov. Ten to twelve years ago there were maybe two volumes of Bulgakov in English…

Whether you like Bulgakov or not, he was a genius… I put him above the greats of the West as well as the East.

DB. Exactly Bulgakov? Because in Russia Bulgakov and Florensky go together.

DH. Florensky is also being translated. And Solovyov more and more. But Bulgakov especially. Because in the past there were two slender volumes “Sophia the Wisdom of God” and the one on the Eucharist, “The Holy Grail”. And maybe some selections, portions. Now it’s just been a flood of translations. Russian is not French, or German, or Italian, so even educated theologians in the West are not necessarily able to read Russian. So this flood of translations has had a huge effect among those who aren’t convinced of the Neo-Palamite synthesis and don’t really care about the condemnation of Bulgakov by the Patriarch of Moscow. For the other side, what they know of Bulgakov comes through the filter of critiques of Florovsky and Lossky. The problem … this is nothing against Florovsky, nothing against Vladimir Lossky, but they weren’t on Bulgakov’s level. I mean philosophically they were so far out their depths that their critiques made fools of them. And partisans for them are not willing to acknowledge that. But I think it’s been pretty well demonstrated as more and more of Bulgakov is becoming available in English. So alongside, on the one hand, this mass movement of American fundamentalism taking over Orthodoxy, at the same time in the academy there’s been a new interest in the 19th century – early 20th century Russian religious philosophers: how they responded to modernity, how they responded to German idealism. And, whether you like Bulgakov or not, he was a genius. There are passages in his works that are pure genius—that no other modern Russian or modern theologian can match. That was a long answer to a simple question.

DB. It was really interesting answer. You said for you Bulgakov is a genius in Orthodox theology. Who else are such geniuses like Bulgakov in 20th and maybe 21st centuries.

DH. I don’t put anyone on his level. I’ve come to believe – again, whether you wrestle with him or accept it all – that there was no one else who was comparable. In fact I think he towers over all 20th century theology. I put him above the greats of the West as well as the East. But obviously one’s variously influenced by diverse sorts of theologians, religious philosophers. I mean, Dumitru Staniloae I can’t ignore.  Or the interesting Greek scholars and philosophers: Yannaras, Panayotis Nellas… since I work in a Western context, in a Western idiom, I’m usually in discussion, argument with, or dialogue with Catholic systematic or dogmatic theology.  And there is a danger in the West: for many decades – and luckily recently this changed—for many decades advocates of Orthodoxy in the West felt that they had to make an effort to differentiate Orthodoxy as sharply as possible from Western Christianity and so there came into being a set of almost canonical criticisms of Western theology that were based basically on ignorance of Western theology. Some of it was right. But most of it not. A lot of Orthodox in this country are familiar with bizarre polemicists like Johm Romanidis, with his absurd readings of Augustine on the Trinity—completely confused about what Augustine was really saying, also apparently unaware that Augustine’s trinitarian theology in formal terms is not that different from the Cappadocians. It’s just in a very different idiom, with a very different set of concerns. And so until very recently a lot of Orthodox interactions with Western theology were as much polemical as creative. Happily that seems not so much the case anymore. The anti-Western fervor is still there among the converts that I was talking about, because of course they are rejecting what they think they are fleeing from, but there’s been a much more healthy interchange in recent years between Catholic and Orthodox theology. Fordham, an historically Catholic university, created a whole centre of Eastern Christian studies run by Aristotle Papanikolaou and George Demacopoulos. The triannual conferences and the projects there have been wonderfully successful, making Orthodox, Catholics and Anglicans especially talking intelligently about one another’s traditions… So again a long answer. But you asked about other figures… There are the obvious ones, as I said. But I have to admit more and more I find that it’s Bulgakov and  Florensky and in a different way Solovyov…

DB. But Florensky and Solovyov are not so important as Bulgakov?

