David Bentley Hart is an American writer, philosopher, religious scholar, critic, and theologian who has authored over 1,000 essays and 19 books, including a very well-known translation of the New Testament and several volumes of fiction.
In this conversation, Tyler and David discuss ways in which Orthodox Christianity is not so millenarian, how theological patience shapes the polities of Orthodox Christian nations, how Heidegger deepened his understanding of Christian Orthodoxy, who played left field for the Baltimore Orioles in 1970, the simplest way to explain how Orthodoxy diverges from Catholicism, the future of the American Orthodox Church, what he thinks of the Book of Mormon, whether theological arguments are ultimately based on reason or faith, what he makes of reincarnation and near-death experiences, gnosticism in movies and TV, why he dislikes Sarah Ruden’s translation of the New Testament, the most difficult word to translate, a tally of the 15+ languages he knows, what he’ll work on next, and more.
Watch the full conversation
Recorded March 23rd, 2023
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m very pleased to be chatting with David Bentley Hart. How to describe David Bentley Hart? Well, the person I know whom I consider to be the best-read is David Gordon, and David Gordon thinks that David Bentley Hart is the best-read person he knows.
David Bentley Hart is an American writer, philosopher, religious-study scholar, critic, and theologian. He has authored over 1,000 essays, reviews, and papers, not to mention 19 books, including a very well-known translation of the New Testament. The topics he writes on include Christian metaphysics, Orthodox Christianity, philosophy of mind, Indian and East Asian religions, Asian languages, classics, literature, music, and more. David, welcome.
DAVID BENTLEY HART: Thank you. [laughs] Now I have to live up to that introduction.
COWEN: If you could explain to me, as simply as possible, in which ways is Orthodox Christianity not so very millenarian?
HART: Well, it depends on what you mean by millenarian. I’d have to ask you to be a bit more —
COWEN: Say the Protestant 17th-century sense that the world is on the verge of a very radical transformation that will herald in some completely new age, and we all should be prepared for it.
HART: Well, in one sense, it’s been the case of Christianity from the first century that it’s always existed in a time between times. There’s always this sense of being in history but always expecting an imminent interruption of history.
But Orthodoxy has been around for a while. It’s part of an indurated culture, grounded originally in the Eastern Greco-Roman world, and has a huge apparatus of philosophy and theology and, I think, over the centuries has learned to be patient.
The Protestant millenarianism you speak of always seems to have been born out of historical crisis in a sense. The rise of the nation-state, the fragmentation of the Western Church — it’s always as much an effective history as a flight from history.
Whereas, I think it’s fair to say that Orthodoxy has created for itself a parallel world just outside the flow of history. It puts much more of an emphasis on the spiritual life, mysticism, that sort of thing. And as such, whereas it still uses the recognizable language of the imminent return of Christ, it’s not at the center of the spiritual life.
COWEN: How does that theological patience shape the polities of Orthodox Christian nations and regions? How does that matter?
HART: Well, it’s been both good and bad, to be honest. At its best, Orthodoxy has cultivated a spiritual life that nourished millions and that puts an emphasis upon moral obligation to others and the life of charity and the ascetical virtues of Christianity, the self-denial. At its worst, however, it’s often been an accommodation with historical forces that are antithetical to the gospel, too.
It’s often been the case that Orthodoxy has been so, let’s say, disenchanted with the millenarian expectation that it’s become a prop of the state, and you can see it today in Russia, in which you have a church institution. Now, this isn’t to speak of the faithful themselves, but the institutional authority of the state — of the institution, rather, of the church more or less being nothing but a propaganda wing of an authoritarian and terrorist government.
So, it’s had both its good and its bad consequences over the centuries. At its best, as I say, it encourages a true spiritual life that can teach one to be detached from ambitions and expectations and the violent projects of the ego. But at its worst, it can become a passive participant in precisely those sorts of projects and those sorts of evils.
COWEN: How would you say your study of Heidegger has deepened your understanding of Christian Orthodoxy?
HART: Of Heidegger?
COWEN: Heidegger, whom you understand quite well.
HART: Well, he’s one of them, yes, the philosophers I’ve worked with. I have to admit, this question comes a little out of left field, but with me, I never know which aspect of my work someone might be interested in at a given moment.
With Heidegger, it’s a very ambiguous figure, of course, but he certainly was — putting aside his own incredible moral defects. For those who don’t know, he was a member, for a while, of the Nazi Party, as much out of cowardice as anything else, but I think out of — early on, at least — some degree of sympathy.
But when he wasn’t being evil, he was a very reflective philosopher on how we have arrived at what he considered an age of nihilism, an age that values the will to power over physical environment above all other things, without any sense of the mystery of being, the piety of not trying to grasp and control and reduce all of reality to instrumentality and utility.
