Many thanks for your enjoyable and vigorous rejoinder. If your eyes fall on this, I know they will be rolling at the prospect of yet another round. But I cannot resist a reply to what seem to me basic misunderstandings, along with crucial concessions disguised as rebuttals. I do promise to refrain from Photoshop antics and cheap puns, for the sake of preserving our armistice and basic good taste. Plus, I wouldn’t want any of your readers to spill their sherry.
As it happens, I have already addressed some of the points you make in (No, he’s no relation to you, in case you are wondering.) I don’t expect you to have read that, but I mention it since some people reading this will have done so, and I apologize to them for the overlap between what I say here and what I said there. There’s new stuff here too, though, to make it worthwhile for them to read on. (In case you are tempted to follow the link to my reply to Seth, I apologize to you too, since in that article I did indulge the temptation to pun. It seems that on that score I am not able not to sin.) to your namesake Seth Hart, who to my review of your book.
The computer analogy
Let’s begin with my analogy of the laptop computer, which you characterize as a real howler. Your substantive points (as opposed to derisive rhetoric) fail to justify that characterization. In any analogy, there are only certain features of the analogues that are relevant to the point being made with the analogy. For example, when Christ compares himself to a thief in the night, it would be silly to object to the analogy on the grounds that thievery is sinful and Christ is sinless. For thievery is simply not relevant to the specific point being made with the analogy.
It is also crucial to follow out an analogy consistently. There’s where the character Ted compares the belligerents in a Third World civil war to warring ant colonies. His listeners are outraged, one of them thinking that his point is that Third World populations are, from the American point of view, like mere ants. Another objects that people in the Third World are people and not ants. Ted tries, without success, to explain to them that they are missing the point – that it is an analogy, and that everyone, including Americans, is being reduced to ant scale in the analogy. This illustrates how we need to be careful before jumping to conclusions about what the elements of an analogy are meant to correspond to in the real world.
I realize you know how analogies are supposed to work, but you seem momentarily to have forgotten it when evaluating the one I gave. For you make errors in interpreting my computer analogy comparable to those I have just used as illustrations. First, you complain that a computer is an artifact, whereas human beings are natural substances. Now, as a card-carrying, dues-paying, unreconstructed Aristotelian metaphysician, I am, of course, as aware as anyone of the radical difference in kind between nature and artifice, which reflects the difference between substantial and accidental form. But that is simply irrelevant to the specific point of the analogy, just as it is irrelevant to the specific point of Christ’s analogy that thievery is sinful. There is a fact of the matter (even if it is a man-made fact of the matter) about what a computer is and what it was made for, and that’s enough for the purposes of the analogy. True, artefactual kinds have fuzzier boundaries and functions than natural kinds, but that does not entail that they have no boundaries or functions at all. And again, the rough-and-ready boundaries and functions that we unproblematically attribute to them every day are good enough for the purposes of the analogy.
You also complain that what actualizes the potential of a laptop computer to be supplemented with new applications, hardware, and the like, is a cause that is as much within the natural order as the computer itself is (rather than anything miraculous). But here, like the listeners in Barcelona, you’re not paying careful enough attention to what corresponds to what in the analogy. Yes, actual computers and their users and updaters are all in the natural order, just as human beings are human beings and not ants. But again, it is an analogy, for goodness’ sake. In the analogy, the computer itself is meant to correspond to human beings in a state of “pure nature.” And supplementing it with new applications, hardware, etc. is meant to correspond to divine action to raise human beings to a supernatural end. Yes, in real life, those who add an application or hardware to an existing computer are not performing a miracle or doing anything supernatural, but – to repeat myself – it’s an analogy.
Now, what is key to understanding the analogy is that there is a sense in which the laptop computer, without any such supplemental applications or hardware, is already complete as is. It is not like, say, a computer without a battery or a functioning keyboard, which would obviously be incomplete. Refraining from adding applications or hardware to the computer would not be like leaving out a battery. The computer can do everything its designers and purchasers intended it to do even if the new applications and hardware are never added to it, whereas it could not do so if it didn’t have a battery or functioning keyboard. This is analogous to human beings in the state of “pure nature,” who would be complete with just natural knowledge of God and without the beatific vision.
The USB ports and downloading capacities of the computer correspond to the obediential potency for a supernatural end that human beings have even in a state of pure nature. And it is crucial to understanding the analogy that the new applications and hardware that these make possible are sometimes unplanned and unforeseen by the designers of the computer. So, the fact that designers do foresee some future applications and hardware does not undermine the analogy. Neither does it “do your work for you” by effectively folding the supernatural into the natural. In the analogy, it is, again, the unplanned and unforeseen future applications and hardware that correspond to the supernatural end, not the planned and foreseen ones.
