A Change of Hart?

‘Roland in Moonlight’ and ‘Kenogaia (A Gnostic Tale)’
David Bentley Hart (Dimitry Biryukov)

What, exactly, is David Bentley Hart’s deal? One asks the question in awe. How does he produce so many books—as of this writing, eighteen of them, spanning theology, cultural criticism, and fiction, not counting his translation of the New Testament, his co-translation with John R. Betz of Erich Przywara’s Analogia Entis, his uncollected articles (there must still be a few) and his Substack posts? When did he have time to learn so many languages, that he can refer familiarly to the literatures of Europe, China, Japan, India, and the Americas, and to fine details of theological controversy in several faiths? Where does he find a moment to floss, to do housework, to keep up with his beloved Baltimore Orioles? 

But the question What is David Bentley Hart’s deal? might be asked less admiringly. Must he bluster so? In his nonfiction writing, is he, perhaps, sometimes just a little hasty in his generalizations, a bit lavish with his use of the “No serious scholar of X would ever think of denying Y” formula? Would it kill him, when he makes wildly controversial claims—as in That All Shall Be Saved, his 2019 universalist polemic—to throw in just a few more citations, for the sake of those heavy-footed readers who want to double-check? Personally, I would like as many walls of citations standing between us and hell as possible.

He has always been at least as concerned with the re-enchantment of the world, by any spiritual means necessary, as with Christian theology itself.

More fundamentally, some longtime readers of Hart wonder what he is driving at. As recently as the mid-2000s, he could—with his strictures on liberalism, his anger at the emptiness of modernity’s worship of choice, his First Things column—look like another bowtied Christian cultural conservative, albeit an unusually interesting one. Gradually his disagreements with Calvinism and “manualist” Thomism grew more strident. In The Beauty of the Infinite (2003), his first book, he respectfully critiques them; in The Doors of the Sea (2005) he politely rejects them; these days he mostly insults them. In The Experience of God (2014) he wrote about his admiration for Vedanta in particular, which he now says he prefers to several popular strains of Western Christianity. For many of us, there are varieties of Christianity that we would sooner lose our faith than adopt—the Christ of the Westboro Baptist Church, e.g., is so corrupted that one is nearer to God almost anywhere else—but people rarely put the point as straightforwardly as Hart does, and in a way that suggests a personal and possibly shifting ranking of religions. Then he placed those universalist cards on the table. His translation of the New Testament highlighted the discordances between its various writers and the alienness of its conceptual background—perhaps accurately, for all I know, but most people are surprised if you tell them that Paul’s great theological concern is not justification but thwarting evil angels. He revealed his socialism, perhaps more offensive to many American Christians than even his universalism. More recently he has suggested that we have all been a little peremptory in our rejection of Gnosticism. Tradition and Apocalypse, published earlier this year, insists that there is no single “deposit” of tradition that Christians should strive to recover; we are faithful to something far beyond us, not behind us. This must be true, to a point. A survey of Hart’s trajectory suggests that he, at least, is not trying to restore some once-and-for-all spiritual inheritance. 

It’s possible to measure that trajectory by comparing two statements about the possibilities of Christian renewal. Near the conclusion of Atheist Delusions (2010), he lamented the end of the “Christian revolution” in world history:

I am apprehensive, I confess, regarding a certain reactive, even counter-revolutionary, movement in late modern thinking, back toward the severer spiritual economies of pagan society and away from the high (and admittedly “unrealistic”) personalism or humanism with which the ancient Christian revolution colored—though did not succeed in wholly forming—our cultural conscience.… It seems to me quite reasonable to imagine that, increasingly, the religion of the God-man, who summons human beings to become created gods through charity, will be replaced once again by the more ancient religion of the man-god, who wrests his divinity from the intractable material of his humanity, and solely through the exertions of his will.

The picture here is of a perhaps permanently stalled Christianization of the world, turned back by the Promethean arrogance of modernity. More recently, in reaction to “integralist” efforts to restart that Christianization through brutal exertions of the will, he writes:

[T]o my mind a truly Christian society would be one whose skyline would be crowded not only with churches, but with synagogues, temples, mosques, viharas, torii, gudwaras, and so on. (Something of the sort worked well enough in the empire of Graeco-Roman late antiquity or the empire of Kublai Khan.) Curiously enough, it seems to me that such a society would much more naturally incubate a renewal of Christian faith than would the coercive confessional state of the Integralists; indeed, the latter could have only the contrary result. There will never, for instance, be a revival in Europe on any appreciable scale of a Christianity with impermeable boundaries; but there might be a revival of the faith in a form better able to stand amid the religions of the world without terror or hostility, and better able freely to draw upon them to understand its own depths and range.

