David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: A Review
Previously I reviewed David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions. His The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss is a newer book written for a similar purpose. Once again, the title threatens to mislead. The Experience of God is not about mystical or ascetic experiences of God; it is about God as philosophically understood and held in common by the major theistic religions of the world, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism. Hart uses his language as ecumenically as possible; the titles of his three central chapters are taken from Sanskrit, and he quotes from not only the Church Fathers, but also a variety of Sufi mystics, Jewish philosophers, Indian sages, etc. Hart believes these religions all share a core understanding of God—the God, as opposed to gods—which can be defined more or less acceptably to all and constitute the oft-ignored philosophical heart of classical theism.
Contemporary dialogues on the question of God’s existence, Hart notes, often devolve into an interminable exchange of flat assertions and rhetorical barbs; frequently, intelligent theists and intelligent atheists do not share a common understanding of God, and so end up talking past one another. Both often have a weak understanding of the very issue they are debating. Christians fall back on an anthropomorphic presentation of God that is more Sunday School than classical theist, and this “God” the atheist quickly demolishes. Not so fast, Hart says. For a real understanding of this “being” in which the theist claims to believe, and why reason demands his existence, we must look to the ancient formulations which are the highest and most universally-held expressions of theistic thought and continue to stand the test of time.
What The Experience of God tries to provide, then, is a definition and the rudiments of a defense. In its apologetic function, the book pushes back against naturalism or physicalism. As Hart argues, classical theism has been accepted historically not because God served as a working hypothesis for phenomena in the absence of science, but because it satisfied, better than its alternatives, questions concerning which science can have no say. Hart gently remonstrates with atheists for a dogmatic and irrational commitment to a cosmology which results in enormous if not irremediable difficulties when dealing with three problems in particular: being, consciousness, and bliss. Through examining these problems, Hart defines God and posits his existence as the only sane (let alone reasonable) solution.
Before I get into the substance of the book, I should note that judging from some quick internet searching, it has gained some minor notoriety among those who care for such debates as the latest significant salvo from the Christian intelligentsia. Even secular publications seem appreciative (I will discuss common criticisms later). The British Guardian called it, “the one theology book all atheists really should read.”
So is it? I would not put it that way. For one thing, The Experience of God is probably better regarded as philosophy than theology. It points to religion but does not itself advocate for any particular religion or understanding of God as person. For accessible insight into the heart of what Christianity is, after the Gospels, I would recommend G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy or C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, or the book I have not yet found that ties together the depth of classical theism with the concerns of modern individuals.
However, none of these books function chiefly as philosophical apologetic. Here, Hart fills a void that no other book I have yet discovered can. If it does not convince, it can at least better inform anyone, theist or atheist, of the true nature of God as philosophically defined.
And the need for such a book is real. Atheism is the self-proclaimed “faith” of modernity; it purports to be the only belief system with a legitimate claim to intellectual and scientific respectability. And atheism—or at least irreligiosity—appears to be on the rise in most modern and modernizing countries. While a few oppose the trend, such as once-staunchly-secular Russia and perhaps Japan, affluence and Western education seem almost inevitably to be accompanied by loss of interest in religious tradition. As countries grow more prosperous and young people see their intellectual horizons broaden, religion’s necessary reliance on ancient dogmas seems increasingly backward, and above all irrelevant.
This is not to say that universal secularization is inevitable or even likely. But naturalist atheism at present occupies unique cultural space and a niche market. Prominent atheists cultivate their status as the intellectual elite—perhaps with some justification, as they are arguably those who have followed some of the presuppositions of modernism through to their logical conclusions. Atheism has, moreover, long since escaped the status of maligned minority within the western intellectual community; if anything, atheists are now a kind of model minority with their professed semi-creedal loyalty to reason above all else.
Classical theism, meanwhile, has fallen into obscurity. Most young Americans, self-labeled Christians included, are technically not classical theists but adherents of what has been called “moralistic therapeutic deism” by sociologists such as Christian Smith.1 Theism as an intellectual system is widely misunderstood by religious and irreligious alike; it tends to be seen as an irrational faith based on wishful thinking or emotion-colored religious experience, whether these things are viewed positively or negatively. Even those theist intellectuals who have made a name for themselves as such are largely obscure within their own religious communities, compared to the bombast of popular religious teachers echoed from the pulpits. While there are many weak apologetics for both atheism and Christianity on the shelves, tradition-minded Christians are now on the defensive, as the intellectual benefit of doubt, so to speak, is transferred to those who bear proudly the banner of secular modernism.
