Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation (London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2018).

Paul J. DeHart, Unspeakable Cults: An Essay in Christology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2021).

The achievements of the Savior, effected by his incarnation, are of such a kind and number that if anyone should wish to expound them he would be like those who gaze at the expanse of the sea and wish to count its waves. For as one cannot take in all the waves with one’s eyes, since those coming on elude the perception of one who tries, so also one who would comprehend all the achievements of Christ in the body is unable to take in the whole, even by reckoning them up, for those that elude this thought are more than he thinks he has grasped. Therefore it is better not to seek to speak of the whole, of which one cannot even speak of a part, but rather to recall one thing, and leave the whole for you to marvel at.

Athanasius, On the Incarnation

It must be added, of course, that realistically much religious practice is indistinguishable from the practice of magic.

Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament


In August 2003, David Foster Wallace attended the Maine Lobster Festival to write a story for Gourmet magazine. With the kind of obsessive, detail-oriented reporting that had awed readers of his past work, Wallace immersed readers in the history of lobster consumption and the menu at the festival’s Main Eating Tent before describing the “world’s Largest Lobster Cooker,” which can cook up to one hundred lobsters at a time. He then posed an unexpected yet “unavoidable” question that was sure to rankle the readers of Gourmet: “is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?”[1]

Wallace is the first to admit that answering such a question is understandably complex and difficult. But the underlying theme of the essay (made explicit in his challenging conclusion) is that we cannot responsibly avoid asking the question because of (1) it’s difficulty, (2) our fear of the conclusion and its costs, or (3) some combination of the two. And so Wallace spends a significant amount of time and detail on the confusing, intimate experience of boiling another sentient creature alive and the latest available data regarding lobster brain function sensation (i.e. “nociceptors, prostaglandins, neuronal opioid receptors, etc.”).[2]

That experience (exhibiting behavior we associate with pain) combined with what we know of lobsters’ brain capacity (the hardware we’d expect to find in an animal developmentally complex enough to experience pain is all present), Wallace explains, fulfills both criteria ethicists tend to look for when determining the potential of animal suffering and whether or not we are morally responsible for considering that pain in a way that orients our actions regarding the animal in question. In trying to make sense of that information, Wallace concedes that he does tend to believe that animals are less morally important than human beings. But, fascinatingly, he acknowledges his own selfish (culinarily-informed) interest in maintaining the distinction. And, even more interestingly, that he “has not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.”[3]

In the wake of examining the most pressing, difficult data available on the topic, Wallace turns to the second pressing question of the essay: Why are we so hesitant to ask this question? Is it because it’s too abstract? Or perhaps more damningly, that we can’t be bothered with the responsibility? That we simply don’t care? Or that we avoid asking because we already know the answer and fear the way that answer would force our hand in making serious dietary shifts?


Paul DeHart is similarly concerned with the source of our hesitancy to ask certain questions and deal with the ramifications of the answers we discover, but he’s dealing with questions of revelation and biblical historicity rather than animal consumption. DeHart’s project addresses the problem “that an orthodox or catholic theology of the incarnation or hypostatic union (granting absolute significance to a discrete event or set of events centering on Jesus of Nazareth) appears to clash with historical consciousness (for which all temporal events are essentially finite and relative)” (2). That is, DeHart is concerned with our unquestioned belief in the historicity of the landscape described in the New Testament. Do we believe the world, figures, and events described in the New Testament happened just as they are described? And do we believe that conviction is grounded in the available historical data? Or are we avoiding the historical data because of our discomfort with the possibility that they might not corroborate our convictions about that text’s historicity—and, therefore, the text’s validity or truthfulness?

But DeHart goes farther than Wallace in that he lays out a viable path forward—he believes he can faithfully synthesize the core convictions of both (1) a Chalcedonian-informed, creed affirming, high Christology and (2) the most rigorous insights of historical criticism. DeHart does so, in his telling, not by smoothing out the tensions between the two camps but by “arranging them to crash into each other” (22). And I have found the wreckage quite compelling. I’ve found myself circling the site, staring at what it reveals, hoping to entice others to join me among the sparks and flames.