Because said applications are unplanned and unforeseen – and thus do not exist within the computer even in an implicit or embryonic way – they can in no way arise from within the computer as it stands, but can be put into it only from without. That corresponds to the way in which a supernatural end must be imposed on the state of pure nature entirely from without. All the same, the USB ports, etc. – which are already built into the computer – make this external imposition on the computer possible. (It would not be possible to put into, say, an old Commodore computer or Apple II Plus, hardware or software that is developed today for modern computers.) And this corresponds to the fact that rational creatures have (as sub-rational creatures do not) a build-in obediential potency for the beatific vision, even though the beatific vision is in no way a natural end.
This is why the analogy illustrates more than just “non-repugnance,” contrary to what you say in your reply. The USB ports, etc. positively point to there being some new applications and hardware or other that might be added. That’s more than mere non-repugnance vis-à-vis such additions. At the same time, they do not positively point to certain specific applications or hardware that might be added (namely, to those that were totally unknown and unforeseen by the designers of the computer). This corresponds to the way that human beings in a state of pure nature point, by virtue of their rationality, to the possibility of some kind of supplemental end or other – but without pointing to the beatific vision specifically.
I am well aware, by the way, that you say much in your book about the distinction between the way the notion of an obediential potency was understood prior to Cajetan (which you illustrate with the example of Sara’s pregnancy) and how it was understood by Cajetan and his Thomist successors (where it is clearly meant to underwrite a truly supernatural end). My analogy was intended to illustrate only what you characterize as the post-Cajetan conception, which is why it is a red herring to argue (as you do) that my analogy is not a good way to illustrate the other conception. My review had gone way over the word limit as it was, and I had to leave things out. Indeed, my review explicitly warned readers that “I have left out various nuances and details.” But those details were not relevant to the specific points I was trying to make.
Anyway, here’s the thing. When it is properly understood, the computer analogy is fine. Read charitably (or, really, just fairly) it is not the ineptly prepared dog’s breakfast you make it out to be. I understand that you are nevertheless going to reject the notion that I am using it to illustrate. But to go on about the analogy being an “absolute catastrophe,” about its doing your work for you, about its not even getting Thomism right, etc. – well, there’s a lot of heat there to warm the hearts of the fans, but no light.
The bat analogy
You also miss the point of the analogy I borrow from Thomas Nagel, about wondering what it is like to be a bat. You object that desiring such knowledge amounts to mere “curiosity,” whereas the desire for the beatific vision is obviously much more than that. But while that is of course true, it is irrelevant to the specific point I was making with the example.
Because we are rational animals, we can conceptualize what it is like to be a bat, and can go on to wonder what it would be like. We can even positively want to know what it would be like. At the same time, given that our perceptual apparatus is by nature so different from that of a bat, we cannot in fact know this. And being rational, we can know that we can’t know it. Hence, we can judge both that in some sense it would be desirable to know this and that it is not a kind of knowledge that is “in the cards” for us. Because it is not, we don’t judge this lack of knowledge to be a loss or incompleteness in our nature, the way that we would judge, say, the lack of vision as a loss or lack of completeness (since it is part of our nature to be able to see).
The example is meant to illustrate the idea that a rational creature can in some sense desire to know something and yet at the same time not regard the impossibility of fulfilling that desire as a loss or a lack of completion. And this parallels human beings in a state of pure nature who, being rational creatures and knowing God as first principle of the world, can go on to wonder what it would be like directly to apprehend the very essence of God. At the same time, they would judge that that kind of knowledge is simply not one that is open to us – that it is “above our pay grade,” metaphysically and epistemologically speaking – and thus they would not experience this incapacity as a loss or an imperfection.
It is true that knowledge of the divine essence is incomparably more significant than knowledge of bat phenomenology, but, again, that is simply irrelevant to the specific point of the analogy. You would no doubt respond, as you do in your reply, that any rational nature would have to regard the incapacity for the beatific vision as a loss or an imperfection. But that simply reasserts your position against mine, without arguing for it; that is to say, it begs the question. You might then go on (as indeed you do in your reply) to say that this is simply not a “sane” position to take, and warn that I “will lose the debate” if I take it. But this merely adds foot-stomping to the question-begging.
It is also false to claim that my analogy fails insofar as learning what it is like to be a bat would require replacing one nature with another – viz. human nature with bat nature – and thus make your point for you. That is clearly not the case. Our nature is to be rational animals. And if, super-naturally, the capacity for a bat-like echolocation were added to our existing repertoire of animal capacities, we would still have the nature of rational animals (and not the nature of bats, which are of their nature non-rational). Once again, my analogy, when one is careful to note exactly what it is intended (and not intended) to illustrate, is perfectly fine.