He tells a very powerful story about the genealogy of Western nihilism, how we arrived at what he calls the age of technology, in which everything is simply a project of the will, and the whole of the world is nothing but a reserve of resources to be exploited for the purpose of acquisition and for the purposes of the will. Now, I don’t agree with the whole story, but as I say, it makes one think about the genealogy of the way we see the world and see the world as desacralized and disenchanted.
Much of the appeal, I suppose, of Eastern Orthodoxy to me in my youth was precisely that it was a Christian tradition that emphasized precisely the sense of the cosmic mystery of Christ and the cosmic mystery of the revelation of God in all things, and put this great emphasis on the notion that the heart of Christian thought is the idea of deification, of union with God, of the whole creation renewed in some unimaginable ways, so that — a very popular image goes — so that the whole universe is like a burning bush shining with the glory of God, but not consumed.
I would say that if there’s any connection there — and since no one’s ever asked me this before, I’m not sure there is — but if there is, then you can see how someone who takes seriously the genealogy of nihilism that someone like Heidegger unfolds might be drawn to, among Christian traditions, a very robust depiction of a glorified reality in which the entire cosmos participates in the sacred mystery.
COWEN: You mentioned questions out of left field. Who played left field for the Baltimore Orioles in 1970?
HART: Merv Rettenmund, or well, let’s see, there would also be — Don Buford sometimes played left. I’m trying to remember. Paul Blair was in center still, and that was the last year that Frank Robinson was in right field. So, if my memory is correct, it was usually Merv Rettenmund, or maybe the young Don Baylor was up then. I’m getting old now. Do you know?
COWEN: I think of it as Buford, Blair in center, Robinson in right, but I’m not entirely sure either.
HART: Well, I think in left field, Earl Weaver was one of the first really platoon players, and sometimes Buford actually played the infield. He was a much more versatile player, but yes, I think Rettenmund was still on the team, too.
COWEN: Let’s say you’re trying to explain to a Catholic, in metaphysical terms, where Orthodoxy diverges from Catholicism. Not the history, not different views on the papacy, but fundamental, underlying conceptual differences on metaphysics. In as few dimensions as possible, where do you see that difference?
HART: In as few dimensions as possible? Well, for one thing, there’s no history of the notion of inherited guilt. The whole idea of sin is very different. We’re born into a state of alienation from God and from the world and from our neighbor is a common Christian idea. But in the West, mostly just as a result of certain translation issues, but also because of the very powerful influence of the late Augustine on the development of Western theology, there came then that somehow one is born in a state of guilt, which, to be honest, was considered repugnant in the East.
Also, there was no theology then of predestination. This is often also regarded as . . . There was in Western Catholicism, albeit it’s a doctrine without a strict definition, it remains on the books, but it’s unlike Calvinism. Roman Catholicism doesn’t insist that it knows what predestination means.
I suppose, then, the greatest difference would be the theology of grace. In the West, it became more and more the case that grace was treated as antithetical to nature. Grace was a principle over against nature. It was therefore given according to a purely predilective, predestining will of God.
Whereas in the East, that opposition between grace and nature simply never took root. Grace was just a word for the way God deals with creatures, and it was seen as more continuous with nature: that we’re always already naturally oriented to union with God, and that it’s an unnatural impediment that separates us from God rather than a failure to receive a super-elevating grace.
How do I put this? In Western tradition, grace became a very extraordinary gift, whereas in the East it remained an ordinary reality from which we were extraordinarily separated by a tragic history that had to be overcome.
COWEN: Does the relative lack of counterpoint in Eastern Orthodox church music correspond to anything theological? Or is that just historical accident?
HART: It depends on which church you’re talking about. Contrapuntal polyphonic music actually has a very rich history in the Russian, in the Slavic tradition, especially from the time of Bortniansky and others onward.
I don’t think so, no. Those sorts of differences, those accidental differences, are the things that Orthodox polemicists like to focus on. Every little difference becomes a difference of incredible magnitude for those who are looking for reasons to dislike the other camp. But no, I don’t think there’s any significant theological difference there, and the Slavic tradition, as I say, is highly contrapuntal. You know Rachmaninoff’s church music?
COWEN: Sure. How does the Orthodox Church in America avoid simply becoming an American religion, one of many others?
HART: So far, it seems to be failing to do that.
COWEN: What’s the reason for that failure? Why isn’t it strong enough or —
HART: For any number of reasons. One, there’s been a huge influx of former evangelicals into American Orthodoxy, but the problem is Orthodoxy doesn’t have . . . most of the communions, unlike the Catholic Church, doesn’t have a protocol for receiving converts that’s very clear. You come to the liturgy, you ask questions, and after a year or so, you’re chrismated or something.