In statements like these, some readers see a shift from the idea of Christianity as a unique divine invasion of history to just one more religion among others. I don’t think this is quite Hart’s view. “We have to draw some kind of working distinction between the perpetually valid symbol and the historically novel event,” he remarks late in Roland in Moonlight (2021). I would take it that Christ’s incarnation is that “historically novel event” that anchors the symbols in something besides the imagination. 

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In response to outcries from former fans, Hart insists that he is a basically consistent writer who has merely shifted his emphasis on certain points. At first I thought that this was another one of his provocations. Reading his nonfiction alongside his fiction—which includes The Devil and Pierre Gernet: Stories (2012), The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla (2019), and the two books considered here, Roland in Moonlight and Kenogaia (both 2021)—has made it clear to me that he wasn’t kidding. Hart has always oscillated between writing about Christianity from inside and writing about it from outside, as it were. (As far back as 2005, a character asks a Hart stand-in, “Do you really believe anything, other than that God is a very appealing idea, and that you’d like to live forever in some shady deer park above the clouds?”) He has always shown affinity for Gnosticism: his moving 2009 story “A Voice from the Emerald World” was written in part to show his students the explanatory power of the Gnostic cosmos. (It even anticipates his reading of the Garden of Eden story as one in which an insecure God tries to stifle the growth of his creatures.) He has always been at least as concerned with the re-enchantment of the world, by any spiritual means necessary, as with Christian theology itself. 

 

In one way, at least, he is the least American of writers, in that adjectives and adverbs do not give him that twinge of guilt that so many of us have picked up from Hemingway and Twain, the suspicion that we are using them to distract the reader from our failure to describe some particular action or detail—some verb or noun—precisely enough.

Of his longer fictions, Roland in Moonlight is the strangest, and the most accomplished. It builds off a series of columns Hart began to write during the middle of the previous decade, in which he has a long series of conversations—about cognition, about the Beatles, about the ontological primacy of spirit—with his dog, Roland. “Novel” is not really the right word for the book. Although it loosely follows some storylines—Roland’s discovery of texts by Hart’s pagan uncle Aloysius; Hart’s struggle with near-fatal illness; the gradual revelation that all human evolution has been guided by dogs—its main interest is in the development of ideas and characters through talk. It becomes an extended argument against philosophical materialism, prosecuted, successfully, by Roland, who must often pause to explain his more startling apothegms to his slower-witted companion. Near the end, Roland enjoins Hart to continue to “believe all of it,” and Hart agrees that he cannot “relinquish any dimension of anything that I find appealing or admirable” from all the world’s religions.

Kenogaia (A Gnostic Tale) retells the story of the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl. I found it entertaining and clever in many places, and illuminating in the way that it fits so many of Hart’s spiritual and intellectual concerns into a single framework. A young boy, Michael, living on a world called Kenogaia, is entrusted by his father with a secret: there is a new object in the sky, headed to earth. (This, according to the theopolitics of Kenogaia, is impossible, and, worse, illegal.) Not long after this, his father is arrested by a pack of lycanthropic civil servants. With his friend Laura, Michael must find the extraterrestrial vessel when it lands—for it carries Oriens, the prince of the universe, who has come to this rather mechanical world to overturn it. To do so, Oriens must, with Michael and Laura’s help, find his sister, who has been kidnapped by a demiurgic sorcerer and forced to dream Kenogaia into existence. The religious system of Kenogaia resembles those varieties of orthodox Christianity that Hart rejects. For example, people are kept in line by the threat of an eternal hell. Departing from the spiritual elitism of some Gnostic writers, Hart makes it clear that none of his characters are “merely” physical: everyone we have met throughout the novel, it turns out, is a spark of the divine, including several distinctly dislikable characters. Reading the book gives one a powerful sense of how “gnosticism” and “love of this world and its creatures” hang together for Hart. 

Will these books interest readers who aren’t otherwise concerned with Hart’s worldview? Roland in Moonlight is too strange, entertains too many important questions, and is written with too palpable a love for Hart’s family and his dog not to command the attention of philosophically inclined readers. Some readers will dislike the book’s whimsicality and excesses, but Roland’s digressions on the mind-cosmos relationship make these a small price to pay. There is craft, even genius, in the pacing of the early chapters, the way Hart leads the reader, by hints and coincidences, into a world where fairies exist and dogs talk. The opening chapters of Kenogaia, too, are pleasantly haunted, in the manner of children’s fantasy from the sixties and seventies, when authors were less afraid of giving children nightmares. 

