Ray L. Hart has influenced contemporary theological thought far more profoundly than his published books would suggest. As a leader of the American Academy of Religion and Editor of its Journal, a teacher and professor at Drew University, Vanderbilt University, State University of New York at Stony Brook, University of Montana, and Boston University, where he then served as Dean of the School of Theology from 2003-2010, Hart has helped shaped the academic and theological study of religion in the second half of the twentieth century. His first book, Unfinished Man and the Imagination, was published in 1968, and it remains a landmark in the field of philosophical theology.
His latest book, God Being Nothing, was published in 2016 with the editorial assistance of Lissa McCullough, and it stands as a summa for Hart’s thought. What stands out most strikingly is the candor, the intellectual honesty and the willingness to probe and risk theology in its deepest forms. Hart is a masterful thinker, and here he presents his unfinished understanding of God, including what it means to think seriously about God today.
His most important move is to split the idea of God from that of the Godhead, loosely following Meister Eckhart. What we call God refers to everything that is determinate in the universe, including the determinations of infinite deity that are named God. According to Hart, however, God is limited by this determination, so we are forced to posit the Godhead as the indeterminate source of every determination, including the determinations of God. The Godhead is the “nothing” or nihil that generates God and ultimately “creates” every determinate thing, including stars, planets, and people.
For Hart, God is first of all a word, “a word in the English language” (10). Because God is a word without an obvious referent, it poses a question to anyone who thinks about the concept that is associated with the word God. And this question “will be a potential goad to think God,” which is the basis for theological reflection (10). Theological desire is an impossible and possibly perverse desire to write the autobiography of God (50). We generally consider that God means the ultimate source or supreme being, the reason that anything and everything exists, as well as the basis or standard for knowing what is our purpose and how should we live our lives. The problem with any determinate conclusions about God is that there is something that remains questionable due to the lack of any obvious experience of something like God in human existence. So God becomes a question as opposed to an answer. Hart claims that the best way to approach this question is with the words God, Being, and Nothingness.
We generally think about God in terms of Being, if we think about God, even if we do not believe that God exists as a being. Hart, however, wants to preserve the unknown and indeterminate aspects of ultimate reality, which is why he affirms the Nothing of God at least as much as the Being of God. The Nothingness of God is the nihil, the “divinely immutable indeterminacy” that he calls Godhead, following Eckhart (53). As a provisional conclusion, offered in the middle of the book and using a model of text and footnote, Hart claims that
The whole of creation, what is not God but is by God, is a trace-footnote to God. Determinate God is a trace-footnote to Godhead. Godhead is a trace-footnote to nothingness, or groundless abyssal potency. These are the several footnotes in the text of all—all that is and is not (63).
So Hart privileges the nothingness, or the absolute indeterminacy from which God is. He claims that his theology is a “radical monotheistic trinitarianism” that embraces heterodoxy rather than orthodoxy. Hart traces a heterodox theological genealogy from Eckhart to Jacob Böhme, William Blake, and then to and through Hegel and Schelling. Heterodoxy resists the temptation to closure posed by orthodox thinking, so for Hart “the divine life is to be thought otherwise than in classical orthodoxy” (4). This distance from orthodoxy gives Hart’s theology its freshness and vitality. He also takes issue with most contemporary postmodern thought, because he concludes that in its fundamental indeterminacy it gives in to nihilism. “Can the nihil be given its due without issuing in nihilism?,” he asks (6).
I am not so sure that what we call postmodern thinking is essentially and inherently nihilistic, in Hart’s terms. Furthermore, I am not convinced that the question of nihilism can be circumscribed so easily in any serious grappling with the nihil, if it is the abyssal nothingness that potentially underlies everything. Certainly one may critically evaluate the seriousness of some of these so-called postmodern thinkers, especially compared with someone like Nietzsche who inspired them. So I respect Hart’s distance from postmodernism, even if I do not share it.
After an introductory overview and a longish preface, Hart wrestles with three topoi that constitute the heart of the book. The first Topos is on Theogony. Theogony is “the eternal self-generation of God, the determinate Creator, from the abysmal indeterminacies of Godhead” (48). The divine nothingness of the Godhead generates God in three forms as Wisdom, Logos, and Spirit, which is the reason that Hart affirms a trinitarian theology. The second topos concerns Cosmogony, which involves the creation of the world and the creature out of the determinate God. God creates out of nothing, but this nothing is “the very Godhead itself” out of which God creates the creature (120). Hart reinterprets the classical theological doctrine of creatio ex nihilo from the perspective of his theology, so that cosmological creation repeats in a way the original determination of God out of Godhead. God creates out of God’s own nothingness, the abysmal indeterminacy that enables all determinations. The third topos is Anthropogony, which concerns human existence. Humans exist in a middle realm between two nots, or two regions of nothingness. There is the nothingness prior to the birth of a person, and there is the nothingness that occurs at the time of death.
Existence stands out from nothingness, and the premise of Hart’s Christian theology, and monotheism more generally, is that the nothingness that we attain at death is different from the nothingness that precedes it. Hart says that “my coming death has more of being in its nonbeing than the nonbeing from which I came: that is the “good” of Good Friday” (151). He does not argue for any specific conception of personal immortality, but he wagers on the idea that our determinate existence makes a difference, so that not only we but being itself, including God, is enriched by our having existed. This is what Hart calls renewal or redemption, and how to envision and live this redemptive existence is “the very incessant task of embodied imagination” (151).
Hart’s theology is impressive, imaginative, and coherent. I affirm it in general terms, just as I affirm his importance for philosophical theology and the study of religion over the past five decades. For me, coming out of this field of philosophical theology and working with people like Charles E. Winquist, Robert P. Scharlemann, Carl A. Raschke, and David L. Miller, and including some extraordinary encounters with Thomas J. J. Altizer, the only thing that is missing is an explicit recognition of the extent to which human existence is a form of political existence, and every theology is already a political theology. There is a sense in which American radical theology in the United States was seen as distinct from the various forms of liberation theology that thrived in the 1960s and 1970s. In hindsight, I would like to see them as closer than they often appeared, and I have been strongly influenced by the philosophical discussions of political theory and political theology during this century.
So if I have any complaint, I would wish that Hart had spent more time and care in his reflections on human existence, to consider that ways in which human existence are political existence, and how determinate human creatures subjugate, oppress, and destroy other creatures, human and non-human, often in the name of God. Any sufficient anthropogeny would need to address not just our existential human being toward death, but also the actual ways in which we put others (and even ourselves) to death, and how we wield and deploy this ‘gift of death,’ to use Derrida’s phrase. In her work, especially her book Cloud of the Impossible, Catherine Keller has helped me understand that an apophatic theology influenced by Eckhart and Cusa can inform many of these issues of political theology. I think that Keller’s theology has some interesting resonances with Hart’s, although Keller strongly opposes the formulation of creatio ex nihilo, partly for political reasons. So it’s not that I don’t think there are these connections, but they are not really discussed or developed in Hart’s book. Despite my reservation about the lack of an explicit consideration of politics, and also despite my own valuation of what is usually called postmodernism as more affirmative and less nihilistic than Hart’s evaluation, I do strongly value, affirm, and endorse this book, which is a fitting testament to an extraordinary theological career.