In 2010, a friend sent me a link to an essay by David Bentley Hart, a takedown of the so-called New Atheists. Hart caricatures Christopher Hitchens’s arguments in God Is Not Great as syllogisms whose major premise has been omitted:
Major Premise: [omitted]
Minor Premise: Timothy Dwight opposed smallpox vaccinations.
Conclusion: There is no God.
But it was Hart’s conclusion that really won me over: “The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists, it seems to me, is rereading Nietzsche.” Here is a hint of the independence of thought that Hart’s readers prize: an Orthodox theologian laments atheism’s decline from Nietzsche’s “intellectual courage” into “historical errors, sententious moralism, glib sophistry.”
I later reviewed a few of Hart’s books for various outlets, which eventually resulted in an email from him in 2016, and we have been corresponding ever since (as I note below, within a few weeks he was sending me ridiculous claims like “Entwistle, Townshend, and Moon were each immeasurably better musicians than any member of the Stones”). I just texted David to ask how he first became aware of me, whether from one of my reviews of his work or something else, and he said, “Probably reading you in the New Yorker or somewhere, I don’t exactly recall. I knew of you before any review from you.” Recently, for no reason at all, we decided to record the following conversation held over Zoom. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
David Bentley Hart: We should clarify what’s going on here: that it’s entirely a conversation, not an interview, right? So, reciprocal disclosures—if I say anything embarrassing, you’re morally obliged to say something humiliating about yourself.
Michael Robbins: Well, I don’t recall that in our preliminary—
DBH: I think that was in the contract. I think you haven’t checked the fine print. But, anyway—so you are Michael Robbins, the esteemed poet, whose most recent book, Walkman, has been praised, but not given the awards it deserves by the philistines. And I’m David Bentley Hart.
MR: And you are the author, most recently, of You Are Gods, Tradition and Apocalypse, and the Gnostic fantasy Kenogaia, which did win an award—which is not to say that you have won all the awards you deserve.
DBH: Well, yes, for Roland in Moonlight alone, which is my other recent book.
MR: Yes, I don’t have a hard copy of that one here with me.
DBH: I have the three volumes of poetry that you’ve published, and with my typical genius in organizing books, because they just keep mounting up by several thousands, I don’t know where your books are. I went looking for them last night, and to be honest I couldn’t find them.
MR: It is a problem I fully understand. There are books that I’ve ended up buying three times because I thought that I had lost a copy of it.
DBH: I think we’ve all had that experience; or you’ve just simply forgotten that you owned a copy. As I grow older and more forgetful, I forget that I just bought a copy last month. So tell me—
MR: Well, before we get started with your question, I just want to point out that we began our correspondence, however many years ago now, with a dispute over the relative greatness of the Who and the Rolling Stones—you a Whovian and I with sympathy for the devil. And I think both of us came to a greater appreciation of the other’s favorite band.
DBH: Yeah, yeah, well, actually, the Who were never my favorite band. I’m afraid that I’m that most sublunary of creatures—
MR: The Beatles.
DBH: The Beatles, yeah, were always my favorite. I’m a sucker for melody, and since they could generate melodies at a rate that Schubert couldn’t have kept up with—that and chord progressions. I mean those chord progressions, getting richer and richer and richer. But I loved all of the British invasion bands as a kid. Still you’re right, I had soured a bit on the Rolling Stones, mostly, I think, because they went on and on and on, past their great period, and this cast an unflattering light back upon their great period.
But I wanted to ask you what everyone’s been asking you since Walkman came out, and we’ve talked a bit about it. Of course, the cover and the title lead one to expect yet another iteration of the inimitable Robbins voice, which in the past I would have characterized as—I don’t know—militantly sardonic, terse, sarcastic…but formally very precise, using a certain sort of formal mastery in order to contain a fairly disruptive irony. In any case, the words that spring to one’s lips immediately are not “tender,” “lyrical.” To be honest, I have to say, if I were asked for my normal reaction to your first two volumes of verse, it would be something like “a bitter appreciative laugh.”
But Walkman isn’t formally rigid—it’s formally accomplished, but in a more sprung way. I’m not saying it’s sprung rhythm all the way through, but it is basically the case that it’s not in strict meter. There’s just a sort of lilting cadence through all the long poems—and most of the poems in the book are long. But also, I have to admit, I had not been prepared for the vulnerable Michael Robbins. There’s a quiet lyricism that goes with the rhythm of the verse and the images, without being lush and opulent in the way I would be, in my late-nineteenth-century perversity. But it has some lovely images—I mean, somehow you make a Kinko’s late at night, with cashiered copying machines, seem oddly atmospheric and inviting—and the melancholy and the almost confessional tone running through it remain for me the most interesting changes. I was just hoping you might talk about that for a bit, because there’s something going on there and I don’t know if it’ll show up again in your next collection or not.
MR: Well, I’ve actually been writing new poems fairly inspired by one of my favorite contemporary works, Chelsey Minnis’s Baby, I Don’t Care.
DBH: Somehow I would expect you to like that.
