Review of “The Experience of God” by David Bentley Hart

Apr 21, 2014 Comment(s) Tags: ,

This is not a typical book review. I’m not going to summarize Hart’s arguments, point out the books virtues and flaws, and end with something like “This surely belongs on the shelf of every serious philosopher/theologian/academic library” or, conversely, “Hart offers yet another failed attempt to overcome the obvious absurdities associated with belief in God.” Plenty of such reviews already exist, and many seem to be by writers ready to applaud or jeer Hart before even opening his book.

Unlike such reviewers, I am simply trying to answer one question: should you read The Experience of God? The book is, indeed, excellent. But it is not for everyone.

To be specific, I recommend this book if…

• You are disturbed by the “new atheists” but not sure why.
If you have suspected that Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other “New Atheists” are missing something very basic in their polemics against believers, you’ll like this book. Hart cuts through the dross of their prose and basically shows that they get the definition of “God” wrong. He then shows how the “anti-metaphysical method” of modern science simply cannot account for existence, consciousness, or bliss (defined as the desire for truth, beauty, and goodness). For Hart, then, the most fundamental aspects of human experience are simply not amenable to materialistic explanations (or reductions), which makes the whole atheistic project inherently limited – something that the New Atheists never seem to consider.

• You’re an atheist but not sure why.
Hart doesn’t discount the possibility of an intellectually robust atheism. Several times throughout the book, Hart admiringly cites atheists of “genuine stature and ability” who clearly understand and grapple with the unique philosophical issues surrounding “God.” In one section, he even proffers several versions of “evolutionary ethics” that the “New Atheists” never even consider, even if only to show how conceptually problematic they are. So if you want to be an intellectually serious atheist, few thinkers will help you as much as David Hart.

• You have a sense of wonder (or would like to have one).
Hart is quick to dispel materialist – and hence “scientific” – explanations of existence, consciousness, and bliss, but his project is actually more positive than negative. He wants the reader to be struck by “the mystery in which one finds oneself immersed in at every moment.” For Hart, ignoring these (for lack of a better phrase) “non-material” realities is simply “willful spiritual deafness,” while attending to them opens up some of the deepest, most wondrous aspects of humanity and even “natural evidence of the supernatural.” And if that were not enough to persuade a materialist to have a sense of wonder, Hart also compellingly argues that without such basic, unexplainable features of our humanity, “we would know nothing of nature, could not care for it, could not delight in it.” In other words, scientific thinking – which is prized by many atheists above all else – never really gets off the ground without some very basic, non-scientific building blocks in place.

• You suspect that there’s a shared wisdom in the major theistic traditions.
Hart’s previous works testify to his remarkable erudition, and The Experience of God is no different. For Christian readers, familiar intellectual giants like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Thomas Aquinas make their appearance. Well-known thinkers from the Western tradition are also there: Kant, Spinoza, Heidegger, and others. But these only make up about half of Hart’s panoply. He draws from multiple ancient and modern Islamic, Jewish, Bahá’í, Sufi, and Hindu thinkers. And he clearly demonstrates a remarkable consistency across traditions as they grapple with the mysteries of being, consciousness, and bliss.

• You think philosophy is important.
Our culture – including our academic culture – is, at best, indifferent to philosophy. Thus, its members tend to be at the mercy of its own philosophical prejudices, which mostly tilt toward materialism. Hart happily takes on the role of Socrates, exposing and, in most cases, demolishing these prejudices with clear, philosophical argumentation. Along the way, he opens up intellectual possibilities – including, as noted above, the possibility of a robust sense of wonder – that our culture routinely ignores. As such, he directly and indirectly guides his reader to a place of wisdom, which is what most lovers of philosophy are seeking.

But Hart’s book is not for everyone – not because it has a few weaknesses, but because it is naturally limited in scope. I don’t recommend the book, for example, if…

• You want a proof of the existence of God.
Hart is very clear: “it is not my aim to prove the truth of this vision of things so much as to describe it.” He argues against Anselm’s classic argument for the existence of God, saying that it muddies as many philosophical problems as it clarifies. More than once, he questions the possibility of a valid proof of the existence of God. And in the book’s last section, he says that contemplation and wonder – i.e. not philosophy or reasoned argumentation – are the most reliable starting points for experiencing the reality of God,.

• You want to read about Biblical or Orthodox theology.
It has been said that the God of the Bible, with all of his anger, tenderness, vengeance, love, and patience – in a word, with all of his personality – is more like Zeus than “the God of the philosophers.” Hart’s philosophical “God” does nothing to dispel this notion. No attempt is made to reconcile or even hint at a connection between the God articulated in the book and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I would even say that, starting only with Hart’s God, it’s easier to conclude that human consciousness is a drip in the ocean of divine consciousness than that God is, say, Trinity or that He would use a prophet like Jeremiah or Ezekiel. Hart also never avails himself of sacramental or liturgical theology to guide and elucidate the “experience of God” that comes from meditating on the mysteries of being, consciousness, and bliss.

• You want to read detailed take-downs of the “New Atheists.”
Again, Hart primary aim is to show what the major theistic traditions mean by “God,” and he sticks doggedly to that goal. Along the way, of course, he shows that the “New Atheists” simply do not know what they are talking about when they insist that there is no God, but he does not engage in anything like a point-for-point, argument-for-argument rebuttal of their arguments. He even admits that he does not clear away all of the philosophical thickets that remain when the definition of “God” is clear.

I will end by saying that I loved Hart’s book. My dislike of the “New Atheists” is primarily rooted in their philosophical shabbiness, so it was pleasurable and even edifying to follow the rich philosophical development of Hart’s arguments. I also appreciated the clarity of Hart’s prose – it’s virtually jargon-free – and his ability to remain sharply within the limits he places on the book. Such discipline is rare among philosophical authors, but it is important. Without it, authors address too many questions and diffuse the strength of their thought. With it, authors like Hart help their readers beyond the confines of a book and into a reader’s life, where the book’s ideas can “be fruitful and multiply” in unpredictable and edifying ways. That, at least, continues to be my experience with The Experience of God.

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Michael Lotti is a writer living in St. Paul, Minn.…
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