The Agonist Journal

The wonderful Scottish poet Norman MacCaig wrote a poem called “An Academic,” which I’ve turned to for bitter solace on more than one occasion.

You sit at your fat desk, starching
your brains; you’re the tone-deaf man
in the orchestra, you’re the frog
who wouldn’t a-wooing go.

What a job is this, to measure
lightning with a footrule, the heart’s
turbulence with a pair of callipers.
I’m a simple man—I believe
you were born, I believe it
against all the evidence.

One has to believe that David Bentley Hart, like MacCaig, has been so dismayed by the aridity of academic discourse that invective seems the only fitting response.

"If you’re not basking in Hart’s transcendent brilliance, you’re attesting to it by privation. An elect few see the light of his 'irrefutable' (that’s Hart’s word) argument, and all the other benighted fools, be they willful heretics or ignorant heathens, must wait until the eschaton before they’ll really understand anything."

I know the feeling. It’s not hard to imagine that, in the purgatorial conference rooms where academic philosophy gets done, Hart has all too frequently, in discussions of matters of the most profound human significance, been saddled with interlocutors firmly situated on the autism spectrum. There is a certain kind of analytic philosopher (and I don’t doubt there are also some Christian philosophers who meet this description) who seems to possess an extraordinary talent for being morally obtuse. Anyone who has met a Randian will know exactly the type. For encounters with such people the lovely word “imbecile” is perhaps the only effective balm.

Hart is a man of undeniable brilliance. But a man of undeniable brilliance whom we have the misfortune of witnessing in the act of diluting his legacy with lashings of weird megalomania. He is the Orson Welles of theologians.

In general, Hart’s takedowns of Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and other overrated intellectuals are accurate. And yet, at times, reading Hart’s hatchet jobs is like discovering that a dear friend has been using your favorite fountain pen to transcribe Atlas Shrugged in flawless calligraphy. Humility, magnanimity, graciousness—these virtues seem to be totally foreign to Hart’s intellectual sensibility. It’s just not the DBH way. It’s as difficult to imagine a work by Hart evincing genuine humility as it is to imagine a Woody Allen film about Appalachian steelworkers.

Lest I be accused of hypocritically hurling insults, let me adduce some evidence.

That All Shall Be Saved (henceforth TASBS), Hart’s new book, on Christian universalism, has unsurprisingly sparked controversy. Hart claims that

no reviewer who has written a negative piece on my book has actually described, referred to, or in any respect engaged the actual book I wrote…[R]ather than address [its] argument, the book’s detractors have spent their time inventing another book altogether and then attacking it vehemently…They have also complained that the book is too rhetorically fierce, though in fact it is not; that too they have misrepresented by willfully taking phrases out of context. 

Let’s survey a few complainers.

At Credo magazine, Alan W. Gomes notes the “highly supercilious and oddly pugilistic” tone of TASBS, “dripping with bile and laden with polemically evocative language and unadorned insult.” “Were I a universalist,” Gomes comments, “I would not be happy to have my position represented, however ably, in a way certain to turn off readers who might find the arrogant tone so off-putting and tedious that they will abandon the book long before its conclusion.”

Michael McClymond, whom Hart identifies in a riposte as the “author of a ghastly history of Christian universalism,” draws attention in his review at The Gospel Coalition to a striking “oddity” about TASBS: “the total absence of joy in this book… If Hart’s argument is truly correct, then he should be gladly anticipating his final vindication—before God and before all humanity. But this book exudes bitterness and rancor, so much so that one wonders whether the author is convinced by his own arguments.”

These are not really, or not only, complaints about rhetorical fierceness, and they rely not at all on brandishing decontextualized quotes (let alone “willfully” doing so). Hart, Gomes suggests, has done a disservice to his own case by framing his whole argument in such adversarial terms. (Gomes is not alone in remarking on this aspect of the book: Douglas Farrow even makes the pugilistic nature of TASBS the thematic backbone of his review in First Things.) This reader, who was not unreceptive to Hart’s argument, had a long hiatus between reading the first chapters of the book and completing it, precisely because of the repellently arrogant and combative tone.[1]

To notice as much is not to demand that Hart affect a false humility, that he drape his arguments in tacky genteelisms. D.H. Lawrence once described one of his contemptible minor characters as slathering everybody with “the mayonnaise of his unction.” This is not the only alternative to Hart’s brand of abrasiveness.

