Posted on: November 11th, 2022 David Bentley Hart on Gender & Sexuality

About six years now I read a book that changed my life: The Experience of God: Being, Consiousness, and Bliss, by David Bentley Hart. (And not just mine: I know of several folks who, upon reading this book, actually made significant life decisions based on it.)

Since then I have followed him on his Substack (as much as I’m able). I have also read a couple of his other books, most recently his riveting and scintillating Roland in Moonlight, which I reviewed here.

More recently, through the reading of Michel Foucault’s posthumous, radically untimely released fourth (and final) volume of his History of Sexuality project (see here), I have become aware that the basic posture of the Eastern Church Fathers (and Mothers) diverges starkly from the dominant stance in the West on the issue of gender and sexuality, in particular their role or presence (or lack thereof) in creation. I have blogged about this latter issue here.

Well, it just so happens that the keynote speaker at my Diocese‘s clergy conference a couple of weeks ago was none other than DBH himself! (Thanks, Bishop Doyle!) His talk was an iteration of an earlier one he gave at my Alma Mater (Maynooth University) on Christian tradition and the future (this latter notion being the theme of clergy conference this year), and I could not resist the opportunity to ask him a question from the floor after his lecture. Here is the exchange:

Dr. Hart, it seems to me that you’ve written relatively little about issues of gender and sexuality, and so … I wonder if you could apply your talk to those issues? In particular I’m thinking about the fact that we need to allow the eschaton to shape our understanding of orthodoxy as much as the sacred deposit does and in light of what the Scriptures say (in Matthew 19 about how there is no “giving and receiving in marriage” in the eschaton). Also I’m thinking about people like Gregory of Nyssa and Eastern Fathers who say that there was no sexual difference in the garden. I just wondered if you could apply this vision of orthodoxy to the area of gender and sexuality.

—Matt Boulter

It’s interesting, isn’t it…. I mean, one of the things that happens in early modernity with the evermore literal acceptation started by the Reformation and the Counter Reformation is that readings like Gregory’s or Origen’s—things that remain possible well up into the fourteenth os fifteenth century, even, suddenly become forbidden. It then becomes just a set of positivistic oppositions….
… [T]here were actually these early church fathers who didn’t place the garden or the fall within history, and they didn’t believe that sexual hierarchy was inscribed into the eternal divine order of reality, but actually said shockingly antinomian things at times. These were actually the early generations of Christians.
For Gregory he speaks … of the acquisition of sexual difference as a kind of providential economy of creation for fallen spiritual beings, not because he is trying to erase or efface sexual difference. He just means that this is not what it means to be in the image of God, this is not therefore what it means to live the life of Christ. But how you appropriate Gregory or Origen in the present is hard to say, because the issues have shifted, haven’t they.
So, no, I have not written very much about it. I’m not very imaginative sometimes on certain topics, and don’t know how to go about bridging the questions of the fourth century and [those of the] twenty-first in a way that isn’t purely tendentious. But you are right: as long as we are stuck in … the modern dilemma of the purely fundamentalist approach to Scripture, and that has been the pattern now for 500 years—do you follow any of these arguments online where I am attacked for being a heretic for believing that God is love and other evil things like that?
You know, you can cite the church fathers on these issues, and be told that you are a heretic, because so remote is this other world of reading Scripture, that the very notion, not only that it can enter into the present, but that it even has any purchase in Christian history, just seems like pure nonsense to ppl who are funadmentalists, and among the fundamentalists I include not just the white evangelical fundamentalists, I mean a lot of the Thomists I know. They might not be six day creationists, but they read the Bible as a set of propositional algorithms for constructing social reality. They don’t read it as the inspired occasion of reading that requires interpretation, tact, speculative daring, and the sense that there is the law of love, and the law of the spirit, without which the text slays.
I wrote a translation of the New Testament. One of the translations for which I got attacked by a very good man was when I translated the verse as “the Spirit gives life, but the Scripture slays,” but that is actually what Paul is saying. The Scripture slays when it is just what is written on the page. “The Spirit gives life, but the letter slays.” What letter is he talking about? He’s talking about Torah there. Now he’s a pious Jew. He does not believe that the Torah is wrong, but he believes that it slays, when it is read under the veil without the Spirit.

—David Bentley Hart
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