The Doors of the Sea: A Review

David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

In the long history of Christianity, theodicy is comparatively young. Different generations find different doctrines more troublesome. Once, pagan philosophers looked askance at Christianity’s affirmation of the body and material creation; the idea that base physical matter could be brought into union with the Absolute was repugnant to them. Today, Christianity must contend with a different set of assumptions. The Enlightenment taught us to think of the cosmos as a vast machine; if it is so, and if it is designed and maintained by God, why doesn’t it always bring about goodness and justice, but often chaos and evil? The problem of human suffering tends to provoke a negative response to the theist’s portrait of reality. Its prominence as an object is probably due to the fact that it provokes a moral and visceral rather than merely intellectual reaction. It is a problem that cannot go unaddressed.

The Doors of the Sea is a short book (just over a hundred pages) expanded from an article written by David Bentley Hart in 2004 for the Wall Street Journal. Hart was prompted, as usual, by observations about the ongoing debate between Christians and atheists and serious deficiencies in the understanding of both sides. In The Doors of the Sea, he starts by reviewing the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and the impression it made in the press. Some nontheist journalists, he noted, insensitively used this tragedy as an opportunity to bash the Christian belief in a good God; simultaneously, some Christians offered untimely (and, Hart believes, misguided) remarks about all suffering being permitted as a part of God’s perfect plan.

Hart finds neither position satisfactory. The prominent nontheist critiques he quotes do not begin to understand either philosophical theism or Christian theology, he remarks, but they cannot be simply dismissed. Beneath the false dilemmas they pose, between divine goodness and divine omnipotence, they point to a real moral horror at evil and desire for justice that Christianity itself inculcated into western civilization. These feelings are legitimate and deserve a better and more coherent response from Christians than they normally receive.

Hence, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005)

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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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Atheist Delusions and God and Philosophy: Two Reviews

David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009)

From the title, one might assume this award-winning apologetics book from Yale UP is a polemic against prominent atheists. The title, no doubt, is a reference to Richard Dawkins’s bestselling The God Delusion. If one is at all familiar with Hart, one might further guess that it is a work of philosophy (Hart has his own following as a talented Orthodox philosopher and social critic). Actually, the title is misleading. It is not a rebuttal of any particular work or works by the New Atheists. It does not directly address popular arguments against the existence of God. It is not an academic tome (like some of Hart’s work). Hart himself characterizes it as an “historical essay,” a deliberately provocative retelling of Christian history that places itself in opposition to popular misconceptions exploited by New Atheists such as Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett.

Hart’s intended audience, therefore, is not chiefly atheists as such, but those who are swayed or simply disturbed by common historical critiques of Christianity. He is on the defensive, in the sense that he is not actively trying to convert anyone, but rather to defend the faith from popular calumnies.[1] His tone ranges from biting satire to almost poetic delineation of the meaning of the Christian Revolution in history. His praise for this quiet, slow, and momentous Revolution is often qualified, but will doubtless inspire many Christians to new appreciation of their religious heritage.

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