An excellent travel companion into these topics is Rowan Williams’s recent Christ the Heart of Creation. That’s partly because the two books are explicitly indebted to one another. Although the publication of Williams’s book predates DeHart’s by a few years, Williams notes in his prefacethat an early draft of DeHart’s “long and fascinating essay . . . helped shape some of the final stages of writing.”[4] And DeHart explains that while he wrote his essay before engaging with Christ the Heart of Creation, an anonymous reader helped clarify “a central strategy connecting Williams’s book with [his] own: appropriating creation ex nihilo in order to account conceptually for God’s ability to fashion his own humanity in Jesus, such that divinity neither opposes nor interferes with Jesus’s creaturehood, but is rather expressed by it” (6, footnote 7). Additionally, DeHart’s entire project is premised on one singular point made crystal clear in Williams’ moving essay “Trinity and Pluralism,” which DeHart quotes: “The actual concrete meaning of logos in the world, the pattern decisively and transformingly embodied in Jesus, could only be seen and realized through the entire process of the history to which the event of Jesus gives rise, with all its fluidity and unpredictability.”[5] From this point, DeHart concludes that the posthumous developments stemming from Christ are part and parcel of God’s incarnation in Christ (see 22).

Together, the two help articulate multiple dimensions of the same two-sided coin. That is, it’s clear DeHart hopes to preserve a high Christology. He notes that “no great claim to originality is being made; those for whom the ancient creeds have only the validity of bygone opinions, or who yearn for fundamental revisions to Christological doctrine, will be disappointed” (2), yet because of the many moving pieces in his work and the sheer demand of the thought experiment he undertakes, DeHart spends very little time sketching out the nature and claims of that high Christology. That is no criticism; it simply falls outside the bounds of his stated aims. And it gives us an opportunity to call upon the formidable former archbishop of Canterbury.


Williams’s Christ the Heart of Creation is an extended reflection on the ways that our language about Christ’s divinity and humanity shapes our actions, imagination, practice, and morality.[6] The book offers a compelling summary of this subject, an analysis of a range of christological thinkers, and a constructive argument regarding the issues of a Chalcedonian Christology (i.e., a Christology stressing the presence of two natures in Christ, human and divine). Williams believes, borrowing a phrase from Kathryn Tanner, that Christ is “the key” through which metaphysics, ontology, and the rest of Christian thought should be read.[7]

Williams describes his book as “an attempt to trace something of this mutual illumination that connects Christology with the doctrine of creation.” This Christology, he believes, has much to teach us about the way in which God relates to the world. And the key insight that connects those doctrines (and animates the whole of the book) is that God is not a thing in the world; God is the creator. Williams explains that the world and God “exist in an asymmetrical relation in which one depends wholly on the other, yet is fully itself, made to be and to act according to its own logic and structure.” Drawing on the work of Austin Farrer, he argues that the work of God’s infinite nature is to bring the complex web of finite relations (i.e., the world) to be.[8] God’s infinite agency brings about a complete system of finite causes that needs no intervention from external powers; it is complete in itself (2). Put differently, in most cases God does not bring something about in history by getting into the created order and mucking around with finite causes. There is no string pulling here; the complex order of creation is itself already the result of God’s creative, infinite action.

Complex as that might sound, Williams seems correct that getting clear on the God–world relation enables us to answer a slew of other theological puzzles, such as the nature of human freedom, evil, prayer, and God. More particularly, Williams suggests that by clarifying this christological language we will end up stumbling into the best possible rationale for a classical vision of God’s perfections: impassability, immutability, and omnipresence. It will also give us a framework for a theology of created, finite life that retains a coherent integrity and dignity without running the risk of positioning God as a competitive factor or cause within that finite order.[9]

There are moments, though, when finite agents can communicate content that transcends their own immanent frame; they can, in their finiteness, “enact the infinite.”[10] And for Williams, all of this comes to bear on our understanding of the incarnation:

The effect of Jesus’s life, death and rising certainly includes historical matters—the existence of the Church, obviously, and all that goes with that. But the reconciliation of the world to God cannot be described as an episode in history among others; it is a change in what historical agents may hope for, think about and pray about. As such it is emphatically a “supernatural” act, bringing about what no particular agency within creation could have done in virtue of its own immanent finite capacity. So when—as people who believe that the world has changed comprehensively because of him—we look for adequate language to tell the truth about Jesus, we shall need a model for the union of divine and human action in Christ that sees Christ as the historical and bodily location of unlimited active freedom, the place where God is active with an intensity that is nowhere else to be found.[11]