McClymond’s observation has force regardless of whether you think Hart’s rhetoric is justified. There really is a total absence of joy in the book. It really is rancorous. Even if McClymond’s review is right about nothing else, it is unquestionably right in these respects. If Hart’s book succeeds as an argument, is it not still a literary failure given the disjunction between the good news it professes and the bitter tone in which that news is delivered? He argues that forgiveness and mercy will ultimately triumph everywhere, but does so in pages of intemperate prose vacuum sealed against the contamination of intellectual mercy or forgiveness.[2] To quote Hart himself “that precious concinnity,” a “proper harmony…between style and substance,” is conspicuously absent.

Rather than address the more interesting things his detractors have had to say, Hart spends his time inventing other reviews altogether and attacking the reviewers vehemently. He is histrionically dismayed by all of the reviewers who have failed to follow “the argument (the very good argument) my book actually advances.”

Douglas Farrow, whom Hart refers to as “excitable and delirious,” comments in his review that Hart

takes every opportunity to display his outrage at the insufferable suffering of hell, hell construed as one tortured moment after another ad infinitum. But nothing requires us to understand hell in that way, as if the time of hell were merely an extension of ordinary secular time. Even if Augustine makes this mistake, as arguably he does, that does not justify Hart making it.

Hart does in fact construe hell in this manner. It is essential to his critique of the prevailing idea of hell that it is “one tortured moment after another ad infinitum.” There is no sustained argument in the book as to why we are required, by any coherent formulation of the prevailing view, to understand hell in that way. Farrow has furnished Hart with a perfect opportunity to elaborate on that point. Here’s Hart’s chance to explain to dumb kids like me why Farrow’s suggestion (that hell might be eternal in just the way heaven is) is really untenable. But Hart is too arrogant to bother with anything like that. Instead he resorts to rash caricature, describing Farrow as “dissolving in demented rage at his own misrepresentations.”

I struggle to discern the “demented rage” in Farrow’s advice to “be thankful that Hart has spared you” a less entertaining book on the subject, and in his view that, though Hart earnestly appeals to sentiment, he cannot be accused of falling into careless sentimentality. This is, granted, a brief acclamatory interlude in an otherwise negative review, but it rather punctures the image of a critic in the throes of a demented rage. You will also search in vain for any expression of moral outrage from Farrow.

As with his description of Farrow “dissolving in demented rage,” Hart’s claim that no author of a negative review of his book has “in any respect engaged the actual book I wrote” is the most recklessly extravagant hyperbole. For instance, Farrow writes (referring to the argument Hart makes at p.189):

All [Hart] wants from his Christology is support for universalism. At one point he even tries to argue that since (a) Jesus is a man whose humanity is unimpaired, and (b) Jesus is a man incapable of rejecting God, then (c) no man to be a man must be capable of rejecting God. But (c) does not follow. And even if it did follow, it wouldn’t warrant his view that (d) no man can or will finally reject God. It is entirely orthodox, of course, to assert (c) along with (a) and (b), though not as a logical consequence of (a) and (b). It is entirely unorthodox to assert (d), which can only be maintained by running all men together into one single Man—the idealist error that has as its opposite nominalist individualism.

Farrow could be accused of misplacing crucial emphases, or of asserting in place of counter-arguing, but he can’t be accused of inventing an argument that Hart did not make.

This portion of Farrow’s review seems to me to have been an obvious opportunity for Hart to highlight the divergent sensibilities he and Farrow are bringing to bear on the issue, and to make the case for his own sensibility’s superiority. That Hart has declined to render his argument in syllogistic form, as Farrow insists on doing, is no indication that Hart was obscuring, actively or unconsciously, the shortcomings of his argument, slyly trying to lubricate the passage from premise to conclusion. Parsing every argument as a sequence of discrete propositions can be its own form of obscurantism. Style is not a mere excrescence, and one is not always purchasing suasion at the cost of clarity. Often things look quite clear only because one is standing in the shallows.

That, anyway, is how I, theological philistine that I am, begin to think about what a defence of Hart against Farrow might look like. It seems to me, at any rate, that Farrow’s talk of the “idealist error” is insufficiently attentive to the compelling account of corporate personhood which Hart articulates.[3] Hart might agree, or he might adopt a very different approach. I don’t know, because he is more interested in doling out sick burns than in answering specific objections, or even gesturing towards answers to them.

I’m not saying, of course, that Hart ought to have anticipated the specific questions that lingered in my mind, or in the mind of any other reader, on completing his book. I’m saying he should not behave in such a manner as to imply that harboring any serious doubts about his arguments, perceiving any significant lacunae in his account, is always merely an artefact of the doubter’s risible intellectual deficit compared to Hart’s own bulging intellectual coffers. If you’re not basking in Hart’s transcendent brilliance, you’re attesting to it by privation. An elect few see the light of his “irrefutable” (that’s Hart’s word) argument, and all the other benighted fools, be they willful heretics or ignorant heathens, must wait until the eschaton before they’ll really understand anything.