The Experience of God steps into the breach. David Bentley Hart is eager to discredit atheist pretensions to being the intellectual elite and the line to the future. And he is one of a number of credible thinkers who, unlike most popular apologetics authors, truly strike at modernism from the outside, challenging its most basic assumptions.
Now to address his argument.
There are two potential criticisms Hart addresses immediately, and appropriately, in his introduction—appropriately, because these are the most frequent criticisms of his thesis I have seen online by non-theists. The first criticism is that he is making such abstract, metaphysical claims about God’s existence because he has been “backed into a corner” by modern science. This contention is nonsense simply because these metaphysical claims predate modern science and are the hallmark of classical theism in this age or any other. Science, as he will repeat often, is irrelevant to the question of theism’s God. The second is that the philosophers’ or theologians’ God is non-germane to atheist critiques, because that is not how ordinary believers conceive of God. This charge, addressed again near the end of this review, fails to recognize that for a rigorous and rational understanding of God, you must turn to the philosophers and theologians, the “experts,” so to speak, even as you would turn to a biologist for a proper understanding of biology. Ordinary believers may have little understanding of these rational formulations; that said, questioning even the most minimally tutored in doctrine will generally reveal beliefs consonant with—if not as developed or well-articulated as—the God described by the theologians.
Hart’s opening chapter, “‘God’ Is Not a Proper Name,” opens by dismissing a handful of scattered attacks from the New Atheist camp, pointing out that they represent basic misperceptions of classical theism. However, he recognizes that atheism is not the only belief system with a false spin on classical theism; therefore, he also argues that deism and Intelligent Design-style fundamentalism are aberrations. These represent a demiurgic rather than theistic picture of God: God as a being in a system of beings, a superpowerful actor whose existence is made probable (but only probable) by an “irreducible complexity” in nature. Such a God is merely a cause among other causes, filling in gaps in the causal efficacy of nature, rather than a transcendent final cause and source of all things; he may count as a god, but not as God. When classical theists refer to God, they do not mean a mere being, even an omnipotent being, but the absolute source and end of being, the ground of existence, the highest reality—not a cause such as produces change within a system of causes and effects (efficient cause), but the final cause, what gives purpose and order to the whole system.
Actually, Hart argues as he moves into Chapter 2, “Pictures of the World,” modern dislike of any talk of final causes—among both scientists and philosophers—is a mere prejudice. He points out that it is just as intellectually possible today to be a Platonist as it was two thousand years ago; science hasn’t changed that; it simply isn’t the cultural fashion (he incidentally points out that there are signs that the recent dominance of atheism in philosophy is coming to an end, possibly giving way to some other new fashion). Modern philosophy, writes Hart, was born in an age of revolutions and the confusion that came with them. The revolutions in science were certainly disorienting, displacing as they did the old cosmology based on Aristotelian physics, but the greatest confusion was caused not by the findings of science themselves, but by an unintended side-effect in the realm of causation.
The methodological empiricism of science projected the cosmos into the shape of a machine to better understand it; final and formal causes were intentionally excluded (“bracketed out”) to retain clarity of analysis in studying material and efficient causes. As science, this method was highly effective from the start; however, the machine metaphor, with its functional independence of a divine being, was soon ingrained upon western consciousness as a true picture of being. God became then merely the supreme efficient cause, the intellect behind the machine, rather than the source of being, a mystery made manifest in existence. Rather than a world pervaded and held together by a transcendent reality beyond itself, the world became a mechanical artifact, with no real, living connection to the divine, and, in fact, little connection between matter and mind at all (hence Cartesian dualism, belief in an ontologically distinct mind somewhere behind an essentially mechanical body, a “ghost in the machine”).
In the age of mechanical philosophy, in which all of nature could be viewed as a boundless collection of brute events, God soon came to be seen as merely the largest brute event of all. Thus in the modern period the argument between theism and atheism largely became no more than a tension between two different effectively atheist visions of existence. (61)
Darwinism completed this movement. There was no longer any place for God as an efficient cause, and the conceptual tools to locate him elsewhere had been abandoned long before. The machine required no mechanic and no ghost.
Today, especially with the advent of quantum theory, the sciences have no need of this mechanical portrait of the universe, but many scientists and philosophers cling to it as an established dogma. Bracketing out final and formal causes was a mere matter of method at first, yet method has been mistaken for what it is not. Ontology (study of being as such) is beyond science’s determinative powers, beyond the very self-imposed limits that allow science to function so brilliantly. In fact, the purity of the scientific method demands that we deny it any authority on questions which do not properly belong to it. Scientists’ pretensions to metaphysical authority, making unfalsifiable claims intended to justify materialism even when they go beyond and against rational inference, violate the original methodological separation that gives science such potency.