H. Florensky obviously a polymath, a genius. But Bulgakov – you see, I think that he had a remarkable ability to see the necessarily implicit logic in a number of Christian affirmations and to play this logic out with more rigor than anyone else and it’s curious. And he is an odd combination in terms of Western scholarship.  He is like an exotic animal, because he combines the dry rigour of Karl Rahner with the sort of lush, almost visionary, passionate theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, with the sort of the grand dogmatic tonality of Karl Barth, but it’s all in a completely different intonation than is common in Western theology. Though it’s obviously deeply engaged with the whole German idealist, German post-critical project, it has a kind of Patristic richness in it, which doesn’t distinguish philosophy from dogmatics, from prayer, from mysticism. And I think many Solovyovian theologians, not just Orthodox, but a lot Catholics and Protestants, they find this gives them room to think. And as I say: when he set himself to think about a problem – like… right now I am writing a paper on him for a conference – the question of how we use the term person, человек or hypostasis, persona, prosopon – he approaches this in a way that is obviously drawing simultaneously on Neo-Platonic tradition, while he is engaging critically with Schelling and Fichte, Fichte especially. But in doing so he’s discovering aspects of Christian thought that have never been addressed with quite the precision they ought to be. What do we really mean? I mean, the word person is almost an accident in Christian history. Persona became equivalent by default of prosopon, rather than, say, subsistentia, which might be more reasonable, but it just wasn’t in the philosophical usage of the 4th century in the same way. And then of course as history’s gone along it has altered along with our understanding of what a person is: as individual, then as a psychological personality, or as a person invested with legal and political rights, or as a structure of consciousness. And so with each permutation – and of course it’s partly set in motion by the history of Christianity itself, because it’s not only the issue of what a person is in the Trinitarian grammar, but then of course how person, the single person of the Son, can function so as to be at once the uniting term of Christology. And then of course with social models…  Well, so every time Western or Christian culture as a whole sets about what a person is in terms of the philosophical and the political and the social situation of the time, the word has been altered in the Christian understanding of how it is attributed to God, how it is attributed to the Son. Trying to work this out, you know, where one situates the word, how one understands it, say, in relation to nature – it seems to me I haven’t found anyone else who’s thought it out with the same coherence as Bulgakov, and this leads him to this strange, what sounds at first like an obscurantist formula: The divine Sophia is not an hypostasis, but is hypostasibility, and it’s the same hypostasibility as that of human nature, – but then you realize that actually what he is saying is almost necessary, if one is to make sense of Christology as something other than a fiction about a Divine-human chimera, that then just came together under the concept of the person in the abstract. Now the very constitution of human nature, like the Divine nature, is hypostasible in the one Divine-human sense, without this constituting some kind of univocal property that unites the human to the Divine. But when one really dives into – both early and late – in the 20’s there was a piece he wrote that was not printed, “Главы” – Chapters – not on the Trinity but trinitarity, as well as “The Tragedy of Philosophy”, where he first addresses this notion of how to understand the personal nature of God; and then he picks it up again late, in “The Lamb of God” and “The Comforter”.  And there is no other figure to my mind who understood the problems as well. And whatever one makes of his arguments, they simply put everyone else in the shade… We keep coming back to him. OK, what’s your next question?

The generation of Schmemann and Meyendorf—that very urbane, educated, sophisticated form of Orthodoxy that for many of us was our first encounter with it

DB. I was listening to you and I thought: how come, you were born in the USA and you started to sympathize the Orthodoxy?

DH. I was raised high Anglican. That’s not like being a Catholic or a Protestant.  It’s out of place anyway. And the Anglican tradition – remember, when the Church of England and Rome split, even though the Church of England had periods of dominant Protestantism, the actual claim of the Church was that they believed in and preserved the apostolic succession of bishops and priests, and that they were the true Catholic Church of England, as opposed to the modernized, defective, papal-monarchist caricature of Catholicism. How do you do this? They grounded this by going to an earlier, a pre-scholastic vision of Church doctrine in the Church Fathers. So in the 18th and 19th centuries all the greatest Patristic scholarship was in England. It wasn’t in Russia, it wasn’t in Greece, it wasn’t in France. In fact the Roman Catholic church was so bad in Patristic scholarship that it was only because John Henry Newman, who was an Anglican Catholic, became Catholic; and he realized that there the knowledge of the Fathers had been reduced to so many dry summaries. You’d find the same thing if you picked up the story after, say, Greek independence and you looked at the things that were being used to teach seminarians in Greece in the 19th century.  There was a lot there about the Holy Fathers, but the actual degree of sophistication of scholarship was nil. There is no sign that Greek theological culture really had preserved any kind of deeply scholarly tradition of reading the Fathers. And so the Neo-Patristic ressourcement period in Catholicism and Orthodoxy happened at much the same time and same place: as something Parisian – largely Parisian, not exclusively, but you know…  Florovsky is in a sense a kind of revolutionary in reviving them. This happened in Rome too. But Anglicanism had always had them. So there is not really a violent movement from being a High Anglican to being Orthodox. It actually feels natural. I never thought of myself as rejecting anything, I just felt more at home in Eastern categories, I thought that the East never made certain signal cardinal mistakes in creating special theological categories of grace, or nature and supernature, or grace over against nature. I thought that the Eastern tradition had been spared what I regard as a catastrophic error in its thinking about creation. Would I convert now? I don’t know. This happened long ago. Now, confronted by this fundamentalist-infested American Orthodoxy…?  You know, the generation of Schmemann and Meyendorf—that very urbane, educated, sophisticated form of Orthodoxy that for many of us was our first encounter with it—has been pushed pretty much to the margins by this sort of, as I say, Americanized Orthodoxy that is really a new religion. And my great fear is that American Orthodoxy will do what American Catholicism and American Protestantism have both done, which is successfully migrate into the native lands and thus, in typical American fashion, just through sheer advertising – barbarous, clodhopping, capitalist marketing – will start corrupting the way the Orthodox elsewhere think. In fact there is evidence it’s already happening. American Catholicism is a joke. But it’s hugely influential. In this country we have movements of Catholicism that nowhere else in the world can flourish, because they are so insanely fantastic. We have right-wing Catholicism in this country that openly calls for a world empire of the Pope, the new integralism, which would be executing blasphemers, outlawing certain faiths, taking the vote away from Jews and Muslims, religious minorities, taking the vote away from women. Where else in the world would you have a fascist Catholicism promoting itself so widely because a group of idiot Americans fell in love with Franco? But they have money, they have influence, and so what starts out as the sort of regular, cartoonish, comical, typically American, blundering reinvention of every religion that enters this land starts spreading abroad, just through the influence of money and publicity – and then one day you see people in France, conservative Catholics, reading American integralists seriously. I do fear something similar happening with Orthodoxy. The brute power of money should never be underestimated, it can corrupt anything. And the love of money, I’ve heard, is the root of many evils. That sounded very anti-American of me. Sorry. But I’m serious about this. Christianity has never succeeded in planting itself in America. Our religion is a kind of Orphic post-Christian mystery religion based on wealth, power and one’s personal relationship with a kind of gnostic Jesus.

