The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss
by david bentley hart
yale, 376 pages, $25

David Bentley Hart has written a classic of Christian apologetics. Works of apologetics are defenses of the Christian faith. A defense is different both tactically and strategically from an attack. It doesn’t intend to dismantle the opponent’s position, except insofar as the opponent’s raison d’être is enmity. Philosophers themselves distinguish between a defense of the existence of God (for instance) and an argument for the existence of God: While the latter actually sets out to prove that God exists, the former lays out evidence which fits the picture of a God-created universe. Hart says over and again in this book that he merely intends to contrast a theist’s picture of a God-full cosmos with the atheist’s conception of a God-less universe, to defend the theistic “Icon” from atheistic misrepresentation.

In earlier books like Atheist Delusions, Hart challenged the secularist idea that Christianity is hostile to science and philanthropy. He did so by showing that Christianity effectively invented what we mean by science and philanthropy. In this book, he moves away from social philosophy and toward metaphysics, where he sets out to rebuff atheistic criticisms that focus on the doctrine of God.

It is not irrational to believe in God, Hart argues, because reliance on rationality depends on the existence of God. Reason is the branch the atheist is sitting on. When he says that the mind is just its brain, he cuts off any reason he might have for relying on his own reasoning.

Some of the best and funniest pages in the book are Hart’s criticisms of the comparison of the human mind to a computer. He thinks we are seduced into this false comparison because we are “victims of our own metaphors. We have become so accustomed to speaking of computers as artificial minds and of their operations as thinking that we have forgotten that these are mere figures of speech. We speak of computer memory . . . but . . . computers recall nothing. . . . A computer no more remembers the files stored in it than the paper and print of this book remember my argument to this point.”

As an apologist, Hart wants to show that the “god” whose reality is rejected by the New Atheism is not the God in whom any believer—in any place or time—has believed. Although he is an Orthodox Christian, Hart is not defending the Trinity, but simply “God,” as experienced and known by many religious traditions. He asks three questions that he thinks the atheist cannot answer: Why is there something rather than nothing? What makes reasoning possible? Why do we love? Although he only alludes to it backhandedly, the answers to these questions correspond to the Father-Creator, Son-Logos, and Holy Ghost, the Bond of Love. But the Trinity remains in the background. The book is really about the One God, the primordial necessity that explains our existence, reasoning, and loving.

De Deo Uno works—treatises on the one God—were common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They discussed what was supposed to be the “wisdom of mankind” regarding the one God, a sort of perennial deposit of notions about God that anyone, anywhere should recognize. This was always a bit of a stretch, its distillation of conceptions of God probably too abstract ever to have been believed by anyone anywhere. Hart, though, has another go at it, drawing on the wisdom of actual thinkers from throughout history around the world. He cites Hindu philosophers and Sufi mystics, Plato and Plotinus, Arab writers and ­Maimonides, and a few Buddhist metaphysicians alongside Augustine and Aquinas.

This global compilation of traditional wisdom shows that none of the great, classical religious traditions conceived of God as a mere intelligent Designer, or as a First Cause within nature, or as a highly moral Personality who happens to be divine as well, or any kind of all-powerful agent that has a primus inter pares relationship with other, less powerful Superbeings and Incredibles.

The notion that God is not “first among equals” in the universe is the backbone of the book. Hart distinguishes between God as defined by the classical religious traditions and the gods who decorate the pantheons of most of the world’s religions. This is how he defends his “God-full” conception of reality from misrepresentation. The little “g” gods are objects within nature, beings, persons, who have a story and a name. The large “G” God, on the other hand, is the source of all there is, outside of being and beyond being, not one more thing within reality, but the Creative Reason that explains ­everything else.

One of Hart’s most striking dismissals of the conflation of God and the gods is where he defines belief in “a personal God” or “theistic personalism” as a kind of “monopoly­theism,” which “differs from polytheism . . . solely in that it posits the existence of only one such being.” For Hart and the traditions from which he draws, it is a gross anthropomorphism to speak of God as “a person” or “personal.” The gods have natures; the lucky devils even possess immortal lives. By contrast, the supernatural God does not merely have a colorful nature or immortal being. Rather, God’s nature is one and the same as his existence: His nature is to exist. Or as God tells Moses in Exodus, and even in The Prince of Egypt, “I Am that I Am.”

For Hart, showing that God is not one of us disproves nearly every theological contention the New Atheists have ever made. They mis-­underestimate the god in whom they disbelieve, thinking their imagined deity the God of classical religious and philosophical tradition. In Hart’s formulation, “If one understands what the actual philosophical definition of ‘God’ is in most of the great religious traditions, and if consequently one understands what is logically entailed in denying that there is any God so defined, then one cannot reject the reality of God tout court without embracing an ultimate ­absurdity.” It makes no sense to ask, “Who made God?” God’s reason and cause are his own nature and ­existence.

Of course, many modern theologians use the gambit that “God is not an object” against the New Atheism. Unlike these, Hart deploys “God’s Not-ness” skillfully, and does not end up sounding as if God is so remote from anything we know or think that he may as well not be there. Hart is as skilled a rhetorician as he is a theologian, and is able to deliver a punchy verbal image of the God who transcends all images.

The Experience of God shows that our experiences of being, of consciousness, and of bliss or enjoyment could not come about in the world of materialistic naturalism. Explaining the title of the book, Hart writes that “to say that God is being, consciousness, and bliss is also to say that he is the one reality in which all our existence, knowledge, and love subsist, from which they come and to which they go, and that therefore he is somehow present in even our simplest experiences of the world, and is approachable by way of a contemplative and moral refinement of that experience. . . . These three words are not only a metaphysical explanation of God, but also a phenomenological explanation of the human encounter with God.”

Like all the best apologists, Hart poses as a common man defending common everyday experience. Unlike at least some professional philosophers, he does not usually “perform” arguments for the existence of God, or of mind, or of bliss. His practice in this book is to describe such arguments, not to perform them. This is the standpoint that most nonprofessionals or common readers have to arguments for God or the reality of mind: They want to hear what the argument “sounds like,” not precisely to enact the argument. It is not that Hart does not make us think as we read his defense of the real God as against the artificial gods of the anti-theists. He makes us think very hard. But the kind of thinking he elicits is more along the lines of imaginative assent to a picture than notional analysis of an argument.

By my reading of both the human condition and our current culture, a project like Hart’s is more important to the status of religion in public life than, say, arguments for a natural law. It’s more important because, as Hart rightly ­diagnoses, the modern mind is trapped in various false dichotomies—like thinking one has to be a personal theist or an anti-theist, or that the human person is either a ghost in a machine or a machine-generating ghost—and these false dichotomies themselves make it impossible for us to think rationally about topics such as natural law.

If someone believes that the only alternatives are that God is a personal super-designer of the cosmos, a kind of cosmic Steve Jobs, or the whole show was put together by evolution over billions of years, how could one possibly convince this person that the natural law is part of the divine providence for the cosmos? If only a few atheists and agnostics could be induced to acknowledge that belief in God is not simply a private and baseless decision, but a common experience based on commonly acceptable reasons, it would make a big difference. It would bring religion out of the closet to which the dearth of apologetics has consigned it. The ­Experience of God is a first step toward bringing God back into the public square. 

Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.