Kevin Hart on von Balthasar, Marion, and Milbank…

Is postmodernism a thoroughly secular movement of thought? If it is, then the modern and the postmodern would seem to be “in continuity,” at least in this respect. But of course, there is no one postmodernism, and the brilliant postmodern critique of modernity’s intellectual shortcomings “for some folk . . . is an invitation to elaborate a way of being that is utterly post-secular.”

This is how Kevin Hart, “postmodern theologian” from Australia — and a poet — who’s now teaching at Notre Dame, opens the final chapter in his riveting Postmodernism: A Guide for Beginners (2004). Hart’s book is not just for beginners. In fact, I guess I don’t have to write my lit theory guide, because this book does the job so beautifully, and I urgently recommend it to my readers, even though it confines itself to the last 50 or 60 years or so, out of the 2400 years I must deal with….

Anyway, in his last chapter Hart skillfully brings recent Christian theologians and philosophers into conversation with Blanchot, Levinas, and Derrida, around the rich and fascinating conundrum of the (im)possibility of the gift. He sets a certain context for von Balthasar, Marion, and Milbank, and I’m interested in what those of you reading (or having read) von Balthasar think about it. The implications for dialogue between science and faith are implicit in Hart’s account, which I’ll now sketch.

Hart begins by reminding us that the post-secular thinkers are typically postmodern in terms of how they view modernity’s shortcomings. Hart’s list of these is characteristically sharp and incisive. It goes like this: “its reliance on static, spatial models of knowledge [i.e. the “fact”], its narrowly Ramist understanding of method [i.e. its linear and heavily binary “logic”], its heavy emphasis on the solitary self [the cogito or “thinking ego”], its stress upon disinterestedness [i.e. its impossible segregation of a new ideal of “objectivity” from its new and demonized opposite, “subjectivitiy”], its impatience with ritual [at one with its general dismissal of embodied being], and its wilful confusion of mystery and mystification [’nuff said!].”

Now you can see from my glosses of Hart’s phrases that my own work’s about the implications of the innovative but very narrow new Cartesian model for human knowing and about contrasting them with a more dynamic Greco-European model that lasted from the Greeks through Thomas Aquinas, and persisted among the Renaissance humanists, before losing out to Cartesianism….

But Hart’s post-secular thinkers are marked not only by this thoughtful critique of cultural modernity, but also by their rejection of another modernism,“theological modernism” (or theological liberalism). In this respect, Hart mentions postmodern Christians such as “post-liberal” theologian George Lindbeck at Yale and anti-foundationalist analytic philosopher Richard Rorty. On the other hand, Hart points out that other post-liberal figures such as critical theorist Jurgen Habermas and theologian Karl Rahner disavowed theological modernism, but could not properly be called postmodern, because they do not “mark a rupture” in their own thought from that of cultural modernity.

Given this succinct little taxonomy, Hart is now ready to introduce “the most significant of all postmodern theologians,” Hans Urs van Balthasar, and to explain how von Balthasar “rethinks” cultural (Cartesian) modernity. Hart reviews quickly how von Balthasar traces the origins of Cartesianism back to trends in the Islamic philosophy of Avicenna and Averroes, which disquieted the 12th-century champions of orthodoxy, Albert Magnus and Aquinas, with its primacy of reason over faith

With the Franciscan teacher Johannes Duns Scotus, however, Von Balthasar finds the full-blown emergence of modernity within late medieval Christian theology. Hart briefly analyzes this, notes that Scotus may have been “subtly misunderstood,” and relates how von Balthasar traces its influence to the theology of Francisco Suarez, the counter-Reformation theologian whose work dominated the 17th century, and in particular the Jesuit school at La Fleche that Descartes attended. (Any opinions on this fascinating account?)

The oppositions von Balthasar found between Duns Scotus and Dominican Thomism, and the the transmission through Suarez to form the backdrop for Descartes’ outlook (especially the notion of a neutral universal being that eliminates the infinite difference between God and the human mind) is fascinating to anyone who (like myself, a 17th-century scholar) has long pondered the rise of the Enlightenment paradigm of scientific rationalism, the paradigm that took the Protestant West by storm and still organizes the mindsets of hard scientists and biblical literalists alike, in North America today.