DB. It sounds like Orthodoxy is appealing for you, because American Orthodoxy isn’t rich, isn’t so popular and influential as Catholicism.

DH. There are some 70 million Catholics here, something like 4 to 6 million Orthodox. And the Catholics here are often rich – not all of them, but a lot of them. The university where we now are is endowed by Catholic billionaires and millionaires. As you can see, they are always building new parts, because they have more money than they know what to do with, but if they don’t build they have to pay taxes on their endowment.

DB. Is there some essential peculiarities in Orthodoxy, which are appealing for you in comparison with Catholicism?

DH. As I said, I think the whole Western tradition on nature and grace is corrupt, is wrong, and on nature and supernature. I believe that the distinctly Western understanding of original sin too is a problem. I think that the Catholic Church’s claims for papal supremacy are objectively historically false, but if they were true, that would be an argument against faith. And the Catholic church has this habit of constantly making up new dogmas, to the point that they begin contradicting themselves. Notoriously, the council of Constance and the council of Ferrara-Florence were both pronounced ecumenical councils in the age of Robert Bellarmine—fine, except that they teach diametrically opposite doctrines of papal and conciliar preeminence . Catholicism has never appealed to me at all. And the same is true of Protestantism. If those were the only forms of Christianity I knew of, I would not be a Christian at all. Anglicanism, being a sort of strange exception, placed me outside the continuum. As you see, Eastern Christianity for all of its problems, for all of the ambiguities of its history, for all of its problematic historical and modern political situations – I won’t go into details, but I mean – for all of that, is in its origins and its governing terms, I think, much closer to being theologically sound. That said, I’ve been in a minority in Orthodoxy in that I don’t buy into the Neo-Palamite version. I think that what has become the dominant system for many is a misreading of much of the Patristic tradition. And you see, again, in America we do have this habit of Americanizing everything. One of the most influential Orthodox philosophers in this country, David Bradshaw, has created this weird mixture of Anglo-American analytic philosophy with what he takes to be a Palamite reading of the Fathers, and what I take to be an historically wildly wrong narrative of Patristic tradition. And he’s created his own version of Orthodoxy, one in which he comes very close to denying Divine simplicity in the very form that Maximus the Confessor, say, would definitely absolutely insist upon. And he thinks he’s a representative of Orthodoxy by having created this queer fusion of Anglo-American philosophy and a metaphysics that it can only distort. The problem is how many people he convinces. Again, these are Evangelical converts: “Oh, Bradshaw, well, of course…” As I say, again, would I convert today? Probably not. I probably would say of Orthodoxy – if this were all I knew—I’d say: Oh, well, Orthodoxy clearly isn’t what it used to be or what it might have been.

Orthodox theologians have to start claiming, reclaiming their liberty from the expectations of these dogmatists who’ve created this myth of the golden age of Patristic consensus, which produced all answers to all questions infallibly

DB. By the way do you see any theological problems in Orthodoxy as such, not just in American Orthodoxy? You’ve mentioned some problematic features in Catholicism and Protestantism, what is problematic in Orthodoxy?

