Friday, December 04, 2009

Theological Book of the Decade

Remember postmodernism? How quaint it all seems in retrospect. In those days - I speak of the early 2000's - we used to think Lyotard had the best summation of the idea, "incredulity toward metanarratives." Now we know that the most concise and pithy definition comes from David Bentley Hart: "Pagan exuberance tempered by gnostic detachment."

In those days the efforts of Jack Caputo were actually somewhat interesting. Here was a thinker engaging Derrida, showing that he wasn't so bad as his knee-jerk critics suggested - Derrida actually talked about ethics! It was an important point to make, and profoundly liberating if one's alternative was "postmodernity ooga booga!" (which for many it was.) But then Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite came along in 2003.

Postmodern evocations of "responsibility" were, in Hart's words, "no doubt quite genuine, but probably also quite absurd," mute to protest the "creative jeu joyeaux of, say, fascism." Each were shown to be unsuccessful attempts to escape the post-metaphysical implications that only Nietzsche fully embraced ("The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philosophy.") Claims to produce an ethical mandate from the raw material of postmodern thought was like the Alchemist's promise to bring gold from lead. Hart laid bare the dogmatic certitude of Foucault, where "the will to power occupies a position of transcendental authority, prephenomenal, prepersonal, and prehistorical." He pointed out the oddity that Deleuze and Foucault "tend to be somewhat oblivious (or indifferent) to the ways their account of the will to power can easily turn into an endorsement of, quite precisely, a will to, quite precisely, power." Hart explained how the contorted, very un-Jewish gnosticism of Levinas "might just as well (and just as blamelessly) be taken as a provocation to kill the Other." Derrida's more enduring appeals to "undeconstructible justice" were shown by Hart to be a nostalgic retreat to Kant's categorical imperative, absent the comforts of reason. In a word, unsustainable. In seven? Krazy Salt sprinkled on the post-metaphysical rot.

Indeed, Hart's 2003 tome was the theological book of the decade, a postmodern elegy, and it has taken the rest of the decade to percolate down. Sure self-professed postmodern Christian thinkers persist, but to those who have read Hart, they are like ghosts in the land of the living - barely even there. Is this overly-privileging one man's take on a complicated, multifaceted movement? No. There were many thinkers to whom one could have gone for similar perspectives, it's just that Hart encapsulated them. The book emerged from a community of thinkers, but was delivered with an individual panache that took up the postmodern invitation "for theology to respond in kind." A beautifully written book about the primacy of beauty.

In hindsight, those early, pre-Hart theological engagements of postmodern thought look like sixteenth-century maps of the Americas, with vast swaths labeled "terra incognita." No one can blame those first explorers for inaccuracy. As they engaged the (then) new and (then) popular modes of thought, they found patches of vegetation in what was supposed to be pure tundra, and they excitedly pointed out the green. But now, thanks to Hart, the cartography is nearly complete. We know what the landscape actually looks like. Both the "Thar be dragons" of the fear-mongers and elephant graveyards promised by progressives have been exposed. There were dragons, but they're sickly now, and not so terrifying. There was little ivory to speak of. Postmodernism has been mapped, flood-lit by Cappadocian light and declared unfit for settlement. Emboldened by his confidence in analogy, Hart moved us on to the welcoming, fertile Nicean fields.

Pass the word on, will you, to those who are still seated in the parked roller-coaster at the postmodern theme park, thinking there will be another loopity-loop. Whisper kindly in their ears that they should at least read pages 35 - 93 of Hart's book, surely a manageable chore. Gently point out to them that there is no longer a ride-operator in the booth. In fact, they're shutting the place down for the season. The clown is wiping off his make-up. The funhouse mirrors have been bubble-wrapped. The cotton-candy stand is all boarded up. It was quite a ride, but it's time to go home to the classic Christian tradition, where ethics is underwritten by the mandate of a living God and where not the sublime, but the beautiful is real.