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The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss Hardcover – September 24, 2013
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“Magnificent . . . Massively learned and gorgeously written, The Experience of God should entirely transform contemporary debates concerning the validity of belief in the divine.”—Mark Anthony Signorelli, University Bookman (Mark Anthony Signorelli University Bookman)
From the Author
[A] major work by one of the most learned, forceful, and witty Christian theologians currently writing.” First Things
With impressive erudition and polemical panache, David Hart smites hip and thigh the peddlers of a new atheism’ that recycles hoary arguments from the past. His grim assessment of our cultural moment challenges the hope that the Christian revolution’ could happen again.”Richard John Neuhaus
Hart has the gifts of a good advocate. He writes with clarity and force, and he drives his points home again and again. He exposes his opponents’ errors of fact or logic with ruthless precision.” Anthony Kenny, Times Literary Supplement
[This book] takes no prisoners in its response to fashionable criticisms of Christianity.”Dr. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Church Times
Atheist Delusions will be remembered as Hart’s breakout book. His contributions to such journals as First Things have long marked him as a rising public intellectual. . . . Hart’s work is now likely to come to the attention of a wider audience. And not a moment too soon."William J. Portier, Commonweal
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Top Customer Reviews
Long story short: if you have read Hart and enjoyed his learnedness and witticism in the past, buy this book. If you haven't read Hart but are intrigued: this, or Atheist Delusions, are the places to start. In short: buy this book. Read it, Enjoy it. Pop some popcorn and wait for the fireworks. There really is no second guessing (especially at the affordable price). I was initially expecting something of a sequel to Beauty of the Infinite (which I still consider my favorite of Hart's books, despite its difficulty) but really for those interested I would consider this more akin to Atheist Delusions than anything. Much like Hart taking great pleasures dismantling many of our august myths regarding Christian history, here Hart takes aim at much of the tosh that passes for "talk about God," in the modern arena--particularly in the "God debates" between Fundamentalists and New-Atheists of all sorts. If you were like me, and were confused by the description of the book (Sanskrit? Hinduism? What is going on?) Hart attempts to dismantle--in classical Hart style--all these poor imitations of the Almighty by marshaling the resources of the "Classical theistic traditions" (note the plural, Hart includes Judaism, Islam, several forms of Hinduism, and others alongside Christianity). Here Hart thus takes an interesting--and perhaps controversial, for those of us still riding the avalanche of trinitarian scholarship of the last thirty years--approach by noting many of the conceptual similarities between these traditions and their theological and philosophical attempts to come to a "rational" picture of God. Thus Hart explicitly marshals the language of Thomas (which I'm sure many will recognize from Rahner's criticism of it): "There is an old Scholastic distinction between religious treatises written 'De Deo Uno' [on the one God] and 'de Deo Trino' [on the Triune God]..between, that is, those that are 'about the One God' known to persons of various faiths and philosophies, and those that are about the 'Trinitarian God' of Christian doctrine. I want to distinguish in a similar way between, on the one hand, metaphysical or philosophical descriptions of God and, on the other, dogmatic or confessional descriptions, and confine myself to the former." (4)
In doing so, Hart opens with the wonderful line "this is either an extremely ambitious book, or an extremely unambitious book." Which is to to say the goal of the book is such: "My intention," says Hart, "is simply to offer a definition of the word 'God' or of its equivalents in other tongues, and to do so in fairly slavish obedience to the classical definitions of the divine found in the theological and philosophical schools of most of the major religious traditions." As such, Hart wants to clarify just what this "God" is that we should, or should not believe in. He organizes this task around three themes familiar to anyone who has read the subheading to the book: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Which is to say, how these "moments" or "concepts" implicate, and are implicated by, God: (taking some limited examples from the chapters) our Being as contingency implying an Ultimate non-Contingent, our conscious orientations to the world presupposing in every mundane thought, act, and supposition a reference to the infinite, and indeed a saturation by it--or that the mind and reality should be compatible with each other at all, and (to those familiar with Hart's work on Gregory of Nyssa this will sound familiar) our "bliss" or the ecstatic moments of rapture and joy, our "stretching out" or epektasis into infinity. Thus Hart provides three basic reasons for these terms: 1.) They more or less adequately summarize three concepts by which classical theism represented God (here those with Trinitarian hesitation to Hart's "separation of Treatises" will be relieved to note Hart's extensive talk of the Cappadocians, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, and Bonaventure's concept of God as Love in Trinitarian form, a la Beauty of the Infinite. Hart has not strayed from his roots) 2.) Represent how humankind's relationship to God can be summarized by concepts and 3.) These three "moments" represent that which, it seems to Hart (quite rightly, I think) cannot be "metaphysically accounted for" by assuming metaphysical naturalism (42-45).
