The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, by David Bentley Hart (Yale, 365 pp., $28)
Despite what its title seems to promise, this book is not really about “the experience of God” except at the very end, where the author briefly discusses those ascetical practices essential for anyone who truly seeks a genuine experience of God. Nor is the “being, consciousness, and bliss” of the subtitle about divine being, religious consciousness, or mystical bliss. Rather, the “being” of the subtitle is almost exclusively about the sheer, unexplained existence of the universe; the “consciousness” referred to is the human mind, not God’s, especially those features of it that, in the author’s view, cannot be explained (or explained away) by neurology; and the “bliss” is “merely” that kind of contentment that comes from disinterested aesthetic contemplation.
But however misleading the title of the book might be, the work itself does not disappoint. I suspect David Bentley Hart’s editors may have had a hand in choosing the title, because a more accurate title would likely scare away the reader: A Refutation of Naturalism from the Ineluctable Facts of the Existence of the Universe, Human Consciousness and Aesthetic Joy.
Be that as it may, one would be hard put to find a more thorough and a more devastating refutation of naturalism — the philosophical doctrine that says that nature is a closed system, that every event in nature is caused by nature — than here. Moreover, fans of Hart’s winsome prose will not be disappointed. This passage not only illustrates Hart’s deft way with sentences (note the droll conclusion), it also nicely captures the core of his argument:
Naturalism is a picture of the whole of reality that cannot, according to its own intrinsic premises, address the being of the whole; it is a metaphysics of the rejection of metaphysics, a transcendental certainty of the impossibility of transcendental truth, and so requires an act of pure credence logically immune to any verification. . . . Naturalism’s claim that, by confining itself to purely material explanations for all things, it adheres to the only sure path of verifiable knowledge is nothing but a feat of sublimely circular thinking: physics explains everything, which we know because anything physics cannot explain does not exist, which we know because whatever exists must be explicable by physics, which we know because physics explains everything. There is something here of the mystical.
Besides skewering such circular reasoning, Hart also brings in an argument that was the centerpiece of the apologetics of that school of Catholic philosophy/theology known as Transcendental Thomism, founded by the Belgian Jesuit Joseph Maréchal (1878–1944) and brought to its fullest flower by his German Jesuit confrère Karl Rahner (1904–84). According to that school, the human mind is so dynamically open to the truth that it cannot help but implicitly reach out to the ground of that truth: God. If that school is right, then atheist reasoning is not just circular but self-contradictory; and Hart agrees:
The atheist who proudly and persistently strives to convince others that there is no God does so out of a devotion to the absolute, to the highest of values, to the divine. It is an old maxim — one that infuriates many unbelievers, but that happens to be true nonetheless — that one cannot meaningfully reject belief in the God of classical theism. If one refuses to believe in God out of one’s love of the truth, one affirms the reality of God in that very act of rejection.
A bit later, Hart almost sounds like he has channeled Rahner’s Spirit in the World when he says: “The desires evoked by the transcendental horizon of rational consciousness are not merely occasional agitations of the will but constant dynamisms of the mind; they underlie the whole movement of thought toward the world.” This way of argumentation also leads to what might be the most controversial thesis of the book: that all the major religions of the world, except for certain (minority) schools of Buddhism, believe in the God of classical theism and that none of them would balk at Thomas’s Five Ways, because they all lead to the very God they too believe in.