In order to tease this out, Williams begins his long, winding journey through the most crucial christological thinkers with Thomas Aquinas. Although the council of Chalcedon stresses the presence of two full natures in the one person of Jesus (i.e., Jesus is fully human and fully God), Aquinas posits a single esse in Christ (read as “divine Being” or “essence”). But Aquinas is not in tension with Chalcedon, Williams explains, as this single esse gives two natures. The payoff here is that Williams sees in Aquinas’s approach the potential to conceive of Jesus as fully human even while we understand the Word to be the subject of each creaturely action. In Jesus, we find a perfect example, rendered in total human form, of “what it is to be wholly living out of a life of filiation to the eternal Father.”[12] The Word, as the second person of the Trinity, animates Jesus’s human life and actions. There is no divine supplement to the holes or empty spaces of Jesus’s human identity.

Chalcedon correctly posits the necessity of two natures in Jesus, but it is incomplete, clunky, and negatively articulated. And that is why the christological model articulated here is so helpful for understanding a rich doctrine of creation: Christ is the heart of creation in this coherent, paradoxical, viable compatibility between the infinite and the finite. The infinite and the finite are not in competition here.

Having spent his first forty or so pages clarifying the conceptual model of Chalcedon in and through an analysis of Aquinas’s notion of esse, the rest of the book is largely Williams’s attempt to trace the development of this model from Paul’s writings up to the twentieth century. That path is deliberate and nuanced, as Williams, a notoriously generous and astute reader, manages to clarify the implications of his unique proposal in various figures while also noting the ways each contribution fits with, extends, or lies in tension with the model found in Aquinas.

But rather than naming the unique insights put forward in the historical path traced by Williams, I want to stress one of the key takeaways from his book, particularly as it pertains to DeHart’s work. If Williams, via Aquinas, Farrer, and the winding path he traces, is right, then there can be no coherent use of Jesus’s divinity to explain the truth or facticity of Jesus’s humanity. On this point, Williams writes, “His divinity is thus not something that can figure in any argument about how we should respond to him; and the theologian is not free to use the affirmation of divinity as any sort of explanation of either certain facts in Jesus’ life or of the response of faith itself.”[13] That is, the nature of the divinity cannot be coherently deployed to answer questions regarding the mechanics and nuance of the human nature precisely because of how distinct those two natures are.

And so what do these key insights about Jesus’s divinity and the God–world relation enable us to say about the full humanity of Jesus, particularly as it is imagined and constructed in historical scholarship? To DeHart we now turn.


In his attempt to show a viable way in which the supposedly competing loyalties of rigorous historical criticism and creedal Christology can be sustainably held together, DeHart submits a fascinating hypothesis: “semiosis is a promising master-image or model for understanding the metaphysics of the incarnation, and . . . such a model helps address the problem” that an orthodox theology of the incarnation seems to clash with modern historical consciousness (2). Semiosis there refers to the way language works. It’s a term that gets at how a word is nothing less—and nothing more—than a sign pointing to the thing it represents; it’s a term that emphasizes how interpretation is all wrapped up in reading, writing, and communication.

For DeHart’s purposes, the inner workings and slippages of communication are particularly helpful when trying to make sense of who and what and how the Word that was Jesus was. DeHart’s hypothesis thus deals with the interpretative activity, which he takes to be a fundamental and irreducible part of the process of the incarnation. You heard that right: incarnation as process. And a historical process, at that. If the incarnation is God’s disclosure in Jesus, then “the believing communities and their Spirit-directed labor of understanding are not just a secondary result of the incarnation, but the vehicle of its expression and actualization in history” (2). Hence my secondary connection to Williams, who asserts that whatever the entry of the Logos into the world means, it can only be understood in the unpredictable play of historical effects from that event. Both thinkers, it seems, want us to expand our sense of incarnation beyond the Word’s entry into humanity (i.e., flesh and spirit) to include the play of historical effects that result from that entry.

The problem, again, stems from the weight of modern historical consciousness. Modern historical consciousness, in DeHart’s telling, renders the basic facticity of the New Testament unreliable. That is, most of the historical investigations of the Gospels that aim to judge whether or not the claims are historically viable and verifiable tend to conclude that no, the Gospel claims are not verifiable.

