God Being Nothing

Toward a Theogony

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Ray L. Hart
Religion and Postmodernism
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , May
     2016.
     272 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780226359625.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Hart’s book is magisterial, encyclopedic, and richly evocative.

While postmodernist thought delivers us from the clutches of onto-theology, with its footing in God as Being-itself (or Beyond-being), it may toss us onto the shore of nihilism, with no meta-narrative. Author Ray L. Hart seeks to save us from nihilism by re-examining nihil itself, specifically how we should perceive it in its second-century formulation, creatio ex nihilo, in both its eternal and temporal aspects.

Since Plato, in reaction to the dictum of Parmenides (b. 515 BCE) that nothing cannot be talked about, Western philosophers have deployed two senses of nothing (or non-being): ouk on—absolute non-being—and me on: nothing relative to some being (for example, potentiality, difference, or negation). Also, for many centuries philosophers in our evolving universe have focused on becoming, which requires a dialectical relation between nothing and being, and some grasp of its unfolding.

First, Hart answers in the affirmative the question whether the nihil in creatio ex nihilo abides within God. To do so, he revisits the classic loci where nothing was seriously explored with that surmise, namely in the writings of the Christian mystics—Eckhart and Boehme—along with later commentary, as well as independent standpoints espoused by Kabbalists and Sufis. Hart recasts these visionary insights into the language of contemporary process metaphysics, borrowing an overall schema of a dipolar God from Alfred North Whitehead. However, for him the primordial phase is an abyssal “Godhead,” and the consequent phase is the Creator-Redeemer “God,” who relates to external creation both original and ongoing. Hart postulates that we properly employ metaphysics to speak about the accessible, determinate, and mutable “God” via speculation. This requires that finite human imagination become “deiform” (x). The Spirit makes this possible by the infusion of grace, thereby fortifying the capabilities of our imagination so it may generate appropriate symbols—although not concepts. Thus, Hart reckons, correctly, that his book is a “thought experiment . . . not a system in any modern sense” (213).

God Being Nothing consists of two prefaces, an overview, a postscript, and two appendices. The main portion contains three sections entitled “Theogony,” “Cosmogony,” and “Anthropogony” (48-192). I concentrate on “Theogony” because it represents a profound and innovative section from which the other two flow consequentially and coherently.

Because Hart’s ontology is not substance-oriented but relational, he strives to link the “events” of the self-generation of the Deity. Consequently, he posits three foci in this development that transpire non-serially outside spacetime. He employs three German words for these: Ungrund, Abgrund, and Grund. The first is an inexhaustible abyss of indeterminate potentiality unfathomable by us. The third is the determinate Creator-Redeemer God, who grounds all being, and with whom we interact. If we view these first two as connected to one another, then we must specify the manner, or crossing place, whereby they dynamically interrelate. This transitional state of encounter Hart designates as an in-between (metaxu), much like Plato’s third-thing, chora. He labels it Abgrund to indicate its intermediate nature, and characterizes it as nondeterminate or indefinite, but primed to generate determinacies.

The Ungrund as eternal infinite potentiality has the freedom to effectuate anything and possesses primordial imagination capable of mirroring itself and a willful desire to propagate both within the eternal (Abgrund) and in the temporal (Grund) realms. Hence, it simultaneously originates the intermediate Abgrund where, preserving the Christian Trinity, Hart claims that from it spring the three “Persons” he names Wisdom (Father), Logos (Son), and Spirit. The ever-elusive Spirit retains its name and functionality so as to operate energetically between Wisdom and Logos, Logos and creation, and also primordially between “Godhead” and “God.”

Abgrund seems also to provide the meeting-place for ouk on and me on and the conditions through which me on may thereafter spawn its progeny of differentiations. Nevertheless, traces of ouk on eventually persist into creation and creatures.

The next stage on the pathway to determinateness is Grund (“God,” or the ground of being) where God becomes determinate in God’s roles as Creator and Redeemer. Because this temporal God is now determinate (that is, set with at least conceptual boundaries), he is mutable in analogy with the unfinished world of creation. Like his creatures, God is unable to comprehend simultaneously the particularities of existence (intension) and its totality (extension).

Of course, Hart’s account of God can only be conjectural. Although not a contemporary mysticism, it is unquestionably a mythopoesis. However, even metaphysics, which this work moves beyond in its reliance on illuminated intuition, has to grow from mythic roots when dealing with the meta-empirical. The proper stance to adopt toward this ambitious undertaking is to ponder it as akin to a theater critic’s interpretation regarding the theo-drama. That is, its aim is not to sway us by its discursive reasoning; instead, it should be valued on the basis of illumination provided by depth, breadth, and clarity of insight, as well as a persuasive enticement to a share in a perspective convincingly superior to alternative visions.

This “thought experiment” is replete with scholarly, if ornamentally expressed, discernments as well as discussion of ancillary issues I do not treat here. It renders extensive parenthetical elaborations and endnotes suggesting tangential explorations such that it requires more than one reading and merits intensive study by discussion groups. Even though it exemplifies the genre of speculative or mystical theology, it warrants serious examination by practitioners of other theological styles within the three Western monotheisms. If chewed (even if not swallowed), and not merely tasted, it may expand their appreciation of how the human imagination can be employed in attempts to fathom the Divine-self, if (pace Luther, Calvin, et. al.) one deems such an undertaking worthy, if not weighty.

Additionally, philosophical theologians might investigate God Being Nothing in depth, perhaps enlisting Hart’s “hermeneutical spiral” (185-88), pre-eminently the Abgrund, in order to chart more fully its attributes and dynamics which this innovative hypothesis about its existence and nature presents for our consideration.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles G. Conway is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
October 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ray L. Hart is professor emeritus of religion and theology at Boston University. 

Comments

Ray L. Hart

I could not ask for a fairer, more judicious review, done by a reader of transparently high competence, Charles Conway.

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