DH. I think, there’s been such a mythologization of the consensus patrum, the notion that there’s a sort of a Patristic system. And the fathers have been merged into a kind of system, and an infallible system every bit as dogmatically narrow and indubitable and unquestionable as the Magisterium of the Catholic church. I think that the bad aspect of the Neo-Patristic revival was that it was revival in the form of a system. And believe me I know this better than anyone else writing in English in the Orthodox world. If you raise an issue, or you disagree with the dominant interpretation of the tradition, the response will not be a principled argument, so much as a sort of fundamentalist quoting of pericopes from the fathers. The same way a Catholic is taught to use the Catechism as a guide to dogma, doctrine. And this is stifling in its effect. I actually don’t think theology should be fixed in any particularly paradigm. I think there was a golden age of Patristic thought, but there might be a golden age in which instead of the natural and fluid commerce between Hellenistic Judaism and Platonic and Aristotelian thought and Christian thought, you can imagine an equally rich period in which Christian theology would be drawing on Asian philosophies, making creative use of modern German thought, or… One of the things I like about Bulgakov and Florensky is that they didn’t think that Orthodoxy came to a crashing halt with John of Damascus. They believed that even a doctrine is a terminus ad quem only in the sense that it is a terminus a quo—that it may close down certain avenues of argument, but it opens up larger avenues of speculation. The rigidity and boorish unimaginativeness of a lot of the Orthodox world is I think easily documented. And I don’t know what to do about it, one way or the other. In my case I am just indifferent, because I don’t care how I’m viewed. But it is a problem. I think that Orthodox theologians have to start claiming, reclaiming their liberty from the expectations of these dogmatists who’ve created this myth of the golden age of Patristic consensus, which produced all answers to all questions infallibly, and all other forms of thinking, all other approaches, whether the German idealist, or psychological, or Vedantic are to be rejected out of hand because they can’t be found in Basil of Caesaria, or else in some other figures.

DB. It seems to me what you said about Orthodoxy concerns the Catholic church as well, because it’s a peculiarity of official canonical churches.

DH. Maybe. I think it’s true. Now Catholic thinkers get away with more – now, in the present moment – there are so many diverse traditions in Catholicism. Thomists for instance would like to think that Thomas Aquinas has the final answer on everything, but the actual church tradition has not consecrated Thomism as orthodox Catholicism. So, you can be Scotist instead, which is very different. But I think there is a danger.  It’s the burden of history. It’s also the burden of institutional imperatives: trying to create a unity where none is actually organically present. Let’s not forget this: in the modern age, when does the real era of stark dogmatism and of the authoritarian structure of the church start to emerge? In the West it’s after the Reformationa and the Council of Trent. And it culminates in Vatican I, in which—because there’s not the same sort of organic life to the faith as in the past, both on the level of culture and on that of theology—suddenly the authority has to be affirmed as a kind of bureaucratic office. In this country a lot of Orthodoxy tries to do the same thing—so many people crying: “This is the absolute!” And part of that is the fragmentation of modernity. You don’t need authoritarian structures constantly promoting themselves and imposing themselves if faith is lived organically at every level of culture. It’s the challenge of modernity that turns the ancient churches into modern institutions, trying to fight for their supremacy and their power over the faith. And frankly they should be resisted. They shouldn’t be allowed to modernize themselves in that way. You know, the occasional French Revolution in the church is not a bad idea. The guillotine’s an instrument of grace.  (Of course, I’m not being literal.)

DB. But again…

DH. Is there a particular thing you want me to say?

DB. Do you see any problematics in Orthodox theology as such, not in a social trend.

DH. I don’t know what Orthodox theology as such would be. So it’s hard to say. I think that there are areas that weren’t explored as richly as they might have been in previous times. Again, to go back to the Russian religious philosophers engaging directly with German idealist thought and synthesizing – not synthesizing, but allowing themselves to be provoked by it—that has happened too rarely in Orthodox theology. We don’t need to get into the issue of Orthodoxy’s problematic relations with the nation state or, before that, with the empire. We know, I think, that theology becomes constrained also in institutions that are too closely united to the explicit interests of the state, because any theologian who seems to be creating division or doubt or innovation also becomes in a sense, sort of in a quiet way, seditious as well.