Thus, following Beauty of the Infinite's discourse of the "beautiful rhetoric" of Theistic discourse's ability to "illuminate existence," there is here a limited apologetic purpose; Hart repeatedly affirms that he is not attempting to "prove" God, yet he also frequently repeats that authentic theology and apologetics have a fuzzy line, and that part of the task of unburdening us of idols and caricatures of God is also to bring forth the true power of the theistic tradition's actual "picture of God" (for lack of a better term) and how it represents a rationally, emotionally, and aesthetically robust "explanation" (again, for lack of a better term) of reality. This is, of course, not "God-of-the Gaps" here, where God appears in spaces allowed by the aporia of some natural mechanism: "All the classical theological arguments regarding the order of the world" in fact "assume just the opposite: that God's creative power can be seen in the rational coherence of nature as a perfect whole; that the universe was not simply a factitious product of a supreme intellect but the unfolding of the omnipresent divine wisdom or logos." (38)
It would be difficult to summarize further without simply spoiling the book, but I will end with a few anecdotal observations of my own. The first is that one of the great surprises of the book is its readability. Atheist Delusions was of course quite readable, but this book represents Hart at his most "purified" and understandable (contra another reviewer, in my opinion); he is of course classic Hart (thus there are still flourishes that will make one reach for the dictionary), but classic Hart, I might say, doing his best Chesterton impression. His lucidness here is uncanny, as his ability to calmly explain and lay out themes one may already have familiarity with. There are--at least there was for me--many "wow" moments when Hart shows you something you have been looking at but did not quite recognize you saw. This is also, in my opinion, Hart's funniest book, with Hart's typically penetrating observation producing (at least for me) some actual laugh-out-loud moments. There is for example (I won't ruin it) a particularly great moment where Hart is tearing into analytic theology by telling a brief story of a coffee-loving dolphin; or there are great one-liners like "I am enough of a romantic to believe that if something is worth being rude about, it it worth understanding as well." Other surprises abound. For example, Hart takes on analytic theology repeatedly (though he is quite respectful of those like Alvin Plantinga, he is almost palpably frustrated by others), and I for one was quite surprised with Hart's extensive engagement with evolutionary and cognitive science literature (some of Hart's book reads very similar to his friend Conor Cunningham's book Darwin's Pious Idea). These are fun new territories to watch Hart turn his immense talents and intellect toward. Further, if I had a complaint about Atheist Delusions it was that Hart, despite his obviously immense learning, is often coy about his sources. I do not doubt the veracity of his claims, but for those like myself who like to hunt down new avenues of reading, the sparse annotations and bibliography were irritating. Here, Hart does follow much the same formula, with very few endnotes trailing his oceans of prose. However he adds a wonderful (and surprisingly fun to read) "Bibliographic Postscript" which is a sort of annotated bibliography (343-350), but reads more like one is having coffee with Hart and he is giving his opinion on sources used, and others which should be read by those interested.
But enough of my review, go start reading. Get lost in Hart's beautiful prose and wonderful mind. Even if you end up disagreeing with everything he wrote, I think you will have at least left the encounter having learned quite a bit.
There are lots of books attempting to "defend" or "refute" the existence of God, but strangely enough, not many books attempting to explain just what exactly the word "God" is supposed to mean. And those that do make such an attempt (at least the ones that I've seen) fall short in numerous ways. One such shortcoming seems to me to be the failure to grapple with the various religious traditions of the world, which is no easy task, but certainly one that is necessary for any thoughtful person who wants to have a coherent account of the traditional meaning of "God." In this magnificent work, Dr. Hart does exactly that, aptly citing some of the greatest religious thinkers to reveal what the word "God" has traditionally meant across philosophical and theological faith traditions.
Don't get me wrong. Hart is not here engaging in the sort of naïve pluralism that says that all religions are saying the same thing; he is aware that there are clear theological differences across religious traditions, and he is respectful of those differences. But nor is Hart a fundamentalist who is willing to simply ignore the religious experience and philosophical thought of the rest of the world. There is a clear harmony in the metaphysics of the word "God" across religious traditions and it is that which he is trying to elucidate.
I should point out that Hart is very good at anticipating objections to his approach in this book. For instance, early on, he counters the common charge that average religious people don't think about God philosophically the way Hart expounds in his book. This is a common objection from New Atheist types like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who often accuse "sophisticated theologians" of altering the traditional view of God in order to make it more reasonable and appealing. But as Hart points out, "there is absolutely nothing novel about the language I use in this book; it is a faithful digest of the primary claims made about the nature of God in the traditions I have named above."
Furthermore, "this is an entirely irrelevant argument" since "it is always true, for any shared body of knowledge, that the principles and logic of the whole `system' are most fully known only to a few individuals who have gone to the trouble to study them." And Hart adds, this objection is not really true anyway. If one asks the average believer what he understands God to be, the answers will often be perfectly concordant with the metaphysical formulae: God is Spirit, incorporeal, not an object located somewhere in space, not subject to the limitations of time, etc.
This is a much needed corrective for modern fundamentalists and zealous atheists alike. Hart delivers a prodigious blow to both groups, and he does so with erudition and scholarly seriousness. A book like this is long overdue and I, for one, am glad that it was written by none other than David Bentley Hart.
Along the way, Hart takes aim at modern fundamentalists and atheists, who both argue from false premises, and simplify both their own and their opponent's beliefs, in order to remain comfortable or to make easy points.
The tone of the book is a lot more elevated than typical nowadays. I had to look up words! (Easy to do on the Kindle, at least.) The paragraphs are long, and the arguments felt thorough-bordering-on-excessive to me, though he says he ought to go on much longer. (!!) I don't have the constitution to be a professional philosopher, I guess. Hart is a bit snarky and occasionally cute, so I had fun reading.
I wasn't actually persuaded of anything by this book, because I already had come to all these conclusions independently. But it sure was nice to see I wasn't the only one. I kind of wish I could make everyone read this book, but I don't know if I will get any takers. I plan to try.