The result is that many who come into the church come with presuppositions formed in a very radically different tradition. Fundamentalist evangelicalism is a much narrower understanding of how much speculation is possible. They’re not really prepared to look at a 2,000-year history and see all the varieties — this is the Patristic period, here’s the scholastic, and the Russian religious philosophers of the 19th century were very different — and be able to recognize that a huge variety of views is . . . Instead, they tend to think in terms of a faith statement of the sort that an evangelical church would have.
To be honest, that’s become such a dominant faction in so much American Orthodoxy that much of American Orthodoxy is intellectually and temperamentally and socially and culturally just American evangelicalism plus saints and incense. The only way in which the Orthodox communities have successfully resisted this is also the degrees to which many of them have remained redoubts of ethnic identity, and that’s not much better.
I would say, on the whole, the jury is still out. I think Orthodoxy in America may very well just be another American religion at the end of the day. Another generation or two, and the only distinctions will be in liturgical form.
COWEN: If one draws a line down the middle of Europe with Orthodoxy to the right of that line, those nations seem to be much less democratic, or democratic for shorter periods of time. Is there something causal going on there? Or is that just historical accident?
HART: I don’t know if Orthodoxy, as such, is the issue, but the history of those nations is radically different in any number of ways. Some of them, in the case, say, of most of the Slavic nations, have simply retained habits of governance and habits of social organization that go back to a very pre-democratic past.
I don’t know if there’s any causal relationship between the kind of Christianity because, of course, Western democratic institutions tended to go hand in hand with some degree of laicization, some degree of secularization. The whole point of the French Revolution would be the overthrow of the ancien régime, which is both state and church, and you’re dealing with absolutist Gallican Church, in a sense, that’s a way of government.
My suspicion is this is mostly historical accident. The cultural tendencies towards reaction in the East mostly just have to do with the material conditions and the political histories and the relative material isolation from the huge period of Western European expansion of wealth, expansion of power, and ferment of social change and new ideas. It was simply the case that after the Middle Ages, early modernity, Western Europe was the center of economic and political power in the Western world.
COWEN: Let’s say Poland, Slovenia, Czechia, which have a lot of Catholicism in their backgrounds — they seem to be converging on Western norms, living standards much more than, say, the EU members to the East: Bulgaria, Romania.
HART: Well, they had certain advantages to begin with, too, but better relations. Again, I don’t think it has any particular . . . To be honest, Polish Catholicism is basically culturally very much like Slavic Orthodoxy. There, you’re going to find that culturally, Catholicism and Orthodoxy are closer to one another in many ways than Catholicism in the East is with Catholicism in the West.
Trying to draw causal ties between what are very complex social histories, I just think is a mistake. There’s no way of saying one way or the other. Greek democracy flourished in the modern age for a while after Greek independence in the early 19th century, and Greece remains Orthodox, too. Even more than Poland, it is committed to a set of real democratic norms. In Poland, there are stronger reactionary forces at present than there are in Greece.
COWEN: What do you think of the Book of Mormon? And what is it about the Bible that so lent itself to this new spin-off or start-up?
HART: The Book of Mormon. I have no opinions about it whatsoever. It’s kind of silly, the way it comes across to me. I’ve only read it once. I think that if you say the Bible lends itself to spin-offs, any religion that has tendencies towards the collapse of the difference and significance between history and eternity is always likely to inspire new historical projects that consider themselves . . .
After all, this is something of the Abrahamic religions: They’re so supersessionist in the way they proceed. Even within the history of Judaism before Christianity, it’s one covenant superseding another. Then Christians claim that they’ve superseded the covenant in some sense. Then Islam is a supersession of the revelation with yet another revelation. This seems to be just part and parcel of the whole Western Abrahamic or the whole Abrahamic religious tradition. I suppose I would say that Mormonism is just another example of the claim of a new revelation.
COWEN: This is a general question I have about the roles of reason and faith in theological argument. When I hear members of the Orthodox Church criticize, say, the papacy and ex cathedra doctrine, what they say makes perfect sense to me. They deploy reason; they have arguments of reason against the doctrine. But in other contexts, religions, including Orthodoxy — they’re quite willing to invoke faith, so, we have faith in whatever.
So, is it reason or is it faith that determines when an argument from reason or an argument from faith is appropriate?
COWEN: Reason? Reason is the bottom line?
HART: It has to be, because even if you choose faith, you’re choosing to believe something for a reason. Even if you’re not able to name those reasons yourself, some compelling rational intuition has worked upon you to say, “Well, I believe I can trust this source more than that source.” You may say that, “Oh, I’m having faith in what it’s telling me,” but you’re having faith in that rather than something else, because at some level — maybe a tacit level that you have a hard time laying out — you’ve somehow reached the judgment. It would have to be a rational judgment if your faith is of any meaning, that you trust this rather than that.
But what is faith? When you create a division between faith and reason, you’re assuming that faith is taking things simply on the authority of another blindly. That’s never actually been the definition that any religion — whether you’re talking in the West, or when you’re talking about Pistis in Greek, or śraddhā in Sanskrit, or any number of other words for faith, it usually means a rational commitment to a certain path for which you have reasons.
