Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.
There is nothing like the self-congratulatory tone of Protestant Theologians who have seen their cultural/moral/political influence wither. Even when it takes the guise of a book review, wreathed in praise of wide knowledge of literature, the arts , and thinkers from other traditions. Brad East reviews David Bentley Hart’s ‘A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays’ , and who should Mr. East pick as the model of that theological tradition but Reinhold Niebuhr. The re-invigoration of the Cult of Niebuhr has grown with the publication in 2011 of Why Niebuhr Now?
An excerpt from the advertising copy for this book at the University of Chicago Press is instructive. Obama, McCain and Andrew Sullivan are the misbegotten trio of War Mongers who praise Niebuhr!
Barack Obama has called him “one of my favorite philosophers.” John McCain wrote that he is “a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war.” Andrew Sullivan has said, “We need Niebuhr now more than ever.” For a theologian who died in 1971, Reinhold Niebuhr is maintaining a remarkably high profile in the twenty-first century.
The reader need only look to Richard Fox’s biography for confirmation that Niebuhr was, at best, a political conformist. Who said in 1932 that he was a Marxient thinker, and that the Working Class should not not give up the use of violence, to achieve their ends. Like Elia Kazan, Mr. Niebuhr didn’t think his youthful flirtation with political radicalism should interfere with their very important work, in the utterly changed political era of The Cold War. Kazan’s calling was to make movies, and Niebuhr’s was an expression of the demonstratively parochial ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. Kazan appeared as a ‘friendly witness‘ and Niebuhr wrote a letter excoriating Communists and their fellow travelers. As Fox argues it, J. Edgar Hoover was in hot pursuit of Niebuhr. The idea that Niebuhr is the paradigmatic figure of American Protestant Christian Theology is demonstrative of its bankruptcy. The last theologian I can recall as having any real audience in America was Harvey Cox, and do not forget clergyman William Sloane Coffin Jr. as a necessary antidote to Niebuhr’s imperial apologetics!
The reader can now turn her attention to a sample of Mr. East’s unstinting praise of Mr.Hart, in sum, one theologian in praise of another:
God, naturally. But which God? And how understood? Hart’s answer is at once classical, ecumenical, and particular.
Best to begin, following Thomas Aquinas, by saying what God is not. God is not the biggest being in the universe, or outside of the universe. God is not a discrete entity, like you or me, or a cloud or an atom or a quark, or (if one can put it this way) the universe itself as a whole. Nor is God the clockmaker, winding up time and matter and letting them run their course on their own.
God is the eternal and immaterial fullness of being and life that is the condition of there being anything at all. Infinitely rich and inexhaustibly beautiful, God is being itself, and as such, goodness and truth. Singular and simple, God lacks nothing yet, out of boundless and inexplicable love, creates what is other than himself, that which is not God. Distinct from God, what is not God — which is to say, everything: creation — is nevertheless bound to God, dependent at every moment and in every respect. Yet this dependence is not debilitating but enabling. It is the source of power and identity and, for living creatures, agency and, for rational creatures, freedom. To be is to depend on God for everything, and to acknowledge and celebrate this dependence is to be alive, fully alive, transparent to the source and end and empowering life that fills and moves all living things.
But this Protestant Christian Party Line is now expanded to include:
Hart describes this view as “entirely and ecstatically derivative: pure ‘classical theism,’ as found in the Cappadocians, Augustine, Denys, Thomas Aquinas, Ibn Sina, Mulla Sadra, Ibn Arabi, Shankara, Ramanuja, Philo, Moses Maimonides … well, basically, just about every significant theistic philosopher in human history.” Granting a touch of exaggeration, the gesture is clear: this vision is intended to be, not generic, but fulsomely non-parochial, informed by centuries, cultures, and religions beyond the early 21st-century English-speaking academy.
