David Bentley Hart and Theological Gaslighting

I hoped that I was done commenting on David Bentley Hart’s tiresome book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, but as I’m nearing the end of the book I think I have one more complaint that I need to put to writing. It’s a complaint that I’m starting to have with a great number of more “progressive” or “sophisticated” theologians. While I do generally think that their vision of God, humanity, and the cosmos is better than most of what’s out there, I find this particular trend aggravating.

Near the end of his book, he has this to say:

Whether God is indeed to be found in these dimensions of experience, that is where he has traditionally been sought, as the unconditioned and transcendent reality who sustains all things in being, the one in whom all that nature cannot contain but upon which nature depends has its simple and infinite actuality. Any argument for or against the reality of God not so understood—any debate over an intelligent designer, or a supreme being within space and time who merely supervises history and legislates morals, or a demiurge whose operations could possibly be rivals of the physical causes describable by scientific cosmology—may prove a diverting amble along certain byways of seventeenth-century deism or eighteenth-century “natural history,” but it most definitely has nothing whatsoever to do with the God worshipped in the great theistic religions, or described in their philosophical traditions, or reasoned toward by their deepest logical reflections upon the contingency of the world.”

Here, as in the rest of his book, he downplays and distances himself from the more silly, literal, and supernatural parts of religious belief. He argues for a transcendent ground of being — as do many theologians I admire — but takes it a step further. He states that anyone who argues against the silly and literal claims of religion are not, in fact, engaging with anything the great theistic religions understood as God. (Incidentally, in distancing himself from any interactive God, it also seems that he distances himself from the central claims and creeds of Christianity, and I’m left confused as to why I should believe in Christianity at all.)

My partner has recently been re-reading the entire Bible, and has been commenting on what I initially found so horrible about it: the petty, vindictive, brutal attributes of God. Reading the Bible with fresh eyes is a harrowing experience. And this is what I find so dishonest about David Bentley Hart’s theology: he insists that any depiction of God as a demiurge (a petty demigod within creation who exerts his will over human history) is contrary to the great theistic religions, and only came into focus in the 1700’s.

But, within the Bible itself, how else could God be described if not a demiurge? The God of the Old Testament is vindictive, angry, genocidal, and petty. He has will; he changes his mind; he experiences jealousy, sorrow, anger, grief, and joy. Many theologians argue against the God of the Old Testament, as well I think they should. But to say no one through history until the 18th Century believed in that God is an absurd bit of sleight of hand. The ancient biblical authors obviously believed in this ugly, repellant toddler God. Do they not fit in DBH’s understanding of the “great theistic religions?” Perhaps he means something more specific than the Abrahamic religions as whole. But if that’s the case, I’m not entirely sure what he does mean.

There is much that is sublime in Scripture. There are moments of transcendent awe, when scripture touches that “ground of being” described by David Bentley Hart. But there are also excessive depictions of a barbarous tribal deity who reflects human appetites for vengeance, allegiance, and cruelty. Religion — in all times and places — contains the best and worst of humanity: our cruelty and our kindness, our small-mindedness and our expansive curiosity. That is as true today as it was 6000 years ago.

I do believe that modern people tend to flatten the vast world of scripture and religion into one single layer of meaning (the literal) in a way that ancient religious traditions did not. I get frustrated with this tendency, because it does mischaracterize a great deal of religious history and thought. But this does not mean the God of the ancients couldn’t also be a petty monster. This does not mean the ancients did not often believe the absurd, dangerous, and ugly.

I’m starting to get very frustrated with David Bentley Hart and other “sophisticated” theologians, because I often run up against an insinuation that there was nothing absurd about religion before the Enlightenment. It seems as if, according to them, there was no human silliness and absurd belief in literal supernatural deities until the 18th century. Many nontheists like myself are deeply concerned about the consequences of belief in an ugly, vengeful, evil God, and we trace this God not to some Enlightenment misunderstanding about the nature of Ultimate Reality, but to the Bible itself. While there are many mystics, theologians, and philosophers in every age who experience god as Being, Consciousness, Bliss, there are many more normal people through history who have seen God as the demiurge. How else to explain the horrors of religious history: the mortifications, the tortures, the genocides?

I’m willing to concede that I might be misreading Hart, or that he doesn’t mean what this passage looks like it means. I will also happily admit that I’m probably in no position to even respond to Hart — I’m not a theologian. I’m just an idiot with a blog trying to figure this shit out. Perhaps he doesn’t actually mean there weren’t any demiurges in the great theistic traditions. But if that’s the case, perhaps he shouldn’t have literally fucking said that. This gets to one of my great distastes for Hart: he is so enthusiastically and promiscuously bombastic that it seems to distort his writing. It becomes more than tone or style, and it starts to alter his arguments.

David Bentley Hart’s assertion that the God nontheists argue against has nothing to do with the the ancient theistic traditions feels like gaslighting. We can talk about the harms of religion, and we can talk about the benefits of religion. We can talk about the horrible and the sublime, all of which have been in religion since the beginning. But, let’s not rewrite history so as to avoid the ugly altogether.

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