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David Bentley Hart’s Rhetorical Decisions

August 15, 2011

David Bentley Hart’s writing is a gorgeous hymn to the economy of the divine gift, to the particularity of Jesus Christ as the ‘beauty of the infinite’. However I am puzzled at times by his combative approach. It struck me while re-reading the ‘Salvation’ section of his magnum opus that there can often be a fine line between choosing to take an author’s thought as a ‘salutary example’ of how not to think and as an example of genuinely positive insight much misunderstood. For Bentley Hart, Girard falls into the first category and Anselm into the second. Although, I find what Hart has to say on the issues at stake in his engagement with both thinkers to be insightful, I find myself inclined to take the opposite stance on both Girard and Anselm. Girard, on the one hand has already taken on board the complexity of Israel’s understanding of sacrifice and repented of the earlier simplifications (cited by Hart from ‘The Scapegoat’), and his thought has been richly developed by theologians (Baillie, Heim, Alison) in just the direction Hart suggests. In Anselm, on the other hand, it seems to me that, for all his ‘last minute’ trinitarianism and reference to divine grace, in Cur Deus Homo the logic of exchange ends up swallowing the gift and incorporating it into its logic. To be more precise, the efficacy of the gift is bound to the necessity of the exchange logic of the economy. It is necessitated by the fact that human life, at the very beginning of his argument, is conceived as intrinsically indebted rather than gifted. As such the particularity of the person Jesus Christ is transmuted into an abstract ‘value’. Its value accounts for its universal impact. It is precisely this ‘valuation’ of the particular which Hart rails against elsewhere in his writing.


As it longs for the infinite of the other – which is the just measure of the other – Israel forsakes economic recuperation for the rescue of the particular, of every particular; its long is for the “bad” infinite, which can be made subordinate to no economy at all. This is the infinite excess of God’s gift: that it will not cease to be gift and become value. – The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 352 –


This is why the cross of Christ should be seen not simply as a sacrifice, but as the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice. It is pure crisis, a confrontation between worlds, the raising up of one out of the grip of the other… The crucifixion is what happens to this sacrifice [Christ’s] even its seal and perfect accomplishment, but not as such its event; the cross is the response of political power to Christ’s self-oblation, which is the entire kenotic and faithful unfolding of his mission. There is a double motion in the crucifixion, of gift and immolation: Christ giving himself to God in the entirety of his life lived toward the Father, unto death, and the violence of worldly power folding back upon this motion in an effort to contain it.  – The Beauty of the Infinite, pp. 353-4 –




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