MR: When I’ve been asked this previously, I always say that I didn’t want to stagnate, I got bored with what I was doing, and that’s all true enough, but that’s also an evasion of the question—
DBH: I don’t think, if that were all it were, you would just naturally switch to reflective melancholy, giving this sense of something wounded. I’m not trying to overburden this with descriptions, but I mean it can’t just be that you were trying out a new style.
MR: Right. Well, the impetus was reading James Schuyler. I read all of Schuyler while I was at a loss about where to go from the second book. And as I say in “Walkman,” the title poem, “Schuyler was too tender / for me then, but now / he is just tender enough.” And there’s something about growing older. I was still in my thirties when I wrote Alien vs. Predator, and a couple of those poems are from my twenties. And growing older sucks—
DBH: Yes, indeed.
MR: So lately I’ve begun thinking about age, as I’ve gotten back into Keats and Blake and Wordsworth, who were loves of my youth. When I was writing the poems in Alien vs. Predator, I was much more likely to be reading John Donne or Marvell, and not necessarily their very earnest poems, but their wittier, catchier poems. And I think about the change you refer to a little bit as the difference between Donne and Wordsworth, the difference between a sort of formal display of wit, not personal—you know, you don’t get a sense of who John Donne is in his daily life. Whereas reading The Prelude or “Tintern Abbey”—Wordsworth was twenty-eight when he wrote “Tintern Abbey,” but Wordsworth also turned fifty when he was around twenty-five. And then my anger at the ecological crisis, the crisis of capitalist society, it was easier to take a sardonic stance with that anger in my twenties and thirties. As I age, as the angel watches the past pile up before it as it’s blown into the future, it gets harder and harder to maintain a stance of militant humor rather than of militant despair. I wanted to write something that captured my increasing lack of hope. I guess you can do that in a nihilistic death-metal way, like the band Cattle Decapitation, or you can do it in a sort of Wordsworthian way.
My image of European civilization now is the old man standing on his porch yelling all the time at the kids, because all he remembers now is that he’s angry about something.
DBH: There’s an elegiac, not a polemical, tone in the book—it’s neither satire nor savage commentary, that is, but it’s definitely elegiac. It has a plangency to it. As you say, it’s partly your age, and you’ve mentioned going back to Wordsworth and Keats. We think of the Romantics as writing young men’s poetry, but the truth is it’s also the poetry of reflective middle age. As you begin to grow old, you go back to it, and it has a completely different meaning for you now. And I too have been reading reams of Wordsworth and Keats in recent years, and both German and English Romanticism more and more, which I used to keep a certain distance from, to be honest, because I was corrupted by T. S. Eliot when I was young. And I shouldn’t have been, because his critical essays say some incredibly stupid things about poets who aren’t either Metaphysicals or Moderns.
MR: I think that’s right, and, you know, how could Keats write poems of reflective middle age? Well, partly because European civilization was in its reflective middle age at that time, and it’s now—
DBH: —in its gibbering senescence. In fact, my image of it now is the old man standing on his porch yelling all the time at the kids, because all he remembers now is that he’s angry about something.
MR: Well, perhaps that provides a segue to my first question for you. I have, I think, identified three themes that are common to your latest work, Roland in Moonlight, You Are Gods, That All Shall Be Saved, and Tradition and Apocalypse. I would identify them as your preoccupations, and I wonder what you think or have to say about it. In descending order of complexity: first, the idea that thou art that, or that Atman is Brahman, which I take it for you is simply a way of expressing in a different conceptual grammar the proposition that “you are gods.” Second, the idea that it is logically impossible for persons ultimately to reject God, so far as it is constitutive of the rational will to seek him as its ultimate end. And third, how shall I put it? The increasing divergence between what Frederick Douglass called the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ. Which is to say, if you were a Martian, and you came down to the United States and you wanted to deduce from the statements and behavior of its adherents, without access to the scriptures, what Christianity was, what the gospels taught, I think you would have to conclude that Jesus spent most of his time denouncing homosexuality, insisting on the inviolability of gender, counseling the acquisition of wealth, and railing against immigrants.
DBH: You’ve left out guns. It’s a curious thing, of course. Let’s start there, then, rather than with the more metaphysically abstruse issues. So, every age of Christendom has been something of a jarring contradiction to the language of Christianity, as preserved in Scripture and liturgy; but I honestly believe that America uniquely is the land where Christianity went to die, and that the proof that it died here is that it could be so easily supplanted by a completely different religion called “Christianity,” and yet no one noticed the absurdity of it.
MR: Frederick Douglass noticed. John Brown noticed.
DBH: No, right, I mean right now. I don’t mean that no one ever noticed, or that there are no Christians here. I always get attacked for this—“He’s saying there are no American Christians.” No, there’s no American Christianity. The Christians that are here, the ones who are still practicing actual Christianity, have their Christianity from elsewhere. But I mean what’s native to America, the American religion, to use Harold Bloom’s phrase—and he was actually quite good on that. He didn’t get all of it right, but he was right in recognizing that the American Evangelical religion is simply not the thing called Christianity, either faithfully or unfaithfully, throughout Christian history.
