The Hidden and the Manifest
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The Hidden and the Manifest

Essays in Theology and Metaphysics

David Bentley Hart

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eBook - ePub

The Hidden and the Manifest

Essays in Theology and Metaphysics

David Bentley Hart

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About This Book

Rowan Williams says that David Bentley Hart "can always be relied on to offer a perspective on the Christian faith that is both profound and unexpected." The Hidden and the Manifest, a new collection of this brilliant scholar's work, contains twenty essays by Hart on theology and metaphysics. Spanning Hart's career both topically and over time, these essays cover such subjects as the Orthodox understanding of Eucharistic sacrifice; the metaphysics of Paradise Lost; Christianity, modernity, and freedom; death, final judgment, and the meaning of life; and many more.

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Publisher
Eerdmans
Year
2017
ISBN
9781467446969
ONE
The Offering of Names
Metaphysics, Nihilism, and Analogy
orn
[A]s the cause of all and transcendent of all, God is truly without name, and yet he bears the names of all the things that are. Truly he reigns over all things, and all things revolve around him who is their cause, their source, and their final end. He is all in all.
—Dionysius the Areopagite
How is Logos the fateful . . . which sends each thing into its own? The gathering laying-out assembles all destining in itself, by bringing beings to us and letting them lie before us, keeping each being, whether absent or present, in its place and on its way, and by its assembling it secures all things in the all.
—Martin Heidegger
I. Attributes and Names
I want, in what follows,1 to ruminate on the principal issue Janet Soskice raises in her essay:2 that is, her elegant distinction between the theological enunciation of the “divine names” and the philosophical enumeration of the “attributes of deity.” The difference between the two practices, it seems clear, is nothing less than the difference between two ontologies: between a metaphysics of participation, according to which all things are embraced in being as in the supereminent source of all their transcendental perfections, and a “univocal” ontology, which understands being as nothing but the bare category of existence, under which all substances (God no less than creatures) are severally placed. The former permits practices of theological nomination—in liturgy, metaphor, metaphysics, and so on—because, even in asserting that there is an infinite qualitative difference between the coincidence in God’s simplicity and plenitude of all the transcendental moments that compose the creature (goodness, truth, beauty, unity, etc.) and the finite, multiplicit “prismation” of being’s light in the creature, it allows for a continuity of eminence between those moments and the transcendent wellspring from which they flow; thus one may in some sense name God from creatures, even though the infinite disproportion between divine being and finite beings places the truth of those names infinitely beyond the capacity of finite reason properly to grasp. Naming God, then, always has the form of analogy, an irresoluble tension between the cataphatic and apophatic, a language of likeness chastened by the pious acknowledgment of an ever greater unlikeness. The problem this would seem to raise, though, is that of the immense epistemological caesura that one must of necessity tolerate between the attributive use of a word “here below” and its properly nominative use in regard to God—for how much is really said (or known) when one speaks “names” whose “truthfulness” is certified precisely by their transcendence of finite comprehension? The latter ontology, it would then certainly seem, offers thought a more obvious and substantial form of “analogy”: a direct proportionate similitude between attributes inhering in discrete beings (albeit between finite and infinite instances); thus to say “God is good” is to say much the same thing as “Henry is good,” but with far greater certainty, and with no ambiguity. The metaphysics of participation, one could argue, precisely insofar as it regards God not as a being but as the source and ultimate truth of all beings, places an abyss between God and creatures that neither thought nor language can traverse without losing its moorings in human understanding; but a univocal ontology allows the essences of our attributions to remain intact, even when they are modified by the addition of the further attribute “infinite.”
