David Hart discloses his purpose on the first page: “Is the beauty to whose persuasive power the Christian rhetoric of evangelism inevitably appeals, and upon which it depends, theologically defensible?” The fact that Hart considers beauty crucial in evangelism is explained by his Eastern Orthodox tradition. The beauty that he refers to in this work is multifaceted, not just appealing to the physical senses, but appealing to the intellect.
The principal tension that Hart sets out to resolve is Christ’s gospel of peace set against the world as Nietzsche advocates see it: enmeshed in sin and violence. In particular, the author challenges the philosophic currents which have argued against the positive message of the Christian faith. Nihilistic tendencies of twentieth century philosophers are balanced by counterpoints made in advance by Eastern Fathers. For example, to expose fallacies in modern philosophy, Hart sets up Gregory of Nyssa as a dialog partner with Nietzsche.
The author’s fundamental assertion is that despite modern philosophy’s attack on Christian theology’s trajectory of peace, beauty manifested as goodness, order, and reason can be seen as clearly today as in the time of Greek Fathers.
A large portion of the book is dedicated to dissecting and neutralizing modern philosophical negative views of humanity. A principal concern seems to be that Nietzsche had dealt Christianity a mortal blow asserting that violence is a permanent and inescapable aspect of human nature. Hart grants that violence of oppression is visible in many forms exhibited throughout human history, but strongly objects to the assertion that it must always be so. In an expansive manner, Hart contrasts two cosmologies: one of primordial and inevitable human violence against the other of original and everlasting beauty. Extensively using the writings of the Cappadocians, Hart accentuates the agape of Jesus as a decisive counterpoint to the modern philosophers.
In the portion of the book which addresses beauty, Hart accentuates the beauty of sound theology as application of elegant logic to support evangelization. In this division, the Trinity, creation, salvation and eschatology are addressed. Of particular interest is his dynamic understanding of the Trinity: “the dynamic coinherence of three divine persons.” (p. 155). This view is typical of Eastern theologians who consider the divine process of the Trinity as mutual emptying of Father to Son to Spirit with overflow of love directed to creation.
He posits “theology begins only in philokalia: love of beauty.” (pp. 29, 30) It would be a disservice to say that Hart distinguishes between logical and physical beauty; in fact, it appears that he considers physical and intellectual beauty part and parcel of the same manifestation. Although his reference to Thomas is thin, his development of the idea of beauty seems quite Thomistic: that the presence of things which are beautiful on Earth implies an ultimate beauty, which is God.
Among examples of beauty, Hart includes the music of Bach, fine art, well formed rhetoric and even tragic beauty in suffering. In a number of different contexts, the beauty of Jesus and his teaching of peace and non-violence are highlighted. Appealing to Greek Fathers and echoing western mystics, beauty is presented as a bridge to God. The manifestation of this beauty is described as “divine joy.” (p. 175)
In the third and final division of the book, the teleological implications of Hart’s view of beauty are articulated. Weaving his sub-themes together, he takes the position that modern pessimistic philosophies are not only incorrect, but actually contribute to the perpetration of violence.
An important theme in the final division is the progressive unfolding of creation according to God’s plan, which he finds in Gregory of Nyssa. Following Gregory, Hart posits that this plan will ultimately reveal itself as progressive unity, solidarity and harmony among humanity. His view is that history will build to the point that all will realize “the good of creation is creation itself without need for any higher justification.” (p. 401) This, Hart observes, is the human potential to truly reflect the image of God. (p. 407)
A key presupposition of the work is that the reader is both familiar with and troubled by twentieth century nihilistic philosophies, and that the influence of this pessimism has created doubt about the optimism of the Christian faith.
Hart is an accomplished scholar of both philosophy and Christian theology. He presupposes an advanced level of understanding in both. His detailed descriptions of positions taken by Nietzsche, Hegel, Kant, and Heidegger demand a solid foundation in modern philosophy for complete understanding. From a theological perspective, Hart appeals to a number of Eastern Fathers, so some degree of familiarity with theological development from the perspective of the East is helpful. The book is also liberally sprinkled with Greek language, so a basic command of Greek is beneficial.
There is a dichotomy between what this book’s praxis could be and is. The problem is this: the book is written in such a complex style and scholarly tone that the beauty of the message is lost on the vast majority of readers. Hart’s sentence structure is unusually complex. His word usage is scholarly, bordering on pedantic; he is an intellectual who seems to be writing for his colleagues, not for the parish. This would be a difficult book at an undergraduate level and its wisdom would be difficult to access by even a reasonably well-read person in the pew. Anticipating this criticism, Hart provides his readers extensive definitions of terms, but these, also, are somewhat complex.
The ideal reader is a graduate or post-graduate theologian with a firm foundation in philosophy. The highly scholarly style is strong in academic value, but perhaps at the expense of potential inspiration that such a positive message could convey. This creates an obligation for the privileged and limited number of readers whose education provides a lens for focus: to disseminate its positive message in a more easily understood form. This is an important task since the root message is uplifting; that twentieth century intellectual pessimism is an unfortunate transient which must be viewed as a reaction to a difficult time in human history. The beauty of God and God’s creation still shines through in humanity’s dark hours. The unfolding of God’s plan will result in human harmony and peace and the good of creation will become obvious. This is a very affirming message to all Christians and could be affirming to all people of goodwill.