If you were to go online and look at the sermons of, say, someone like Reverend Jeffress, one of the most popular Evangelical figures today, assuming you were that Martian you mentioned, and you took him as your guide to Christianity, and you listened faithfully to his sermons over a course of many months, you would come away believing that Christianity is a religion of salvation, freely given no matter what; but then otherwise it’s a creed about patriotism, about libertarian rights—mostly gun ownership, private property—and a rather militant distaste for Muslims (which slips out from time to time), and generally the virtues of great wealth and military power. And that would be the whole religion. It would not be clear, either visually or from the content of what you were hearing, that the flag that’s always right there next to the lectern or the pulpit and the cross in the back—well, it would be very difficult to discern which of those was meant to be the holy symbol of the faith.
As I say, Christians have always betrayed Christianity, and they have always misunderstood it. They’ve always in a casual way assumed that it was meant to affirm whatever it was they wanted to be valued. But I don’t think that there’s ever been another culture that could so sublimely corrupt and so sublimely efface the original Gospel and replace it with something else—with a counterfeit that’s not just a dissemblance, but almost a polar opposite—in the way that American religious culture did. I don’t know what else to say about America. We’re the most religious country in the developed world, supposedly, but it’s definitely not Christianity that forms our religious consciousness.
MR: Yeah, that’s the thing. From the time of Constantinople—ahem, from the time of Constantine—
DBH: The time of Constantine is, in fact, the time of Constantinople.
MR: I’m dealing with my cat as we talk. From the time of Constantine, there has been an official religion called Christianity that one would would hesitate to fully identify with the Christianity of of the Gospels. But there is something new—
DBH: At least there was a continuity. Just read some of the Church fathers who preached in Constantinople: you read John Chrysostom, for instance, and Bakunin seems like a tepid conservative. They were still very much proclaiming the Gospel of the poor. “Christians are supposed to be looking after the poor; in fact, you have no right to the wealth you possess. It is an abomination that you claim this for yourself just because you got there first.” Rhetoric of that sort. You find this language in Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, and two of those were Patriarchs of Constantinople speaking to an imperial audience, as well as to the larger crowd. And right through the Middle Ages you can see that even when the values of the faith were corrupted or betrayed or somehow twisted in a way that would allow for, say, the execution of heretics, the actual knowledge of the content of the Gospel was not lost. I mean, it was still there. You know, St. Francis doesn’t have to go looking for some lost truth. He’s still using the language that he hears in the liturgy and in readings and sermons. That’s something that’s qualitatively very different from what we are talking about. It’s as if, as soon as Europeans reached these shores, there was the possibility of reinventing the faith in this utterly odd, Orphic way—antinomian in some ways, and very legalistic in others.
The Great Awakening, you know, is a very curious phenomenon, one in which a new fervency is taking shape; but you can already see within the actual religious phenomena of the time an odd movement away from the moral core of the faith. Yet even that doesn’t explain to me modern American Evangelicalism. And what I find especially curious is that it’s not just Evangelicalism we mean; there’s something about America that has the power to transform everything. Orthodoxy in America—when I converted more than thirty-five years ago, when I joined the OCA—was still immersed in a Russo-Parisian, urbane, very cosmopolitan sort of culture…I mean, Schmemann and Meyendorff and figures like that. It’s now been absolutely colonized by former Evangelicals, who didn’t actually cease being Evangelicals in order to becoming Orthodox. Instead, they brought the ethos, the narrowness, the strange legalism and aridity of Evangelicalism into Orthodoxy; and the Orthodox, not being very good at knowing what the hell is going on around them as a rule, just let them pour in. And American Catholicism, too. I mean, rad-trad Catholicism may seem to be an emanation of the culture of Franco’s Spain, and you can see its roots in the European far Right; but here it has an especially American ferocity and fundamentalist tenor about it.
We’re a special people, we’re a people apart.
MR: You probably don’t want to get into the abstruse reactionary Catholic interpretations of Thomas that you refute in You Are Gods.
DBH: Well, maybe I do. I actually didn’t want this to be a theological conversation predominantly, but I am willing to talk about that, because that’s interesting.
MR: Well, I talk about poetry all the time.
DBH: This is like, you know, Groucho Marx and T. S. Eliot having dinner together. Eliot wanted to talk about Duck Soup and Groucho wanted to talk about The Waste Land. People make you talk about the things that they associate with you—although I’m going to point out that, of my published work, theology is only about 30 percent.
MR: I know, and Roland in Moonlight is a good entry point to some other issues I want to discuss. But I do want to say that I just reread Perry Miller on Jonathan Edwards, and I know that we’re not to take Miller’s account without a grain of salt, but it is just a masterful account of the milieu in which these ideas had their germination that we’ve been discussing. One of his great points is that the opponents of Edwards were as motivated as they were by anything by the desire to consolidate their business and land holdings.