The problem, though, with identifying the divine attributes univocally, as features of the divine substance in much the same way as they are features of created substances,3 is that the God thus described is a logical nonsense. A God who is a being among beings, who possesses the properties of his nature in a composite way, as aspects of his nature rather than as names ultimately convertible with one another in the simplicity of his transcendent essence, is a myth, a mere supreme being, whose being and nature are in some sense distinct from one another, who receives his being from being as such and so is less than being, who (even if he is changeless and eternal) in some sense becomes the being he is by partaking of that prior unity (existence) that allows his nature to persist as the composite reality it is. He is a God whose being has nonexistence as its opposite; he is not, that is to say, the infinite actus of all things, id quo maius cogitari nequit, but only an “ontic” God. There simply is no such God. Atheism is not the mirror inversion of this sort of theism, but both its inmost secret and its most necessary corrective. If God is thought of in such terms—if his true transcendence as the being of all beings is forgotten, hidden behind the imposing spectacle of a more conformable “supreme being”—then the longing to know the truth of God cannot help but lead to the rejection of God as truth; the inevitable terminus of “­theism,” so conceived, is nihilism.
In a sense, this is merely to repeat a claim that one school of modern Continental philosophy (call it the “ontological-hermeneutical”) regards as a truism: that nihilism is the hidden “vocation” of the Western intellectual tradition, that the will to “positive” truth that is the unique passion of Western thought must finally—in what Nietzsche called the inversion of the highest values—give birth to a discourse of absolute truthlessness, or the “truth” of innumerably many perspectives. Nihilism was first described by Jacobi, in the course of his critique of Kant, and it was he who first discerned a necessary liaison between its spiritual pathos and the intellectual ambition embodied in metaphysical systems. But it was Nietzsche who first argued that the “death of God” has come about as the result of the Christian (which is to say the vulgar Platonic) will to power, that pitiless, ascetic, ultimately life-denying hunger for absolute possession of the “most high principle” that must pursue God till it has killed him.4 For Gianni Vattimo, the prophet of “playful nihilism” or “weak thought,” nihilism is not simply the destiny of all Western metaphysics, but its solution, inasmuch as metaphysics is itself (he says) violence: the wresting of first principles from the intractable multiplicity of experience, the construction of a “hierarchy within totality” meant to contain and control the unmasterable flow of “difference,” a subordination of life to some supreme lifeless value (ousia, kinēsis, eidos, ego, Geist . . .).5 But the most interesting (and infuriating) theorist of metaphysics’ nihilistic vocation is Heidegger, and it is his treatment of the matter that, in an unexpected way perhaps, makes an explicit connection between the “question of being” and the question of naming God.
To formulate the argument I want to make very simply: the forgetfulness of the difference between naming God and describing his attributes, characteristic of Western thought since—let us say—at least the early modern period, is one and the same with the forgetfulness of the “ontico-­ontological difference.” Admittedly, there is a certain irony in resorting to Heidegger’s rebarbative patois in order to argue (as I shall) that only classical Christian metaphysics escapes such forgetfulness; for Heidegger himself, Christian metaphysics is nothing but a strikingly intense form of Seinsvergessenheit; but my use of the term is appropriate. The event of modernity within philosophy, after all, consisted for Christian thought in the death of a certain vision of being: it was the disintegration of that radiant unity where the good, the true, and the beautiful coincided as infinite simplicity and fecundity, communicating themselves to a world whose only reality was its dynamic participation in their gratuity; and so consisted also in the consequent divorce between this thought of being—the supereminent fullness of all perfection—and the thought of God. In this “moment” (which occurred over several centuries), “being” somehow became the name of what formerly would have been regarded almost as being’s opposite: a veil or an absence, explicitly or implicitly invoked, but in either case impenetrable—the veil veiling itself, the empty category of sheer uniform existence that adds nothing to the essence of things, and whose only “determination” is an absolute privation of all determinacy. And God’s transcendence, so long as philosophy suffered any nostalgia for “that hypothesis,” came to be understood as God’s absence, his hiddenness behind the veil of being, breaking through, if at all, only as an explanatory cause. However hostile, then, Heidegger’s own diagnosis of the “oblivion of being” may be to Christian thought, it nevertheless proceeds from a