As I have been observing (and to a limited extent participating in) the ongoing discussion over the teaching of evolutionary theory in Adventist colleges and universities I have been pondering a book by Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. Christian Century hailed the 2004 tome as the most “brilliant work by an American theologian in the past ten years,” and John Milbank has bestowed on Hart the title of “best living American systematic theologian.” I won’t add to these superlatives other than to say that I think the book is really, really good. I also think Hart has a lot to say to the Adventist community, whether in its "progressive" or "traditional" expressions. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying his ideas, here is what I understand him to be saying about the relationship between Christian faith, truth, beauty, and violence:
Christianity, Hart argues, cannot, and should not, seek to establish the plausibility or truthfulness of its claims through “rational” or "scientific" arguments (the standards of “truth” that modernist heirs of the Enlightenment continue to demand and that many believers assume they must therefore somehow supply). Hart is not saying that faith is blind or irrational or groundless or relative, as various postmodern philosophers assert. But to use tools of syllogistic and inductive reasoning to bend the wills (or silence the tongues, or curry the favor) of persons outside of belief, he suggests, would be to engage in an essentially coercive project. It would be to use the Gospel’s word of peace as a mask for aggression and strategy for power (just as Nietzsche charged all truth claims inevitably must be). It would be to betray the very meaning of Christ’s selfless love through tactics of epistemological closure, and so of violence.
But if the Christian narrative is a narrative of peace in truth and not merely in word, Hart believes, it must convince people of its truth by a means other than a grammar and syntax of compulsion. It must reconcile the world to God without participating in the “optics of the market” or empires of violence—including intellectual violence—it seeks to overcome.
The way the gospel narrative does this (the church’s shameful history of violence and coercion post-Constantine notwithstanding) is through its beauty. Jesus is “a form evoking desire” and Christian thinking has an “irreducibly aesthetic character.” The church “has no arguments for its faith more convincing than the form of Christ,” Hart writes. Making its appeal “first to the eye and heart, as the only way it may ‘command’ assent, the church cannot separate truth from rhetoric, or from beauty.” We know that the Gospel is true not because it presents a superior method of dialectic or a set of logical or scientific “proofs,” but because of the unique light that radiates from its story—the story of “a God who creates out of love, not necessity, who becomes human to suffer violence rather than impose it, who is the one condemned rather than the one who condemns,” and who teaches us to see the reflected/refracted image of the divine in the weak, the lowly, and the oppressed.
As long as one remains dull and insensitive to the sheer beauty of this story, Hart makes clear, one will never be able to comprehend its truth, while to see and embrace the audacious loveliness of the Jesus narrative is to begin to grasp its truthfulness as well.
Yet the beauty of the story of Christ is not, it turns out, a self-validating witness to God's in-breaking presence in history. For the New Testament writers, the evidence of Christ's victory over "the powers"—including the final power, which is death—is not words on a page but the living body of Christ. And the living body of Christ before the eyes of a watching world is the church itself as it bears witness to the shape of Jesus' life. It is only as unbelievers encounter the radical social practices and new community formation of the body of believers that they might "see" the tangible proof that Christ is indeed risen and "all in all" as the Apostle Paul declares. But absent this witness—which for the Gospel writers is not a matter of scientific or philosophical argumentation but of things like selfless love, and nonviolent suffering, and care for the weak and the poor, and the removal of barriers between people who were formerly enemies—there simply is no compelling evidence that Jesus rose from the grave. None whatsoever.
Is it possible, then, that a far more corrosive source of skepticism and unbelief within the church than materialist science is the failure of the body of believers to be the body of Christ? Another way of putting the question and the challenge that Hart's book seems to me to pose for Adventists might be like this: Is the reason that the Adventist church is hemorrhaging its youth and young adults really that they have not been sufficiently inculcated with arguments for creation "science"? Or is it possible that we are faced with a far deeper problem that in fact implicates all of us: the fact that the church has widely failed to incarnate the dangerous and demanding shape of Jesus' life in a way that is profoundly beautiful?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1706