The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart.

Thanks to a recommendation from @whitefrozen, for which I’m very grateful, I have discovered the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart and over Christmas read his history of Christianity and also his book The Experience of God: Being Consciousness, Bliss. Here is a review. I would have liked to say more but it is already long enough.

This book is so good that praising it is easy. That its author is able to thread his way unharmed through so many profound issues, with no need to obscure them in unnecessary complications and with no loss of rigour, while systematically dismantling the iconography of most of the popular faiths of our time, from Materialism to evangelical Protestantism, from mundane Naturalism to Intelligent Design, is a testament to his clear understanding of them.

What it says about metaphysics, philosophy, consciousness studies, theology and so forth is for the most part straightforward and, in philosophical terms, fairly obvious. What it says about God would be a different matter, but it is not obscure. It is fearless in its adherence to sound reasoning and common-sense and takes no prisoners.

The meaning of the word ‘God’, when this is used in its most profound or fundamental sense, in other words its correct sense, is carefully proscribed, and this ultimate phenomenon is clearly distinguished from the various non-reductive and anthropomorphic ideas of God that are invariably the target of atheist preachers and quite often objects of faith for their opponents.

God is defined in such a way that it becomes quite easy to speak of Him in terms of Being, Consciousness and Bliss, and thereby to almost casually syncretise the world’s main theistic and atheistic religions. The idea that the God of Christianity, Islam and Judaism would be inconsistent with the discoveries and teachings of Buddhism, Taoism and advaita Vedanta is explicitly rejected in the sub-title and is not entertained for a moment. Rather, there is a cross-referencing of quotations that indicates the commonality of their core doctrine.

The lunacy of modern philosophy of mind is exposed for what it is, with no sleights of hand and no attempt to make the discussion incomprehensible. Metaphysics is not ignored, as it so often is for contemporary discussions of consciousness, it being an inconvenient reminder that almost all current theories fail trivially in logic. Materialism, specifically, is shown to be logically indefensible. Atheism may sometimes be a subtle thing, but in any of its common forms it is exposed as nonsensical. Most popular forms of theism are rejected, not necessarily as misguiding in their effects but as being non-reductive, thus at least to some extent naïve in their ontology and conceptualisation. There is something to upset almost everyone.

This is not yet another long and inconclusive discussion of things we can never understand, replete with tedious rehearsals of arguments that we can never settle. It is an attempt to explain, or this is its effect, that in fact we can know these things, we can settle these arguments, just as long as we apply our reason carefully, maintain a disinterested approach and keep our thoughts as simple and direct as possible, at least sufficiently simple that we do not become lost in our own sophistry. It is a demonstration that this achievement is possible.

We may not be quite sure of how authoritative is the author, or of whether his arguments are quite as conclusive as he makes them out to be, but the easy simplification of the issues is clear evidence that he understands the issues comprehensively, is confident of his facts and sure of his reasoning. There is no need to dissemble under these circumstances.

We cannot explain anything completely without positing a phenomenon transcendental to the psycho-physical and space-time universe. For Hart this is perfectly obvious. Why not call it God? Then we can progressively narrow down the definition of this phenomenon by a process of empiricism and logic and see what emerges. Inevitably, various articles of religious faith and some popular secular beliefs about God and the universe will have to abandoned along the way, they cannot all be correct, but we need not be anxious. Hart shows that religion, science and metaphysics would emerge unscathed from such a process. It is only that along the way we may gain a clearer idea of how these bodies of knowledge are related and of how their respective discoveries and results may be aligned for a fundamental theory. Crucially, we may come to see how an atheistic Buddhism may be explained as consistent with a theistic Christianity, simply by rendering one particular form of atheism and one particular form of theism indistinguishable. Then it becomes possible to reduce the argument between theism and atheism to a matter of terminology.

The only passage that bothered me, or at least gave my neck a rest from nodding in agreement, was the discussion of miracles. It seemed to assume, or at least suggest, that theism must demand their possibility, and that, therefore, it must demand the rejection of naturalism. I do not believe that this is the case, nor that it would necessarily follow from any of the argument presented by the author. I would rather believe that where an event seems to us to be a miracle it is evidence of our ignorance, and that it would appear to be a natural event to someone with a correct understanding of Nature, Her laws and their relation to any higher laws. This quibble seems almost certain to be a matter of words and definitions, the use of the words ‘naturalism’ in particular, rather than a difference of opinion about miracles. All the same, the idea of asking a materialist to swallow the idea that the laws of creation can be broken seems strategically flawed when it should be enough to simply point out that we do not know or understand these laws yet, so have no method for distinguishing between a miracle and a law-governed event. After all, that the universe can make itself a cup of tea and sit down to read a book might easily be viewed as a miracle.

I would have liked a bit more metaphysics, simply because it would have strengthened the arguments even further to show that God, as defined by Hart, would solve all ‘problems of philosophy’ in principle, and not just those that are mentioned in this discussion. But one book cannot do everything.

It is no more than a personal judgement, but I would not hesitate to recommend this book to any person of any age or philosophical persuasion who cares about the rationality of their world-view and who would be capable of reading it.

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19 Responses to The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart.