This, to be fair, is part of the intrigue for DeHart. Again, remember the linguistic nature of his hypothesis: any meaning-making of God’s act of self-disclosure in the incarnation of the Word (and therefore history) depends on an elongating of the acts of interpretation, the signs that come to us in language. In other words, DeHart is trying to suggest, first, that Jesus could not have entered the field of human signs without engaging the symbolic networks of his time-space and, second, that the phenomenon of the incarnation is “unspeakable” (2)—the meaning of the event surpasses the potential of our speech capacity such that the reception of that surplus, infinite meaning is necessarily expanded beyond the historic phase of the incarnation itself. Taken together, this means that the interpretive process that is making sense of the incarnation of God “was inevitably stretched out into a temporal interpretive process through communal cultural activity. His epiphany, so to speak, had to ‘lag behind’ his advent and departure” (12).

And, furthermore, it is the role of the Spirit to help us make sense of that raw historical data. That is, the church’s role is to be the “cultic” community in history as it tries to make sense of that surplus meaning that was God’s self-disclosure in history: Jesus. For DeHart, that collective worship and investigation that characterizes the church is the imperfect “hearing” of the Word, given that we are inevitably bound to misconstrue or incompletely interpret the infinite meaning of God’s incarnation—hence his claim that “short of the eschaton the church remains a cult of the unspeakable” (13).

With those commitments in mind, part 1 of Unspeakable Cults begins by laying bare the tension between modern historical thought and the “religious affirmation of Jesus’ divinity,” and it concludes by articulating some pathways through which the tensions might be reconciled (13). It’s no real surprise, then, that he spends a few chapters tracing and clarifying the primary, pressing concerns of modern historical consciousness. And so he begins with Ernst Troeltsch in chapter 1, who attempts to decouple questionable conclusions regarding a historical Jesus from the cultic community’s frenzied veneration of the figure. Perhaps, Troeltsch argues, the community veneration of this divinity was enough. But Troeltsch, we soon discover, is a mere jumping-off point, as historical consensus (i.e., Albert Schweitzer) reveals that (1) Troeltsch’s articulation of the worshipping cult misses connecting with the premodern worship of Jesus, and (2) Troeltsch inadvertently accommodates “Jesus” to modern sensibilities through dubious historical claims. Nevertheless, we have to remember that DeHart is interested in seeing whether he can synthesize the most rigorous historical criticism with a creedal Christology, and so he grants the historical criticisms of Troeltsch; we must go with the most rigorous scholarship to really play the experiment out.

When taken in tandem with the critique of the dialectical, which I will articulate momentarily, DeHart believes Schweitzer is onto something that can ultimately chart a viable path beyond Troeltsch’s neo-Protestant maneuvers. For their part, the dialectical theologians, by which DeHart means Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, call for a stronger pneumatology, or theology of the Spirit, through which we can reliably claim, eschatologically speaking, that the events of history are divinely determined. And this is a claim they felt Strauss’s historicist metaphysics couldn’t confirm.

From there, DeHart turns, in chapter 2, to the peak articulation of this neo-Protestant Christology in D. F. Strauss. According to DeHart’s reading, Strauss articulates two primary tensions: “(1) between the ‘factual’ human Jesus and his transcendent ‘appearance’ to alter worshippers, and (2) between this apparent divinity and the metaphysical ‘truth’ that all historical entities are merely relative” (14). That is, DeHart’s first task is to overcome the tension between “fact” and “appearance” by demonstrating the ways in which a historically conceivable Jesus was by his own actions and sense of self (in conjunction with the most pressing historical data and commitments of a historical methodology) both recognized and continued in the cult of Jesus. His second task is to develop a vision of God’s relation to history wherein God bestows ultimate significance on historical things and events without disrupting their particular causality, all of which would overcome Strauss’s tension between “appearance” and “truth” (48).

