Hands in Pockets, Whistling

Hart’s second section in the second half of his book depends almost entirely on good writing, a goodly dose of mysticism and lots of handwaving. Here is how that section concludes:

“It is impossible for the infinite God of love directly or positively to will evil (physical or moral), even in a provisional or transitory way: and this because he is infinitely free” (p. 70).

But a few pages before this, he had said:

“To say that he who sealed up the doors of the sea might permit them to be opened again by another more reckless hand — is not to say that God’s ultimate design for his creatures can be thwarted” (p. 63).

Amen to the last phrase, but in the first part Hart is trying to do what theologians call “having it both ways.” Ah, so God permitted the doors of the sea to opened by a hand belonging to some deranged invididual. Did he permit it on purpose, or no? Was His permission direct or indirect, and who the hell cares? Did He will to permit this carnage, or did He just permit it . . . you know, while sleeping?

If God permitted it, He, being who He is, did so intelligently, knowing the consequences of that permission. If He grants that permission anyway, the entirety of Calvinism follows, with some Christians in those ranks grinning sheepishly. The only way to get Him off the hook is by denying that He gave permission, in which case the cosmos is officially off the rails. But even there . . . for those who believe that God created ex nihilo, we have to affirm that He knowingly created a cosmos that was capable of going off the rails. Did He will to do this, or did He just do it? Repeat the drill from above.

The failure here is a stiking failure of imagination, and it is striking because Hart clearly has significant aesthetic gifts. The problem is that he cannot use them on this topic without beginning to see that great spritual insights were given to Scots covenanters, and not just to men with names like St. Bonaventure and Maximus the Confessor.

Hart’s failure comes from the fact that he is trapped in a realm where the ontologies are real, and the stories are not.

“Christian thought, from the outset, denies that (in themselves) suffering, death, and evil have any ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all. It claims that they are cosmic contingencies, ontological shadows, intrinsically devoid of substance or purpose, however much God may — under the conditions of a fallen order — make them the occasions for accomplishing his good ends” (p. 61).

So why does ontology have pride of place? Who died and left ontology king? The story is the thing — not the natural theologians with their engineered mechanisms (Hart has a point there), but neither should we give way to the subtle metaphysicians who have the kind of mind that could visit someone in agonies on his deathbed, and wonder what his pains “were made out of.” One it is concluded that ontologically they were made out of nothing, such a one can go home with his hands in his pockets, whistling.

In the story of this world, evil contributes mightily to all the major plot points. Since the story is the thing, it cannot be a nullity, not if you understand narrative, narratival theology, or the necessity of faithful and biblical imagination.

But Hart lumps all advocates of what he calls “theodicy” into the camp of natural theologians, those who fuss around with their stainless steel mechanism. It is quite plain that Hart is entirely unaware of the great imaginative works by “theodicists.” I am not going to say who they are — I think Hart should look them up.

“A sound ‘natural theology’ is by definition sober and (ideally) mildly depressing since it cannot assert anything more about the world than that it possesses a marvelous complexity of design, nor anything more about God than that he is an immeasurably wise and powerful engineer” (p. 57).

Nice try, but the choice is not really between the planners and the mystics. The choice is between competing Christian visions, each of which have encompassed large numbers of people, and consequently have contained many soldiers, sailors, mystics, engineers, poets, singers, bread-bakers, and merchants. And then Hart undertakes to settle this by comparing his poets with our system-builders. Maybe we shouldn’t do it like that.

Hart urges loyalty to his “plan” with these words:

[There is] “no perspective from which a finite Euclidian mind can weigh eschatological glory in the balance against earthly suffering, the rejection of God on these grounds cannot really be a rational decision, but only a moral pathos” (p. 69).

You know, taken out of context, that’s actually pretty good. Or, as one of our guys put it:

“Farther along we’ll know all about it/Farther along we’ll understand why/Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine/We’ll understand it all by and by”

And we will, too, that’s the thing. This is not, Hart to the contrary, a desire for “total explanation” (p. 68). This is not “banal confidence in ‘God’s great plan'” (p. 70). God doesn’t have to come to me in the Eschaton and explain how He wiped every tear. It is sufficient for me to know that He will wipe away every tear, including the tears of little girls I never heard of, because that is what He has promised His people, and no remainders.

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