One of the more persistent and inexcusable rhetorical conceits that corrupt the current popular debates over belief in God is the claim that they constitute an argument between faith and reason or between religion and science. They constitute, in fact, only a contest between different pictures of the world: theism and naturalism… each of which involves a number of basic metaphysical convictions; and the latter is by far the less rationally defensible of the two. Naturalism is a picture of the whole of reality that cannot, according to its own intrinsic premises, address the being of the whole…. (77)
Naturalism, as Hart will go on to argue, is in no sense a “default” metaphysical position, because it violates our most basic instincts about and experience of reality. It tells us insistently, not that we are made up of genes (we know this), but that we are nothing but our genes. It tells us not that the universe is ordered by rational physical laws, but that these laws were produced by chaos and also determine everything. It tells us not that the cosmos exists, but that it is all that exists, while remaining totally unable to explain the reason for the cosmos’s existence.
Having set the stage with these controversial claims, the meat of Hart’s book is three chapters that address in turn the problems of being, consciousness, and bliss. He defines the problem, describes the theist response, and responds to as many objections as possible. His basic assertion remains consistent throughout. Describing mechanical physical processes, a task for which scientific research is equipped, cannot explain or explain away the problems of being, consciousness, and bliss. His point, time after time, is clear: the many and disparate answers of the naturalists to these questions are irrational or incoherent. But these questions are where the reasons for theism shine clearest, and where God is best defined.
Being is mere existence; a classic question of “being” is, why is there something rather than nothing? Let alone, one might add, an orderly and intelligible something? Being is key to the most basic human intuitions of God. Reality as we experience it contains no apparent reasons for its own existence; it is finite in every sense, inconstant, unthinking, and dependent. As the cosmos cannot be the source of its own existence, it is logical to posit a higher reality on which ours is contingent and from which it arose, whose very essence is the act of existence, which contains within itself perfection of being. This is God, classically understood; not a being, but the being beyond being, perfect and perfectly simple, infinite, from whom all contingent realities derive their existence.
Science can only describe the reality that is, insofar it can be studied empirically; it cannot tell us why it is, even if it could explain how the present material configuration of the universe came about. Naturalists’ substitutes for answers to the existence problem devolve into absurdity: the universe is an effect without a cause, or an infinite regress of causes. These are equally unsatisfying, not to mention irrational. Or naturalists simply deny the validity of the question, that most basic and primal of questions; the universe, magically, is “just there,” and that’s all we can say. But the theist can simply argue that the problem of being, of contingency, points to a higher source of reality, an ontological Absolute. As the problem of being cannot be scrutinized empirically, there are varying hypotheses as to the nature of this ultimate reality (hence religious and philosophical speculation), but at least the theist provides a probable solution, while all the naturalist can do is sidestep. Hart’s extended argument in this chapter, which I do not follow here in detail, is one of his best in the book.
Likewise, the problem of consciousness has to be reduced to nonsense or category error in order to be “solved” by naturalist methods. The properties of consciousness are nothing like the properties of matter; therefore any naturalist explanation of mind must account for how consciousness could arise from unconscious, undirected matter. In Hart’s opinion, no such explanation yet produced has been remotely sufficient. Describing the mere physical mechanisms of the brain cannot account for the unified perspective and experience at the heart of consciousness. Hence atheist philosophers often conclude that consciousness and intentionality are mere illusions produced by neurochemical interactions, or else resort to a number of irrational metaphors intended to preserve both the idea of consciousness and a naturalist worldview. Reason, following this vicious circle, undermines its own reliability—for if consciousness is illusion, so must reason be. The materialist starts with the fact of matter and attempts (and fails) to derive mind. But for the theist, mind, consciousness (of the highest and purest sort), was what produced external matter. The undeniable reality of consciousness, which consistent naturalists find themselves forced to deny, proves a starting point for the theistic understanding of reality, but an absurdity for the naturalist.
The chapter on bliss deals with the transcendental desires, the innate and universal longings for truth, goodness, and beauty. As Hart explains, these desires are necessarily transcendental, because every attempt to explain their existence and power by naturalist or evolutionary causes falls short. Everyone who is not a certain species of philosopher justly assumes truth to be the proper and graspable end of natural inquiry; yet the drive for truth and the apparent concord of mind and world cannot be explained or justified within the system of the material world. Likewise with the idea of the good. Although this point is hotly contested by some naturalists, any attempt to de-transcendentalize ethics results in propping up a collage of vague moral principles on the shaky foundations of utility or sentiment (for besides ontology there can be no other foundations). Finally, beauty, so difficult to define or explain, baffles any attempt at rationalization or utility and seems to point to a transcendent fullness we cannot realize in our sensible experience (Hart has written a (long! dense!) book on theological aesthetics).
