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.