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.)