OK, so let’s get to the pantheism business. One thing I need to emphasize from the get-go is that I was, of course, not attributing to you everything that the Stoics, Spinoza, or Hegel believed. I was not characterizing you as a “synthesis of all pantheists” or the like. I was merely making the point that you do say things that echo some of the distinctively pantheist themes of each of these thinkers, even if you put your own twist on them and wouldn’t endorse everything they say. Hence, to note that you differ from the Stoics in this way, from Spinoza in that way, from Hegel in this other way, and so on, is not to the point. Yes, of course you’re not a Stoic pantheist, a Spinozist pantheist, or a Hegelian pantheist. You’re a David Bentley Hart pantheist. Hence, still a pantheist.
To be sure, “pantheism” is a label that has been applied to a pretty broad range of thinkers, from Vedantists to Parmenides to Marcus Aurelius to John Scotus Eriugena to Spinoza to Hegel to Einstein to Deepak Chopra. But not anything goes. The boundaries may be fuzzy, but they are not non-existent. Hence it will not do for you to say, in response to the charge of pantheism, that it is a label you “can neither reject nor accept, since it is meaningless.” And in fact that is different from what you conceded just a couple of years ago, when, during an earlier exchange of ours, :
The accusation of pantheism troubles me not in the least. For one thing, it’s a vague word used of far too many different things. But there are many ways in which I would proudly wear the title… I am quite happy to be accused of pantheism – or of paganism, monism, syncretism, Hinduism, panpsychism, and so on, since I regard none of those labels as opprobrious.
End quote. So, we have it on the expert testimony of one David Bentley Hart that David Bentley Hart is (some kind of) pantheist. Indeed, even in this latest reply, you concede: “But, yes, you have me, I am a metaphysical monist.” So which is it? “Oh please, don’t fling the silly ‘pantheist” charge!” or “Damn right I’m a pantheist, wanna make something of it?” Pick a strategy and stick with it!
True, you go on to claim that you are in this regard merely placing yourself in the tradition of “Eriugena, Eckhart, and Cusanus, [and] also drawing from Gregory and Maximus.” But (putting aside issues about how these various thinkers ought to be interpreted) saying “They’re ‘pantheists’ too!” is very different from denying the charge of pantheism. I cannot help but wonder if you are being a bit coy lest too frank an acknowledgement of your pantheism might alienate those among your readers for whom that would be a bridge too far. But I’d urge you to let your Yes be Yes and your No, No. Anything else is from the marketing department. (Not that I think you care about selling books. But I do think you care about selling ideas.)
As I emphasized in There are, for example, these bracing passages from the Council:, the lens through which I am viewing the pantheism question is – you will be utterly unsurprised to hear – that provided by the First Vatican Council and late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century papal teaching and its Neo-Scholastic inspiration.
If anyone says that finite things, both corporal and spiritual, or at any rate, spiritual, emanated from the divine substance; or that the divine essence, by the manifestation and evolution of itself becomes all things… let him be anathema.
If anyone… holds that God did not create by his will free from all necessity, but as necessarily as he necessarily loves himself… let him be anathema.
There is Pius X’s Pascendi, which takes “the identity of man with God” to be the chief note of pantheism. There is Pius XI’s Mit Brennender Sorge, which identifies “raising the world to the dimensions of God” as a variety of pantheism. And so on.
Now, in You Are Gods, you say that because we are capable of a supernatural end, human beings “must be divine – ‘naturally’” and “must always already have been divine,” so that “our being in God and God’s being in us are both also and more originally God’s being as God.” You say that “creation… [is] revealed as being ‘located’ nowhere but within the very life of God as God.” You say that “creation inevitably follows from who [God] is.” You say that “nothing in nature or history can be simply extrinsic to this movement of the Father’s ‘achievement’ of his own essence in the divine life.” You say that:
Only the God who is always already human can become human. Only a humanity that is always already divine can become God… God is all that is. Whatever is not God exists as becoming divine, and as such is God in the mode of what is other than God.
And so on. I quote other relevant remarks in my review. Surely no one reading this needs to do the math, least of all you. If pantheism includes the sorts of things condemned by the Council and the popes, then your position is clearly pantheistic. At the very least, it “savors of pantheism,” as Pius X would say.
You would no doubt respond, as you do in your reply, that “I do not believe in the organs of authority that you believe in.” I know that. That’s not the point. I don’t for a moment expect you to give up your pantheism simply because the Piuses condemned it. But I do not think it is too much to ask for you frankly to acknowledge that your position is indeed exactly the sort of thing they condemned. You would lose some Catholic readers – and (I cannot tell a lie) I think that is why you don’t just come out and admit the obvious – but the true nature of the dispute between us would be clearer.