Those reasons in themselves don’t necessarily arrive at a QED. But as you advance on this path, you’re hoping, at least, things become clearer and clearer, and you’ll understand better whether you really believe it or not. You have to commit yourself to the path in order to find a way.
The American philosopher William James spoke of the will to believe, and he’s often misunderstood as if all he was saying was it’s okay to choose arbitrarily to believe something. That’s not what he said. What he said was, if you’re in the fog, say, and you encounter two paths, and you have a sense that one is more likely to lead to safety and the other to the edge of a cliff, you take that path. But you don’t take it so credulously that you’ll walk off the edge of a cliff if you come to the cliff.
The act of faith is a way of engaging the mind, engaging reason so it can explore. If you don’t start with some trust of the possibility of discovering the truth, then you never will seek the truth to begin with. That search requires a combination of a degree of rational judgment and a degree of trust, and you hope that the two prove to be in harmony. If they’re not, though, if you reach a point where your faith and your reason come into conflict, then trust your reason.
Always trust your reason because otherwise, faith is just epistemic nihilism. It’s meaningless. It’s just a brute exertion of the will, at which point it’s subrational and becomes contemptible. Always trust reason, but make sure that reason is tempered. It’s not petty rationalism, but it’s a reason that really can see things in broad perspective and understand in a variety of modalities. Don’t treat reason as if it’s a math equation.
COWEN: Given that perspective, does it ever make sense to think about the deity in probabilistic or Bayesian terms? Because it’s sounding almost Bayesian to me. “Well, the chance that God exists is 73 percent.”
HART: Well, faith isn’t — the question of existence of God, that’s not what I was talking about. When I talked about faith, I meant a path towards the sacred. There, first of all, to define what the word existence means, because God would not exist in the way that an individual entity, a finite entity exists. So, any rational arguments you have about God are based on, usually, a modal metaphysics of the absolute and the contingent, or so on and so forth. There, I think reason should be fully engaged.
The question is, within a tradition — that’s when things become a bit more stochastic. If I don’t start from the premise that when I speak of God, that there’s an absolute source and end to all things, then I’m not really interested in the question of religion at all.
But if I believe that may be true, if I have a sense of it, or if reason tells me it’s so — that it doesn’t make sense to believe in a pure physicalism or materialism — then where faith is engaged is in trying to make rational judgments about who can point you towards a deeper understanding and relationship.
I don’t think that’s Bayesian so much as it’s not a leap of faith in the vulgar sense. But it is a venture of faith in the sense that you can’t start with perfect wisdom and knowledge. You are making rational judgments.
Again, rationality is not a single, univocal thing. It can also have to do with intuitions, like moral intuitions. If you come up against a doctrine or a teaching or something that is repugnant to your moral reasoning, then that is significant. It would be deplorable of you to choose to believe it, despite the counsels of your moral reasoning, unless you had really good reasons to think you’d been mistaken.
COWEN: Does the concept of reincarnation make theological sense to you?
HART: Sure, within the systems in which . . . Which systems are you talking about? Punabbhava in Buddhism isn’t about the reincarnation of a psychological ego. It has to do with an uncontrollable set of karmic consequences that lead to new phenomenal arising. There, you’re dealing with one notion.
The versions that you find in Vedanta and bhakti and other things that we call Hinduism, or also in Sikhism or Jainism, in which the Jiva, something that is a soul passes over — even that’s not psychological self, but nonetheless, that’s a more substantial sense of the meaning of reincarnation. Within those systems, yes, they make perfect sense.
But again, people tend to think they know what these terms mean. When you actually look at the traditions, they have to be qualified and modified and explained at length because you can’t step out of an entire world of presuppositions and beliefs and concepts and just take one thing like that — Punabbhava, again becoming; I’m just choosing to use the Buddhist term — and think you understand what’s going on, as if you could just transpose it into, say, “Oh, I’m a Presbyterian, and I know what this means,” because you can’t do that.
COWEN: What do you think of the testimonies of what are called near-death experiences? Many of those testimonies coming from Christians, of course.
HART: I don’t know. Some of them, I think, are quite compelling, especially the ones that involve being able to reconstruct facts surrounding the moment of your death that you shouldn’t have been able to know, like who was out in the hallway, things like that. You can’t completely deny it.
At the same time, I think also that you’re dealing with a moment of transition in which it’s very hard to separate the psychological from the objective. I wouldn’t dismiss them. Many of them, as I say, are quite compelling, but how much you can learn from them, there I have to —
COWEN: It seems like a lot more testimony than, say, from the apostles or in the four gospels, that if we weigh testimony, one is led in many different directions, including, of course, the Book of Mormon.
