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David Bentley Hart’s, ‘The Experience of God’ – The Full Review

David Bentley Hart’s, ‘The Experience of God’ – The Full Review

A review of David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, Yale University Press, 2013, 376 pages, paperback. 

Among the most learned and entertaining, if not sometimes infuriating writers on the theological scene today is David Bentley Hart.  He is the author of such notable books as The Doors of the SeaThe Beauty of the Infinite, and Atheist Delusions.  Alongside this is his impressive portfolio of articles (in particular for First Things).  His ‘Christ or Nothing’, ‘Laughter of the Philosophers’, and ‘Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark’ are classics!

The present work investigates the very real transcendental features of Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. These three aspects of the human condition are fundamental to any true exploration and comprehension of reality.  They also represent insurmountable obstacles to the naturalistic paradigm which holds sway in the minds of many within academe.

It is Hart’s contention, as it has been the contention of all Theists in the classical Christian tradition, that only the living God can stand behind these facts of our existence.  To fit them within a materialist philosophy is to extinguish them altogether.  But Hart is speaking of “God’, as defined in the classical traditions as the Source and Ground of Being, or as “Pure Actuality” in Aristotelian/Thomistic terms. Not, let it be said, the larger-than-life demiurgic god which the atheists love to rattle their sabres against, but the transcendent Lord and Creator of everything else that is.

Of this god who cannot be God Hart writes,

In purely philosophical terms… it simply does not matter very much if some god named “God” might happen to exist, even if he should prove to be the unsurpassable and unique instantiation of the concept “god,” as that fact casts no real light on the enigma of existence as such.  Even if this demiurge really existed, he would still be just one more being out there whose own existence would be in need of explanation: the ultimate source of being upon which he and the world must both be dependent.  Confronted by so constrained a concept of God, the village atheist would still be well within his rights to protest that, even if the world comes from God, one must still ask where God comes from. (129-130).

Hurling flack at a deity who inhabits the same circle of existence as everyone and everything else is fair game.  But it isn’t significant as regards the God revealed in the Holy Bible (a fact which Jerry Coyne, who professes to have read the book, can’t seem to get straight).  Nor is it significant, says Hart, rather controversially, as a poniard to use against the One God of whom some Muslims and Hindus speak (something I will come back to).  Both non-believers and Christians need to be aware of the difference in speaking about the true God who is the independent Source of all other (contingent) being.  Hence, says the author, “there can be no distinction between what he is and that he is” (133).

From this position the author moves on to defend Divine Simplicity as necessary (134-142).  Simplicity (and impassibility) have suffered somewhat from friendly fire of late, but Hart reasons that these are important and necessary truths about God.  It was good to meet with  such an affirmation in the book.

Also mandatory, although rarely faced up to, is the materialistic aporia channeled to us by the New Atheists and the scientific majority if we take their ontology to heart.  There is no mind and hence no goal behind existence. There are only mechanisms, and any appearance of purpose; any appeal to final causes is illusory. Speaking of the functionality inherent in the structures within and without, Hart observes,

Nothing within the material constituents of those structures has the least innate tendency toward such order, any more than the material elements from a watch is composed have any innate tendency toward horology.  And, if complex rational order is extrinsic to what matter essentially is, how much more so must rationality itself be; for consciousness would appear to be everything that, according to the principles of mechanism… The notion that material causes could yield a result so apparently contradictory to material nature is paradoxical enough that it ought to give even the most convinced of materialists pause. (154).

Consciousness “is a uniquely ‘first person’ phenomenon” (156).  “Electrochemical events are not thoughts.” (159).  Consciousness means individuality means self-hood.  Hart makes short work of “eliminativists” (like the Churchland’s) before moving on to present big problems for naturalistic accounts of consciousness.  These include “qualia” – those subjective responses to things which are our feelings alone.  Then abstract concepts are discussed.  Again, the inability of naturalism to tackle the most fundamental questions about the reality of number and mathematics is exhibited (185-187).  Then reason, and things like “language’s triadic semiotic structure” (189); then transcendental categories, and “Intentionality”, or “the fundamental power of the mind to direct itself toward something” (191), a segment I found especially helpful (191-197).  And finally, the unity of consciousness. He almost gets presuppositional as he suggests materialists ought to think twice about their commitment to their metaphysics (204).

Hart’s wit and skill as a wordsmith are never so much in evidence as when he is creatively stating the obvious.  I particularly loved this “pearler” on the overused analogy between a computer and a mind:

Software no more “thinks” than a minute hand knows the time or the printed word ‘pelican’ knows what a pelican is.” (219).

All computation, with all of its symbols, relies upon consciousness and is a top-down operation (223), just as all engineering is.  Not that the writer is interested in buttressing Intelligent Design (41, 59, 302); although I think he might have represented their case better.

Anyway, from here he becomes more obviously theological; at least for a few pages.  The discussion basically proceeds along scholastic lines, but it is none the worse for all that, and some of the language is (to me at least), spiritually edifying:

To speak of God… as infinite consciousness, which is identical to infinite being, is to say that in him the ecstasy of mind is also the perfect satiety of achieved knowledge, of perfect wisdom. (237). 