Naturalism, encountering the problem of the transcendental desires, must project into the evolutionary past to account for their existence, making unfalsifiable and ultimately unconvincing claims as to their origin. These guesses, however construed, leave these desires mere illusions, tricks of our genes, or spurious constructions. Although naturalism does not inherently undermine an individual’s commitment to truth, goodness, and beauty, it reduces these things at best to an improbable byproduct of random, amoral forces, with no inherent claim on our loyalty. By contrast, theism defines truth, goodness, and beauty as properties of being, and hence the only things worthy of being sought.
Hart concludes with a chapter called “Illusion and Reality,” which again reasserts that an ideological legacy, not science, is what makes us cling to the transparently weak or spurious ways naturalism rationalizes these questions. He admits that theism is not the inevitable result of grappling with problems of being, consciousness, and bliss, but contests that the explanatory strength of theism’s answers, relative to atheism, is tremendous; atheism’s answers, more than counterintuitive, result in a vicious circle that, if followed through, destroys everything that defines and undergirds our humanity: being, consciousness, and bliss.
Hart also, incidentally, points out that classical theists have virtually always asserted that the usual way to experience God directly is through contemplative prayer: through purgation of sin and other distractions, self-emptying, and patient waiting for illumination by the grace of God. Yet the last thing many atheists would do to investigate God’s existence would be to pray, let alone submit to a process reputed to produce “mystical experiences.” They might especially point to the obvious fact that such experiences are unverifiable; they are, inherently, meaningless to anyone who has not had them. Yet as Hart notes, subjective experience is prior to objective demonstration; no experience of reality is unmediated, and if we cannot trust our subjective experience (in whatever form), that calls into question all the rest of our experience. Moreover, if indeed God, as a higher type of reality, demanded by reason, is beyond the phenomenal universe and thus by definition beyond scientific tests or empirical knowledge, then he must logically be experienced differently if he is to be experienced at all. Though we are not asked to suspend our critical faculties, we should not be hasty to distrust mysterious experiences due to some preexisting dogma, unfounded in reason, that excludes them.2 It is irrational for some atheists to declare complete assurance that God does not exist, when they have not sought him in contemplative prayer and humility, where if he may be found if he is to be found at all.
Hart concedes that the atheist is under no obligation to pursue contemplative prayer or any spiritual regimen. He concedes likewise, again, that none of his arguments in favor of theism are invincible; one can always still choose to believe that God does not exist and interpret one’s experience in that light. But Hart firmly believes that such a choice is irrational at its foundations, intended not to satisfy the demands of logic or reason, but to assuage and insulate the conscience of the modern consumer from the troubling questions of existence. Naturalism seeks not to provide an answer to the questions, but a dogma to marginalize or drown out the questions. It is a fundamental inability to see existence for what it is: miraculous, mysterious, pervaded by the transcendent that upholds, moves, and makes sense of all things.
As with the problematically-titled Atheist Delusions, I was most interested in this book for what it could tell me about my own faith, rather than the arguments it could give me in whatever encounters with nontheists lie before me. And it did clarify to me several concepts, especially concerning being and the transcendental desires, that I had picked up in scattered form elsewhere. Lengthy portions of the book are devoted to pure apologetics, and these sections interested me less than those which were actually clarifying concepts about God. For instance, it was easy to get bogged down in the section on consciousness and philosophy of mind. I was mostly unfamiliar with the debate, and while the chapter was interesting, I felt unable to properly evaluate its effectiveness, and felt that it was not valuable to me particularly unless I actually ended up in that debate.
Nevertheless, one of the most important things I gleaned from this book is the beginnings of an answer to the classic argument against theism, that atheism, even if it leaves some things at present unexplained, is a simpler and more logical way to view the world than positing invisible realities. Hart shows that the human intuition of the divine is not rooted in superstitious ignorance, but the very core of experience. One may insist that this is illusion, but one cannot deny that the problems of being, consciousness, and bliss logically suggest to most observers a transcendent absolute reality, and these problems must somehow be dealt with if a naturalist account of reality is to be a reasonable alternative. Hart argues, further, that not only has naturalism failed to do this, but its intrinsic limitations make this impossible. They force naturalism to undermine reason itself in order to come close to an apposite answer. As Hart says, the supposedly simplest explanation is problematic when it explains least. Naturalism’s elimination of the universally-intuited transcendental ultimately creates more problems than it solves.
