Shattering the Stupor of Boredom: On Hart, Metaphysics, and Divine Speech

John Ehrett
Friday, April 1st 2022

I’ve been a longtime admirer of the work of Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. Between his sprawling vocabulary, affinity for Origenist universalism, and gratuitous potshots at critics, he’s certainly not to everyone’s taste, but even where I end up disagreeing with him, I’ve always found myself challenged in a good way.

For the last several years, a central focus of Hart’s work has been the development of the metaphysical implications of classical theism. This is the basis, after all, for Hart’s much-discussed argument for universal salvation; whatever else one might say of that argument, it is not standard-fare liberal theology. And Hart’s metaphysical orientation reaches perhaps its fullest expression in Hart’s most recent volume, You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature(Notre Dame Press, 2022).

You Are Gods (the title is an allusion to John 10:34)is an extended critique of “two-tier Thomism,” a branch of Catholic theology known for its rigorous bifurcation of “supernature” from “nature.” Two-tier Thomism, Hart explains, largely went out of fashion following the rise of the nouvelle théologie, a renaissance of patristic thought often associated with Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, among others. Today, though, the older approach has begun to reemerge in certain traditionalist quarters.

For the classical theist, who always apprehends God’s creation and sustaining of the world as a unified ontological act, this layer-cake metaphysics is simply unintelligible. As Hart explains, as soon as they act rationally within God’s infinite horizon, human beings always undergo “a movement of rapture, of ecstasy toward ends that must be understood as—because they must necessarily be desired as—nothing less than the perfections of being, ultimately convertible with one another in the fullness of reality’s one source and end” (15). And hence for Hart, the two-tier Thomist attempt to mark off “nature” from “supernature,” as if human beings could have a satisfactory “temporal” final end apart from union with God Himself, must fail.

I have no interest in taking issue with the underlying metaphysics here—indeed, I think Hart gets it right. Rather, the question I was left with after finishing You Are Gods hinges on Hart’s relatively optimistic account of human beings’ innate desire to know God.

In particular, Hart appears to be committed to some version of the following claim: if human beings could only understand that they always already have their source and end in God, the results would be transformative. Maybe. I certainly would hope so! For Hart, the movement toward such understanding is a primordially human one: “our natural and irrepressible desire to know the truth of anything and everything is the desire to ‘see face to face’ and thus to ‘know fully,’ just as we are ‘fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12), and so “to see him as he is” (1 John 3:12)” (30).

But I am not altogether convinced that this is the whole picture. The joy in God that suffuses Hart’s work reflects the sensibilities of a theologian who has himself been deeply formed by the Christian tradition, perhaps even more than he himself realizes. What of those, though, who do not have their apprehension of reality so conditioned by the tradition they’ve received?

Though I would certainly disagree with French theologian Jean-Luc Marion’s desire to evacuate Christian doctrine of metaphysical terms and concepts, I’ve often found myself haunted by his lengthy examination of the phenomenon of boredom. Against theologies that would characterize God as Absolute Being, Marion argues that this God cannot be the proper object of human longing, because human beings can and do know the reality of God while experiencing boredom or disengagement towards Him. As Marion puts it, “Man, provided that he see with the absolute gaze of boredom . . . disinterests himself in ontological difference.” Boredom is the sort of state that Martin Heidegger would call an “existentiale,” a disposition towards reality characterized by self-conscious disinterest or unconcern with the real.

In other words, Marion correctly recognizes that it is possible to affirm the reality of God as a formal principle while simultaneously experiencing no “natural and irrepressible desire to know the truth of anything and everything.” In so doing, the bored individual is not acting as a rational being; indeed, he is not acting at all, but rather disassociating. But this does nothing to address the fact that such boredom is clearly a dimension of the human experience.

The experience of existential boredom is not without theological consequences: the actuality of the phenomenon of human boredom with God lies downstream of the felt possibility of divine disinterest in humanity. As theologian (and MR contributor) Joseph Minich writes in Enduring Divine Absence, “[e]ven if it is metaphysically necessary that God is, we are still left with that more ancient version of the problem of divine absence—and that is the question of His felt goodness.”

The only way through this impasse, it seems to me, must be a theological commitment to the principle that God has spoken—that He has addressed himself to human beings in all the messy particularity of language and history, and that our intentionality towards Him is always preceded by His intentionality towards us. Such arguments from revelation tend to set philosophers on edge, but what else can shock the conscience out of the stupor of boredom? In short, Christian thinking—the sort that transforms lives and worlds, and the kind that has led centuries of martyrs to die for their faith—cannot be simply collapsed into some branch of perennialism. There must always be an original address, a Word who works through words.

Despite these quibbles, I would hasten to add that You Are Gods is certainly worth the read, as long as one doesn’t mind ignoring a few scattered anti-Calvinist barbs (the Lutherans come in for some criticism too, but nothing like what Hart levels at the Reformed). The last section of the book, a lengthy set of theses on theosis and Trinitarian metaphysics, is worth the price of the volume all by itself. It’s Hart’s most thrillingly and distinctively Christian piece of writing since his 2004 The Beauty of the Infinite.

Perhaps contrary to Hart’s intentions, though, it all left me quite content to be a Protestant.

John Ehrett is editor in chief of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

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John Ehrett
John Ehrett is an STM candidate at the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a Commonwealth Fellow at the Davenant Institute.
Friday, April 1st 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church