A God against Materialism

by Edward T. Oakes S.J.
David Bentley Hart’s new book is a bracing and eloquent reaffirmation.

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.

But such a thesis, although repeated often enough throughout the book, does not really represent the gravamen of this fine work of apologetics. Granted, in our civilization, the refutation of naturalism takes hard work — not because its arguments are either sound or subtle, but because our civilization has conspired to make naturalism seem plausible: “The reason the very concept of God has become at once so impoverished, so thoroughly mythical, and ultimately so incredible for so many modern persons is not because of all the interesting things we have learned over the past few centuries, but because of all the vital things we have forgotten.”

Upon that “forgetfulness of being” depends the whole sleight-of-hand that constitutes nearly every argument on behalf of naturalism. Moreover, it is also why probably only believers will gravitate to this book; for its arguments are demanding (especially in the chapter on consciousness); and for Hart what most characterizes the arguments of the bestselling New Atheists is their sheer laziness and smugness: “Popular atheism is not a philosophy but a therapy,” as the author tartly puts it. But that is also why their books will always outsell his, as Hart notes here:

What makes today’s popular atheism so depressing is neither its conceptual boorishness nor its self-righteousness but simply its cultural inevitability. It is the final, predictable, and unsurprisingly vulgar expression of an ideological tradition that has, after many centuries, become so pervasive and habitual that most of us have no idea how to doubt its premises or how to avert its consequences. This is a fairly sad state of affairs, because those consequences have at times proved quite terrible.

Perhaps, as Hart himself at one point wistfully hopes, the disasters of atheist naturalism of the past century — social Darwinism, “scientific” racism, eugenics, Stalin’s efforts to create a New Soviet Man or Hitler’s to fashion a master race — have become spent forces. But having learned some lessons from the past, we must now content ourselves no longer with Marx’s dialectical materialism and his “scientific socialism” but with a science-besotted capitalism and the materialism of King Consumer:

Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values. 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. God and the soul too often hinder the purely acquisitive longings upon which the market depends, and confront us with values that stand in stark rivalry to the only truly substantial value at the center of the social universe: the price tag.

No wonder, then, that books by the New Atheists sell so well, and far more than can reasonably be expected of Hart’s book, superbly written as it is. Fans of his prose like to trade favorite passages, like boys with baseball cards, so I will conclude this review with my own choice:

So really it was only a matter of time before atheism slipped out of the enclosed gardens of academe and down from the vertiginous eyries of high cosmopolitan fashion and began expressing itself in crassly vulgar form. It was equally inevitable that, rather than boldly challenging the orthodoxies of its age, it would prove to be just one more anodyne item on sale in the shops and would be enthusiastically fêted by a vapid media culture not especially averse to the idea that there are no ultimate values, but only final prices. In a sense, the triviality of the movement is its chief virtue. It is a diverting alternative to thinking deeply. It is a narcotic. In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys.

— Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., and is the author, most recently, of Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christology.