DBH: This is true, and it’s always been the case. I mean, it’s the reason, you know, neither Gregory nor John stayed in the patriarchal see of Constantinople very long; it’s not a new phenomenon. There comes a point where even a Byzantine princess says, “Is he talking about me? I think I just realized he’s talking about me.”
MR: Yeah, the history of the meddlesome priests. By the way, partly out of a cheeky desire to nettle you, I try as often as possible to point out your resemblance to certain aspects of the thought of Karl Barth. Obviously not American, but as recently as Barth, we hear again and again an emphasis on “the striking breaches of the contemporary (and not only the contemporary) industrial and commercial and economic order.” He’s talking about the Gospel, obviously, and he says, again, “Above all we must take up again the question of [Jesus’] relationship to the economic order and how he radically calls it in question.” That’s just gone out the window.
DBH: Oh, well, I mean the curious thing, of course, is that Christian socialism was the default position of the more orthodox wings of Christian thought for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I’ve been attacked for talking about Christian socialism by people in this country, like the Pakaluks, who—never mind, I’m trying to avoid personal abuse, especially when it involves fish in barrels. Literally, though, one of them wrote, “No Christian can be a socialist.” It’s a good thing that Jesus was a Jew, because he’d have been kicked out of the Church, apparently.
MR: Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton—how many people have said that in order to be a Christian, you have to be a socialist, or in fact a communist?
DBH: C.S. Lewis said it, for God’s sake. These people, you know, Americans who think they understand the Inklings…I’ve actually had someone, I won’t say who—let’s just say he was a younger fellow at the architectural school at Notre Dame—who was shocked when I mentioned the somewhat radical politics of Tolkien and Lewis. Fellows like that love the Inklings, but they don’t seem to understand, you know, that Tolkien was radically anti-capitalist, anti-industrialist. He praised people who wanted to blow up power plants for destroying the environment, thought that if you cut down trees you probably go to hell, described himself as an anarchist-monarchist—meaning he wanted a king, but with absolutely no power. He wanted a purely symbolic government that was powerless, so that otherwise society would function as a kind of radical subsidiarity. If you were actually to play that out, his politics seem pretty close to Kropotkin’s. And then C. S. Lewis just came out and said, you know, a Christian social order would be a socialist one. On politics, he would criticize both sides of government, but it’s well known that he he was very much in favor of the postwar British settlement that created the National Health Service, that provided milk subsidies, free glasses, and dentistry for children; he was on board with that as being a deep expression of an established Christian nation’s conscience. And he’s in a long tradition there. You know, Charles Gore, the greatest Anglo-Catholic theologian of the turn of the century, and all the other Christian socialists at that time, they were basically in the mainstream of Christian social thought. It’s that British Christian socialist tradition that probably had the greatest influence on me. But it never even occurred to me that this could possibly be controversial, at least in terms of the claim that it is grounded in Christian principles. That just seems so starkly obvious. And of course, it doesn’t even fit within the the normal spectrum of what we in America call conservative or liberal. Ruskin, who was sort of the father of it in many ways, was also a Tory and a Royalist. R. H. Tawney, probably the greatest economic mind of that tradition in Britain, said that in many ways he was conservative; he wanted to conserve things that were small and fragile, and conserve community by looking after the least of these, remembering that we’re all one family.
Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton—how many people have said that in order to be a Christian, you have to be a socialist, or in fact a communist?
MR: Yeah. Well, that tradition can and does veer into a kind of eco-fascism.
DBH: Oh, yeah, sure, if it becomes a matter of preserving the fragile and the local by denying the universal; but none of them was guilty of that, and certainly not Tawney. There’s a person who would do everything he could—who fought—to see refugees welcomed into British society and protected. But this is always the danger, right? I mean socialism can be, in fact, so detached from our notion of right and left that it can be appropriated, obviously, as we know, by nationalist movements and eco-fascist movements.
MR: All this is why I rest on the anarcho-communist left, what Lenin denounced as the infantile disorder of left communism. But we should move on. I do want to mention Blake, whom we were talking about the other day, for whom the one worshipped by the names divine of Jesus and Jehovah is Satan. Obviously, you know, as a metaphor here.
DBH: Well, you know, truly, Satan, thou art but a dunce.
MR: But I said to someone just recently, you know, if the 80 percent of evangelicals—I’m sorry, 80 percent of white Evangelicals—
DBH: That’s another thing about American Christianity. It’s the most segregated version of Christianity in the world.
MR: If the 80 percent of white Evangelicals who voted for Trump in the last, I think the last two elections—if they are Christians, then I must be a Satanist.
DBH: I would hesitate there, however. Don’t go saying that too much. Someone might be listening. He’ll try to convince you that well, you might as well go all in—in for a penny, in for a pound.
MR: Yeah, well, I listen to a lot of black metal, so I’m inured to Satanism.
DBH: And I listen to too much Wagner.
MR: Let’s talk about Blake. I don’t remember who it was who said if William Blake was a Christian, no other man ever was. And that was not intended to impugn his Christianity, but to express what Kierkegaard called the difficulty of being a Christian in Christendom.