sadness quite familiar to theology in the post-Christian era; Heidegger recognizes that the particular pathology of modernity lies—to some very large degree—in the loss of a certain kind of wonder or perplexity, a certain sense of the abiding strangeness of being within the very ordinariness of beings. Not, it must be said, that he really desires to reverse the course of this decline: for him the nihilistic dissolution of every transcendental structure of being—every metaphysics—is something both good and bad, both a promise and a risk, and something that must be followed to its end. Following Nietzsche, he reads the history of nihilism as the story of the Western will to positive truth, which must—before it can be transcended—exhaust itself, and so bring metaphysics to its ultimate collapse. And, in this account of things, the theological understanding of the transcendence of being over beings appears as merely a particularly acute instance of a duality intrinsic to every metaphysics: like every speculative “system,” Christian philosophy is subordinate to that original forgetfulness that allows metaphysics its fruitful but erring reign over Western thought, and so while theology possesses a kind of understanding of the ontological difference, it arrives at that understanding only by abstracting some general characteristic of beings and projecting it as the “ground” or “principle” or “truth” of beings—which it then identifies with God. This is what Heidegger calls the “double founding” of “onto-theology,” the grounding of beings in being, and then the further grounding of being in some supreme being. Thus Christian philosophy is, at the end of the day, merely “metaphysics” once more, oblivious of the utter qualitative distinction between being and beings; and while metaphysics may illuminate the ontological difference for thought in some measure, it does so necessarily by way of a more original obscurity, a withdrawal or hiding of being behind one or another ontic exemplar—behind one or another of the masks being wears in the drama of its passage through successive metaphysical epochs and regimes.
Thus Heidegger’s genealogy of nihilism is perfectly seamless: after that first lightning flash, that blissful dawn, when being originally manifested itself for thought in the West, in the naïve but for that very reason pure language of the pre-Socratics, the West’s initial moment of philosophical wakefulness necessarily began to harden into fixed and rigid forms. Whereas the pre-Socratics, immersed in the “lighting” of being, enjoying a “poetic” immediacy of language to event, understood being as alētheia or physis or logos—as, that is, the unveiling of being in beings, the temporal arising and passing away of beings, and the “gathering laying-together” of the event that grants beings and being to one another—thought could not long endure the mystery of these names for being, and soon had to begin to substitute for them the inert conceptual properties of being. This is the apostasy of Plato, for instance, in turning his gaze away from the silent mystery of being’s “yielding hiddenness” and toward the visibility of original essences, eidē, the frozen, eternalized “looks” of things. Here the search for truth as a positive possession of reason—a thing among the things of the world—takes hold of reason, and here the history of metaphysics is inaugurated in earnest, and—no matter what new concept will displace eidos (ousia, actus, ego, Geist)—the entire course of this epochal “destinal sending” is set in motion by this always more essential oblivion. Now, in the twilight of the metaphysical age, we find ourselves in the time of realized nihilism, of the technological Gestell, in which reality is understood as just so many quanta of power, the world as nothing but the representation of the self-established subject, and the things of earth as mere material, a “standing reserve” awaiting exploitation by the merciless rationality of technology. The ancient nuptial ecstasy of word and world—of poetic saying and ontological unveiling—has now become all but impossible. This is the moment of highest risk. But if in this moment we reclaim the more essential truth of this nihilistic destiny—that truth is not an object to be possessed, that the world is not reducible to the “sufficient reason” for its existence, that we should not press toward foundations and principles but should rather dwell in the “worlding of the world” and find the truth of things in their limpid Anwesen—we can perhaps heal ourselves of the positivist passion, await the world in a state of poetic and passive expectancy, look for a new dawning of the light of being, speak thoughtfully the names of that nameless mystery as it shows itself to us . . .