Do you mean: are there any broad general categories in Eastern thought that are problematic? I don’t know. Not in the way that, after Augustine, the understanding of grace… I am obviously not a spokesman for the majority tradition for one thing, explicitly, because I’m explicitly universalist, and in fact don’t regard that as an option among the others; I regard as the only one that allows Christianity to be a coherent vision of reality. So I firmly expect someone would’ve kicked me out, probably, if I were…  If I were a Catholic, there would be an authority with that power, but it wouldn’t use it. No one gets excommunicated anymore. The question is, who would do it in the Orthodox world, because it would have to be every bishop for himself. So I’m quite certain that there are bishops here who wouldn’t want their priests even to give me communion now. And again I don’t really care, you know. So obviously I am at odds with a large majority opinion of Orthodoxy already, one which almost does not have to go named. To the degree that all brands of Christianity—with for the longest time the notable exception of the East Syrian tradition—fell into an absolute conformity with the notion of—not of immediate judgement—but an ultimate judgment resulting in eternal torment for the derelict, then all Christian theology is to my mind not only false but evil. And in fact, if that is Christianity, I would rather see Christianity die out than see it promoted in these terms, because I believe that, if you want to go to the roots of the failure of Christendom to create the compassionately moral culture that a genuine Christian society would be, but also if you want to understand why Christianity alone of all great world religions consumed itself historically—why it created laicism, anti-Christian secularism, the modernity of Enlightenment specifically in terms of the rejection of faith—it’s because of two inherent tensions. One is between the Gospel and empire. It was never possible that the words of Christ, the teachings of Christ, and the reality of national and imperial power could actually be sustained together without subverting one another, and ultimately that contradiction was going to lead to the collapse of Christendom. But the other inherent contradiction is within Christian dogma itself, in which God is both the hero and the villain. Because no matter what we say about death, sin, the devil, if you take Christian doctrine in its narrow mainstream acceptation seriously, Christ came to save us from the wrath of an evil God, who allowed us to fall as a race into the bondage of sin and death, then chose to rescue only such as consciously could accept and be integrated into the Body, then he is the monster that the Son delivers us from. So explicitly I would say the problem with Eastern Orthodox theology is the same as the problem of all Christian theology: it is that it is in manifest contradiction when it reaches this point, and that in some crucial moment, some crucial unacknowledged and ignored moment in Christian thought, the devil and God the Father insensibly merged into one another.  Then we altered the names. So I can’t be more controversial than that, can I? I believe that 95 percent of Christianity is bad, historically speaking, doctrinally. Practically is a different thing. Understand the reason you can say these things: Do people believe what they believe, or do they believe what they do? Because you can tell me that the vast majority of Christians throughout history have believed in eternal hell and suffering, but they haven’t. They can’t. They may think they do but, first of all, for the best of them, the love and the charity they practice emanates from a God of love and charity, incapable of the evil they ascribe to him. But more than that: they would not be able coherently to do any of the things they are commanded to do, like, say love their neighbours as themselves. How do you love your neighbour as yourself if you believe this is your story?  Say you and I are old friends from childhood. I believe it’s possible that one of us will be damned forever and the other saved. And I believe that it’s possible that I am the latter: that I am the one who will be saved, and you’ll be damned. Now what that means is I have had to accept proleptically, no matter how old our friendship, no matter how deep the affection between us, that it is possible that you could enter into eternal torment and I into eternal bliss. And I would do it without regret, and this would not diminish me or abridge me as a spiritual being, but in fact I would be divinized in that experience. That means in my heart of hearts I’ve already consigned you to everlasting damnation if that’s the price of my felicity. So I can’t love you as myself. I can love you nearly as much as myself, but ultimately I have to love myself more, because that’s what the doctrine of hell ultimately is: every man for himself, every soul for itself. If hell is eternal, it’s the absolute antithesis of Christian charity. And so this contradiction, I believe, is not the contradiction between Christianity and Christendom, but a contradiction that’s fixed in the heart of the dogma. Not necessarily in practice, again. How Christians live and what they profess to believe, and even think they believe, are two different things, and I think ultimately irreconcilable. But it’s that very irreconcilability that precipitates the collapse of Christian culture. Christianity in that form could not continue to be a dominant cultural logic, because it hates itself, it subverts itself, it destroys itself. So yes, there are theological problems in the east as well.

I have a book coming out on nature and supernature which will be very irritating to Thomists

DB. If you converted from Anglicanism now, what would be a way?

