Tag Archives: David Bentley Hart

Nor Height Nor Depth: On the Toll Houses

by David Bentley Hart

Among a great many Orthodox scholars in the academic world (especially when they gather together in hushed colloquy among the shadows and feel at liberty to speak strictly entre eux) it is often taken as depressing evidence of how radically the public intellectual culture of Orthodoxy in America has degenerated in recent years—how, that is, it has declined from the urbane, scholarly, perhaps slightly Mandarin sophistication of the generation of Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff to the fundamentalist, doctrinaire, and yet deeply uneducated primitivism promoted principally by former Evangelicals in the John Whiteford mold—than the increasing respectability of the myth of the aerial toll houses. At one time, the notion that every soul, once it has departed this world, is conducted by angels through a gauntlet of twenty stations situated in the atmosphere above, in each of which it is arraigned by demonic prosecutors for sins committed in life, and from which it may proceed onward toward heaven only if it can produce a compensatory “toll” of evidence of good deeds (for want of which, it will be dragged down to hell), was at most a fragment of quaint folklore, found in this country only among marginal eccentrics, like Seraphim Rose. After all, it seems like such an embarrassingly puerile picture of things; if nothing else, it obviously hearkens back to ages in which the physical universe and the spiritual order of reality were more or less indistinguishable from one another, when it still seemed natural to think of God’s heaven as being literally situated beyond the sphere of the fixed stars, far above the planetary heavens and the sublunary aerial region of mutability, and to imagine the departed soul’s passage from this life into God’s eternity as in some sense involving the traversal of a real spatial interval between the earth and the empyrean.

One can be distracted by the cosmological imagery, however. It may well be patently absurd to confuse the soul’s journey to God with an actual cosmic itinerary—and that through a Ptolemaic universe—but no doubt all of that could, in a pinch, be allegorized away without any real impairment to the essential spiritual narrative. Certainly we do not reject the spiritual teachings of ancient and mediaeval Christians simply because their imaginations were confined to a cosmos in which an absolute qualitative division between physical and spiritual reality did not yet exist. The authors of the New Testament inhabited a reality in which a clear separation between the cosmological and the metaphysical, much less between the natural and the supernatural, had not as yet taken shape in anyone’s mind. For them, Christ’s descent into this world was at once a movement from transcendence into immanence, but also a movement through space from the unchanging divine aeon or realm above the heavens, down through the concentric spheres of the planetary and lunar heavens, into the realm of generation, alteration, and decay. Conversely, our ascent to God in and through Christ was understood as at once a sacramental, mystical, and gracious passage from death to new life, but also an ascent in and with Christ through the encircling heavens into God’s eternity above. Both Christ and those saved by him, in this vision of things, traverse the spiritual and moral chasm of estrangement between God’s empyrean and this cosmos, but also (in some sense) the actual physical interval between them. Or, at any rate, so it was believed.

Nevertheless—and this is crucial—Christians also believed that those intervening heavens, in the wake of Christ’s conquest of the hostile powers reigning over them and governing the world below, will no longer be barriers between God’s heaven and the world of the Age to come. And herein lies the great problem. The true scandal of the toll houses teaching is not the antique cosmology it shares with, say, the Apostle Paul. It is, rather, that the very notion of such barriers to the soul’s ascent constitutes nothing less than a contradiction of the entire narrative of salvation that Paul actually proclaimed. Continue reading

The Mythology of the “Historical Present”

by David Bentley Hart

I should not take exception, I suppose, if critics occasionally question my choice to render all Greek present tense verbs as English present tense verbs in my recent translation of the New Testament. The same choice was made, as it happens, by Tyndale and by his successors on the committee of scholars who produced the King James Version, but most modern readers are so distracted by the older, non-sibilant form of third person singular constructions that they generally fail to notice that when “Jesus saith” something or “goeth” somewhere he is doing so in a kind of temporally abstract narrative now. As far as I am concerned, this is the only way in which the texts should be rendered. Even so, while I am convinced that those who think otherwise are quite mistaken, I have to admit that they have at least come by their prejudice honestly, since they have been systematically misinformed on the issue all through the years of their theological education. For better than half a century, seminarians and divinity school students and teachers of the New Testament, all of whom typically began their study of Greek some time in their twenties (and then only the Greek of the New Testament texts, as filtered through defective traditions of translation and interpretation), have been indoctrinated with a remarkable quantity of nonsense regarding the use of tenses in Greek historical narratives from late antiquity. Continue reading