Thus the message Hart sends is that if there are people with sound theological intuitions groping towards a more sophisticated understanding of theology, they would do better not to turn to David Bentley Hart for help. He is a thinker for initiates and adversaries only. If this were really the case, I might not be a Christian now, but how many others have been deprived of his wisdom by the worst excesses of his ego?


I have not seen a review that grapples with, or even mentions, Hart’s most striking moral argument against a selective salvation, his image (p.151) of “a parent whose beloved child has grown into quite an evil person, but who remains a parent nevertheless and therefore keeps and cherishes countless tender memories of the innocent and delightful being that has now become lost in the labyrinth of that damaged soul.”

Hart continues,

Is all of that—those memories, those anxieties and delights, those feelings of desperate love—really to be consigned to the fire, as just so much combustible chaff? Must it all be forgotten, or willfully ignored, for heaven to enter into that parent’s soul? And, if so, is this not the darkest tragedy ever composed, and is God not then a tragedian utterly merciless in his poetic omnipotence? Moreover, who then exactly is that parent when he or she has achieved union with God, once those memories have been either converted into indifference or altogether expunged? Who or what is that being whose identity is no longer determined by its relation to that child?

There is real wisdom here. This is a reckoning with some of the profoundest difficulties of human existence that any proper account of damnation cannot afford to ignore. It is a bracing draught of moral realism. It is to my mind the most convincing argument in Hart’s battery of arguments, and it is the chief reason I finished reading reviews of the book thinking that Hart’s critics must do better.

There are other, less conspicuous instances of his critics dropping the ball. Michael McClymond takes time in his review to recall the way Hart’s translation of the New Testament eschews references to “hell.” McClymond thinks it worth emphasising his disapproval of Hart’s translation choices (in Hart’s own words, “letting my Hades be Hades and my Gehenna be Gehenna”). In TASBS (p.118), Hart writes:

Surely translators who have merely rescued distinctions in meaning present in the original Greek can no more be said to have expelled hell from scripture than a workman who oils the hinges on an upstairs door, repairs the window casement around a loose sash, and cuts away the tree branches that scrape against the eaves can be said to have “exorcised” the ghost that the residents of the house had imagined was responsible for all the strange noises keeping them up at night.

The analogy (cribbed word-for-word from an earlier blog post, though with the preamble actually softened from the original) is a good one, and it must be irritating, infuriating even, for Hart to see McClymond repeat the charge (initially levelled by Gary Wills), and even link to the earlier exchange, without crediting Hart’s forthright response, doing nothing to dispel the impression that Hart has not really addressed the criticism when in fact he has done so in the clearest possible terms.

I mention these things out of fairness to Hart. But I don’t think it’s eccentric of me to fail to see them as a warrant for behaving like an intellectual thug.

Any writer can probably appreciate the potency of the idea that he owes his readers nothing more than his sincerity. But it’s not true. With great intellectual power comes great intellectual responsibility, and I can think of nothing more intellectually irresponsible than dismissing an earnest critic with a cruel epithet. A dignified silence would be better by magnitudes. Hart blithely describes one of his critics as “Some kid at Patheos.” I don’t know what recherche species of wit Hart imagines he’s exhibiting here, but I sure know who he sounds like—namely, the very president whom he cannot stand. He slaps the single adjective “ghastly,” seemingly his favorite or anyway most frequent insult, on Michael McClymond’s thousand-page book. I’m not about to read it, but I also wouldn’t dream of giving it such brutally short shrift.

The best analogy I can think of for how precisely and abjectly David Bentley Hart disappoints is the feeling I had after seeing Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. If you want a fuller account, I’ve written about the film here, but suffice it to say that after chillingly conveying the squalor (including the moral squalor) of the Manson “family,” expertly instilling a sense of dread, and raising the tantalising and daunting prospect of launching with its denouement into fascinating and fraught moral territory, the film squanders all of its intimations of emotional subtlety and becomes an indulgent fantasy of righteous violence. Just when you think Tarantino might somehow turn and unblinkingly face brutal reality, he lunges once more (predictably, one realises) into a fit of juvenile sentiment.

