Thursday, October 08, 2009

On Willful Misunderstanding, by David Bentley Hart



I came across this quote from Hart, an orthodox theologian you should read, in "The Hidden and the Manifest: Metaphysics after Nicea" in the wonderful Orthodox Readings of Augustine, St. Vladimir's seminary press:




In any modern engagement between Christian East and Christian West, we begin from the long history of an often militant refusal--on both sides--of intellectual reconciliation. . . . All too often, moreover, this incomprehension takes the depressing form of a simple and a deplorable failure of imagination: an inability to appreciate that, in order to understand another intellectual tradition, rooted in a different primary language, it is not enough to translate its terms into one's own dialect and then proceed to interpret them according to the rules of one's one tradition. And the consequence of this is that, as often as not, "ecumenism" between East and West consists in little more than a relentless syncope of category errors: the drearily predictable alarm and indignation with which traditional Thomists find that Gregory Palamas, transposed into Thomas' Latin, is not a Thomis; the deep and slightly macabre delight with which earnest Palamites discover that Thomas, read through Palamite lenses, proves to be no Palamite.




I have encountered this willful misunderstanding myself, where shallow thinkers focus on a term extracted from a tradition, misinterpret it, or interpret it on purpose in the worst light, and then reject the tradition from which it comes as a heresy. This is not to say that genuine differences don't exist between East and West, or between Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians, but in wading through the polemics, one often finds that most of the differences are in approach. It's like New York pizza versus Chicago style: both are pizza, but approached differently, the one emphasizing the goodness of sauce and cheese, the other focusing on the crust.



Anyway, go read David Bentley Hart. It's a rollercoaster of erudition.



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