DBH: No, I think Blake was very much, obviously, an idiosyncratic Christian, and he’s been appropriated also—I knew Harold Bloom, by the way—
MR: Yeah, I noticed you’re cited in his last books a few times.
DBH: Yeah, right, he mentions me a few times. That’s the fruit of the conversations we had about the New Testament. He was actually quite pleased to learn that the Apostle Paul really was not opposed to works of love as the way of sanctification. And there are other things about my translation of the New Testament he liked. Obviously it would appeal to him, because I keep bringing out all the archons and powers on high, and pointing out that Second Temple Judaism’s angelology is crucial to understanding certain passages. But one of the last conversations we had was about Blake. And he asked at one point, “Do you think Blake would be closer to a Christian of the first century? He was concerned for the poor, he cared about little children, he had a fierce sense of justice. He denounced any religion that is the religion of powerful and the hypocritical.” Bloom was very interested in this question, because, of course, Blake was part of his, you know, his Gnostic pantheon for years and years. And in the conversations we had at the end, he was more and more open to thinking that maybe, actually, there was an aboriginal Christianity that he had misunderstood. He was very open-minded, I have to say, for a guy who published these gigantic books making huge claims all the time; he didn’t seem to have any problem saying, “Oh, I may have been wrong about that.”
MR: You know, he was important to me as a young man. He became progressively less so over time, and then I found myself by the end absolutely opposed to to his thought.
DBH: He did help free me from the spell of T. S. Eliot, from the critical writings. He was the one who, when I was young, made me go back to the Romantics and see that there was a lot of absurdity in Eliot.
MR: Yeah, I took the opposite course. I began in the Romantics with Bloom, migrated to Eliot and the Metaphysicals, and then rejected both Bloom and Eliot. They’re both so annoying. But I held on to the poets. I’ve come back to the Romantics after a long time away, partly because my friend Anahid Nersessian recently published a tremendous book, Keats’s Odes, and made me revisit a poet whom I hadn’t thought about in twenty years.
But I wanted to say that Bloom wrote in some ways a very bad book called The Shadow of a Great Rock. It’s great as a commonplace book of passages from the King James, comparing them to Geneva and to Tyndale. His generalizations are as sweeping as ever. But he gives really short shrift to the New Testament—and he’s a Gnostic Jew, you know, who can blame him. But he simply has no patience for Paul, he basically accepts Nietzsche’s view of Paul. He doesn’t seem to have read even E. P. Sanders.
DBH: That’s what I mean, that’s what I found interesting about these last conversations. He got in touch with me after he’d read the New Testament translation to talk about just that. The last time we corresponded was the night he died, actually, or the night before; I don’t know if he died the next morning. But he had read That All Shall Be Saved. I couldn’t believe it; I mean, why would that be of interest to him? He said he found it very moving, but he did not agree with it. Well, why would you agree, why would you have any opinion? You know, you don’t have to say what is or is not plausible within the context of Christianity. And I was really fascinated by that. I wanted to know what he thought, but then he said, I’m not feeling well today, so we will have to revisit it in future.
MR: And, well, if you were right, then you can talk to him about it at some point.
DBH: That’s true. In fact, I fully expect that.
MR: But Bloom’s lack of concern about the Christian afterlife brings me to a very broad thing that I wanted to say. I wonder if there is a tension between the claims of the Christian faith and the broader theistic tradition, say, of Brahman or of the One, or what have you. And it hinges of course on the person of Christ. You’ve been accused of pantheism. You’ve been accused of not even being a Christian of late by various—
DBH: Yeah, I know. What I think most funny is when it comes from Evangelicals, because I’m always wondering exactly where they are getting their doctrinal authority from. Because if they think what they believe could just be taken from Scripture…in fact, where are they getting their authority for believing that Scripture is revelation?
MR: And people have said similar things to me, and my response is always: that’s fine. I’m happy not to be a Christian, you know, I’ll just be a follower of the Way. But there is a sticking point, where I hit a kind of apophatic wall, which is that if, as I’ve certainly confessed many times in my life, Yeshua of Nazareth was God, then it becomes difficult to square the truth claims of Christianity with those of, say, Islam or Judaism or Hinduism, which I do believe are no less valid.
DBH: We’re now getting into territory that can easily become a three-hour disquisition on on all sorts of things. I have also of late tried to convince people that the concept of “religions,” in the plural, is a modern anthropological concept that would not have been intelligible in either antiquity or the Middle Ages. Even in Thomas Aquinas religio is a singular, it’s a virtue that everyone practices; we’re all involved in the same practice, with obviously varying degrees of knowledge and varying degrees of a hope of salvation. So the first thing you have to do is step back from the modern context in which we’ve created this artificial category, you know. What would have been called cultus in the past have become something like separate propositional systems.
MR: So let me just see if I’ve got this right. So the idea of “the one true faith” would not even be legible in the earlier conceptual grammar.