The reader may be forced to have that run past him again, but it is deep and wonderful.  It conjures up what we ought to mean when we absent-mindedly say “God is awesome”.

Hart is clear:

 God is not, in any of the great theistic traditions, merely some rational agent, external to the order of the physical universe, who imposes some kind of design upon an otherwise inert and mindless material order.  He is not some discrete being somewhere out there, floating in the great beyond, who fashions nature in accordance with rational laws upon which he is dependent.

Notice that Hart has in mind the general consensus among theistic religions about God, not just the Christian God.  I’ll comment a little on that below.  Howbeit, the god who temporarily steps in at points in history to fill the void in our understanding of the world (the god of the gaps) is great to throw in the barrel and shoot at, but, then again, such a deity was dead before he/it got into the barrel anyway.  As long as non-theists direct their logic against this immanent god, they miss the mark badly.  As both Thomist and Van Tillian schools would agree, God is the eternally existing Fount of the laws of physics, of thought, and of morality.  To proceed with the quotation:

Rather, he is himself the logical order of all reality, the ground both of the subjective rationality of mind and the objective rationality of being, the transcendent and indwelling Reason or Wisdom by which mind and matter are both informed and in which they participate. (234-235).

So the term “God” is not used the same way by Theists and non-theists (257).  Many non-theists employ the word ignorantly, investing it with a “meaning” which is foreign from what believers, especially Christians, mean.  At the most banal level this can be seen in Richard Dawkins’s question, “who made God?”  A reductionistic god belongs to a reductionistic world picture, just as much as a vitiated view of consciousness and intentionality results from an outlook which doesn’t care to explain such “directed” mysteries.

The third part of the book is given over to “Bliss”.  The goal-directedness of human consciousness seeks out primordial realities or transcendentals, which lie behind its pursuits.  Hart declares, “What interests me is the simple but crucial insight that our experience of reality does in fact have a transcendental structure.” (243).  Any such structure is teleological and thus at odds with the indeterminism inherent in naturalistic philosophy.  The rationality of mind employs this teleology.

This rational capacity to think and to act in obedience to absolute or transcendental values constitutes a dependency of consciousness upon a dimension of reality found nowhere within the physical order. (245) 

“Bliss” is what consciousness moves toward.  It is the third angle, as it were, of the triad of experience.   Our “transcendental aspirations” (251) point towards absolutes.  Hart picks out two in particular: ethics and beauty.  He spends some time with each.

Of beauty he states “Beauty is gloriously useless; it has no purpose but itself.” (277).  “Itself” though, is purpose enough, since it is Personal (284-285).  Here again I must quote:

we often find ourselves stirred and moved and delighted by objects whose visible appearances or tones or other qualities violate all of [the] canons of aesthetic value, and that somehow “shine” with a fuller beauty as a result.  Conversely, many objects that possess all these ideal features often bore us, or even appall us, with their banality. (279).

The passage continues, and I am tempted to quote it in full.  But our personal attraction to beauty while seeing it in the imperfect is itself beautiful.  Discussions of beauty ought to adorn more Christian teachings than they do.  As it is, I expect Hart to come back to this subject in the future, just as Roger Scruton keeps returning to it with such effect in his writings.

Even though he keeps his eye on his topic, Hart has plenty to give in terms of apologetic value.  He warns about the dangers, “when a particular scientific method becomes a metaphysics” (259).  The commonsensical purposes inherent in many things leads him to chide naturalism’s use of teleological verbiage while kicking it out of its worldview.  As he quips about Richard Dawkins, “a gene can be no more selfish than a teacup” (263).

The last part of the work turns to “The Reality of God” and the illusion of scientism and its claims.  The reigning outlook (at least in the academy), forces everything into a box and then sits on the lid:

Enframed, racked, reduced to machinery, nature cannot speak unless spoken to, and then her answers must only be yes, no, or obedient silence.  She cannot address us in her own voice.  And we certainly cannot hear whatever voice might attempt to speak to us through her. (312).

In his censure of the modern technological age he reminds one of the prophetic voice of Jacques Ellul (e.g. 314, 326).  But his main concern is to plead for “communion with a dimension of reality beyond the ontological indigence of the physical.” (328).  And although many evangelicals will want to tread carefully here, just as they will have to watch their step in other parts of the book, the commending of the wider and deeper explanations open to Theism (and it is “mere” Theism that this book is about), surely strike at the heart of the battle for the soul which engulfs us.

I will not tarry to list all the things in the book with which I would either disagree or else word more biblically.  Even though the Theisms of the world do refer to things in common when dealing with certain crucial issues, they are not all referring to the same worldview.  In particular, they do not all point to the One Whom God has set forth as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  The Trinitarian God, in fact, explains the existence of triads such as the one the author so deftly deals with here.  And this Trinity is, when heard and seen and meditated on, the inexhaustible Explanation.

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