David Bentley Hart’s ponderous tome The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss has been regularly touted to me as the book every nontheist must read. I’m happy to oblige, and I’m about 30% of the way through (including footnotes.) While I find Hart pompous, bloviating, and even an occasional bully, I’m also enjoying his erudition and mastery of the English language. As he makes clear again and again, he is not so much trying to defend God, but rather to describe the classical view of God, which he feels modern atheists have sorely missed.
This post will be far from an exhaustive response to Hart. I don’t think I’m even equipped to write a full response. Rather, these are my few initial reactions as I work through his book. If I have the energy, I will write more in the future.
Hart is a master of language, history, and theology, and I’m pretty sure he’s about 100 times smarter than me. He’s also insufferably full of himself. He condescends, he bullies, his paragraphs are a mile long, and his prose often suggests he’s more interested in flexing than communicating. He makes it incredibly hard for the reader, not because his writing is dense, but because he’s just the most arrogant man I’ve read in recent memory.
He also delivers belittling barbs like this one on page 15:
Just to make clear what my peculiar prejudices are, I acknowledge up front that I do not regard true philosophical atheism as an intellectually valid or even cogent position; in fact, I see it as a fundamentally irrational view of reality, which can be sustained only by a tragic absence of curiosity or a fervently resolute will to believe the absurd. More simply, I am convinced that the case for belief in God is inductively so much stronger than the case for unbelief that true philosophical atheism must be regarded as a superstition, often nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations.
I find this off putting because I would never assume the same of theists. I don’t assume that someone who has a different world view has a “tragic absence of curiosity” or a “fervently resolute will to believe the absurd.” I assume, in fact, that we all need each other and are doing the best we can with what we have. Some of the smartest, wisest, kindest, and most interesting people I’ve ever met are theists. Hart clearly can’t say the same of atheists.
I understand that this tone is probably in response to the New Atheists, but I just wish atheists and Christians would stop their dick measuring contest and admit that we are all in the dark. Debate is fine, but all this belittling and point scoring makes me doubt their confidence in their own positions. I didn’t like Richard Dawkins being a jerk when I was a Christian, and I don’t like Hart being an asshole now that I’m a nontheist.
Hart has many admirers, and I’m almost certain that I’m inviting the wrath and condescension of the Angricans, Liturgy Queens, and Orthobros. They will insist that I have misread Hart, or that I’m just not smart enough to understand him. I’m willing to admit that they are probably right. I’m just a humble grocery store manager and idiot with a microphone trying to figure this shit out. I assume that we are all doing the best we can with what has been given to us, and that should count for something.
But I do have a question for Hart’s fans if they find themselves reading this post: why tolerate such an ego? Why not call out such an unpleasant and arrogant person? Is it because you appreciate his flexing? Is it because you think it’s the cost of genius? Is it because it feels good to watch him act superior towards anyone you disagree with? Is that healthy or productive?
But all of this is tangential to Hart’s central points.
Hart makes clear that he thinks everyone who doesn’t share his view of God is misinformed or an idiot, even his fellow Christians. Because of this, I assumed that his view of God would be a revelation to me: something that would blow my mind and make me reconsider my nontheism. I was disappointed to discover that Hart’s view of God seems to have been my view of God for most of my adult life, which makes me doubt whether it really is as rare as he claims. If I, as an unremarkable Presbyterian turned Anglican turned nontheist shared Hart’s view, how many other modern ex-Christians did, too?
He understands God as the being, consciousness, and bliss upon which all reality is contingent; the ultimate reality in which all existence moves and has its being. This God is ultimate reality, fundamental existence, upon which all things are predicated. This is not a temporal First Cause, who banged the Big Bang and then stepped aside, or a “demiurge” (as he describes it) who is a feature of the cosmos and is simply a larger, anthropomorphic consciousness that exerts will on our tiny goings-on. This is a transcendent Being that sustains all existence, everywhere, all the time.
He has an obsession with articulating this view again and again and again, in a Jack Torrance “All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy” sort of way. Reading the same description of God in a slightly different variation on every other page is starting to wear me thin. As one hilarious and excellent Goodreads reviewer puts it:
Many writers err on the side of repetition and end up boring the reader, but Hart’s case is stranger and more extreme than that; I found myself honestly confused, and even kind of impressed, by his ability to not bore himself. His enthusiasm for his favorite assertions (say, “God is the transcendent ground of all being, not merely some being who created the universe”) is priapically undiminished no matter how many times he trots them out for a ride, and the twentieth or thirtieth iteration is delivered with as much verbal and rhetorical gusto as the first. I’m not sure I’ve previously seen this sheer level of repetitiousness, with this sheer level of sustained zeal, outside of devotional or pornographic literature. Perhaps Hart intends to bring the former to mind (although I doubt it), but since so much of the repeated material has less to do with God than with Hart’s own purported intellectual triumphs over naturalist adversaries, I kept thinking uncomfortably of the latter. There is a greedily grasping texture to the prose, the texture of sexual fantasy or addictive behavior: the same beloved pleasure-buttons pressed again, and again, and again (another drink, another pull of the slot machine, another replay of the porn video), never losing their allure.