DBH: “One true religion” wouldn’t have been, and even “one true faith” would have been problematic. Better to say faith with greater or lesser degrees of illumination. And not always in a purely consistent way. For Thomas Aquinas it’s clear that on certain aspects of the doctrine of God a Muslim like Ibn Sina might have got things right more than any of his contemporaries in the Christian world, and he has no problem saying this. You know, go and read Nicholas of Cusa on the true faith, and see what you discover; and read that alongside his Cribratio Alkorani, in which he’s trying to discover how much revealed truth or wisdom and spiritual nourishment can be found in the Qur’an for Christians.
MR: Let me just point out that you have a chapter on Nicholas in You Are Gods.
DBH: Well, Nicholas is very important for me in a number of ways. There it’s because he’s a phenomenological genius regarding the nature of rational desire, and why its only end can be infinite.
But you mentioned pantheism, which is one of those meaningless words, really, because you can interpret it in any way.
MR: Jonathan Edwards was accused of the same. I’m just bringing all my Protestant heroes into this conversation.
DBH: Well, the problem with Jonathan Edwards is he’s a metaphysical genius, but he preached a really abysmal faith; there you want to free his metaphysics—
MR: We’ll stipulate that the Calvinist doctrine is barbaric in several respects.
DBH: Too many people remember him only as the preacher of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but the metaphysical system is extraordinary. It has traces of Cambridge Platonism in it, but not, it seems, through direct acquaintance; and Gregory of Nyssa, but I don’t know how—
MR: There’s no way he read Gregory of Nyssa, but he’s there. And he got it from John Locke, as far as I can tell!
DBH: This is one of those curious facts of history. And he was, of course, a native genius. I mean, you just have to accept the fact that he just had a brilliant mind.
But anyway, there are ways of talking about the uniqueness of Jesus that make it a kind of catastrophic uniqueness. That’s my problem with the early Barth, the dialectical period, especially the first edition of Der Römerbrief. There the uniqueness is so catastrophic that it doesn’t have any analogical continuity in nature, history, or anything else. It’s incoherent, it’s philosophically meaningless, for reasons that you can extrapolate from those places in You Are Gods where I’m talking to Thomists about their understanding of nature and supernature. That is, you could from that extrapolate many of the same conclusions regarding the way grace and nature are configured in the Reformed tradition and in Barth’s early period, and through much of his work. And there’s a whole school now that seems to have sprung out of Boston College of these young guys calling themselves Neo-Chalcedoninians; some very, very intelligent and gifted scholars, among them a fellow named Jordan Wood who’s a very fine Maximus scholar. But the actual system, to my mind, is just as philosophically incoherent, again because there’s this catastrophic uniqueness to the hypostasization of Christ. Anyway, the problems with it philosophically are so insurmountable, and theologically too, that it’s simply a dead end as a project.
It also comes with a sort of rejection of the analogical. You mentioned Brahman-Atman. Obviously, the sort of monism to which I’m drawn is a metaphysical monism of a more Neoplatonic or Vedantic sort; so let’s talk about that. What’s it saying? Thou art that. Not, that is, that your finite psychological personality is God; in fact, that’s explicitly denied. What it says is that within you dwells, at the ground of your ability to be a person at all, sakshin, the perfect subject, but one who acts as well, who is atman, which literally means, like all words for spirit, “breath,” “the wind.” Like pneuma and pnoe in Greek, or neshama, nephesh, ruach in the Hebrew. And we’re told that God’s neshama, his breath or spirit, is what brings life to to Adam, right? Well, let’s say on the one hand, then, that it’s true that, not in our empirical ego, not in our subjective psychology, but at the ground of our beings is that atman, that neshama, that pneuma breathed into us by God—that spark, the Fünklein of Meister Eckhart—and that to varying degrees the individual empirical selves that we are are transparent to or opaque to that ground. A holy person, a sannyasin or someone who is a saint, is someone in whom that divine image shines forth with peculiar clarity, right? Well, if there’s one—let’s say just one for now—person in whom that transparency is so perfect that there is nothing between the self—the psychological personality, the finite empirical subject, the human being, the human nature—and that divine ground, then that’s God incarnate. But what’s interesting about that is, on the one hand, it’s unique; but it’s a uniqueness of degree, because it’s also universal in its embrace, for what’s true of him is true of us in nuce or in imperfect form. And that’s why, you know, most of Christian doctrinal history has encompassed the notion that the purpose of the incarnation is the deification of human beings. Maximus actually speaks, just like Gregory of Nazianzus before him, of our becoming the equals of God, equals of Christ, and even becoming uncreated. So the very uniqueness of Christ becomes also the universal truth, the universal destiny of human beings. Well, if you start from that as your understanding of Christology, and you accept an analogical ontology—one that doesn’t involve this catastrophist notion that in order to affirm the uniqueness of Christ you have to say that in Christ absolute contraries are united in some way, which somehow the dynamism of personality has the power to confect, and that this also determines who God is, and God becomes who he is, and his determination towards the man Jesus, and all this other rubbish from twentieth-century Lutheran thought and other sources—and instead you realize that what’s really splendid and magnificent about this more original understanding of deification is that God’s incarnation in Christ is also going on in everyone, everywhere, at all times, then that seems naturally to lead to a sort of universalization of the claims you can make for the faith. The beliefs of all the traditions as imperfect but nonetheless real participations in this union of creatures and God.
