Surveying the Ruins of "First Things"
I have always wondered why Dr. Hart’s positions attract such a fierce criticism from fellow Christians considering that he is, without a shred of doubt, “God-intoxicated” (to borrow Edward Feser’s characterization, which he genuinely meant as a compliment), has vanquished (with his formidable intellect, erudition and writing talents) countless enemies of Christianity, and (as a staunch universalist) believes in the most optimistic apocalyptic horizon. So, what’s not to like?
Surely, some of them disagree with him on purely intellectual grounds, while others are deeply offended by his (sometimes brutal) critiques on the theistic or metaphysic schools (to which they have sworn allegiance) or, in some rare cases, on their mental faculties or education. However, I suspect that most of the attacks (at least those from true believers) come out of fear of divine retribution (which might be exacted on them if they show him even a modicum of tolerance). In that sense, they remind me so much of Job’s friends. And I suspect this because I can recognize that same fear in my own heart. Some of the beliefs Dr. Hart professes (no matter how close to the patristic tradition or how metaphysically sound they are) are simply too frightening to recognize and adopt for Christians taught a much more frightening concept of God. But I really, really hope that his (and Origen’s, Gregory’s and Maximus’s, etc.) theology is the right one, because it is the only one that interprets the Gospel as good news for all of humanity. I can also confidently say that his vision of God is the one that resonates best with my own conscience (which, I would like to believe, is not just a result of operation of cultural forces, but a divine spark). And, lastly, I know that if God were somehow susceptible to flattery, He would find Dr. Hart’s opinion of Him much more complimentary that the one shared by DBH’s critics.
David, I applaud you for being one of the rather few living people to make Christianity palatable, in an age where it has become all too eklig. Modern American Christianity of all persuasions, largely has started (and that is putting it generously) to smell bad. I, personally, found Tradition and Apocalypse compelling, especially as someone who is tired of the narratives of hyper-modernism on one side, and dead as a door nail tradition on the other. Tradition either is a living, organic, thing or it is dead. A tradition that only relies on centuries old texts is ossified and encrusted to the point of no return. Despite the downcast parts of some of your book, I found it strangely hopeful. Keep writing, and keep fighting the good fight.
Now as for First Things (and others like them), I think of the following lines from Blake: "The vision of Christ that thou dost see / Is my vision's greatest enemy." And perhaps you will find this lovely mantra from D. H. Lawrence appropriate to your feelings about First Things: "Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the sniveling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England [America] today. They've got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery its a marvel they can breed. They can nothing but frog-spawn — the gibberers! God, how I hate them! God curse them, funkers. God blast them, wish-wash. Exterminate them, slime. I could curse for hours and hours — God help me."
I am among those who only read FT for your articles. As a former (born and raised) Mormon with a doctorate in philosophy and religious thought from Claremont Graduate University, I am in a minority of fellow grad students who didn't retain their original faith or become conventional atheists, and I largely credit your writings and some treasured theological writers I return to from that time as almost the only things that have kept me connected to theology and in that sense to an understanding of God more rational, expansive, and non-provincial than that of my former tradition. Hailing from a framework for God-talk that was thoroughly "radical" or "heretical" (depending on the blasphemic cudgel you happen to prefer), I have no problem with so-called "heterodox" or "radical" theologies, and I have often, from an extremely outsider position, bemusedly and with no small amount of fascination observed the self-appointed warriors of orthodoxy raving like lunatics about your writings, which to me are nearly alone in re-conceiving and re-presenting the Christian tradition in much the same ways that Nicene and other ancient thinkers sought to preserve their history, i.e., in ways that caused that tradition to actually live in and be relevant to the present (including in ways that go well beyond theology proper), instead of being encased behind museum glass that becomes more and more obscure with the passing years.