The Experience of God makes a good compliment to Atheist Delusions. This one probably would make a better gift to an atheist, as in my experience most atheists, despite a woeful grasp of religious history, rest their atheism on scientific or philosophical rather than historical commitments. Hart strikes something like an appropriate balance between erudition and transmissional clarity; his knowledge is impressive, but he manages to cover some of the most important theism-related philosophical questions in one book rather than a twelve-volume series. Hart also provides a lengthy bibliographical postscript to assist readers in exploring any further the arguments he addressed in overview.
Atheist Delusions was more in my field, but The Experience of God was more in Hart’s. I am not sure how well the arguments succeed. They certainly sounded convincing to me, but in several areas, I am not well-read enough to feel confident on the specifics, and if I wished I would probably do as Hart recommends and explore his bibliography. Many reviews in religious and secular presses were highly complimentary to the book, and I did find what appeared to be a fair-minded and intelligent critique by an atheistic humanist (though he was going to publish his review in installments as he read and, five months later, has not gotten past the first chapter). Of course there have been criticisms, but I have not yet seen one that struck me as significant.
Most of the nontheist critiques of this book I have read (and many based their critiques on reviews of the book rather than the book itself) is that the philosophically-informed God of theism Hart describes is simply not the God of the vast majority of ordinary theists, who conceive of him as highly anthropomorphic.3 Through Hart, I addressed this contention above, and I shall do so again. It is certainly true that popular atheist critiques have proved devastating to these “ordinary theists” who do not conceive of God in the ways the best minds of the great religions do; a rigorous critique of a more sophisticated theism, on the other hand, would barely make an impression on such people. But Hart himself addresses this point, as mentioned above, when he argues that we simply cannot level advanced rational critiques at the least rational articulations of a worldview and think we have shaken its foundations. Rejecting the same uneducated conceptions of God that the great theologians and philosophers reject (and have rejected almost since the conception of their religions) does not necessarily make you an atheist, unless you are determined to identify those shallow conceptions with an intellectually rigorous theism.
My summary here is entirely insufficient to represent Hart’s analysis, which itself summarizes a whole literature. The Experience of God is repetitive, complex, and sometimes difficult to follow. But I can say this for it: it is not evasive or sophistical. His arguments are clearly spelled out; you either accept them or you do not. Whether you accept or reject classical theism, The Experience of God may give you the conceptual tools to properly deal with the problem of God, and may point you to the rich tradition which seeks to answer the perennial questions of existence.
1. The accuracy of the term itself is debatable (and notably contested by modern deists), but the findings are relevant. Adherents of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) are mostly uninterested in either orthodoxy (right doctrine) or orthopraxy (right practice); MTD is essentially oriented to a distant, benevolent divinity who confers therapeutic benefits to well-intentioned, moral people in this life and promises them heaven in the next. Smith and his fellow researchers would note that this is markedly distinct from traditional Christianity or traditional theism of any form.
Six and a half decades ago, Dorothy Sayers expressed exasperation about widespread theological ignorance, such that she was often suspected of making things up when she described true orthodox Christianity. “Apart from a possible one per cent of intelligent and instructed Christians, there are three kinds of people we have to deal with [in England]. There are the frank and open heathen, whose notions of Christianity are a dreadful jumble of rags and tags of Bible anecdote and clotted mythological nonsense. There are the ignorant Christians, who combine a mild gentle-Jesus sentimentality with a vaguely humanistic ethics—most of these are Arian heretics. Finally, there are the more or less instructed church-goers, who know all the arguments about divorce and auricular confession and communion in two kinds [substitute today’s hot issues like abortion and gay marriage], but are about as well equipped to do battle on fundamentals against a Marxian atheist or a Wellsian agnostic as a boy with a pea-shooter facing a fan-fire of machine-guns” (Creed or Chaos, 28-29).
2. Hart suggests that such atheists are victims of the “verificationist fallacy,” which states that anything not capable of being proven by the scientific method is to be regarded as false (which statement cannot itself be demonstrated by the scientific method, and of course leaves out a vast portion of human knowledge).
3. At least one atheist critic also made the comment that the God described by Hart is not necessarily the one atheists reject; they reject the anthropomorphic demiurge which Hart also opposes, but may be neutral on the existence of some transcendent source of being (I presume this critic did not consider himself a naturalist). However, this critic also seemed to think that defining God as such necessarily means God is not “personal” and hence must be totally different than the object of the unsophisticated theist’s faith–which does not follow at all, especially if, as in classical theism, the highest form of being is likewise intellect.