All of which has an undeniable charm about it; but it is at just this point that one should pause and ask whether the sweet, melancholy quietism in such language does not dissemble a certain kind of metaphysical ambition. For Heidegger’s account of nihilism, and of what stands beyond nihilism, is dictated not simply by a scrupulous honesty regarding the history of Western thought, but much more by his own ontology—which itself could well be characterized as nihilistic. For Heidegger, whose earliest attempt at a “fundamental ontology” transcribes into ontological terms Husserl’s phenomenological collapse of the distinction between “it is” and “it appears,” being is so entirely pure of determination as to be convertible with nothing. It is simply the manifestation of the manifest, the inexhaustible movement of manifestation itself, the silence whose self-­effacement allows beings (in their absolute difference from being) to sound forth. Being’s generosity—its es gibt, its withdrawal or “nothinging,” which lets beings come to presence in the “juncture” of being and, in due order, give way to other beings—is merely its nothingness among beings, its “refusal” to appear as the absolute. Here, certainly, the “metaphysics” of light (of being as the overflowing fullness of the transcendentals) has been “overcome” (or, more accurately, abandoned), but only in favor of a “metaphysics” of darkness. For being is, in a sense, darkness itself, the dialectical negation that indifferently grants all beings their finitude. Its every “mittence” is, as Heidegger says, an “errance”; it gives “light” only by being dark, by hiding and leading astray; as much as truth is a peaceful letting-be-manifest, it is also a struggle of obscurity and light, Erde and Welt, in which peace and strife are inseparably joined. Logos forces physis into a gathered containment. No less than the Stoic image of the cosmos as a finite totality in which every form is continually displaced by another, the whole under the irresistible sway of anankē, the later Heidegger’s understanding of the destinal epochality of being’s temporality ever more absolutely identifies the event of being not only with the “presencing” and “whiling” of beings, but with their annihilation. Like Hegel, Heidegger thinks of truth as also, intrinsically, destruction. If this is indeed how being must be conceived in order for the thinker to escape the oblivion of being that lies at the heart of “metaphysics,” then indeed theology has no name for being—or, it would seem, for God.
This if, though, is precisely the question I want to raise: Is Heidegger’s ontology genuinely an alternative—the alternative—to “onto-theology,” or does Heidegger himself perhaps fail adequately to think the difference between being and beings, and so the difference between nomination and attribution? This is worth asking for many reasons. For one thing, Heidegger’s thought gives powerful expression to the deepest impulse of modern Continental philosophy in its interminable struggle to liberate itself from theology, and thus it is a particularly transparent instance of philosophy functioning as a theology evacuated of transcendence. In Heidegger’s attempt to ask the question of being anew, free from the heritage of metaphysics, he presents us with an exquisitely poignant image of the descent of thought into an absolute and self-sealing discourse of immanence. And this by itself makes it profitable to ask whether his understanding of the “oblivion of being” is one to which theology must pay heed; for the “ontologist” and the Christian metaphysician alike may concur that something has been forgotten, but it also remains the case that what each regards as forgotten is what the other regards as the most extreme form of forgetting. More to the point here, however, our question is worth asking simply because Heidegger’s thought is very much concerned with naming (with the poetic logos, in which the silence of being peals forth, veiled in its very unveiling, with the naming of the “gathering” of the “ring-dance” of the “fourfold,” etc.), because he wants so desperately to free the discourse of truth from the morbid mythology of grounds and of sufficient reason, which finds the truth of the world only in the world’s barest and most meager possibility or featureless principles, and which must in some sense erase the event of the world to establish the ground of the world. For Heidegger the truth of an apple (say) lies not in the metaphysical principles that secure it within the rationality of being, but in the event of the apple in its appearing, in all the richness and poverty of its transient particularity, and the language of truth that alone can “correspond” to this truth is a “poetic speaking” that allows the event of the apple within the world to show itself within words. Such a view of things certainly attests to a quite earnest desire to free thought from the destructive passion of instrumental reason, in order to “return” philosophical reflection to a condition of peaceful dwelling in th...

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