HART: Whose testimony? Come on. The Book of Mormon is supposedly read off from these golden plates that Joseph Smith was shown and able to read with magical spectacles, plates that no one else ever saw. That’s very much a story. If you want to believe it, you can.
You can say the same about everyone’s testimony. There are judgments you have to make at times. Just, no one’s testimony should be taken as an absolute authority. No one, because no one is free from psychological limitations. Even if he or she is perfectly sincere, that in itself doesn’t prove anything. You can make judgments on character. You can make judgments about coherence. These are, again, relative judgments. They’re not absolute. I think that when the story becomes . . .
I don’t know why you keep bringing up Mormonism. I have absolutely no connections. [laughs] I’ve never written about it. My only connection — I’ve met a few nice Mormons. I’ve read the Book of Mormon once. I didn’t find it particularly well written, but neither, for that matter, is most of the New Testament. I think it’s based on historical claims that are objectively false, that there are these ancient civilizations in the Americas that just didn’t exist.
I think the story of the genesis of the Book of Mormon is a bit more incredible than, say, somebody in the first century writing down what his theology is based on, as in the case of Paul, obviously a person whose life was turned upside down by some kind of experience. Maybe he was a psychotic, I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem that way when you read it. There’s some powerful spiritual apprehension that he has discovered about the love of God and the grace of God, and over many decades of a self-sacrificing life, leading ultimately to his death, he lays that out. Well, that’s compelling to me in a way that other sorts of claims that seem more incredible aren’t.
COWEN: In the United States, has progressive politics become the new version of a secular Christianity?
HART: Well, I don’t know. In some cases yes, in some cases not. It depends on what you’re talking about in particular. I think, in America, but also in the West as such — just to a pathological degree in America, on both right and left — we’ve learned to start all of our conversations from a position of moral absolutism.
I don’t know if this has always been the case. There have been apocalyptic moments in American history before. We had a Civil War, for instance. But at the present, it seems like both extremes speak in such strident tones of moral indignation that it is tempting to think that they’re speaking out of a dogmatic impulse rather than a rational one, that there is a religious intonation, in the worst sense, in our politics on all sides.
COWEN: Is the future of Christianity, as an institution, brighter or darker than it was, say, 20 years ago?
HART: Well, 20, I mean — [laughs]
COWEN: 30 years ago. A generation ago.
HART: 100 years ago. I don’t know. What would be brighter or darker? For me, what would be good? What would be bad? There are people I know, in fact, people near here in Notre Dame, who are all terrifically intent on trying to revive a dying Christendom, because they think that would be the revival of Christianity in the West. They ally themselves to these reactionary figures like Victor Orbán.
Whereas my ideal of what would be a brighter future for Christianity would be the final eclipse of that kind of conflation of Christianity with the interests of a particular civilization or culture or nation. I believe that’s a perfidious corruption. So, bright in what way? I would say that in many ways, the brightest future for Christianity may consist in the death of many of its institutions and of much of its cultural power.
COWEN: The TV show The Prisoner–how should it have ended?
HART: Ahhh, now, that’s an interesting question. The last episode, I will admit, is a bit of a disappointment, but I think it ended properly. I think Patrick McGoohan made his point that Number One is the self, that we imprison ourselves before anyone else can imprison us. I think the last episode would have been better had it been written as well as the one just before it, but you can’t have everything. I’m contented with the way it went out.
This seems like a minor and a silly question, but it is true. They did a remake for AMC of The Prisoner some years ago. In the original, of course, Number Six — he escapes. Now, his escape isn’t absolute because he goes back home, and it turns out still to be, in some sense, the village. He is still the prisoner of himself, but he destroys the village, right?
HART: In the new version, he saves the village and turns it into a psychotherapeutic spa that some people require in place of the reality of this world. I found that a sublimely nihilistic conclusion. Let me put it in this. The way it should have ended is the way it originally ended, not the way the remake ended it.
COWEN: Maybe that’s a kind of woke ending reflecting moral depravity, that moral judgments are not complex, and the self is unitary, and everything is easy, and you just have to pick the right side, and you can set everything right again.
HART: Well, what would be the right side?
COWEN: Well, I don’t think we know, but I think in the AMC remake, the implication is that it’s easy to pick the right side.
HART: I just got the impression that it chose the therapeutic over the gnostic. That is, that in the original program, it was consciously at times a gnostic allegory. In fact, there was one episode called “The Dance of the Dead” that just explicitly invokes a gnostic language, that somehow we’re imprisoned in a false reality, and that we should long for the really real at whatever cost and should seek to escape from delusion.
Whereas the new version simply says that, in a sense, maybe there is no truth at all. There is no right side or wrong side. There’s just the need for therapy to help us deal with the sense of alienation or discontent. Of those two options, I prefer the former.
