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The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

David Bentley Hart
Published by Yale University Press in 2014

Reviewed by Bryan C. Hollon, Theology, Malone University

In recent years, atheist critics of religion have been quite aggressive in working to get their message out. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and a host of others have published popular books attacking theistic belief, and they have done a nice job promoting their work via television interviews, public debates, lecture tours, and the like. Generally speaking, the arguments of the “New Atheists,” as they are often called, are not so new at all. Indeed, anyone who encounters the thinkers mentioned above after having read deeply in nineteenth- and twentieth-century atheist thought will see many of the old arguments represented, often as though for the first time, and typically with less sophistication.

Even the most absurd recent trend, atheist mega-churches, is not so new as one might think. Auguste Comte, an early nineteenth-century French philosopher and inventor of the term “sociology,” produced a highly detailed plan to create atheist churches all over France. In Comte’s plan these churches would come under the authority of a hierarchy of atheist priests who would catechize, administer atheist sacraments, shape humanity through the rhythms of an atheistic liturgical calendar, and so on. Comte, like many of his generation, was a thoroughgoing moralist and believed that an atheistic “positive religion” was necessary to direct the affections of human beings properly, forming them in love and ushering in a utopia. Of course, Comte’s vision seems far more interesting than the happy-clappy atmosphere of the new atheist mega-churches. It should not surprise us that an era as morally and intellectually impoverished as our own would produce such a shallow version of atheism. Karl Marx called for the abolishing of illusory happiness created by religion, “even if by hand-to-hand combat,” and communist revolutions ensued. Friedrich Nietzsche sought a revaluation of all values and became an inspiration to Adolph Hitler. The “New Atheists” write sophomoric books caricaturing religious belief, and their fans gather before atheist self-help preachers and employ a rocking band to set the mood. David Bentley Hart believes that the new atheism fits very well with the spirit of our shallow, consumer civilization. “Such a society is already implicitly atheist… It cannot allow ultimate goods to distract us from proximate goods. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice” (313). Turning one of Marx’s most famous criticisms of Christianity on its head, Hart suggests that the new atheism is “the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys… the triviality of the movement is its chief virtue” (313).

Though not hoping for a return to more militant forms of atheism, Hart would like to move the current debate beyond caricature, if at all possible. He suggests that his “intention is simply to offer a definition of the word ‘God’… and to do so in fairly slavish obedience to the classical definitions of the divine found in the theological and philosophical schools of most of the major religious traditions” (1). This task is necessary because those arguing that belief in God is untenable seem to have no idea what the word “God” actually refers to and no idea what it might mean for a religious adherent to experience God.

When the New Atheists rail on religious belief, they are rarely if ever speaking of any God affirmed in any version of classical theism. This is unfortunate, since surely “the truly reflective atheist would prefer not to win all his or her rhetorical victories against childish caricatures” (5). Of course, Hart does not actually believe that atheist victories are possible at all if we “get the actual definition of ‘God’” right and understand all that is entailed in this definition, since “one cannot reject the reality of God [so defined] …without embracing an ultimate absurdity” (17).

Hart’s treatment of several recent works is amusingly scathing. For instance, a physicist named Victor Stenger wrote a book titled How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. For Hart, the title alone is enough to demonstrate Stegner’s total ignorance of the issues at hand, since it betrays a “fundamental misunderstanding not only of the word ‘God’ but of the word ‘science’ as well” (21). He takes aim, also, at Dawkins who claims to refute the “Five Ways” of Thomas Aquinas and in the process misunderstands the whole point of the Five Ways and likewise misrepresents the logic and argument of each of them. Throughout the book, Hart continues to offer examples such as these.

Even as I was delighting in Hart’s witty devastation of Dawkins and others, I could not help but think that the New Atheists are merely the mirror image of a remarkably feeble late modern religious intellectual culture. Is it really fair to fault atheists for ridiculing what many, if not most, religious people actually believe? Indeed, when the face of public Christianity is demarcated by people such as Ken Ham, Pat Robertson, Joel Osteen, and Bishop Spong, how can we fault our atheist detractors for failing to get Christian belief right? Hart acknowledges the problem and suggests that, in public figures such as these, “the new atheism has opponents against which it is well matched” (24). This is really no excuse, however, since the New Atheists presume to be intellectuals.

