In Horto Fragranti: Genesis 18

The title of this and future meditations on Scripture, In Horto Fragranti, means “in the fragrant garden” and refers to John of Damascus’s description of the Bible as a fragrant garden in which are the fountains of life.

In Genesis 18, Moses describes a meeting at the oaks of Mamre. Three “angels,” one of them the concealed Lord, pass near where Abraham, a wealthy nomadic chieftain, has pitched his tents. Abraham looks up and sees three travelers caught in the heat of the day, and urges them to partake of his hospitality before continuing on their way. They agree.

Abraham was recently circumcised in covenant with God. Thus Abraham legally and sacramentally committed himself and his descendants to God; he was reborn under a new name which God gave him, as God had given Adam his name. Now Abraham was consecrated as the father of many nations, biologically the father of Israel through Isaac, and spiritually the father of the Church through Christ. God has already made the shepherd-prince great promises.

Now the cosmic sovereign orchestrates a more intimate encounter than has yet taken place between himself and his new vassal. Food is of no material use to spiritual beings, let alone the transcendent Creator; yet the Lord consents to share bread, curds, milk, and the meat of a calf, and also to have his feet washed. (Years later, Christ returns the favor.)

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The Experience of God: A Review

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.”

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A Short Sequence of Thoughts on Creationism

I’ll admit first that I haven’t watched the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate, whose hype induced me to write this essay, and I probably won’t. I have also invested very little of the past five or six years into investigating the specifics of the creationism controversy, which I am aware still smolders in Evangelical circles.

Some autobiographical information may account for my present general apathy. Defending young earth creationism (YEC) was a major church-culture thing when I was a kid, and the typical centerpiece of apologetics ministry. I traveled to an Answers in Genesis conference with a church group when I was about eleven, and met Ken Ham there. Ham also taught adult Sunday School once in my little Baptist church. (My father, who has no particular leaning on YEC, personally found him evasive.)

My parents did their best to supply me with apologetics materials as my intellect budded. Some, for instance on the textual integrity of the Bible, were helpful; others seemed more contrived. Despite my father’s lack of investment in a young earth perspective, my mother purchased mostly YEC books when it came to science. I might have argued the YEC perspective for much of my teens, but around the time I entered college, I simply let it go. No new challenges made me rethink the validity of my position; I just realized that the issue was not so important and I was not so knowledgeable as to qualify me for an advocate of any position. Noting that I had only seen such arguments stir up discord, moreover, I seriously questioned the value and necessity of militant apologetics. Instead, I turned toward philosophy and theology, trying to understand my faith better before attempting to defend it. I still think this a fortunate shift.

My exposure did continue in low levels. While at Belhaven I read a book, written by scientists, that espoused intelligent design, and it seemed more reasonable to me than YEC. Later, as I started to realize where my assumptions about interpreting Genesis came from, and how novel they were in the history of Christian thought (YEC arose in the 1920s out of Seventh-day Adventism, a heterodox sect), any remaining commitment to YEC disintegrated, and my perception of evolutionary science as intrinsically a sinister, hostile force faded.

However much I enjoyed my six credits of biology in college—as I did, genuinely—science is still not a field in which I am particularly knowledgeable. I was deeply interested in geology and astronomy when younger, and though online chemistry classes dampened my regard, I could see reviving it at some point; nevertheless, the vast field of humanities has dominated my adult education and continuing interests.

So this is how I, a scientifically illiterate non-enthusiast, understand the meat of the question.

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