COWEN: Maybe at times, gnosticism is too pessimistic for Hollywood TV and too inegalitarian for modern progressivism, so you have to jettison it. What do you replace it with? A happy ending.
HART: Well, I’m not quite sure what your politics are. I have no concern one way or the other about how it’s viewed in regard to progressivism. I’m a socialist, so I’m perfectly fine. I’m not a liberal, but I’m definitely a socialist. My concern about it — and yes, gnosticism in its classical statements, to the degree there was such a thing — I want to point out that in scholarly terms, who knows?
There are so many different schools that we’ve simply stuck together and called gnostic that when you actually look at them, the details, much of what we call gnosticism is just actually Pauline or Johannine Christianity in the New Testament, restated with an overlay of fabulism. I think, to be honest, there’s been a vogue of gnosticism in popular culture — not where you’d expect it, but there have been lots of films.
COWEN: Movies versus TV, though. It’s a big difference. Matrix, right?
HART: The Matrix things, which were not very good films, but The Truman Show, which is just a pure gnostic allegory.
HART: Gattaca, done by the same fellow.
HART: Television, too, as far as I know. Actually, I said I don’t watch enough to know, but I did a few years ago. What was the program? Battlestar Galactica, the sci-fi version. I actually got hooked on that and watched it through, and there are plenty of gnostic themes in that.
COWEN: But they ruined the ending in the final season. It’s like the remake of The Prisoner.
HART: No, no, I disagree there, actually. I liked the angels turning out to be real angels. Then again, it’s been so long since I saw it, I’m not sure. Maybe I’m misremembering how it ended.
COWEN: For me, the best parts was seasons one and two, where it stays a bit dark and nasty and problematic.
HART: I’d have to go back and revisit it. I have to admit my memory’s not that sharp.
COWEN: Which is the best Bob Dylan song?
HART: “Blind Willie McTell.”
HART: It all depends on which era you’re in. Of course, there’s the stuff you grew up with, and so I would’ve said “Mr. Tambourine Man” up until — and then “Blind Willie McTell” is his revival period, Infidels album. Then I like a lot of the stuff in Oh Mercy. Is it Man in the [Long] Black Coat?
I’m afraid he’s been around too long. You really have to say what’s the best vintage Dylan? [laughs] What’s the best middle-period Dylan? What’s the best revival middle-period Dylan? What’s the best late period? If I had to choose one to be played while my corpse is being marched in its coffin down Bourbon Street or something, I would go with “Blind Willie McTell.”
COWEN: Why be so taken with the nation of Bhutan? There was a recent UN survey of happiness. Bhutan comes in 97th. There’s another recent paper ranking nations for negative affect: How much stress and hardship is in your life? Bhutan comes in 149th, which is not well at all. One time you wrote, “Bhutan conforms better than any other state to my criteria for national greatness.” Why not just protect Bhutan? It’s a failed state.
HART: First of all, that’s a satirical piece that was written so long ago that I’m surprised that anyone remembers it. The joke being that it was a period when people were talking about American greatness. This was well before Trump and everything. This was something else. It was always being couched in terms of economic development or world power and all that. I chose the most isolated, most militantly rural, most unworldly.
Now, after doing that, of course, I had to say, well, then again . . . When I looked at it again, the treatment of Nepalese refugees in Bhutan was anything but admirable and all that, but at the time I was making a joke about what constitutes national greatness. The notion that you have a country that didn’t have any television in it up until a decade ago [laughs] and only needed one stoplight in the whole country, and then they removed it because it offended their aesthetic sense.
It just seemed like a funny column at the time, but if you mean if I’m really willing to go to the mat defending Bhutan against all its critics, no, no, that was a satire.
COWEN: What do you think of Sarah Ruden’s translation of the New Testament?
HART: I think it’s awful.
HART: It’s just very bad. I just think it’s barely literate. I think it’s very inaccurate. She’s done other translations that are quite wonderful. Her translation of Augustine is the best in modern English. But I think her insistence on translating philologically in the sense of taking the meaning of words from their roots and doing other things of that sort all the way through was horribly ill-advised.
I think she also just doesn’t know the period very well. She’s a classicist in one sense, but late antiquity and certainly Second Temple Judaism and late antique Christianity are just not in her wheelhouse, and there are just so many things that she gets wrong. I just think it reads exceedingly badly. I agree with Luke Timothy Johnson, who, with all the goodwill in the world, just described it as a mess.
COWEN: What do you think goes wrong when that book is translated by committees?
HART: The lowest common denominator wins out, and that usually means the tacitly approved theology of the most unimaginative and historically uninformed faction in the committee. There’s a concern not to offend against people’s piety, even when the text itself . . . So you get translations that are not warranted by the Greek, and they’re not warranted by the history of the time in which the text appeared, nonetheless are chosen because they don’t offend against people’s theological expectations. That’s simply, I think, true of every committee.