With those goals in mind, DeHart turns to the historical data made available through two historians of religion: Morton Smith and Jonathan Z. Smith. Most interestingly, he draws on Morton Smith’s insight that the best interpretive category for making sense of the historical evidence of Jesus’s “attested healings and superhuman acts” was that of a magician or wonder-worker (14). That interpretative category—that is, that Jesus was a magician—reveals two crucial motifs: (1) participating in Jesus’s unique version of divine agency is salvific, and (2) there are necessarily overlapping and competing interpretive understandings of his magical figure that stem from the secretive aura that was constitutive of such wonder-workers. And here, readers must remember the nature of this proposal as a thought experiment—DeHart is not claiming that this sketch of Jesus as wonder-worker must be taken as historic fact; he’s merely demonstrating the viability of a semiotic model to overcome opposition between some “objective” Jesus and a “subjective” reception of the figure. His analysis of early religious cults (downstream from Jonathan Z. Smith’s work) enables DeHart to position Jesus and the reception of Jesus by his worshippers on a singular trajectory of meaning. That is, the treatment of the early religious cults shows that there can be no stable distinction between Jesus as he appears to his followers and Jesus as he simply is in himself. We simply have no access to the latter, and the so-called subjective and objective, it turns out, are two inseparable parts of a singular thread.

This is one of the most insightful, creative, and pressing parts of DeHart’s project, and so I want to be sure everyone is tracking my summary before moving on. In his attempt to take the most rigorous historical scholarship seriously, he floats a working hypothesis of Jesus as a first-century magician—a wonder-worker. But is DeHart saying Jesus was a magician? No. I mean, he is actually telling us that the category likely fits best with the emergence of Jesus’ following, perceived divinity, and the construction of the gospel texts within the communities of worship. But the point is not settling the score with another picture of the historical Christ; it is, rather, to grant that working model (developed out of pressing historical scholarship) and use it to demonstrate the potential for a synthesis between radical historical scholarship and a high Christology. He’s merely proving the potential of a synthesis; that’s enough.

With that framework in place, DeHart posits the constructive hypothesis that he works out in the second part of the book: the Son and Spirit (as divine persons) “appropriate the historical complex of Jesus and his cultic tradition on the analogy of a formal integration of matter, granting the personal divine presence as historical fact without the rupture of finite causal relations” (15). Key here is a vision of the Holy Spirit’s providential role in shaping and directing humanity’s cultural interactions, and this role is itself considered a mode of the Word’s advent. That is, DeHart claims “that the Spirit operates within the imaginative and creative dimensions of culture, yet without appeal to epiphanic moments where divine meaning is directly given” (15–16). DeHart makes the case for the Spirit’s guidance of culture in history as a continued unfolding of the Word of God (i.e., the second person of the Trinity) through an analysis of speech acts and communication. He writes, “If the Word is what becomes historical as Jesus, then the Spirit is the omnipotent force of creation working within history to enable this new presence and, equally important, to create within history the ‘ears’ to hear this utterance. No genuine incarnation without ‘strong’ pneumatology” (101).

DeHart’s point is that the Word’s presence and the Spirit’s actions are never in competition with the dynamics of culture and history; the divine meaning of that presence and actions are only ever made legible within the realm of culture and human meaning-making. As he says, “The speaking and hearing of the eternal Word into history can only take finite, temporal shape as a cultural event” 104). And this is precisely why DeHart thinks semiosis is so crucial for understanding the incarnation.

To clarify this claim, DeHart develops the analogy of a pop-phenomenon whose status is determined posthumously via a previously hidden concert recording. Consider a rock musician whose talent is only fully recognized and revered in the wake of an expertly captured live recording of a show. The recording goes viral, and the show takes hold as a legendary “event of aesthetic truth” (113). In the metaphor, we have a symbolic transformation of the life of the figure into a different medium long after the original came to an end. The singer’s career could be over by the time the recording is released. And we see the constructive role of interpretation in the listening community. In listening to the recording again and again, the community’s experience of the rock-god shapes their perception of the music and figure, even as no two listeners hear and imagine the exact same thing. And in their celebration and sharing of these varied interpretations, the listening community “did not displace but actually perceptively continued and amplified his original significance” (115). It’s all right there.  

The final task is to develop a concept of the incarnation “that accepts Jesus’ real identity with God without interrupting the flow of historical relativity.” DeHart gets there by framing certain ingenious elements of Schleiermacher’s Christology in a Thomistic framework. The Son’s assumption of Jesus enables “the total shaping of Jesus’ human consciousness” via God’s unique presence, and the revelation (as in the revealing of the meaning) of that figure is carried out over time by way of the Spirit’s work in the world (as the divine guide of culture). It is thus in the creative play of interpretation over time that the church in history “co-constitutes the full expression of the Word in history” (17). This is a “lagging epiphany” wherein the historical work of the church’s interpretation of the surplus meaning of Christ’s entry into history is itself counted as part of the ongoing incarnation.