DH. I’d be a Sikh. You see, you assume I’d go from one branch of Christianity to another…

DB. It does not matter…

DH. I think Sikhism would draw me more than any other creed. Remember, one of my fields is Asian languages, literatures, religions. I am deeply drawn to Indian, Chinese and Japanese thought. In fact, a lot of my Christian theology is heavily influenced by Indian metaphysics—which isn’t that different from Neo-Platonic metaphysics, so it’s not really that big a leap, but it does allow me to think in a slightly different intonation. I have a book coming out on nature and supernature which will be very irritating to Thomists – I mean, not to scholars of Thomas but those in the school called “Thomism” which was invented in the 16th century and briefly became dominant in Catholic thought. Well, not briefly—for some centuries. If I were no longer convinced that God was revealed in Christ in a way that I can coherently understand in terms of Christian dogma, I wouldn’t abandon Christ, but I would come to understand him within the context of a different, broader religious framework, probably Indian. People often use the word Hindu. There’s no such thing as Hinduism. I mean specifically certain schools of thought. And in devotional terms the thing that makes the strongest demand on me is Sikhism. But you’d have to study it to understand why, so just take my word for it. It’s worth understanding. It’s also good to understand it, because it helps overcome certain prejudices. Christians think they know what they are talking about when they talk about Indian faiths. Often they don’t.

DB. My personal questions. Do you believe in the border between the uncreated and created realities. As it is supposed in Abrahamic religious metaphysics.

DH. Oh, there is a border. What’s the nature of the border, though? There is a border between nature and supernature, nature and grace according to Western theology. What is the nature of that border? There’s obviously a difference: I’m not God.

DB. I mean that there are two kinds of realities. Divine uncreated reality and created one.

DH. Yeah, but again as soon as you pose the question that way, you then are going to have to ask for details. Because if we are in the classical Christian tradition on participated being, and we say that creation’s existence is contingent but also its essence, so as to receive both – it’s essence and its existence out of the plenitude of the being of God – it’s not the division between two different things, embraced in the larger category of being and existence; it’s the very fullness of being that God is that’s participated. Then you can genuinely start asking, if we have to use the traditional philosophical terms. Maybe these terms are inadequate to this to begin with. How do we distinguish between discrete substance and modality, and whether or not discrete created finite substances are modalities? The created and the uncreated both happen within God. And in me the created and the uncreated are also present in a different way. I was a translator along with a friend here of Catholic philosopher Erich  Przywara, Analogia Entis. It’s a very brilliant book in many ways; in fact, it’s a work of genius. And I don’t agree with everything regarding its perspective. But what he is saying there is—well, on the one hand, he’s posing the greatest possible distinction between God and creatures. God is infinite, transcendent, simple, actus purus – everything in the classical sense – there is no potential in him. Creatures are everything that is contingent, fleeting, complex, entirely dependent. He is using the classic, established Thomist formula that God’s essence and existence are identical, which I think has to be the case, whereas for us, we receive both. It’s not that we are essences to which existence is added, or existence which is reified as essence – we receive both, and exist in both in a kind of oscillating dynamic synthesis that can be expressed only in change. If that’s your scheme, you have posited simultaneously an ontological abyss in terms of properties, attributes, things you ascribe – and an absolute ontological intimacy, because everything we are comes directly from God. So yes, obviously I believe in the border, but I don’t believe it’s a fixed line in the way it is in modern Thomist thought, where nature and supernature are reified into distinct levels of reality, and nature can actually be complete in itself without a supernatural teleology. That was the school of Thomism that came into being in the 16th century and was dominant up until the time when the new golden age in Catholic thought—the rejection of that model by Henri de Lubac and everyone else, including Erich Przywara, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ratzinger.

In any of the classical metaphysical systems, though, who doesn’t believe in that? Certainly the Vedantic notion – I’ve heard people who have a very crude notion, say, of Advaita-Vedanta, who would say: “No, there there’s no distinction between the created and the uncreated”. Well, there most definitely is. The created is what arises from the power of making, maya, which is often mistranslated as “illusion,” as in some of Shankara’s thought, but really it just means the power – it’s the same Indo-European root as mageia, magic – it means the power of creation. And there is no claim – when Shankara talks about it, he will take Upanishadic verses like tat tvam asi, “thou art that”, or ayam ātmā brahma, “this atman is brahman”, and say it’s not speaking about the creature, the finite ego, the self, because that is not God. That’s no problem. That which is God—the inextinguishable spirit within, which is the atman, the sakshi, the witness—i’ like the breath of God in the book of Genesis. So the same distinction is there. There’s no metaphysical system that doesn’t acknowledge it – none that’s classically metaphysical. I don’t even know if there is really such a thing as a functioning pantheism that rejects it. Maybe Spinoza. But, even then, Spinoza has to make at least a formal ontological distinction between God as infinite substance complete in itself and the modal expressions of that substance in an infinite number, infinite variety, of finite expressions. So the border is always there. But do you end up like Karl Barth, where you’re emphasizing… or like the Palamites, to be honest…sometimes they so emphasize the transcendence of the Divine ousia, that it almost make it sound like there’s a real distinction between creation and God, so that God and creation are like two incomparable objects set over against one another in antithesis, under the canopy of what would have to be a univocal category of existence. That’s an  absurd picture of things. So yes, there’s the border between the created and the uncreated. Having said that, the book that’s coming out from Notre-Dame has the title “You are gods” – that’s from the Gospel of John obviously, quoting, when Jesus says: “You have read it: You are gods. If of those to whom the Logos of God came he called gods, how is that that you say that I blaspheme in saying I am the Son of God?”