  1. whitefrozen says:

    I’m still not sure which of the three main sections is my favourite. ‘Consciousness’ is a pure takedown, but I think ‘Bliss’ might be the best chapter, because it simply makes the most sense. ‘Bliss’ is like, /well, of course it has to be like that’.

  2. guymax says:

    Hi wf. Thanks again for pointing me at Hart. Not sure I quite see what you mean here but no matter. It’s the best ‘popular’ book on God that I’ve ever read. I feel he is a bit unnecessarily vindictive with some of his remarks, but other than that I struggled to find fault with it. His history of Christianity is good as well, especially on the issue of the Trinity. I’m much cheered up by knowing that someone is out there talking so much sense.

    • whitefrozen says:

      Apologies for my opaque comment -it was written as I was running out the door. ‘Consciousness’ is, to me, Hart giving a good thrashing to materialist accounts of consciousness. He’s pretty relentless there. ‘Bliss’ to me makes the most sense, because of how he explains the orientation of reason, desire, moral/aesthetic appetite. He is, as you noted, a virtuso of Church history. You would do well to read his magnum opus, ‘The Beauty of the Infinite’, which is something like 500 pages and very much a more metaphysical work. He interacts a lot with the post-metaphysical “scene” (for lack of a better term), like Heidegger and whatnot. That, however, is as far from a popular work as possible.

  3. guymax says:

    ‘Relentless’ seems a very appropriate word, and ‘virtuoso of church history’ is a nice phrase.

    It looks like I’ll have to go order another book. It seems a pity to me that the Roman church doesn’t just capitulate and go Orthodox. Then perhaps Archbishop Carey’s gloomy predictions for the Church of England might not come true.

  4. guymax says:

    Never heard of any of them. I don’t read theology usually, if that’s what they’re about. I’ll go check them out and come back with a comment.

    • whitefrozen says:

      I would personally regard those guys as some of the most profound thinkers of this century. Check out Gilson’s ‘Unity of Philosophical Experience’ (or google the ‘handbook for beginning realists’), Jaki’s ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God (my personal favourite book) and Torrance’s ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge’.

  5. guymax says:

    I see now why you mention these three. Torrance in particular seems intriguing. I may read something of his. Thanks for putting more pressure on my amazon account. Usually I avoid theology as a nest of vipers, but I enjoyed Hart and perhaps I should know more about its technicalities. .

    • whitefrozen says:

      Of the three, Torrance is the by far the most challenging. His work on science/theology is quite profound and important, IMO. His theological works are worth the price just for his expositions of, say, James Clerk Maxwell and Einstein.

  6. guymax says:

    Okay. You’ve convinced me. I’ll get hold of ‘Transformation and Convergence’. I have a feeling, from reading about his work, that I’ll be nodding in agreement all the way through, as long I understand it. Thanks again.

  7. guymax says:

    Hmm. That blog is exactly what I am not interested in. I don’t understand the first few posts and have no wish to do so. I certainly don’t think it does Christianity any favours. Sorry not to be enthusiastic. I expect it’s all brilliant but I have no motive for getting to grips with it. This might be blindness on my part, but I’ll take some convincing.

    • whitefrozen says:

      I realized that, but couldn’t really easily (I’m on mobile so it’s a bit of a pain to do linking on blogs) get the specific posts I wanted.

  8. guymax says:

    No problem. My comment was a bit hasty anyway. It’s just that this expert technical and legalistic approach to interpretation seems to undermine the spirit of the whole enterprise. .

  9. Frederick says:

    Have you ever noticed that Christians seldom, if ever, use the word Consciousness either with a Capital C, or a lower case c.
    And they seldom if ever write about Bliss or Love-Bliss.
    They thus by association never ever write about the fact that Love-Bliss-Consciousness is the intrinsic always already nature of our Being.
    Christians are of course by self-definition and always dramatized action, sinners.
    To sin means to “miss the mark” or to actively deny that Love-Bliss-Consciousness.
    Which is the primary reason why they are always trying to use the ashen spirit-killing words of “theology” to “prove” the existence of “God”.
    White Frozen is a classic example of such self-important poseurs

  10. Frederick says:

    DOGMA/DOGMATICS is such a dreadful patriarchal word with dreadful connotations and applied politics.
    As in the infamous inquisition with its hunt for, persecution, torture and excution of “heretics”, “blasphemers” and “apostates”. And mass slaughters such as those visited upon the Cathars and Albigensians. It has been the cause of and justification for never-ending religious wars. And of course the “hammering of witches” or the European “witch” burnings and drownings etc.

  11. guymax says:

    Hi Frederick. Thanks for the comment. I think it’s difficult to generalise about Christians but I agree that they’re very often carefully ‘exoteric’ in their approach and so avoid the close study of consciousness. Still, Hart’s view is also possible for a Christian It was Whitefrozen who recommended Hart to me, so maybe your comment is a bit OTT. Theology need not be ‘ashen spirit-killing words’, even if it often is.

  12. donsalmon says:

    Hi, just arrived here on Peter’s recommendation. For some reason when I first came across this post I only glanced at hart. Looked at his work again – I agree 100% with what Peter write, and am planning to follow up on Whi’s recommendations. Great stuff, folks!

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