So, to summarize: the complex historical happenings (i.e., the cultural psychology of Jesus and the cultic veneration of his divine person) are temporal events formed and directed by God (via the Spirit and Son) in order to project the Spirit and Son into the world. And hence DeHart’s own sense of his project’s fidelity to Chalcedon. If that council insisted that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, this project extends the logic to say that the whole Christ-event, as in the incarnation and subsequent historical reception that continues the incarnation, is fully historical and fully cultural, “precisely as the vehicle of the missions of Son and Spirit” (21). Rendered in this manner, both the cultural dynamics into which the Son entered and the cultic reception were and continue to be the “essential conditions” of God’s presence in history (22).  

DeHart is quite clear about the cost of all this, which is indeed quite high. He tries to deal with the most pressing of these costs in the final three chapters. First, opting for his model requires one to reconcile this creedal vision of the incarnation with “extreme historical departures from the Gospel story of Jesus” (17). Indeed, what does this understanding of the history of Jesus mean for how we read the Gospels? For DeHart, we press on. If God is providentially involved in the cultural and communal process of composing, editing, selecting, and passing down the Gospel texts (and DeHart thinks God is), then no factual inaccuracies can hinder the rendering of Jesus’s true identity, incomplete as it must be. Put differently, the stories are not themselves factual or historical, and yet they continue revealing the identity of Christ to us precisely because God is involved in the process of the production, dissemination, and reading (18).

Second, is the question of miracles. This model depends on a kind of inability to ever finally affirm or deny the status of the superhuman acts attributed to Jesus. DeHart argues that we must resist the temptation to do so, even as the complex vision of agency that he has developed and used throughout does not mean that the truth of these stories (as signs) does not override or remove their historical embodiment in time, space, and culture (18). Indeed, DeHart stresses that if God really did take on flesh in the world, the created, historic realities must correspond to the ontological reality of God in Christ (21).

And third is the way Christ evades our grasp. The faith community, in examining the past and attempting to make sense of Jesus, can never arrive at a single image or identity; we can only ever develop and assemble multiple pictures that are, inevitably, inaccurate. The meaning, after all, is still being disclosed. And that meaning will remain in-process until the end of history. But what choice do we have except to continue attempting? DeHart writes that “the believers in Jesus as God must have the courage to keep ‘reacquiring’ Jesus interpretively, a task rendered all the more daunting in face of the modern critical exposure of Christianity’s cultural and moral complicity with fallen history” (19).


My goal in the remainder of this essay is to briefly evaluate DeHart’s proposals, paying particular attention to the cost of granting his proposals legitimacy.

First, I am thinking about the resurrection of Jesus and how that event fits within DeHart’s historical schema. According to DeHart’s own telling, the question of resurrection is largely (and intentionally) absent from the text because it is categorized as a miracle that happens in Jesus rather than a miracle performed by Jesus (198). He assures his readers that “Jesus is really, bodily alive and not dead; his reality cannot be subsumed into the believing attitudes of his followers. . . . Historically speaking there is no positive fact at issue in the raising of Jesus, but rather a mysterious kind of absence or empty space in the texture of the temporal world-order” (199). And so we must instead make do with something akin to Ernst Kantorowicz’s notion of “the king’s two bodies” in one: the unspeakable bodily resurrection and the sign-body active in history (i.e., the church).

To be frank, I do not understand what DeHart means with reference to this absence. And I wish he would tease out the implications of this absence in the text so that I could properly connect his treatment of the resurrection with the rigors of historic analysis that the text itself is dedicated to. Following DeHart’s own method, I sense no need to claim that a historic, bodily resurrection can’t fit. But I am left wondering how it would, and I wish that were made available here.

Second, I want to think a bit more about the consequences of following DeHart down the wormhole he’s opened. On the one hand, DeHart offers a path to understanding the revelatory witness of the New Testament texts while also reckoning with their mythic natures. His work invites us to both follow Jesus and take the fullness of modern historical consensus seriously. By accepting DeHart’s vision of reality and clarifying the actual contours of the New Testament’s witness, we avoid defensive “jettison[ing], for reasons of theological convenience, the canons of modern historical judgment” and preserve our intellectual honesty (3). 