DB. Is it your translation of the Gospel?

DH. Yes. It’s the only translation I trust. All the others I think… In fact, I am doing a second edition of it.

“Weak theology”? It doesn’t interest me.

DB. What do you think about “weak theology” which is developed by Caputo?

DH. John Caputo? It doesn’t interest me. This was in the 90-ies. You have to place yourself in the context of American culture. In this country, poststructuralism, postmodernism, for some reason – because our philosophy faculties are dominated by Anglo-American analytic philosophers who don’t pay any attention to continental philosophy – figures like Derrida, but also Foucault, Deleuze, Nancy have very little influence. Instead they entered literature departments, which is unfortunate because most literary scholars didn’t understand what they were reading, and it just became something formulaic – and religious studies departments, which is where you usually go now to study classical metaphysics. When I was at Virginia, I taught phenomenology for a while. In the philosophy department, they literally had no one who could teach Husserl, Jean Francois Courtine, and so forth.  They just don’t pay attention to it. And in that climate John Caputo was trying to craft a theology that he thought would be free – of course, this is the rhetoric – from the “violence of metaphysics”. The assumption is that all metaphysics is a kind of imperialist discourse. I think that’s nonsensical. I think you should not use the word violence unless you’re talking about violence. You cheapen the word, when you use it to mean…well, “Here’s how I think.” Especially since he’s talking about classical metaphysical schemes that are based on generosity – the notion that God is the bonum diffusivum sui that’s pouring out the bounty of its being.  This is not a violent picture, it’s just a particular picture. But it’s not hard to see, if you’re like him – you’re a liberal-minded Catholic who is aware of the tragic history of Christianity, seeing the gospel commission as – just like the Catholic integralists believe – a warrant for establishing an empire. And, in the Americas here, remember, how many died or were enslaved of the native people, the indigenous peoples, in large part in the name of evangelization or of spreading the gospel or of freeing them from their heathen ways. That said, I don’t think it’s an intellectually very exciting thing. I do see some virtue though in the way it intersects with Vattimo on “pensiero debole”. There is a certain trajectory in Christian thought towards the dissolution of its own imperial claims. And I think a part of it is – as I said – this kind of corrosive presence of Christianity within Christendom, in which contradiction or hypocrisy struggles against itself. And that part of the story of secularization could be told in a benign way, as an episode within the weakening of human structures of violence under the pressure of the kenosis of God in Christ. So I am not contemptuous of the moral impulse or historical story there. I just think that, with Caputo, there is a kind of lack of coherence – maybe that’s willful – and he’s much too quick to pass judgement on anything metaphysical as violence, because remember – this might be the last point I make before I have to go, but I’ll try to make it: What’s really imperious?  I had this conversation a few years ago in the Institute for Advanced Study here, with a lecturer who was very much a postmodernist Christian and who was talking about the violence of metaphysics and saying he wanted to enter into dialogue with other religions. And he thought the best way to do this was of course to cancel our metaphysics and talk about practice. I had to point out to him: all you’re doing then is taking the late Western model of the exhaustion of metaphysics – our story, our post-Hegelian, post-Heideggerian project – and imposing it yet again on these other faiths. Because, if you think that you can have a fruitful conversation with Hinduism—say, Vedanta, or any school of Bhaktic Vedanta—by cancelling out metaphysics, that’s the most imperialist gesture of all. There is no such thing as Indian religion without metaphysics. It’s unthinkable. The very idea is of the enlightenment of the soul. Ask any pious bhaktin or vedantin every

morning who prays the Gayathri mantra:

oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ
tat savitur vareṇ(i)yaṃ
bhargo devasya dhīmahi
dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt

It’s just a prayer for Divine enlightenment, understood as the highest good. And the religious life—it’s good to get the right metaphysical system, which leads ultimately to a spiritual union with God, turiya. But the notion that you’re being peaceful in demanding that Hindu thinkers put metaphysics aside and meet you on your terms, your late Western post-metaphysical terms – it’s just the same imperial gesture over again. So the violence of no metaphysics is just as bad as the supposed violence of metaphysics. The trick is to stop using your presuppositions as the groundwork for the discussions that you are wanting to have

          How many more questions do you think you’ve got? Anything really burning?

DB. My friend I asking could you offer any ambitious projects for their aesthetic foundation? Maybe there is some not so well-known but great specialist in theoaesthetics in USA?