This followed by Hart’s presentation of the Alice books as the descriptive conundrum of our journey on this earthly plane. But here is the pièce de résistance:
theology is — if scrupulously pursued — a complex and pitilessly demanding discipline concerning an immense, profoundly sophisticated legacy of hermeneutics, dialectics, and logic; it deals in minute detail with a vast variety of concrete historical data; over the centuries, it has incubated speculative systems of extraordinary rigor and intricacy, many of whose questions and methods continue to inform contemporary philosophy; and it does, when all is said and done, constitute the single intellectual, moral, spiritual, and cultural tradition uniting the classical, medieval, and early modern worlds.
Next in the succession of topics are the concomitant rise of Capitalism/Secularism/ Individualism , but that is not all:
nihilism and secularism, capitalism and individualism, consumerism and voluntarism, scientism and materialism are all of a piece, “a seamless garment” that simultaneously signifies and effects the triumph of the will in all human affairs without exception. As Hart writes:
Add to that the New Atheists, Nietzsche, scientism, etc.,etc.
I must end my comment here, as my patience has worn thin, with this apologetic of one public theologian for another.
More to the point, Hart remains a distinguished public theologian in a country that continues to produce theologians but no longer recognizes them — in either sense of the word. The national culture no longer rewards or seeks out the public theologian’s wisdom or commentary, but more significant, it quite literally does not recognize the office of theologian, does not find intelligible what its occupants have to say. In turn, writing a little over a decade ago, Hart says that, should “the price of [theology’s] recognition by the post-Christian university […] be its reciprocal recognition of the secular order,” then “ignominious exile might be preferable to repatriation on sufferance.” Indeed, “The academic margins might be a more hospitable and healthy climate just at the moment; the desert, after all, has often proved the most fertile garden of the spirit.” Substitute “cultural” for “academic,” and one has Jacobs’s portrait of the contemporary Christian public intellectual in nuce.
This ‘book review’ is a tedious, not to speak of verbose, apologetic for Public Theologians. That uses the utterly bankrupt Reinhold Niebuhr, as its model for theological/political probity. Niebuhr’s Christian Realism was simply a highfalutin apologetic for the imperatives of the American National Security State. Both Niebuhr and Schlesinger believed themselves to be archetypes of the ‘Vital Center‘, that saw all other civic actors as unworthy of the right to free political expression. They were the ‘Liberal Apologists’ for the political purges of McCarthy and Nixon , who proclaimed The New Deal as a ‘Generation of Treason‘.
Update 12:33 PM PDT October 25, 2017- My comment was removed from the L.A. Review of Books.
( October 26, 2017 6:06 AM PDT ) Some further thoughts on Niebuhr as Public Theologian:
Mr. East’s ‘review’ of Mr. Hart’s ‘A Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays’ avoids confronting the very central role of the ‘wickedness of man’ and the self-hatred that became dogma in the Christian Mythology, via the thought of Paul, Jerome and Augustine. The reader can view the Protestant Reformation and the rise of the thought of Luther, Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli as sharing the same persistent self-loathing of the three Church Fathers named above.* The preceding argument is too inconvenient in terms of a defense of an ideology/theology, now dominated by the imperatives of an ersatz, not to speak of, a self-serving notion of ecumenism. The role played by Niebuhr, in American life of his period, was of public scold, that placed the ‘sinfulness of man’ as his central concern. And with the Christian God as the only means of that ‘sinner’ redeeming himself. How many times had I heard this Party Line repeated in Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, when I was a child, and as an adult in Catechism classes? In sum, Niebuhr was the bourgeois respectable version of the vulgar tent preacher Billy Graham.
*Note that Heidegger uses the theme of the ‘falleness’ of Dasein, in his philosophical pastiche of Christianity, in which ‘Being’ replaces ‘God’ as its central, almost redemptive actor. The care of ‘Being’ , even replaces the tradition of ethical conduct, as it had evolved from the Greeks to the time of Heidegger’s philosophizing.
See Being and Time page 219 #38. Falling & Throwness. Macquarrie & Robinson translation