God’s incarnation in Christ is also going on in everyone, everywhere, at all times.
MR: There’s the formulation that’s always cited, it’s in Irenaeus, but I don’t know if he was the first to formulate it, that the patristic tradition is concerned to show that God became a human so that humans could become God.
DBH: Well, in fact, all of Christian doctrinal history—during, that is, what the Orthodox would consider the conciliar period, which ends with the Seventh Council—is premised entirely on that. That is the ground of all Christian doctrine. Again, I’ve been attacked for pointing out what is simply historical fact about the Council of Nicaea: that the Nicene doctrine was arrived at not based on a long dogmatic tradition, which made its theology obviously more authoritative than the theology of those it was struggling against. Quite the opposite, in fact. At least, it was much more a creative and hermeneutical retrieval of the past and also a synthesis. But what gave it its strength was that it was the only adequate way of expressing a Trinitarian theology—and then a Christology, in the following councils—that answered the aporias of the Arians, or the Eunomians, and then in time the various Christological factions or parties who were struggling with one another and against Nicaea. This was what carried the day—it’s only God who could join us to God.
MR: You bring that out very well in in Tradition and Apocalypse, that there’s no way you can get to Nicaea directly from the New Testament. You do need that hermeneutical work.
DBH: The word homoousios isn’t in the New Testament, but it is a brilliant theoretical formula for trying to express something that comes to the fore in say John chapter 20 or in other places in the New Testament; and it’s also part of the logic of the notion that in Christ humanity is really joined to God, not just to an intermediary.
MR: And I want to emphasize that when you speak of traditions as imperfect reflections, you include Christianity itself as also an imperfect reflection. You’re not doing the Catholic thing where you say, well, Christ participates mysteriously in other faiths.
DBH: No, quite the opposite. I’m saying absolutely nothing of the sort. I am saying that doctrinal claims about Christ are not exclusive claims in the way that they’re understood to be. Whether I fully understand them in the way that I’m expected to understand them is a different question, to be discussed sub rosa rather than in a public forum like this, for the simple reason that anything I would say without taking the time to sit down and write it down very carefully—well, actually, that doesn’t work either. I’d still get attacked for that. So I guess I might as well say anything. Hail Athena.
MR: I have been accused of practicing “cafeteria Christianity,” you know, picking and choosing.
DBH: Who doesn’t?
MR: The truth is that there is no other way of practicing any faith.
DBH: There are radical-traditional Catholics who like to say of their less rigorist kith, oh, this is cafeteria Catholicism. But these are the same people who largely reject Vatican II. They refuse to accept the authority of the current Pope on matters of teaching and discipline, which is an inalienable appanage of the papacy according to Catholic doctrine. Not only are they cafeteria Catholics, they’re cafeteria Catholics who insist on just going to the 1950s-style automat that hasn’t been closed down for some reason at the edge of town, where you can still get four-day-old sandwiches wrapped in plastic for a nickel. They’re the most ridiculous kinds of cafeteria Catholics.
MR: Ah, the analogia sandwichi.
DBH: I want to ask you, though, to shift back to where we began, because I am actually curious about this, are you still, I mean right now, writing in voce from Walkman?
MR: No, though in this case it’s not a question of being bored but of feeling like I did what I wanted to do in that form, and were I to continue, I would worry that I’m just producing facsimile poems, which is something you see—I’ll just name names—John Ashbery, Charles Simic, Robert Creeley, after a while they’re not writing new poems, they’re writing John Ashbery poems, Charles Simic poems.
DBH: Ashbery would be my top example of that. After a while you kind of wish he had gone through epochal shifts.
MR: He went through that one shift where he read James Tate, and started being even sillier. So I don’t want to start doing that; no one seems able to recognize when they’re doing it.
DBH: Well, Yeats did. Yeats reinvented himself twice, and he just kept getting better, you know. He starts as a sort of Pre-Raphaelite lyricist, and sure, it’s beautiful, I love all the early stuff, I can recite reams of the early Yeats, because I just love pretty things, I’m just a fancy kind of guy in that regard. And the middle Yeats has a kind of rich austerity to it. Then the late Yeats—you know, I love that sort of hermetic intensity, and the density of the lines, though I’m not asking you what your opinion of it is.
MR: Oh, no, you know, “The woods of Arcady are dead, / And gone is their antique joy”—this is all from memory, from when I was fifteen or sixteen, “Of old the world on dreaming fed; / And truth is now her painted toy.” I think I got a couple of words wrong, but that’s the first poem in the collected poems. I started there, because why not start at the beginning, and you think, okay, I know what this is, you know, even as a sixteen-year-old, this is some pretty poetry about nature, about Irish myth, and then all of a sudden we’re consulting spirits, and by the end we have this sort of world-weary, almost cynical—I love all of it. Each of his periods has its splendors, but probably my favorite Yeats is the Yeats of “Easter, 1916,” right around there, but the last poems, “Lapis Lazuli,” “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”—
DBH: “A terrible beauty is born”: you know, that iambic trimeter pace and the repetition—“Wherever green is worn / Are changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born”—that actually in some ways came to mind when I was reading Walkman, because you too—well, it’s not as strict a meter, but the cadences are kind of trimetric in places—it does have that kind of flow. Maybe it’s just because it looks like that on the page.