DH. That I’d have to think about. Let’s see. I am a little bit out of touch. You remember, I just told you I’d been living in the woods till recently. I’m writing more fiction than theology these days. It has to be some theoaesthetic project…well… You are going to see once again my fascination with Asian things here. We tend to work within a certain paradigm, the Platonic paradigm. The beauty of God draws us through the beauty of sensible things – “The Symposium”. Which is good and healthy. And I think it’s been well understood also how Christian aesthetics alters this by teaching us to see also a different kind of beauty in the Cross and self-abnegation, and to find the beauty isn’t merely something exalted, but is sort of like a hidden light in those who suffer, and part of spiritual life is becoming able to see that beauty spontaneously, the via ascetica. I think that there is an important theological project then for the reclaiming of aesthetic decadence. Say, a Christian Baudelaire—who was in fact a Christian. A Christian who wrote sub contrario, even praising satan in some pieces in the voice of the author of  ‘Les Fleurs du mal’. But I also think that it could be worthwhile trying to approach, again, an aesthetics of creation as participating in this beauty that does not presume necessarily our models of the beautiful and sublime. And Japanese aesthetics is an incredibly rich field. There is no richer tradition of thought about beauty, but also about the proportions between nature and artifice, between making and being receptive. In Japanese aesthetics there ae 40 different terms that mean different qualities of aesthetic apprehension in painting, poetry… I would seriously like to see a Christian theological engagement with wabi-sabi and other aspects of Japanese thought. Because I think there is very healthy contemplative theology that you find seeds of at certain moments of Christian thought. Like Angelus Silesius—you know:

Die Rose ist ohne warum

Sie blühet weil sie blühet

The rose is without why

It blooms because it blooms

But for the most part we haven’t paid enough attention to it. Oh, you can find Thomas Traherne in English Christian literature, the 17th century poet and writer, one of the greatest masters of the English language – till I was born. But even then, his greatest work “The Centuries” does become a fairly traditional Christian Platonic metaphysics in the end. So yeah, I would like to see that. I would like also to see a theopolitical aesthetics. I mean, actually the love of beauty does unite all people—I mean, it really does. It is the transcendental longing that, even for all those who may have very different moral codes, expresses itself again and again with this extraordinary grace. There’s rich work to be done there, in which Christian theologians step outside the context of their traditional Platonic – which is just fine – and late Christian post-Platonic tradition, and start again from a completely different way of perceiving reality and aesthetic categories. A lot of it is grounded in traditions of Buddhism, or in Chinese Taoism rather than real Madhyamika or Yogachara Buddhism. But also they have a certain grounding in Shinto. The religious context is different. But the primordial apprehensions, the experience of beauty or dryness, proportion or disproportion, the natural and the artificial, are real phenomenological dimensions of aesthetic experience that theologians should be able to address.

DB. If you have a couple of minutes, maybe the last question of my friends. They are asking about theodicy.

DH. In 2 minutes? What are they asking?

DB. They say they want to translate “The Doors of the Sea” and in this context discover your theodicy intuitions.

DH. I mean, obviously, if anyone is familiar with that very short book, the point is that it is against theodicy, in the sense of trying to rationalize Christian thought, and that Providence should be understood simply as the gracious working together to bring all things … all that works together in all things… Trying to remember, actually, how I thought that’d be translated best—it cooperates in all things for those who love God?

Well, the point I’d make is that, to my mind, what I was arguing against at the time were Christians who were coming out and trying to explain the good of a tsunami killing hundreds of thousands of people, and non-Christians in this country and in Britain publishing attacks on all faiths on the grounds that they were of the opinion that Christians thought that everything was for the best. The only point I would make about that book is that it’s actually a protest against theodicy as generally understood, and its claim is that Christianity is an anti-theodicy. I think we have to recover the correct insights—not the belief systems, not the mythology, but the insights—of what we call gnosticism that are actually in accord with New Testament. Because quite often in rejecting the so-called gnostic picture of reality we also reject things that Paul and the Gospel of John and the other authors of the New Testament believed as well: that what this world really is lies in the power of the evil one, that there’s a god of this age, the prince or archon of this world. And it’s amazing the degree to which especially Western theology, but all Christian theology at times, seems to forget that there is a provisional dualism there that can’t be squared with the impulse to theodicy. You have to look towards the ultimate eschatological horizon not to square accounts, not to legitimate evil, but in terms of its defeat. Which – last point I’ll make of all – naturally, necessarily, inevitably requires the universalism. I didn’t want to say it, but I am going to. But I just think it’s obvious. I will have to go because I have family to pick up. Thank you so much.


Interview by Dmitry Biryukov

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