It isn’t only Hart’s view of the world that has been consistent. It’s also his style. Clause follows clause like the folds in a voluminous garment, every noun set off by beguiling and unusual modifiers (plus some of his old favorites, like “beguiling”). In one way, at least, he is the least American of writers, in that adjectives and adverbs do not give him that twinge of guilt that so many of us have picked up from Hemingway and Twain, the suspicion that we are using them to distract the reader from our failure to describe some particular action or detail—some verb or noun—precisely enough. Even here, Hart’s style is consistent with his theology. Being is expressed as fully in its train of effects, its little ripples and frills, the words that rise to consciousness long after it passes by us, as anywhere else. There is no Realer Real hiding in bare nouns and verbs behind the scrim of our perceptions and feelings. This is, if I’ve understood it correctly, one of several arguments he makes in The Beauty of the Infinite. So the writer may as well use whatever comes to hand. And ornateness is just Hart’s mode, anyway; one might as well fault Kraftwerk for using computers. 

Both books—indeed all of Hart’s fictions—are overlong. Even in “The Devil and Pierre Gernet,” the most perfectly shaped of his stories, the ending arrives only after one has grown restive and fidgety. Like the devil in that story, Hart can’t stop talking. In Kenogaia, as in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, the diffuseness of the ending, driven perhaps by the need to balance out all of the author’s allegorical accounts, robs it of much of its emotional impact. Roland in Moonlight depends less on dramatic structure, but I still could have used about a hundred fewer pages of it. 

Ornateness is just Hart’s mode, anyway; one might as well fault Kraftwerk for using computers.

Whatever Hart’s limitations—they are huge, as one would expect; when a giant stumbles he makes a mess—he is brilliant, and frequently lovable, and on a couple of occasions personally helpful to me. (The Beauty of the Infinite helped bring me out of a mild depression.) What does one say about an oeuvre marked by genius, charity, the love of Christ, and also in places by wooly-mindedness, spite, ego, acedia? The reviewer despairs. Luckily, I had Hart’s example to follow. Of my two cats, Jack keeps up with Hart fitfully. (My other cat, Lila, prefers physics.) In between jumps, Jack told me the following: “First book’s great. [Pounce] He’s stopped making distinctions. [Pounce] Says Ja but never nein. [Pounce] To believe all of it is to believe none of it.” Jack is a Barthian universalist in whom the iconoclasm of the first Calvinists nevertheless runs strong—after expressing these opinions, he leapt to the downstairs windowsill and, before I could stop him, knocked my mother-in-law’s Virgin Mary statue off the windowsill again. (She keeps having to glue Our Lady back together.) Jack’s problems are the opposite of Hart’s; he knows his niche too well. 

I wanted to discuss the matter with Harry, our bulldog. But Harry, unlike Roland, is both beneath and above language: too stupid to recognize words, too wise to bother with them. He charges at everybody as though that person were an old friend brought back from the dead. Such concepts as “memory” and “object permanence” he shows as the corrupting fictions they are: they prevent us from rightly celebrating the miracle of any person’s mere presence. He has every reason to sympathize with Gnosticism, since his labored breathing and malingering digestive system very literally represent the handiwork of a malign demigod—the upper-class English dog-breeder, who in his arrogance and folly has saddled Harry with these very problems as the conditions of his existence. Yet even Harry’s excessive and grotesque embodiment seems the gift of a good God. Harry had no opinions about Hart’s books, but the desperate, even anguished goodwill that is permanently fixed on his face—the kind of goodwill that would make a perfect person die for an imperfect one—had an eloquence of its own. It suggests that nothing is truer than the historical moment when that death actually occurred, and that if other things are true it’s because that moment is. And that, however much Hart’s belief (like anyone’s) may fluctuate, Christ still rushes at him with the same canine enthusiasm. But I saw all this a little more clearly in Harry because I had read so much of Roland—and of Hart.

Roland in Moonlight
David Bentley Hart
Angelico Press
$24.95 | 386 pp.

Kenogaia
(A Gnostic Tale)

David Bentley Hart
Angelico Press
$22.95 | 434 pp.

Published in the October 2022 issue: 

Phil Christman is a lecturer at the University of Michigan and the author of Midwest Futures.

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