MR: No, no, actually, I teach “Easter 1916” every semester, and one thing I always ask is, what meter is this, and it’s very easy to realize that it is trimeter, but it’s not so easy to identify accentually what it is, it’s not precisely iambic, it varies in a way you don’t notice when you read it aloud. It seems perfectly metrical, but once you start listening to where the accents are falling, it’s kind of all over the place but in a really tight, beautiful way, and I spent a lot of time wondering how he achieved that effect. Auden did it too, but only because Auden copied Yeats in that respect. If you read, you know, “September 1, 1939,” it’s just the loose iambic trimeter of “Easter 1916,” or his elegy for Yeats, he also achieves a metrical effect without quite strictly following an accentual pattern.
DBH: That’s true in the first parts of the poem. At the end of course it gets very strict, right? “Follow poet, follow right / To the bottom of the night”; “In the deserts of the heart / Let the healing fountain start. / In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.”
MR: Well, there he’s imitating a different Yeats. What always irritated me is the best quatrains of that last part are the ones he excised later, after
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
DBH: I love this, of course, and all the stuff about Kipling and Paul Claudel.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
DBH: I had a wonderful vacation in Ireland recently. I found that when I was there, in the Ring of Kerry, the early Yeats was irresistible; because as I say I could recite lots of Yeats, and I always loved “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” and I was driving my son mad, and I was reading out “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea,” which I love just for the last lines, “And fought with the invulnerable tide”—such a nice perfectly metrical ending. And then he started reading the early Yeats.
I think my favorite of the late stuff, if it’s not “Lapis Lazuli,” is probably “Among School Children.”
MR: “Among School Children” is marvelous, “A sixty-year-old smiling public man.” “An aged man is but a paltry thing,” as he says elsewhere. The poetry of the youth and the poetry of the paltry thing are in beautiful tension with each other in Yeats, because it’s easy as a young person to dream of plucking till time and times are done the silver apples of the moon. But when you’re walking among the school children as an older man, you’re realizing that you will never pluck the silver apples of the moon. It’s one thing to dream romantically as a youth, and it’s another thing—this goes back to what I was talking about at the very beginning—it’s another thing in middle age or late middle age to regret that that’s only a fantastical vision.
DBH: But another truth is that you can; and I think Yeats did. I think you can recover something of it, reflectively. As I said, it’s in “Among School Children,” “Labour is blossoming or dancing where / The body is not bruised to pleasure soul, / Nor beauty born out of its own despair”—and of course then the “great rooted blossomer”—
MR: Well, as I put it in Alien vs. Predator, “How can we know the anteater from the ants?”
DBH: Yes, that’s the Michael Robbins of old. That’s the voice that conquered the hearts of millions. Though it’s blasphemy, of course.
MR: Well, there you see also the influence of the Pink Panther cartoons. But, yeah, that question, How can we know the dancer from the dance?—now I’m reaching the limits of my ability to express what I mean, but there’s a sort of romantic yearning for fairyland, I guess, silver apples of the moon, and I think that’s instinctive, as a quasi-Neoplatonist, I guess I think that might be something that we are imbued with. And then there’s a kind of falling away and a disappointment that this is instead what we have, that we will never actually reach the consummation. But the dancer and the dance are an expression of the unity, one might call it even pantheistic, of the medium and the subject—
DBH: Well, I think it inverts the impulses of youth.
MR: Yeah, that’s what I mean.
DBH: Because in youth you want that immediacy, you want to merge with, be part of the pulse of life, and with everything. All is vitality. And then you get older and, from a different vantage, there’s a release. Now it seems that an actual, real merging means you’re letting go—
MR: Yeah, the youth wants to retain the fire of who he or she is, the youth wants to be a psychological individual frolicking in fairyland, and the old person has to sort of realize that becoming fairyland is the best one can do.
DBH: Right, but it’s autumn now, it’s not all the new growth of spring. It’s time to understand that what that merging entails, ultimately, is the disappearance of the self that wants to merge with the all.
MR: “Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they? / Think not of them, thou hast thy music, too”—someone whom, of course, Yeats read quite closely. Even if he pokes him a few times.
DBH: Oh dear!
MR: Perhaps this is a good place to close.
DBH: Yeah, it is. You’re making me feel old.
Michael Robbins is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Walkman (Penguin Books, 2021). He is an associate professor of English at Montclair State University.
David Bentley Hart, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, is the author of many books, including, most recently, You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature (University of Notre Dame Press) and Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief (Baker Academic).
Reproduced with permission from Commonweal.