To defend his (ravenously repeated) case he points to mathematics, beauty, and how the material world seems futile in explaining why it exists at all. He also points out the dark holes in materialism: how can we know the material is all there is when we assume we have no way of seeing beyond the material? How is that not a leap of faith? As he writes on page 76:
Thus naturalism must forever remain a pure assertion, a pure conviction, a confession of blind assurance in an inaccessible beyond; and that beyond, more paradoxically still, is the beyond of no beyond. And 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.
I’m sympathetic to his criticisms of materialism, and I personally don’t go down the hard materialist route. I lean towards the materialistic view of reality, but I’m not placing any money on it, because I just don’t know. I leave a little escape hatch in my material universe just in case anything spooky wants to sneak in from some outer, supernatural place (with sufficient evidence, of course.)
I’m not even sure if I’m a nontheist by his definition. Do I gaze at the golden ratio, at the rules of logic, at the elegant precision of mathematics, and wonder where they come from? Of course I do. Do I assume they had to have come from something? Of course. Am I regularly in awe of the mysterious specificity of the universe, and do I marvel at how anything can exist at all? Of course I am. Do I believe that there must be some Ultimate Thing that started it all, or sustains it all, or explains it all? I think I do. Does that make me a theist? After reading Hart, I honestly don’t know.
While I can say there must be an Ultimate Something, I don’t know how I can ascribe consciousness and bliss to such a Thing. I don’t understand why I should. I’m content to say this is probably too big for me, and to ascribe human qualities of consciousness and bliss seems to anthropomorphize something that is way above my pay grade. To quote Mary Oliver, “Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.”
But more to the point, I don’t know how to connect this Ultimate Ground of Being, no matter how it’s articulated, to the specific claims of world religions which, because they enter the domain of the physical, are subject to the rules and methodologies of science and falsification. If acceptance of the Ground of Being or Ultimate Reality were all theistic belief involved, then I would be happy to call myself a theist. Perhaps I already am. But where it all falls apart for me is in the specific claims of how this Ground of Being interacts with the physical world and the human race.
Either Jesus was resurrected on the third day, or he wasn’t. Either miracles happen, or they don’t. Either Jesus was born of a virgin, or he wasn’t. Many thoughtful Christians will point out that the bible should not be read so literally; that much of what we read as literal today was understood as mythology or allegory at the time of their writing. And that might be true, but we always come down to the hard problem of the central creeds, which include statements about the material world. And these claims are not tangential, but central to Christianity. They are why I have walked away from Creedal Christian faith.
When it comes to the material world, I find it wisest to only believe that which is falsifiable, and to have an open handed wonder and agnosticism to all that isn’t. To quote one of the tenets of the Satanic Temple,
Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.
Put another way, do I want to believe in ghosts? Of course. Do people have occasionally stunning and mysterious experiences with what they think are ghosts? Of course. But do I have good evidence to believe in ghosts? No. Then why should I believe in them? Of course, ghosts could be out there. I’m not saying they aren’t. I’m simply saying I don’t have sufficient evidence for them, and therefore I’m content withholding belief.
I don’t have sufficient evidence for the resurrection, the virgin birth, the immaculate conception, angels who can appear to humans, so I don’t believe in them. I have no reason to. Because of this, I reject some of the most fundamental claims of Christianity. I find most of the specific claims of supernatural religion unfalsifiable, which means I must, in principle, withhold belief.
Annoyingly, many Christians will point out that a resurrection not following the “rules” of reality is, in fact, the point and what makes it a miracle. But to me that’s not the point at all. I believe in quantum mechanics, which are so outside our understanding of reality that they might as well be magical. I believe in black holes — godlike objects of which none of us have any immediate experience. The point is not that miracles are extraordinary or contrary to science, but that I have no evidence that they happen at all.
In this way, I am a nontheist: I am open to the reality of a Ground of Being, but I cannot say for certain what it is, or what its qualities are. It is so mysterious to me that I’m not opposed to calling it God, but I also see no reason why I should. Why not call it the Ultimate, or Brahman, or Nirvana, or The Ground of Being? The very word God starts to lose its conventional, popular meaning and becomes interchangeable with other nebulous terms. What I don’t understand, however, is how this transcendent ultimate reality connects with the specific material claims of religion: claims which I believe are best left unaccepted until verified.
So far, Hart has made no explanation of how he connects this Being, Consciousness, and Bliss to the central credal claims of his own Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and I doubt he will.
I’m as in awe of the universe as Christians are, and I’m as convinced as they are that there must be some answer to it all. Where we differ, I think, is that I’m more content with saying “I don’t know,” and I’m less comfortable with accepting (in my opinion) unverified claims about how how God interacts with the material world.
To quote Mary Oliver once more,
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.
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