Feast of the Martyr Tatiana
A Review of David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss
MUCH OF my education has been backward. I learned about Plato when my professors dismissed Platonic thought. I learned about literary criticism by deconstructing literature. And I learned about theology through revisionist criticisms of classical theism. And so it has happened that I have backed my way into many of the classical, traditional positions I now hold by investigating the thing itself in light of its criticisms and finding the original “ever ancient, ever new,” to place Augustine’s famous address to God in a slightly different context.
Though maybe not so different. Augustine’s journey in the Confessions, where this soliloquy appears, is the journey deeper into the God of classical theism. And while the God in David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss is “the God of the philosophers,” a phrase typically used in the pejorative mode, this philosophical God is exciting, lush, deeper than the ocean. I want to know this God more.
So I read Hart’s book with relish. His takedowns of new atheists and ultra-materialistic, reductionist science are delicious, but his positive account of our encounter with God at the “supernatural interval” of being, consciousness, and bliss gives to classical theism the rhetorical power it deserves.
Evangelical Protestants discuss ad nauseam the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. But Hart blows right by it, taking as his starting point the classical notion of God common to the major theological religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and some forms of Hinduism. For Hart, if we’re going to talk about God in the public square, we should at least have a common idea of what we’re all talking about. So strictly speaking, Hart is engaging in philosophy, not theology. As he says, “I want to distinguish . . . between, on the one hand, metaphysical or philosophical descriptions of God and, on the other, dogmatic or confessional descriptions, and then to confine myself to the former.”
As soon as I read this book, I wanted to inflict it on my unbelieving friends. Hart is nothing if not a persuader, and his rhetoric is forceful and engaging. While he says he is not engaging in apologetics (though he admits it’s a fuzzy boundary), the whole book turns on its commitment to a philosophical account of the plausibility of God’s existence, as a response to those who don’t believe. And in this sense it seems to me like a classic apologia, an account of a particular ideological position, not a constructive treatise or an original development. He explicitly strives not to be original. The book could be construed as one extended argument that it’s more reasonable to believe in God than to not.
Be that as it may, he wants to demonstrate the reasonableness of God’s existence, as well as the fundamental content of that existence, not only out of apologetic motivations but also in order to clear the public ground of common misunderstandings and let classical theism shine in its philosophical clarity. It is in Hart’s words “a well-intentioned gift” to those discussing “God” in the public square.
I have only one, very small issue with the book. Hart occasionally uses the word supernatural when he seems to mean simply immaterial. Or at least he makes the jump from immaterial to supernatural in what seems to me an unhelpful and too-fast way. But this is a small thing, and I think has more to do with usage than faulty philosophy.
This issue jumped out at me in his discussion of mind and consciousness, which is to a letter fascinating, and possibly my favorite section of the book. His stated goal throughout the section is to make the fact of consciousness, the mystery of our self-awareness, seem strange, despite its ubiquity. He was so successful in this that as I was reading, several times I had to put the book down just to wonder at the fact that I was thinking, and that I was aware that I was thinking.
Will the book succeed in enlightening public discourse about God? I am not optimistic. This is not due to any failing on the book’s part but to the state of the public discussion to which it is addressed. The one non-Christian engagement with the book that I’ve seen, by Adam Gopnik, an otherwise perceptive and engaging writer, seems to have missed the book’s point entirely (which Hart at length ruefully noted in a column for First Things). Modern unbelief seems too willful and determined for a book even this good to have a sizable effect on the conversation. Nevertheless, the beauty of a “well-intentioned gift” is not measured by its reception. Likewise, the metric for judging faithfulness is not always its effectiveness. One can at least say that, with the presence of this book, sloppy critics of classical theism—or theism at all—are without excuse. We can say with confidence that Hart’s God will perdure amid the army of straw men built up around him.
Jeff Reimer is a freelance editor and writer based in Newton, Kansas.