Now you see, the King James is an exception only because it’s based on the Tyndale translation. It wasn’t really a committee project. The committee simply dotted the i’s, crossed the t’s, fixed a few things, did some good. That was first and foremost the work of an individual genius.
Even then, the King James should not be used for theology. It’s great literature, it’s great liturgy, it’s better than many later translations. Far more accurate, say, than a piece of rubbish like the New International Version, but a lot of its translation is based on later Christian doctrine rather than on what the Greek actually says.
COWEN: What’s the most important thing you learned about the New Testament by translating it?
HART: That we’re fools if we think we understand it. But even though I knew this, more than ever, I came to appreciate the sheer diversity even in the first generation of Christians. This is not a unified text. It doesn’t reflect a unified theology. What it reflects is many different reactions to an event of extraordinary mystery and power for those who are writing about it.
At least, especially when you’re dealing, say, with the Pauline literature, which is very early. In the gospels, two are drawn from earlier strata of Christian literature. Some of the later stuff, like Second Peter — there you’re already well into a period of hardening factions. I think the thing that I came away with is that every attempt to ground absolute doctrine, fixity of dogma in the text is an absurd project because it’s simply not there. It is not that kind of book. It is not an index of propositional content.
COWEN: What was the most difficult word of importance to translate?
HART: That’s a question. O theos — God with the article — as opposed to theos. But that’s not the only one. They see there’s a cluster of words here — pneuma, spirit, in the sense that there, you’re dealing with a word that in different contexts can just mean life or breath, or the spirit, or the spirit of God, or the spirit in you. And sometimes it’s used to mean all those things at once because the very concept of spirit in late antiquity — especially when there was an influence of Stoic metaphysics — was of a kind of element that on the one hand was intellectual, on another was physical.
It was like the wind really can be called pneuma without it necessarily meaning something drastically different from spirit when we’re speaking of intelligence or mind. Also, because when you actually get to the way it’s used in the New Testament mysteriously, say by Paul, it’s not clear that he makes the distinction that later tradition — in fact he clearly doesn’t — that the divine spirit and human spirit are absolutely separate realities. They’re not. In Paul, they often are one and the same, or only slightly differentiated, or differentiated within a prior unity.
You see this picked up in very early theology, like someone like Irenaeus, for whom the human spirit is just the divine spirit. There’s no difference, really, to speak of between human and divine spirit. Then the way later translations dealt with this was again and again to make decisions. “Here spirit means the Holy Spirit, which we understand as — in later Nicene terms — as one of the coequal persons of the Trinity. Here spirit means human spirit. Here . . .”
The translations capitalize it or add “holy” to it. When you go back to the Greek, it’s simply not there. It’s not talking in that clear and precise way with all those distinctions in place. It’s a much more mysterious word, and it’s very difficult to put it in context from verse to verse to verse. And in some places, you know that the plural meanings are intended. I had to use footnotes.
COWEN: Who’s your favorite postwar European composer, broadly in the classical tradition? The music that everyone else hates.
HART: Oh, of the 20th? Well, wait, that’s very unfair because of the late 20th century, the second half of the 20th century was a period of no particular style. So there are composers who are neoclassical or neoromantic as well as the cutting edge avant-garde. I don’t have a single favorite. I love Stravinsky, I love Ralph Vaughan Williams.
COWEN: I think it’s a wonderful period for music.
HART: I think it is, too. It was a period of extraordinary riches. I love Takemitsu Tōru. I think the wonderful thing about the 20th century was it was an age of global music. It was an age in which composers were allowed to draw on the past and, at the same time, work in new idioms. Benjamin Britten would write neoclassically; he even wrote some serial pieces, you know, a twelve-tone row. He would write atonally. All sounds like Benjamin Britten. It’s all wonderful. Then, for “The Prince of the Pagodas,” he would draw on Javanese gamelan.
I love the music, the great composers of the 20th century. There was some rubbish. You couldn’t pay me to listen Stockhausen. And there are all these wonderful composers that get overlooked because of the decline of the cultural centrality. Figures like Nikos Skalkottas and others in Greece, or Weinberg in Russia, Henze in Germany.
No, I don’t have a single favorite composer. Messiaen might be one I love.
COWEN: Sure. And for more recent church music, what would you look to?
HART: More recent?
COWEN: Say the last 50 years?
HART: Dave Brubeck.
COWEN: Which is your favorite recording of the Beethoven symphonies?
HART: I don’t have a single one. There’s, I think, the second Deutsche Grammophon series with Karajan for modernists for —
COWEN: The 78 series, not the 63.
HART: Very good. Okay, for original instruments, if the recording were better, I like actually, believe it or not, the Roy Goodman performances.
