Book Review: “Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest”
If you are the sort of person likely to pick up Theological Territories, you are probably also the sort of person who already has a fairly settled opinion—whether positive or negative—about its author. (I count myself in the former camp.) Unlike last year’s controversial That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, this time around Hart isn’t writing for general audiences: Theological Territories is, for the most part, a collection of addresses and essays delivered at academic institutions or published in various venues. Some of these—like his extended engagement with Daniel Dennett’s flawed philosophy of mind, first published in The New Atlantis, or his duel with Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette over capital punishment, which appeared initially in Commonweal—will be familiar to longtime Hart readers. Others, such as a particularly compelling meditation on the nature of classical tragedy, are new.
Unsurprisingly, Hart is at his very best when he’s delving deep into theological metaphysics, a subject that dominates the first third of the volume. Among other topics, the essays discuss Jean-Luc Marion’s theology of the gift, the foibles of postmodern theology, and the relationship between creatio ex nihilo and the problem of evil. This last is especially interesting because of the light it sheds on Hart’s theological project as a whole—in particular, the profoundly unnecessary character of evil, a crucial feature of Hart’s “theodicy” (such as it is).
On Hart’s paradigm, the cosmos was created good, intended to be in harmony with God, and yet humans and angels alike somehow strayed from that destiny, lapsing into error (and for Hart, of course, any redemption worth the name must involve the completion of that primordial destiny via a universal reconciliation of all things to God, a reconciliation accomplished by Christ’s destruction of rival powers both earthly and demonic). Regardless of whether one shares Hart’s far-reaching universalism (and I don’t), the new book does put paid to some of the less charitable readings of That All Shall Be Saved, many of which framed Hart’s argument as a “Rob Bell-style” diminution of the distinctiveness of Christianity. It’s clear from Theological Territories that Hart’s thinking is not just theocentric, but profoundly Christocentric—and this is a real triumph. (I have to admit, I’d really like to read a systematic theology penned by Hart.)
That being said, Hart still spends lots of time bashing Protestant traditions of which he sometimes appears to have a fairly limited knowledge. It’s not clear he’s ever heard of Amyraldism (four-point Calvinism), for instance—and given the depth of charity that Hart extends to the Vedantic and Bhaktic traditions of Hinduism, one might expect a more nuanced reading of Reformed thought than what we see here. But, alas, the same pugnacity on display in That All Shall Be Saved rears its head again.
And for the first time in my years of reading Hart’s work, I found myself thinking it was too much. I love dense academic theology, and I don’t know that I’d adopt Gerhard Forde’s axiom that “theology is for proclamation”—that is, strictly intended for preaching in the life of the church—but it seems to me there has to be some allowance given for unrefined metaphysical formulations in the ordinary devotional piety of Christians without doctoral degrees. Again and again, Hart frames his opponents as morally misguided, and certain metaphysical and moral conclusions as blindingly obvious—but to the vast majority of Christians past and present, these issues have not exactly been so clear. (Were all the Christians of yesteryear as metaphysically rigorous as Maximus the Confessor or Gregory of Nyssa? Surely not.) And so any attempt at grasping what Hart’s vision of theology might look like, as instantiated in the context of real-world Christian communities, feels perpetually out of reach.
So be it, though. If you found That All Shall Be Saved rhetorically off-putting or theologically intolerable, Theological Territories probably won’t change your mind about Hart’s corpus. But at the very least, it represents a substantial deepening of some of that book’s most startling arguments, and more clearly positions Hart within the broad stream of the Nicene Christian tradition. And for those readers whose literary and artistic tastes tend toward the eclectic, there’s a ton of content to enjoy here (if you ever wanted to hear about the theological significance of obscure British painter David Jones, Hart’s your man). I tend to think a fair number of Conciliar Post readers fall in that category.