By the way, Hart cites analytical philosophers as disputing that any of them are “still” Cartesians or even foundationalists. Well, I guess they haven’t talked to the analytic philosophers I’ve encountered all my life…. And North Americans in general are certainly Cartesians and foundationalists, unless formed in the confessional denominations or unless artists or linguists or otherwise aware that modern rationalism is only one limited instance of the rigorous ways of knowing….

As helpful as Hart’s discussion to this point has been, it only gets better, as Hart moves from von Balthasar to Jean-Luc Marion, and thence to John Milbank, the last of the three postmodern theologians Hart wants to look at. The sections on Marion include a brief yet very powerful introduction to Husserlian phenomenology including the epoche and the reduction (and that ain’t easy), and then, through phenomenology and through Milbank’s disagreements with Derrida on the gift, Hart moves into an orchestration of these thinkers together with Levinas and with Hart’s own special subject, Blanchot. Hart talks a lot about Blanchot, having written a book on him, and it’s all to the good, I must say. Blanchot’s relevance to the postmodern conversation is amply demonstrated throughout the book.

But I’ve gone on and on about this guide to postmodernism, enough for today. Since I am only now plunging into von Balthasar, I’m wondering if the theologically informed would agree with this sketch of what Hart has to say? I’m also wondering how on earth we can open the closed campuses of our era (and this is my main focus in my own work) to the ancient and sacred wonder of thinking otherwise than rationalistically?

(If these questions and thinkers interest you, be sure to visit The Land of Unlikeness, listed in my blog links, where folk are reading von Balthasar and a good discussion is underway.)

9 thoughts on “Kevin Hart on von Balthasar, Marion, and Milbank…

  1. Caleb Knedlik

    Fascinating suggestion that Hart makes concerning the origin of Enlightenment Rationalism! I will check out that introduction to postmodernism that you recommended.

  2. Janet, thanks for the summary of Hart. I’m really interested in checking our his work with Milbank.
    I thoroughly enjoy von Balthasar’s geneaology of modernity, and find it to be immensley helpful in understanding the current predicament – although certain fellows at Oxford contest the Radical Orthodoxy (and Balthasar’s) reading of Scotus. In any case, fundamental to the whole shibang for VB is the analogia entis, and the way in which it shapes our being and reality in contrast to God’s. If you accept his reading of Scotus, or that this particular read of Scotus has held any predominance in the academy, then you quickly see that Theology gave up the ghost so to speak, which has all sorts of ramifications for science, language, history, etc… Most of this is spelled out at the beginning of the fifth volume of the Glory of the Lord: The Realm of Metaphysics in the Age of Reason.
    A concern I would like to voice, however, is with calling VB a post-modern theologians. Probably most of my issue is with using the term post-modern at all. Nevertheless, the way PoMo is being used, especially by groups like the amorphous Emergent Church. Over at, the term pomo theology tends to carry with it an almost explicit rejection of tradition, of metaphysics, and especially of the transcendentals, all things on which VB bases his program. So, if we call him postmodern, then it would have to be a severly nuanced form.

  3. Janet

    Would the term post-critical serve better for von Balthasar, in your opinion?
    Yes, the analogy of being is crucial. But how does all this have to do with nominalism — that’s what I’m pursuing right now — since Scotist nominalism has sometimes been credited as an opening for the Reformation, the way the reduction of being to a neutral universal concept is being linked to the Cartesian paradigm. Does von Balthasar deal with that, also? It’s hard to find those Glory of the Lord volumes, unless on wants to pay $465 for the papaerback set….