The Vale of Abraham

by David Bentley Hart

I may be entirely mistaken here, I confess it; that is why, in my footnotes for the tale of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, in my recent translation of the New Testament (Yale University Press), I freely state that mine is a speculative rendering.  But, if I am wrong, mine is an honorable error.  The text of Luke 16:22-23 reads thus: ἐγένετο δὲ ἀποθανεῖν τὸν πτωχὸν καὶ ἀπενεχθῆναι αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀγγέλων εἰς τὸν κόλπον Ἀβραάμ· ἀπέθανεν δὲ καὶ ὁ πλούσιος καὶ ἐτάφη. καὶ ἐν τῷ ᾅδῃ ἐπάρας τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτοῦ, ὑπάρχων ἐν βασάνοις, ὁρᾷ Ἀβραὰμ ἀπὸ μακρόθεν καὶ Λάζαρον ἐν τοῖς κόλποις αὐτοῦ.  My version of the passage reads thus: “And it happened that the poor man died and was carried off by the angels into the Vale of Abraham; but the rich man also died and was entombed.  And lifting up his eyes in Hades, being in torment, he sees Abraham far off and Lazarus in his vales.”  The issue, obviously, is my eccentric choice to render κόλπος not as the conventional “bosom,” but as the aggressively unconventional “vale.”  N.T. Wright, for instance, in an article in The Christian Century, complained that I had perversely chosen the metaphorical meaning of the word over the literal, and in so doing had ignored the ancient Jewish idiom of “Abraham’s bosom.”

Actually, neither meaning is either more literal or more metaphorical than the other, but it is true that “bosom” might have been the more common meaning in the first century; and, were Luke merely a common writer rather than quite an educated one, that would be an extremely significant consideration. As for the ancient Jewish idiom to which Wright so cavalierly alludes, it never existed as far as we know; it is entirely his invention. There is, it is true, a fragment of papyrus from Alexandria, probably from about the same general era as Acts, that mentions the κόλπος of the three patriarchs; but, of course, that does not tell us how the term or the image is to be understood there either. In what sense could three men share a single bosom, after all? Surely one should assume the phrase means “their midst,” or “among them,” or “their special place,” or “their sheltering care,” or even (to risk a wild conjecture) “their vale.” Then, from some centuries after the time of Acts, there is a single Mishnaic phrase that might refer to the same image, in the tractate Kiddushin (72b), where the third-century figure Adda bar Ahava is described as seated within “Abraham’s bosom” (presumably not a metaphor). But this, it is generally believed, is a usage without deep roots in antiquity, perhaps borrowed from the Christians and entirely unilluminating as to what the Greek phrase used by Luke back in the first century really meant. It is possible, I happily grant, that κόλπος should be taken as simply equivalent to the Hebrew cheyq—the breast, or the fold in a man’s garment located at the level of his chest—and understood literally. But Luke did not write in Hebrew or Aramaic, and he lived in a Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean world, and he used its language, and he conceived of reality in the terms common to his time.

This is all very important to keep in mind, because Wright had an odder complaint to raise against my treatment of the parable: he objected truculently to my observation, in my footnote to the episode, that the rich man and Lazarus are depicted as occupying two distinct regions of the one realm of the dead (Hades or Sheol). Continue Reading…

An Open Letter to Paul Griffiths Leisure and the Christian Life

by David Bentley Hart

Dear Paul,

We have been friends for some twenty years or so now, and you know that I revere the lucidity of your mind, as well as the serene inflexibility you bring to your theological and philosophical convictions, with an admiration bordering on idolatry. I even sometimes find that semi-Jansenist pall of gloom that you so often seem to like to cast over the Christian picture of reality strangely appealing, in all its grim Cimmerian grandeur. You sometimes exhibit a positive genius for the poetry of cosmic disenchantment, the strange, austere music of everything arid and the dismal about life.  I appreciate also that you and I share many likings and a great many more dislikes. And, for what it’s worth, I forgive you unreservedly for being so aggressively resolute in your decision to be much taller than I am, and for being able with such ease to overshadow me with that preposterously imposing aquiline profile of yours. But, all this said, I find myself unable to take in your recent reflections on the issue of “leisure” (or otium) in the online edition of the University of Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal on July 18 of this year.

If this is an unfair summary, feel free to correct me, in as dry and witheringly British a manner as you wish. I’ll bear it manfully. But, as I understand your article, you tell us not only that Christianity does not encourage us to seek or cherish moments of otiose bliss, or days of wine and roses, or years of serene reflection on the mysteries of the inner self; you tell us also that it essentially forbids such things, and that leisure is not a thing Christians should pursue. You tell us that to wander in a Wordsworthian idyll, absorbed in the beauties of nature, is the birth of narcissism within us, while to be fascinated for any length of time by the depths of our inner lives is its consummation. In this vale of tears, you remind us, even when the work of our hands affords us a moment of delirious transport or sober delight or even simple satisfaction, we are obliged to regard that as an ephemeral epiphenomenon of the deeper and unremitting command to labor at our tasks, till the dust claims us. And you tell us also that the only respite from these toils allowed to us is the Sabbath of worship, which (I have to say) you somehow make sound like just another obligation to be discharged with obstinate rigor and fidelity. All time this side of the Age to come, you claim, is the death-dealing “metronomic time” that oscillates between labor and prayer; and only in that Age will we be freed from labor—and then not for leisure, but for an ecstatic love that will more or less annihilate our first-person awareness of our own experience in an endless rapture of absorption in God’s glory. “There is no otiose time,” you proclaim, with the stern finality of a humorless school teacher telling the children that there will be no recess today, or tomorrow, or in fact any time before they die and are buried (and not even then, damn it).

Well…nonsense. Twaddle, tosh, balderdash. Dare I say piffle, or even—more daringly—poppycock? Continue Reading…