David Bentley Hart’s, ‘The Experience of God’ (Pt.2)

Part One

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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