The Experience of God

Kenneth Oakes
David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013, 365pp. + ix. $25.00/£18.99

There is much to provoke, encourage, and worry about in David Bentley Hart's newest book. As it seems petty and misleading to begin with these misgivings given the overall merits of the book, I'll begin with a précis of the work, follow with a description of the chapters, and end with some questions. 

The aim of the book is to offer a description of the term "God" according to "the classical definitions of the divine found in the theological and philosophical schools of most of the major religious traditions" (p.1). The occasion for this "lexicographical exercise" (p.2) are current public debates about God in which it is not always clear what is being affirmed or denied by the parties involved. The conclusion is that once a proper definition of God has been reached then "one cannot meaningfully reject belief in the God of classical theism" (p.250), or at least one can only do so by rejecting a great deal else: reason, truth, beauty, goodness, our lived experience of reality, etc. Along the way there is much meandering, repetition, and assertion coupled with brilliance, acerbic humor, and fits of rhapsody.            

"'God' is Not a Proper Name" (chp 1) lays out the terms of the discussion. "Classical theism," as described by traditional Christian, Jewish, Islamic (particularly Sufi), Indian, and Sikh sources, speaks of God as "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" (p.30). The alternatives are starkly posed. On the one hand there is God as the absolute ground of all that is, the transcendent end towards which everything moves, the infinite wisdom which orders all things. On the other there is materialism, physicalism, and naturalism, all of which are diversely named variants of atheism. In contrast to the sweeping, rational, and affective character of theism, atheism is a "fundamentally irrational view of reality" (p.16), "indistinguishable from pure magical thinking" (p.17), "superstition" (p.16), and at its best resembles a kind of "heroic irrationalism" (p.19). The objective of this chapter is to show how "God" is not "a god," one rather big and famous being within some larger metaphysical or conceptual space. Denying the God of classical theism is thus not tantamount to denying the existence of Thor, Zeus, or garden fairies, but is more akin to renouncing the very conditions for the possibility of meaning, reason, truth, reality, and goodness.    

"Pictures of the World" (chp 2) details how the empirical method, so salutary and necessary for the burgeoning natural sciences, became a metaphysics in the form of naturalism or "the mechanical philosophy." Hart recounts the familiar story of the transition from the ancient cosmos to the modern universe. The change is due to the loss of formal and final causes, or the "higher causes," and the retention of only material and efficient causes. The loss of formal causes means that the universe is no longer composed of unified and intelligible forms but is now populated by aggregates of parts which have their wholeness and meaning imposed upon them by some external knower. The loss of final causes means that purposes, ends, and goals are deemed subjective, and thus finally illusory. As different "pictures of the world," then, the rich metaphysics of theism, with its various types and levels of causes, powers, and forms is more rational and explanatory than the metaphysics of naturalism, in either its clunky billiard-ball or meaningless flux form. 
The next three chapters take up the themes of being (chp 3), consciousness (chp 4), and bliss (chp 5), or in their Sanskrit equivalents, sat, chit, ananda, and deftly move between phenomenological description, metaphysical exposition, logical argument, caustic dismissal, and humorous aside. The chapter on being/sat could serve as an introduction to traditional metaphysics. Hart ably displays the difference between the ontological and the ontic (or similarly, the metaphysical and the physical), teases out the implications of the divine infinity and simplicity, and explains the importance of distinguishing between primary and secondary causes. The chapter on consciousness/chit is primarily an attack on mechanical or naturalist accounts (or often denials) of consciousness or the mind with scant remarks on God tacked on at the end. While many of the arguments in this chapter can be found in other authors, they perhaps cannot be found in such an entertaining or synthetic form. The chapter on bliss/ananda follows the ecstatic structure of consciousness beyond itself and towards objects of desire. The focus of this chapter is the loosest of the three, as its topics range from the problems the phenomenon of altruism creates for naturalist explanations of morality, the incoherence of Dawkins' "selfish gene" even from evolutionary and biological standpoints, and accounts of God as Good and Beauty itself.  

"Illusion and Reality" (chp 6) reproduces the arguments of the previous chapters and then reverses two tropes of the atheism/religion debate. Atheism is here described as a religion of consolation, an opiate of the masses, a therapy whereby private grievances and frustrations can be soothed, and as such atheism is deserving of sympathy. Likewise, if one views human beings, or any form of organic reality, as so much sophisticated machinery which naturalism and atheism are tempted to do, then there is little to stop the march of abusive and dehumanizing systems of domination and control, whether totalitarian or capitalist. The chapter closes with a positively kerygmatic and moving description of contemplative prayer as the only means appropriate to knowing God. 

In terms of audience, those already acquainted with the metaphysical and phenomenological arguments being employed will best enjoy Hart's creative and engaging presentation of them. Conversely, the book will no doubt be hard going for those without at least an elementary grasp of basic concepts and distinctions within both theology and philosophy. In terms of genre, the work is a mixture of cultural commentary, religious essay, introduction to metaphysics, and phenomenology primer. 

In terms of theological assessment, however, the outcome is less clear. The very aim and approach of the book--offering a definition of "God" from an allegedly pan-religious metaphysical perspective and from our everyday intuitions--raises a host of theological and methodological issues. Unfortunately for the theologically minded, the author only gestures towards some of these matters in the Introduction and the opening pages of chapter 1. In these few pages Hart notes that the work could be taken as a tractate written de Deo uno (p.4), that there is a point at which reason and revelation coincide (p.10), that there is a "universal grammar of human nature" (p.15) as well as "common forms of experience" (p.15) that "illuminate and are illuminated" by the traditional metaphysics of God, and that this type of classical theism, "allowing for a number of accidental variations" (p.4), can be found across any number of traditions. One is left to wonder, then, what this interreligious "classical theism" means for Christian theology once we leave the doctrine de Deo uno and work through the rest of Christian doctrine, and whether or not this theism would have to undergo some drastic qualifications and revisions. 

Equally, the paucity of these methodological remarks leaves underdetermined one of the more daring of Hart's decisions in this work: offering a kind of metaphysically sophisticated The Portable World Bible. Naturally, dogmatic substance is always preferable to extended prolegomena, but one also wonders whether these other traditions are actually given much consideration or contribute very much to the argument. This worry is only compounded by the form of Hart's allusions to the supposed proponents of classical theism, phrased as they often are as "and all that I have been saying is like what [insert several Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Indian thinkers] said." 

That being said, this work still is a stunning and provocative achievement, and all the more so for the issues it leaves unaddressed. 

Kenneth Oakes is currently a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Notre Dame, having previously been a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Tübingen and earning his PhD from the University of Aberdeen. He is the author of Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy (OUP, 2012) as well as a number of other articles