I've noticed that people tend to read more agreement with their own views into your works than actually exists, which probably explains why they're so quick to find you on the road out of orthodoxy every time a new book comes out. I'm reminded of your exchange with Peter Leithart, who seemed to assume that you interpreted Scripture by the same rules that he (as a conservative Presbyterian) did. A narrow orthodoxy produces narrow minds (or is it the other way round?) that can't recognize Christianity except in their own image.
That said, I also can't help but wonder if First Thing's editorial staff has become emotionally invested in the "Decline and Fall of David Bentley Hart" narrative they've been pushing for the last few years. I'm sure it makes scintillating reading for a certain kind of Protestant or Catholic fundamentalist.
I read McDermitt's article before reading your response. He represents a type of thinker who abhors ambiguity, is threatened by it, and therefore cannot embrace it. However, I believe that it is within the ambiguity of things that one finds what is not so ambiguous. Good response to the article.
Ah, First Things. Where Jesus came to stamp out the gays, where the principal threat to Christendom is "trans ideology," where heaven is the set of The Young Pope.
FIRST THINGS is "gettin' dramatic an'
Doin' the Vatican Rag." - Tom Lehrer
As well as the Fundamentalist Rag. What a rag indeed. I have never heard of McDermott before, and that was quite a mercy, I must say. Now I have heard of him, but cannot tell whether he is a liar who simply had not bothered to read the book, or if he is a functional illiterate. I lean to the latter. But I have to believe that the Rag's editors knew his "review" was full of fertilizer, and were willing to publish it anyway. They must really resent your mentor Roland, and to a lesser extent (but fervent nonetheless) you, for the same reason that FOX "News" probably resents Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith.
For what it's worth, McDermott's review is what made me buy the book--if it inspires such vitriol in First Things...!
I got a subscription to First Things in order to read your articles. I did not renew it after you left. Since then I have become so disgusted with the political bent of the American Church that I stopped attending mass. There were quite a few Trump supporters in my congregation but I never heard anything political from them until the Orange Antichrist was elected. It’s depressing…
First of all, I absolutely loved Tradition and Apocalypse. Whenever rad trads attack me by asking how on earth I can call myself "Roman Catholic," I think about certain lines from your book, about how tradition only exists as "sustained apocalypse, a moment of pure awakening preserved as at once an ever dissolving recollection and an ever renewed surprise."
Second, why do people always insult Rod McKuen? I mean, your analogy there is fair, because of the word "magisterial," but he was much more of a towering American cultural figure than McClymond could ever be.
Third, (this is only very tangientially related, ok, maybe not related at all) have you heard of a scholar named Elizabeth Schrader? I was getting ready for my Mary Magdalene homily and came across her work about all the redation criticism in John 11, and apparently at this point many scholars think Martha should just be taken out of that story. Pleae let me know if you have come across this (her first article is here https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/harvard-theological-review/article/abs/was-martha-of-bethany-added-to-the-fourth-gospel-in-the-second-century/6CBD2C9576A583DD02987FE836C427B7
And yet somehow the clowns over at the Contra Gentiles YouTube channel have managed to give an even more hopelessly confused review of Tradition and Apocalypse, to which they devoted an episode. Seemingly they asked you to be on the show, David? I can’t imagine how they thought that would go. I hope you manage to have a good laugh about the whole thing, whereas I could only manage to be physically upset by their ravings.
Perhaps you're just too smart for McDermott and his ilk, if they continuously misconstrue your theology to be on par with someone like John Shelby Spong. (Which I'am sure you don't)
Reading Tradition & Apocalypse brings back happy memories of sitting in the doctoral seminars as an MDiv student at HDS in the 80s.
I remember Amos Niven Wilder saying with a puckish smile, “My teachers said to stay away from eschatological & apocalyptic studies. It would be career suicide!” He was in his 90s and had an amazing mind.
And, of Wilfred Cantwell Smith talking about Islams and Chistianities.
And, your build on those discussions moves my thoughts forward.
Thanks for writing this!
silence is contempt
I just came across my box of old copies of First Things. It made me nostalgic and bitter at once.