On the other hand, one of the more refreshing things about Unspeakable Cults is that DeHart doesn’t downplay or make light of the intense cost of granting his argument validity. From the first pages, he flags the costs of reckoning with modern historical judgment. For some Christians, he acknowledges, accepting the New Testament landscape as semimythic will seem revolting, absurd, or impossible. On this point, DeHart writes, “not all or perhaps even most Christians will be ready for the full force of this reorientation. For them, faith will continue to mean, quite naturally, inhabiting (at least fitfully) the semi-mythical world projected in the Bible, practically accommodated by all kinds of subliminal adjustments to their everyday world, ruled as it is by structures of power and scientific technique” (213). And to be fair, one can indeed receive the witness of a New Testament text while still granting that semimythic world historic reality.

Nonetheless, I suspect that DeHart is correct here and that his ideas will appeal to only a small group of readers. Wrestling with DeHart’s project presupposes a preexisting care about historical consciousness that I find curiously absent among American Christians. Although some may be convicted of the importance of historical accuracy, many Christians will not care or be interested—yet alone persuaded—because they have no conviction regarding historical clarity. One might say that contemporary Christians are stuffing themselves full of boiled lobster and that DeHart (like Wallace before him) is waving sheaths of scientific facts at an audience unconcerned with the question of a crustacean’s potential suffering.

I am part of that small band of Christians who would pull the lobster of historicity from the boiling pot. That is, my education, class, and life experiences have led me to be a person for whom the cost DeHart articulates acutely registers. In fact, it hits me hard enough that I worry about how the larger church and my fellow Christians will likely duck the responsibility of addressing these hard questions. And the tragedy of that, I think, is mirrored in David Foster Wallace’s questions about our avoidance of animal sentience: I worry we are avoiding asking the question of history precisely because we already know what the answer will cost us. Or worse, we simply cannot be bothered with the responsibility.

But maybe I needn’t worry myself over such things. If DeHart’s thesis is correct, after all, it is only ever the Spirit, as “the omnipotent force of creation working within history” (101), who creates ears to hear. The Spirit will do what the Spirit will do. And in the end, aren’t we destined to miss the mark anyway? Isn’t the cult unspeakable?

[1] Wallace, “Consider the Lobster,” Gourmet, August 2004, 50–56 and 60, For a great example of Wallace’s characteristic wit and comprehensiveness, see Wallace, “Democracy and Commerce at the US Open,” Tennis, September 1996, which can now be found in his absolutely lovely collection String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis (New York, NY: Library of America, 2016).

[2] Wallace, “Consider the Lobster,” 63.

[3] Wallace, “Consider the Lobster,” 64.

[4] Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018), xv.

[5] Williams, “Trinity and Pluralism,” in On Christian Theology, 1st ed. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1999), 172, quoted in DeHart, Unspeakable Cults, 22

[6] Williams, Christ the Heart, xi.

[7] See Tanner, Christ the Key (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[8] Williams, Christ the Heart, xii, xiii, and xiv. Also, see Robert MacSwain, ed., Scripture, Metaphysics and Poetry: Austin Farrer’s The Glass Vision with Critical Commentary (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013).

[9] See Williams, Christ the Heart, 5 and 11.

[10] Williams, Christ the Heart, 5.

[11] Williams, Christ the Heart, 5–6.

[12] Williams, Christ the Heart, 32.

[13] Williams, Christ the Heart, 269–70. Some readers have interpreted Williams as prioritizing God’s transcendence to the extent that he “leaves no room for God’s presence in and to the world as the Lord of creation and the incarnate Savior” (Christopher A. Beeley, “Christological Non-Competition and the Return to Chalcedon: A Response to Rowan Williams and Ian McFarland,” Modern Theology 38, no. 3 (July 2022): 604). That, I believe, misrepresents the nature of transcendence as described by Williams and, arguably, the traditions he traces. This much can be seen in Williams’ previous work on Augustine. For Williams, via Augustine and Aquinas, God is simultaneously the source of all existence and the immanent presence of that existence. God, in God’s freedom from the imperfect, corrosive forms of mutability that characterize our lives in the world, is the very ground of our being in the world. Hence, God is more present to us than we are to ourselves. That is, God is the uncaused cause of all existing things. This is why Augustine asks, “And whence would it have any kind of being, if not from you, from whom derive all things which to any degree have being?” (Confessions 11.7.7). God is the very ground and cause of creaturely agency rather than some extra agent in the same causal plane.