It is also no good for the 1,234th time to rattle off a list of the Mighty Dead, as if the mere incantation forced them to testify on your behalf. The devil knows scripture, and he knows the Fathers too. I daresay he’s even read them in the original Greek and Latin. What they said is one thing, and what you say they meant is not necessarily the same thing. Take the theosis of Irenaeus and Athanasius, which held a powerful attraction for me when I began to reconsider Christianity after years of being an atheist (and still does). I would interpret it in a Thomistic way, which preserves the sharp distinction between creature and creator. You would no doubt regard such an interpretation as anachronistic and superficial, missing the deep (cough pantheistic cough) meaning implicit in these Fathers, even if unrealized by them. Who is right? Merely citing them is not going to answer that question. The same is true of thinkers you regard as more obviously supporting your side, such as Gregory. Precisely because you and I both regard them as incorporable within our respective positions, merely name-checking them cuts no ice.
Now, the question is, in part, a question of what is an orthodox reading of such thinkers. In my review, I quoted a number of lines from You Are Gods evidencing your rejection of traditional criteria of Christian orthodoxy – and your appeal to extra-Christian sources as if they were equal in authority, or in some cases perhaps even of greater insight, than some Christian sources. On the one hand, you quibble with some of the details of what I say. For example, when I note with disapproval that you suggest that Christian thinkers “have a great deal to learn” from Vedanta, you respond:
And? Would you raise objections to the term “Neoplatonic Christianity?” Would you have resisted the use of Platonism by the early Christians? How about Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism by Thomas? Would Thomas’s reliance on a Muslim philosopher like ibn Sina have horrified you?
But once again you have missed the point. I am, of course, happy to learn from Vedanta, and from Neoplatonism, Avicenna, and (for that matter) my electrician and the guy who does my taxes. But here’s one thing we are not going to learn from Vedanta: what Christianity is.
On the other hand, the main point I was making in that section of the review is one that you basically concede. In your reply, you write: “I admit that what others consider orthodoxy is not my primary concern” and “I do not care whether what I say fits a particular definition of orthodoxy.”
Well, here’s one problem with that. It’s not entirely true. For you do not present the position you develop in You Are Gods as merely inspired by Christian writers, alongside others. You present it as the Christian position, and you condemn rivals like Neo-Scholastic Thomism as positively contrary to Christian teaching. Similarly, in That All Shall Be Saved, you presented your universalism as Christian teaching full stop, and dismissed rival positions like Thomism and Calvinism as simply getting Christianity wrong. (Indeed, it even seems, at least in those moments, that perhaps you envy the Piuses their authority to issue anathemas!)
So, it appears to me that you have a tendency to speak out of both sides of your mouth. When it suits your purposes, you are happy to play the orthodoxy card against your opponents. When accused of flouting orthodoxy yourself, it’s suddenly: “Orthodoxy schmorthodoxy, let a thousand flowers bloom!” That’s the sort of rhetoric that may work well with people who are into rhetoric of that sort. But logically speaking… well, I don’t need to finish the sentence.
Hence, when you admonish me: “Do not arrogate to yourself the right to speak for Christian tradition in general” and “there are more things in Christianity… than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” what else can I say but: Right back atcha, David.
Except that our positions are not really at a stalemate at this point, since I really do believe that there is such a thing as orthodoxy and that there are objective criteria by which that can be determined. You, I think, do not. I suspect that the traditional Catholic-Orthodox-Protestant debates over the sources of authority bore you. I gather that, when the term “modernism” enters the discussion, you’ll offer an impatient sigh, with a side order of eye rolls. But, when pressed, you’ll concede that yes, at least where questions about the authority of tradition, the history of dogma, and the like are concerned, your sympathies are with thinkers of the sort condemned in Pascendi. Stop me when I‘m getting warm.
So, while you may think I get Christianity wrong, I am most certainly trying to get it right. I don’t think you are doing that, not fundamentally anyway. You admitted as much in That All Shall Be Saved, where you suggested that if it should turn out that your universalism really is inconsistent with Christianity, you would give up Christianity rather than universalism – appealing to your own “conscience,” against which, you say, “the authority of a dominant tradition… has no weight whatever.”
Hence what you defend in that book and in the new one, I would suggest, is not really Christianity itself, but rather a personal theology that takes certain Christian thinkers as key sources of inspiration. It is, at the end of the day, essentially David Bentley Hartism. And so, I agree with you when you say that “for all intents and purposes, we profess different faiths.”
Well, that’s basically it. I appreciate the good sportsmanship of your reply, your kind words about my philosophy of mind book, and the kind words you have had elsewhere for Five Proofs of the Existence of God. As you know, I admire your own books Atheist Delusions and The Experience of God, and I know that they have meant a lot to some of my own readers. It is where we get into matters of more specific Christian concern that we, and our readers, begin to diverge. That is regrettable, but there it is.
The big book on the soul that I am currently working on is one that mostly deals with matters on which our sympathies converge. And so, I think that for the most part you will like it. Except for the section on the postmortem fixity of the will, which you will hate.
May God bless you too.