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The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss
by David Bentley Hart
Yale University Press, 376 pages, $25

When I was in graduate school in the eighties, foundationalism was a dirty word. We didn’t think it was possible or even desirable to provide a metaphysical grounding for theological claims, so we spent our time doing method instead. Methods, after all, can be applied to a mode of inquiry without raising the question of truth. Unfortunately, that left us with few resources for determining which method worked best for theology. Yale relied on the category of narrative and Chicago used hermeneutics, and so on. From the standpoint of the classical metaphysical tradition, there was little difference between them. They all conceded theology’s inability to rise above a particular time and place. We were not confident enough in the truth of our faith to subject it to any single account of what truth is.

Perhaps because there were no clear winners in the method wars, reason has since prevailed. Theologians have returned to their philosophical roots. Indeed, the very topics we neglected in the eighties have become the standard ingredients in the current renaissance of classical theism, where God is established as the ultimate reality.

We thought negative theology was a topic for medievalists or a clever way to outbid the irony of postmodernism, and we were more interested in Rahner’s use of Heidegger than his Thomism. And it is good to remember that not that long ago Eastern Orthodox theology was still submerged in a sea of Western prejudices. Today, philosophical theologians embrace negative theology, Thomism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, all rolled into one. Discovering in Thomas the most systematic expression of negative theology, they have begun reconciling East and West. Nobody has done more to put the metaphysical foundations of theology in that simple and tidy package than David Bentley Hart.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that Hart’s new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, is a masterful summation of classical theism. Indeed, The Experience of God is such a good summation of classical theism that one wonders if it is not the beginning of that great tradition’s end. It raises some questions that it does not really answer, such as: While it’s good that theologians agree that metaphysics is essential to their work, is it premature to declare that all theologians must agree with the ancient metaphysical consensus? Can classical theism account for a trinitarian God?

Of course, the book is not precisely addressed to those who might raise such questions. Hart addresses his book to those atheists who think that Christians believe “in some magical invisible friend who lives beyond the clouds.” He responds to these “childish caricatures” by assuring his readers that even the “average believer” knows that “God is spirit, incorporeal, not an object located in space.” In fact, “As a practical reality, the God of faith and the God of the philosophers are in many crucial respects recognizably one and the same.”

The rest of the book rehearses the main tenets of classical theism, all of which can be inferred from the deceptively simple premise of God’s immateriality. God is beyond being, the ground of being, the being of all things, infinite being, even being itself—every kind of being, it seems, but a being among other beings. Hart can be promiscuous with his ontological terminology because no words can do God justice. He uses “infinite” more than any other term to describe God, but he does not mean that God is literally infinite. Instead, he means that God is infinitely beyond our understanding.

Drawing liberally from Buddhism and Vedantic Hindusim, Hart also argues that the experience of God is as universal as it is indescribable. That experience, however, is not exactly of God. Instead, it is a momentary glimpse of the sheer givenness of the world and the subsequent intuition that the world cannot account for itself. This experience of “existential surprise” is innocent and dreamlike and, while it renders the world beautiful, it is a purely subjective event. Individual objects cannot hold our metaphysical attention due to the “intrinsic ontological poverty of all things physical.”

What Hart calls a “metaphysics of the transcendental” serves to “strip away all the anthropomorphic imagery,” no matter how stubbornly these images cling to our conception of the divine. God is not “just some especially resplendent object among all the objects illuminated by the light of being, or any kind of object at all, but is himself the light of being.” Hart recognizes that the concept of transcendence is dependent on “the clearly inadequate spatial metaphors of above and below,” but that is a merely linguistic inconvenience.

Still, classical metaphysics, solid as they are, are not precisely Christian. No classical theist has ever given a convincing account of how God can be without parts and yet composed of three persons. The Biblical view of God is decidedly anthropomorphic, with no indication that the spiritual is defined as immaterial: It is as cognitively impossible to think of God outside of anthropomorphism as it is to think of biological change outside of teleology. Many atheists reject God not because they think Christians believe in a real person, but because they cannot understand why anyone would want to try to understand how we cannot understand God. It’s hard to imagine this book would convince them otherwise, though it is addressed to them. Atheists deny the supernatural; how can putting God absolutely beyond space and time make them think that God is beyond the reach of their rejection?

In the end, Hart gives atheism nothing to deny, but also gives it nothing to believe in. Just as, in my graduate school days, we used method to escape questions of truth, Hart has used metaphysics to escape empirical elaboration or corroboration. Even though he says that the ancients held together the spiritual and the material better than we do, he insists that “cosmology cannot become ontology” and that the “latest developments in speculative cosmology” are “quite simply irrelevant” as “interventions in philosophical debates.” Hart uses classical metaphysics to critique mechanistic theories of matter, but he does not think that scientific advances can inform theories of the divine. Yet if God chose to create the world through evolution, why couldn’t he choose to become incarnate through quantum mechanics?

Hart works so hard against naturalism that he leaves the supernatural only vaguely connected to the material world. For me, his mantra that “God is outside of space and time” is most certainly false, and I think he knows that too. Forget about the problem of using a spatial term like “outside” to “locate” God’s non-spatiality. I don’t believe that God is outside of space and time for the simple reason that I believe Jesus Christ is in heaven, fully bodied, and ruling over the world. He’s in a new space, true, a divinized space, but he is in space nonetheless.

For Hart, the ancients in every religious tradition got philosophy so right that there is little left to be said about the intellectual foundation of theism. But if a false view of matter is at the heart of atheism, then might it not be worth thinking through new views of matter? And if matter is not what we once thought it was, shouldn’t our concept of the supernatural also undergo change? And rather than reviving the old debates about the nature of Being itself, wouldn’t it be better to think about matter in terms of the incarnate Christ? Couldn’t we think of space being within the Trinity first before God makes room for us?

We will never be finished thinking through Plato and company. His providential role in helping the Church navigate its triumph in the ancient world is secure. Nonetheless, Plato is not Paul, and the idea of divine simplicity is not irreversible dogma. After all, Christians worshiped Jesus for several centuries before any of them thought to argue that God created the world out of nothing, and Augustine found the “books of the Platonists” so convincing mainly because the Manichaeans made such a muddle of their version of materialism. It took the Catholic Church centuries to adopt and assimilate Thomas’ philosophy; it could take centuries yet to move in another metaphysical direction. And if my suspicion that the move to immaterialism originated in the embarrassment of elite theologians over the scandal of the incarnation is even partly correct, then nothing could be more important for how Christians experience God than to think again about the metaphysics of matter.

This article has been updated to correct an editorial mistake.

Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things . He is the author of Jesus Christ, Eternal God and Mormon Christianity. His book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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