Hart’s book is a collection of recent pieces and only very broadly construed as being about the nature-supernature debate, although the first piece does directly relate to that tiresome trial of 20th-century Catholic theology. “Waking the Gods” unfolds as a nice summary of Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac’s position, although in the end even de Lubac is not radical (or intellectually consistent) enough for Hart. As Hart summarizes the opposing “traditionalist Thomist” position, which apparently is back in favor among young Thomists, “human nature has no inherent ordination toward real union with God, and—apart from the infusion of a certain wholly adventitious lumen gloriae—rational creatures are incapable even of conceiving a desire for such union.” This means that God could (although He didn’t) “just as well have created a world in a state of natura pura, wherein the rational volitions of spiritual creatures could have achieved all their final ends and ultimate rest in an entirely natural terminus.” Hart argues, based on the structure of intentionality in knowing and willing, that this position is logically impossible: “Not even God could create a rational nature not called to deification, any more than he could create a square circle; to have received that call is precisely what it is to be a rational being.” Human nature never can be merely natural but is always already supernatural.
The second essay, “The Treasure of Delight,” continues Hart’s transcendental or phenomenological approach to nature and supernature by applying it to the late medieval German theologian Nicholas of Cusa. “We are capable of knowing anything at all only because the primordial orientation of our nature is the longing to know God as God, to see him as he is, rather than as some limited essence,” or as Nicholas of Cusa says, “Therefore you, God, are infinity itself, which alone I desire in every desire.” Once again Thomists are accused of logical incoherence: “‘Pure nature’ is an atrocity of reason.” According to Hart: “We are nothing but created gods coming to be, becoming God in God, able to become divine only because, in some sense, we are divine from the very first.” But “becoming God” is far more incoherent than “pure nature.”
After leaving the nature-supernature polemics, we get two essays in which Hart puts the Unity of the transcendentals thesis to work in moral reflection. The enemy here is no longer the Thomists but the Kantians, those who apparently separate goodness from beauty and truth. In “That Judgment Whereby You Judge,” Hart argues phenomenologically for the unity especially of beauty and goodness in moral judgments, or as Hart says, “The ultimate criterion of moral truth is beauty.” This may sound absurd at first, but it is not. Hart uses Rainer Maria Rilke’s final line of his poem on the Torso of Apollo (“You must change your life”) to good effect. Standing in the presence of great art one is to be judged rather than to judge, and the judgment is a moral one: “What kind of a man am I?” As Hart says, “The experience of beauty is necessarily also the experience of judgment: not the judgment we pass on whatever beautiful object we might encounter, but the judgment it passes on us.”
The next piece, “Pia Fraus” (“Pious Deceit”), treats moral judgment as well, this time in connection with the transcendental Truth (which Hart capitalizes to emphasis its connection to God’s view of things). Is it ever right to tell a lie? The Christian tradition from St. Augustine through St. Thomas all the way to Immanuel Kant gives an emphatic No. Hart says Yes. The key is Hart’s distinction between Truth and fact, where facts are something like the registering of worldly states of affairs and Truth is the registering of God’s view of things. Hart teases the distinction out by literary example: Fiction is not factual but nevertheless is true because of and not despite the fact. Hart asserts that when one lies, Truth and fact come apart, allowing for one to misstate facts in order to properly state the Truth. “In a fallen reality, there are times when the facts of the matter are ontological untruths, because they are privations of the Good.” Thus, in the classic case, when a Nazi comes to your door demanding to know if you are harboring Jews, you must lie to him in order to speak the Truth. I’m unpersuaded by this proposal for a number of reasons (e.g., who decides what counts as “Truth” which allows one to lie? Is the Truth/fact distinction even coherent when not referring to fictional matters? Or is all reality a sort of fiction?), but it seems a novel attempt to justify what (almost) everyone (now) takes to be the right thing to do when Nazis come to your door.
The target of the final two essays shifts from Kantians to, I dare say, Christians. “Geist’s Kaleidoscope” is an essay in celebration (by devastating criticism!) of Cyril O’Regan’s genealogy of modern Hegelian and Protestant theology as a “return of gnosticism.” Hart’s response to O’Regan is twofold: First, the moderns fled from instead of returned to gnosticism. Second, gnosticism is an inherent tendency of Christianity because gnostics, according to Hart, get Christianity right. Hart does remind readers that St. Paul and the early Christians had an “apocalyptic vision” and saw Christianity as much more a battle of spirits than we post-Leibnizians see things. The essay also contains a nice reminder that “tradition” is a much more complicated and constructed experience than supposed, “an often fitful invention of willfully ambiguous and hitherto unprecedented models of confession, usually as compromises between genuinely contradictory positions, successfully capturing something of the force of what preceded them, but only in the shape of synthetic formulations that also deeply altered much of the meaning of past beliefs and practices.” For Cardinal Newman, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” For Hart, “To be deep in doctrinal history is to cease to be Newmanian.”