David Bentley HART. The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. Hardback, 365 pp. $25.00. Reviewed by Ryan MARR, Saint Louis University, 63103.
One of David Bentley Hart’s central goals in this work is to raise the level of public discourse regarding belief in God. With the rhetorical flair for which he has become well known, Hart derides so-called “new atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, for constructing their critiques against religion with a faulty understanding of what the major religious traditions actually claim about the divine. As Hart has similarly outlined in his book Atheist Delusions, Dawkins and his allies commit a categorical mistake, assuming God to be a super-being who micromanages the universe rather than properly understanding God as the one who created and sustains it—in the words of Scripture, the one in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In Hart’s view, “the new atheists have yet to make a contribution of any weight whatsoever,” because, up to this point, they have been “content merely to devise images of God that are self-evidently nonsensical, and then proceed triumphantly to demonstrate just how infuriatingly nonsensical” such images are. For Hart, then, acknowledging that the God described by the new atheists does not exist is an “altogether painless concession to make.”
In launching a counteroffensive against the new atheists, Hart frames the debate in the strongest terms possible. In Hart’s view—and here he is worth quoting at length—naturalism “is an incorrigibly incoherent concept, and one that is ultimately indistinguishable from pure magical thinking. The very notion of nature as a closed system entirely sufficient to itself is plainly one that cannot be verified, deductively or empirically, from within the system of nature. It is a metaphysical (which is to say ‘extranatural’) conclusion regarding the whole of reality, which neither reason nor experience legitimately warrants. It cannot even define itself with the boundaries of its own terms, because the total sufficiency of ‘natural’ explanations is not an identifiable natural phenomenon but only an arbitrary judgment. Naturalism, therefore, can never be anything more than a guiding prejudice, an established principle only in the sense that it must be indefensibly presumed for the sake of some larger view of reality…” Building on this point, Hart goes on to claim that there are three regions of human experience that are nearly impossible to account for within the framework of philosophical naturalism—namely, being, consciousness, and bliss (or, to utilize medieval terminology, transcendentals). Hart structures the remainder of his work around these concepts, providing a substantive reflection on each one and orienting the overall argument to a focus on how naturalism fails to provide an adequate explanation for them.
What follows is a thoroughly entertaining and engaging read. It’s difficult to convey to those who are unacquainted with Hart’s writing the sheer exuberance of his prose and the bite to his wit. Arguably what’s most impressive about this particular work is Hart’s level of familiarity both with contemporary debates in the philosophy of science and also with religious traditions outside of Christianity. Given the current emphasis on academic specialization, I would guess that there are just a handful of living theologians who are as conversant as Hart is in both of these fields. Furthermore, this book could adequately serve as an introductory text to metaphysics for upper level philosophy students, as Hart treats in depth such thorny philosophical issues as the nature of being, God’s relationship to the world, human freedom, and aesthetics—drawing upon some of history’s most notable thinkers, both Eastern and Western, to illuminate his discussion of these topics. One possible hindrance to using the book in this manner is that, at times, Hart’s prose becomes so dense that it might prove difficult for some students to navigate. Those who are not deterred by this factor, however, should find themselves richly rewarded for persevering to the final pages.
In those pages, Hart wraps up the discussion in a somewhat surprising manner—not with an intellectual salvo, but by challenging those who are genuinely interested in knowing if God exists to turn to the practice of contemplative prayer. In broaching this matter, Hart reminds his readers, “If one is really to seek ‘proof’ one way or the other regarding the reality of God, one must recall that what one is seeking is a particular experience, one wholly unlike an encounter with some mere finite object of cognition or some particular thing that might be found among other things. One is seeking an ever deeper communion with a reality that at once exceeds and underlies all other experiences.” In the concluding section of his work, then, Hart turns to the mystical traditions of the major religions, setting forth contemplative discipline as “peculiarly suited to (for want of a better word) an ‘empirical’ exploration” of the mystery of God. In Hart’s view, this mode of prayer remains the most suitable means for coming to see the world with the eyes of faith, that is to say, coming to see “how the contingency of finite existence directs our thoughts toward an unconditional and absolute reality, and how the intentional unity and rationality of the mind opens up to an ultimate unity of intelligibility and intelligence in all things, and how the ecstatic movement of the mind and will toward transcendental perfections is a natural awareness of an ideal dimension that comprehends and suffuses the whole of existence.” I have my doubts that the new atheists will take up Hart’s challenge, but if they fail to do so no one can fault the strength of Hart’s effort in upholding his end of the dialogue.