Thursday, June 02, 2011

A Voice New To Me

Benjamin Myers is a professor of systematic theology in Australia, and my presumption is Reformed, since his profile photo for Blogger is a button that says "Read More Barth You Bastards". His blog, Faith and Theology, is a marvelous find, full of serious and playful - sometimes simultaneously - posts on all sorts of matters. His most recent post concerns the winner of the annual Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing, an Orthodox theologian who also happens to be British, David Bentley Hart. I have not heard of him - not exactly a surprise, since I adhere to T. H. Huxley's dictum that "The known is finite, the unknown infinite", which is why I'm constantly interested to learn all sorts of new things - but there is a "David B. Hart Appreciation Blog" that deserves more attention.

Choosing not at all randomly from an index of articles available through the blog, I read two. The first is a review of Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell. A quick scan made me sit and read through it a couple times, and I believe, based on this one review, the prize is deserved. For example:
[I]n Breaking the Spell, Dennett sets out to offer an evolutionary account of human religion, to propose further scientific investigations of religion to be undertaken by competent researchers, and to suggest what forms of public policy we might wish, as a society, to adopt in regard to religion, once we have begun to acquire a proper understanding of its nature. It is, in short, David Hume’s old project of a natural history of religion, embellished with haphazard lashings of modern evolutionary theory and embittered with draughts of dreary authoritarianism.


In the end, nothing of any significance is decided by talking about religion in the abstract. It is a somewhat inane topic, really, relevant neither to belief nor to disbelief. It does not touch on the rationales or the experiences that determine anyone’s ultimate convictions, and certainly nothing important is to be learned from Daniel Dennett’s rancorous exchanges with nonexistent persons regarding the prospects for an impossible science devoted to an intrinsically indeterminate object. If Dennett really wishes to undertake a scientific investigation of faith, he should promptly abandon his efforts to describe religion in the abstract and attempt instead to enter into the actual world of belief in order to weigh its claims from within. As a first step, he should certainly-purely in the interest of sound scientific method and empirical rigor-begin praying. This is a drastic and implausible prescription, no doubt, but it is the only means by which he could possibly begin to acquire any knowledge of what belief is or what it is not.


I would hesitate to say that Breaking the Spell is, in this sense, entirely absurd, as I doubt that it is tightly reasoned enough to merit the description. What does seem clear, however, is that, in its general form, the book’s argument is one that strives (not always successfully) to preserve the shape of reason, logic, and method, even though that shape has been largely evacuated of all rational, logical, or empirical content. To put the matter bluntly, no one could mistake it for a genuinely substantial argument who was not firmly intent on doing so before ever reading the book. Viewed impartially, Dennett’s project leads nowhere, and its diffuse and flimsy methods are altogether unequal to the task of capturing the complex, bewildering, endlessly diverse thing they are designed to subdue.
The review is lengthy, detailed, and quite devastating. Precisely because he takes Dennett seriously enough to realize the work is vacuous, it is all the more harsh, because Hart treats Dennett one scholar to another, and finds him wanting. The language is formal, the style by turns witty without ever being ham-handed, and the critical points clear without a lot of fuss and bother. Using "The Hunting of the Snark" as a template is sheer genius, a bonus for Lewis Carroll lovers everywhere.

The other post concerns a series of letters and Hart's reply on a review he did of a work of Thomas Oden on the humor of philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. The letters, including one from Oden himself, are indignant that Hart would not only make several points in regard to the work itself - i.e., a work on the humor of a philosopher should be, well, humorous and contain quotes that were meant to be, and continue to be, funny, neither of which Oden seems to have done - as well as making certain observations on other philosophers that are both common knowledge and bare no relation to how Hart - or anyone else - fells about the gentlemen in question. For example, one letter writer takes umbrage that Bart says of Konigsberg's resident fastidious virgin, Immanuel Kant: “the most boring man ever to darken a wigmaker’s doorway.” Quite apart from itself being an amusing observation, it is obviously true, regardless of how one feels about Kant, his work, or his legacy, subjects to which Hart makes reference in his reply:
To remark that Kant was a very boring man is to say nothing that even his admirers would not generally acknowledge, and to confess my low opinion of the developed form of his transcendental idealism is hardly to deny his epochal significance or his genius.
Hart is also chastised for criticizing Hegel, upon whom he makes this encomium:
I did not mean to give Hegel short shrift. I observed that his prose was turgid and his character pompous, which is correct on both counts. He also, however, possessed a savage and sometimes surgically exact wit. Moreover, he possessed one of the most majestic philosophical minds the world has ever seen, and no one else’s thought excites in me so intoxicating a combination of rapt admiration and sincere dread.
This post ends with a marvelous line that makes clear Hart is a deserving recipient of any prize:
[I]rreverence is not the same thing as contempt. Occasionally it is a sign of long familiarity and perhaps an absence of misplaced piety.
I shall have to hunt and find some longer works by David B. Hart, if for no other reason than I feel my appetite whetted by this brief introduction.

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