The problem undergirding both late modern religious belief and atheist caricature is a failure to grasp, as ancient religious adherents did, that God is not one being among others, though larger and more powerful. Instead the word “God,” as used in

orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Bahá’í, a great deal of paganism, and so forth – is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. (30)

This is the one God in whom we live and move and have our being, to use the language of Paul in the book of Acts.

Hart contends that modern religious fundamentalists and atheists, alike, are working with a concept of “God” that is more akin to what ancient peoples, even the ancient Hebrews, referred to as the “gods.” The “gods” were distinct beings who worked within and upon the natural order of things. “God,” in contrast, is not a “distinct causal agency that in some way rivals the natural process of conception” (28). Atheists seem to assume that, when Christians speak of God as creator, they are speaking of a “supreme mechanical cause located somewhere within the continuum of nature” (28), while young earth creationists and others, unfortunately, give them good cause to make this mistake. Thomas Aquinas represents the classic conception of God as creator when he speaks of a “universal rational order” called into being and infused, by God, with “determinate ends” (38). This God’s operations in the universe cannot be proved or disproved since, “the reality of God… saturates every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us” (34). The God of classical theism is not “man writ large,” to use a phrase from Karl Barth. We know and experience God not as we know and experience other beings within the material universe, but as we participate in the “transcendental perfections” (58). To state this classic idea in biblical terms, we can know and experience God only as we begin to will as God wills, allowing our minds to be conformed to the mind of Christ, abiding in love, and entering into peace, rest, and joy. Knowledge and experience of God are analogical and participatory rather than univocal and evidentiary.

While atheism cannot disprove the God of classical theism, the God of classical theism retains great explanatory power where all forms of materialism fall short. Regarding being, Hart suggests that “nothing in the cosmos contains the ground of its own being” (92). Yet, “it cannot possibly be the case that there are only contingent realities” unless we want to affirm an infinite regress. Human consciousness, too, is a mystery inaccessible to materialist explanations since “the most basic phenomenology of consciousness discloses [a] vast… incommensurability between physical causation and mental events” (153). Hart contends that attempts to make sense of human consciousness “in materialist terms frequently devolve into absurdity, and seem inevitably only to exchange one explanatory deficiency for another” (169). Likewise, and despite unconvincing materialist assertions to the contrary, Hart argues that the human longing for “goodness” and “beauty” (these together constitute bliss) makes little sense within the confines of a materialist metaphysic (238-290). Surely, we can see the folly in turning “from the mystery of being to the availability of things, from the mystery of consciousness to the accessible objects of cognition, from the mystery of bliss to the imperatives of appetite and self-interest” (331). Yet, this is the trajectory of our late modern world, and this is what the New Atheists endorse.

This is a brilliant book; surely Hart’s finest to date. The prose is beautiful and accessible, the argument thorough and convincing. Nearly every page has a paragraph that begs to be recorded, remembered, and shared, so this review has not scratched the surface. Because Hart draws on a variety of classical theistic religions, some readers might suspect that Hart advocates a kind of religious pluralism where several religions merge into one. This is not at all the case. Hart is an Orthodox theologian, and he does not stray from a confessional stance in the least. I would like to end by stating that this book offers not only a blistering critique of atheism but also a very convincing case against some of the most popular apologetic programs among evangelicals, such as young earth creationism and intelligent design. It is often said that these intellectual movements arose in late modernity and are far more pagan in their presuppositions than they are Christian. Hart makes this case as well as anyone has, and I hope, for the sake of the faith once delivered, that evangelicals pay close attention even if the New Atheists do not.

Bryan C. Hollon

Malone University
Bryan C. Hollon is Professor of Theology at Malone University.