Magazine | October 28, 2013, Issue

The Deepest Truths

The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, by David Bentley Hart (Yale, 365 pp., $25)

David Bentley Hart is probably the greatest living scholarly defender of religious thought. The title of his 2009 book Atheist Delusions is nicely descriptive: The book pits the actual Christian tradition against caricatures of it by such “New Atheists” as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. Hart’s new book, The Experience of God, seeks to vindicate all theistic religions, that is, all those that describe God as the transcendence that created and guides the universe.

In three magisterial sections — on being, consciousness, and bliss — Hart insists on the weaknesses of claims that these phenomena can be fully accounted for through materialistic or deistic theories, a fundamental conclusion of the latter being that God, though the creator and also the source of human reason, does not either inhere or intervene in what he created. The book makes, in general, a very solid case against both prominent atheists’ logical stumbling and others’ sloppy attempts to split the difference between religion and no-religion.

But it is disappointing that, even for me (mild-mannered translator of ancient literature by day, Christian-apologist crime-fighter by night), this new book is hard going. I can see the linguistic face value of such terms as “ontologically diminished” and “immanent entelechy,” but without friendly orientation I often struggle to tell how they work in Hart’s arguments. It must be doubly intimidating for readers wholly outside the academy not to have plainer language before their eyes.

Hart also assumes in his audience a range of difficult background reading that no one who is not wholly leisured or getting paid to read could manage. Even the study requirements of my Harvard Classics doctorate (granted, I completed it 20 years ago, so I’ve forgotten a lot) don’t always allow me to fill in mentally the reasons for a citation of a particular ancient thinker. After a background quest of mine, Hart usually appears right: Long-gone generations of thinkers did take more care to sort these things out. But the number of background quests required is unappealing, especially when a requirement is accompanied by an effective put-down, a fleeting treatment of an author including a haughty correction of a common (I’m tempted to write “commonsense” or “harmless”) supposition about him. Here is only the second sentence in an abrupt shift from the authority of Ibn Sina to that of Thomas Aquinas:

Whenever he spoke of the “first cause” of beings he was referring to an ontological, not a chronological priority; and it was solely with this sort of causal priority that he was concerned in, for instance, the first three of his Five Ways (even the third, which is often mistaken — due partly to its almost telegraphic terseness — for an argument regarding how the universe started).

A footnote then leads to a lengthy paragraph of further qualification. If the distinction to which Hart is alluding is really vital, then a far more helpful way to approach it would have been to include it in an overview of Aquinas’s “proofs” of the existence of God.

Hart’s unstinting criticism of fashionable pundits can be quite bracing, but as it accumulates, an impression of unfairness grows, too. Yes, his opponents are not trained philosophers and theologians. They are liable to wander around the abstract with the aid of mere concrete signage and notions that derive immediately from that; many of them are, after all, natural scientists. But this tends to make them charismatic, example-packed rhetoricians. Before launching any sneers at their writing as flimflam, it’s useful to recall that for the great mass of the religious and nonreligious alike, these debates are not about pure, abstract intellection, but about making sense of experience — which is to say, personal experience, because what other kind is there? Hart’s book has “experience” in its title, yet disappoints precisely in its shortage of direct engagement with this.

C. S. Lewis, solicited by arguments in favor of God in the most learned environment in the world, at last yielded only to the undeniable sensation that something was approaching to take command of his life. Professional theologians have justly assailed Lewis’s own subsequent system, but the works in which it is embedded have been remarkably successful promoters of belief in God. They are companions to the usual deep but inarticulate enjoyment of religious traditions and institutions and people, an enjoyment through which many of us take God as a given.

#page#I am not criticizing The Experience of God for the category of book it represents — for being theology, which is inherently about abstractions. A conventional concession of even the most abstract works (and I’m thinking of Plato here) to ordinary human weakness is illustration of points in memorable ways. When, in the section on “Consciousness,” Hart began to use himself and the perception of a rose as an example, I perked up; but the example turned out to be fragmentary and not terribly vivid. There was likewise nothing in the “Bliss” section to show me, as a writer such as Thomas Merton has no trouble doing, the importance and the practical possibility of being transported behind ordinary experience. Moreover, for Hart to cite, on this subject, one thinker after another in a cursory, sometimes polemical style, is singularly ill judged.

In the concluding section, he dilates on the spiritual life (“sobriety, calm, lucidity, joy”) and the promise of a mind rising above ordinary consciousness through contemplation — a transcendence that must itself, in turn, be transcended. But there is of course no way to demonstrate mysticism logically; by this point a heavily argumentative book has moved awkwardly toward pure prescription. Worse, nothing appealingly tangible recommends the prescription, in the usual way of inspirational writing.

Part of the problem may be the book’s overambitious scope. Here is Hart’s projected topic:

A definition of God . . . that, allowing for a number of largely accidental variations, can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, various late antique paganisms, and so forth (it even applies in many respects to various Mahayana formulations of, say, the Buddha Consciousness or the Buddha Nature, or even to the earliest Buddhist conception of the Unconditioned, or to certain aspects of the Tao, though I do not want to upset Western converts to Buddhism or philosophic Taoism by insisting on the point here).

It would be outside anybody’s capacity to make a smooth, attractive argument for a common concept of God in all of these systems, reflecting the inevitability of a theistic God’s existence. For instance, to brush aside the swarm of Hindu gods as no more a contradiction of essential transcendent monotheism than Judeo-Christian angels are can hardly be right. For one thing, many of these gods are worshipped independently, and this appears to be not a heretical practice but part of the mainstream Hindu tradition. These gods are impossible to cram into a theology like that of Western monotheists.

When, along these lines, I consider the prevailing great differences in Eastern religions between elite thought (Hart cites it in favor of his take on Hinduism, for example) and common practice on the ground, it’s hard not to feel affirmed in my preference for the “religions of the Book” — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. God written up for everyone to read about and follow looks a lot more like a necessary God: unitary, all-powerful, creating, loving.

I have a painful suspicion that Hart, who has immense learning and, at his best, unassailable logic going for him, has been influenced by political correctness where ideological and cultural boundary markers are concerned. That’s quite wrong of him, as the big distinctions are pressingly meaningful. The major religions truly are not “all alike in what counts,” as we keep hearing from the intellectually lazy and the socially timid. But in the fundamental arguments of his new book, Hart is unassailable, making a valuable contribution to public discourse.

– Sarah Ruden is a classicist, poet, and journalist. Her next book, The Music Inside the Whale, and Other Marvels: A Translator on the Beauty of the Bible, will be published in 2014.

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