They’re just too many. There, you’re dealing with a repertoire that’s been recorded so many times that the virtues of different recordings . . . We have to choose something a bit more recherché. Everything after they got over the ponderous, overly romantic style of Toscanini and Furtwängler and all that. Karajan made it more genuinely classical, and then the original-instruments approach where they actually used . . . I’m trying to think — the British conductor who did those wonderful recordings —
COWEN: Roger Norrington.
HART: Thank you, thank you. Using the actual metronome markings of Beethoven — absolute revelation. Hearing the music, realizing that yes, it has all of the grandeur and fire and power of Beethoven, but also has the lightness of Mozart, the quickness, the agility. There are a lot of great recordings of Beethoven. But I am really glad we got over the almost Wagnerian approach to Beethoven that was in place well up through the 1950s.
COWEN: Final segment of our conversation: the David Bentley Hart production function. How did you learn all those languages you know?
HART: I don’t know, just studied them. See, the thing is, I know better linguists than myself, in the sense that I know people who can learn to speak a language in a few months and speak it as if they were native. Because of the way my brain is constructed, I have to learn the grammar first. I learn the syntax and then learn it on paper and then learn to speak it.
Except for the things I got early in school. You go to French class and Spanish class, and you speak it before you really immerse yourself in the grammar. But my approach to most languages is like the approach I had to Latin and Greek as a kid. I learned the grammar first.
Whatever the case, I have a talent for languages, but I still envy those who can just somehow absorb it without having to master the grammar first and then speak it like a native. I knew a fellow like that at Cambridge who now, still alive, has like 32 languages.
COWEN: Which languages do you know?
HART: Quite a few.
COWEN: We have time. You can tell us.
HART: With varying degrees of competency, Western and Eastern. English, but of course French, German, Spanish, Italian, not bad at Portuguese. Let’s see, I’m lousy but competent in Russian, I had to study Hebrew, Syriac. In theology, I had Greek and Latin from early on.
I studied and I don’t consider myself a master of, but I can read now, among Asian languages, Sanskrit, Pali, classical Chinese, although I find it so gnomic at times, it’s hard to be sure that you’ve got the meaning right. It’s amazing how many really variant readings you can get at the same, say, in a Chinese poem by Li Bai. The same line comes out completely differently.
I’m still working at my Japanese. I know some Britannic Celtic languages, kind of. I don’t know if I’m forgetting anything or not. When I was an undergraduate, I thought I might be doing Native American studies. I worked on spoken Cheyenne — Tsisinstsistots, to be precise, but that’s pretty rusty.
COWEN: How do you construct your media diet? What do you consume? You wake up, you want inflow. What do you do?
HART: Oh, books.
HART: I still pretty much live in a different century in that regard. I won’t pretend I don’t watch television ever — I do. I was fairly hooked on Better Call Saul, for instance, and Breaking Bad before that. But it’s mostly books. I don’t have a lot of subscriptions to magazines. I don’t like social media at all. I don’t like the internet, even though I have a Substack newsletter, but I see that as just a subscription magazine in digital form rather than print.
COWEN: Just for our listeners, how can they subscribe to you? What’s the name of your Substack?
HART: It’s called Leaves in the Wind.
COWEN: How would you summarize it in a sentence?
HART: All the things I write about, I write about there. It’s not about one thing in particular. Over the years, I’ve built up a readership that’s literary criticism, philosophy, theology, fiction. You didn’t mention that at the beginning. I’ve also published five or six volumes of fiction. Sometimes short stories show up on it. This year, I’ve been recording conversations with other writers. It’s for people who just like to read without necessarily knowing what the topic’s going to be in the next post.
COWEN: What’s the outstanding theological problem that you think about the most?
HART: Relations with other faiths. I think that we need radically to rethink the very category of religion that we’ve inherited in the modern age, this anthropological notion that these are systems of propositions opposed to one another, rather than, as the ancient view would be, religion was a virtue that all human beings practiced in greater or lesser degree with greater or lesser understanding.
For instance, I don’t write much theology anymore, but when I do, even if it’s Christian theology, I’m quite happy to draw on Vedantic sources from India if they illuminate a question for me. I think we do have to rethink what exactly it is we’re talking about when we talk about religion.
The other thing, I guess, because I published that book a couple years ago, That All Shall Be Saved, is Christians radically need to rethink, and go back to the original text, and go back to the first century and rethink this grotesque notion of an eternal hell.
COWEN: Yes, you have a whole book on that, which I like very much. Final question: What will you do next?
HART: I have several projects going on at any given time. I’ve got a volume of short stories coming out at some point. I’ve got to finish a sequel to a children’s book I wrote with my son. We’re writing this sequel, almost done. I have a book on philosophy of mind that’s almost finished that’s coming out from Yale. I’m never just doing one thing at a time because I’m too jittery. If I concentrate on just one task at a time, I get depressed.
COWEN: David Bentley Hart, thank you very much.
HART: Thank you for having me.
COWEN: Been a pleasure.