  4. hmmm.. well, that’s a good one. balthasar does talk directly about how the loss of analogy equals the reduction of being. This is really most of the 5th volume in my reading. crudely put, Balthasar sees in thinkers like Cusa a deep respect for the analogy of being – that God’s being is like but also much more different than ours – yet he lays the foundation for those who come after him to drop the analogy for a pure identity, a radical conflation of ontology. Whereas under Thomas and the analogia our being and God’s were understood to be radically different, and this a theological matter, with nominalism the analogia is given up, being is leveled and and thus given over to philosophy. Since God’s being and our’s are essentially under the same class now, philosophy can say things independent of theological intervention.

    I’m including a link to a $25 copy of vol V.

  5. Janet

    Thanks very much, Dan. I didn’t see this kind link of yours and just paid $49 for it, but at least I did get a vol. 5.
    I did some rereading and realized that Duns Scotus, unlike William of Ockham the nominalist, is a realist, like the Thomists, though Gerard Manley Hopkins reads Scotus affirming individuation in a way that Thomas cannot. I’m hoping Balthasar’s vol on metaphysics in the earlier periods will treat this, and I’ll review Copleston, whom I love any excuse for reading, to follow the threads of nominalism, realism, and the analogy of being. Anyone else out there have some wisdom to offer?

  6. Janet, thanks for the skinny on the Hart book (I saw him give a great talk at Villanova, where he almost got a job), will definitely have to check that out. My thoughts right now on this topic are that we need to follow Lacan into taking the gap that Descartes introduces more, not less, seriously. I was just reading Bruce Fink’s edited book Reading Seminar XX where he starts off by stressing that the Enlightenment gave up reality for the real. At first this statement was puzzling to me, but reading on he says that reality is that which is framed by fantasy, and this is what modern science does away with. The real is that which one experiences as absence, or when one has an experience of something that doesn’t exist, though it may ex-ist (feminine jouissance fits into this category). Sorry for all the Lacanlingo, but my point is this. Positivist are far from being connected to material reality, they in fact are most in the void. The trick for us is to see the extent to which the fantasy has been effaced, and to quit trying to erect new ones. As science progresses we have to work harder and faster to replace the ones that are torn down. . . .

  7. Janet

    Father John makes this point all the time, about how the hard rationalists (as among his doctor/psychiatrist friends) are so alienated from reality. But Aron, I need you to clarify your last couple sentences. I think that what I call the elegant formalities of things, or formality, which moved the entire Greco-European tradition until the Cartesian paradigm came in (though then they had their austere vision of a mathematical universe), must share traits in common with this “fantasy” in Fink’s reading of Lacan? And affinities, then, with von Balthasar on “seeing the form,” and his relating this most difficult beauty to “glory” (reading this kindly man is a sensational experience)…. Anyway, do we replace the “fantasies” science has torn down, or “quit trying to erect new ones”? The latter? Is this Lacan’s recognize and know your fantasy desire? But then we are cut off from reality along wth the empiricists.

  8. Ryan McDermott

    These are some fascinating discussions you’re instigating, Janet. I came across your page searching for a transcript of the Milbank-Marion debate at Notre Dame several years back. Kevin Hart moderated it, and I’m now in a course on Marion and the theological turn in phenomenology with KH. Where are you working and what are you working on?

  9. Hi, Ryan. I’ve heard about those seminars with Kevin Hart, over at Per Caritatem (do you know that blog?), and I envy you your current experience!

    I took early retirement from Seattle Pacific University (where I directed Honors and taught history of literary theory, the Greeks, and medieval & Renaissance literature) in order to write, and I’m working right now on a new-old vision of the liberal arts that’s desperately needed right now. I read everybody though (Heidegger, Gadamer, Husserl, Derrida, Levinas) and I’m pouring it all into a couple of essays on Plato’s Ion and Aristotle’s Poetics. My main passion is with how human beings come to know — not modern epistemology (for all the reasons Heidegger points out), but the theory of the episteme that animated liberal learning for the first 2000 years after Plato’s Academy. What I can contribute is that I work out of language theory (semiotics) and out of Renaissance/Aristotelian theory on the probable/possible.

    Are you at Virginia or Notre Dame? Tell me a little about yourself. (I have former students at Villanova and elsewhere in Philly who heard the Milbank-Marion exchange.)

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