In his rash and needlessly harsh responses to his critics, Hart lapses into a different sort of indulgent violent fantasy. Hart and Tarantino both let a faint threat of emotional blackmail dangle somewhere overhead. If you’re not cheering on Cliff and Rick’s brutal dispatching of Sharon Tate’s murderers, are you not somehow taking the side of those real-life murderers, apologizing for their real evil while censoring a storyteller’s fictional vision of justice? If you’re getting worked up about Hart’s rudeness towards infernalists, are you not valuing gentility higher than compassion? Are you not declaring your allegiance to those who delight in imagining the eternal torment of others? As Hobie Doyle almost said, would that it were so simple.

The problem is not that we snowflakes need every argument swaddled in euphemism and straight-talking Hart is violating us with his pulsating candour. The problem is that dispensing lurid accusations to everyone who disagrees with you devalues the currency of debate, and thereafter anyone who wants to contribute to the debate must sidle past the fat obstacle of your resentment. Hart’s approach is also self-defeating. If you want to inspire sympathy for a queue jumper, tackle him to the ground and shout “thief!” loudly and repeatedly in his face. The crowd won’t care that you’re shouting in an exquisite patrician accent.

David Bentley Hart can do those of us who would like to admire him a favor by ceasing to be so impeccable an instance of what in my country is known as a dickhead. I know this sounds quite harsh, but I have tried to be fair. I suspect Hart will not suffer this rebuke gladly. Indeed, I anticipate a merciless reprisal.

And yet, perhaps there can be peace after all. Perhaps as Hart, trilby on head, leans his formidable torso out the window of a passing automobile and swings his tommy gun around to fix me in its sights, our eyes will meet, and he will see in me something of the kid he once was, and in an access of tenderness he will let his weapon fall from his hands with a clatter, and his face will suddenly brighten with a benevolent smile.


[1] For example, the book’s introduction concludes: “But, for me at least, debate is otiose. For better or worse, my reasoning convinces me entirely, and that—sadly or happily—will certainly never change.” Those wan qualifiers (“For better or worse,” “sadly or happily”) hardly negate or mitigate the pomposity here. The sentences follow an aside in which Hart referred to people who trot out conventional arguments against universalism as “very boring indeed,” and a laboured comic dilation on the tediousness of encountering such people at parties.

[2] Hart’s defenders are prone to dismissing this line of discussion as a case of the tu quoque fallacy. But a) No one mentions it as though it were a knock-down argument against TASBS, only as a tendency that’s at best rhetorically injudicious. b) Hart himself makes reference to the “emotional pathologies” that he suspects lie behind the avowed beliefs of infernalists (believers in eternal damnation), calling the most enthusiastic among them “victims of their own diseased emotional conditions” and declaring his certainty that there are “depressingly mundane psychological explanations for their heartlessness” (p.29). If he’s liberally helping himself to ad hominem insinuations, it’s a bit rich of his cheer squad to wheel on anyone doing likewise with a cry of “fallacy!”. And c) There’s good reason to be suspicious of appeals to the tu quoque fallacy because they often overlook the fact (which I take it Hart is relying on in the claims I quoted above) that argument is always and everywhere the product of arguers, that arguments, like any sort of language, are porous things, picking up God- knows-what from odd corners of the human ecology. Yes, one can be more or less clear in making an argument, but there will be variations in standards of clarity too, depending upon the subject under discussion. One needs a sufficiently Wittgensteinian conception of reason in order to see attention to grammar as one of the demands of reason. And that means recognising that the question of what is being said can be tightly imbricated with the questions of who is speaking and from where (in moral matters this is frequently the case). I suspect that Hart would agree with all of this, but then he can’t use tu quoque as a shield against criticisms like that to which this note is attached.

[3] It is quite brilliant, and deserves to be quoted at length:

There is no such thing as a person in separation. Personhood as such, in fact, is not a condition possible for an isolated substance. It is an act, not a thing, and it is achieved only in and through a history of relations with others. We are finite beings in a state of becoming, and in us there is nothing that is not action, dynamism, an emergence into a fuller (or retreat into a more impoverished) existence. And so… we are those others who make us. Spiritual personality is not mere individuality, nor is personal love one of its merely accidental conditions or extrinsic circumstances. A person is first and foremost a limitless capacity, a place where the all shows itself with a special inflection. We exist as “the place of the other,” to borrow a phrase from Michel de Certeau. Surely this is the profoundest truth in the doctrine of resurrection. That we must rise from the dead to be saved is a claim not simply about resumed corporeality, whatever that might turn out to be, but more crucially about the fully restored existence of the person as socially, communally, corporately constituted. (p.153)