255 “The Experience of God”

One of my best discoveries in graduate school—learned quite apart from my course work—was the intellectual depth of the Christian tradition.  Judged purely by their acuity, Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, Jacques Maritain and C.S. Lewis, were frequently superior to their secular counterparts.  Thus, while I myself lack the mental capacity necessary to defend or nourish the Christian worldview in elite circles, I could rely on those who have done so most effectively.  Thus I commend David Bentley Hart, for he is one of the more powerful contemporary theologians whose works reward careful reading.  Subscribers to First Things (for years my most favored periodical) recognize him as a regular contributor as well as the monthly essayist on “Back Page.”  An easy introduction to his thought is available in a collection of 21 of his magazine essays—In the Aftermath:  Provocations and Laments (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 2009), wherein he addresses topics as varied as “Evelyn Waugh’s Travel Writings,” “The Pornography Culture,” and “Tsunami and Theology.” In such essays, written for the general reader, he seeks to entertain as well as instruct.  

An Eastern Orthodox theologian, Hart has taught at places such as the University of Virginia and Providence College.  His most recent publication, The Experience of God:  Being, Consciousness, Bliss (New Haven:  Yale University Press, c. 2013) seeks to set forth persuasive reasons for adhering to the classic Christian convictions regarding the reality of God.  He writes with full awareness of what seems to be a resurgence of naturalistic atheism in “enlightened” circles aligned with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hutchins, noting disdainfully that their “texts are manifestoes, buoyantly coarse and intentionally simplistic, meant to fortify true unbelievers in their unbelief; their appeal is broad but certainly not deep; they are supposed to induce a mood, not encourage deep reflection; and at the end of the day they are probably only a passing fad in trade publishing, directed a new niche market” (p. 5).  

Hart simply does “not regard true philosophical atheism as an intellectually valid or even cogent position; in fact, I see it as a fundamentally irrational view of reality, which can be sustained only by a tragic absence of curiosity or a fervently resolute will to believe the absurd.  More simply, I am convinced that the case for belief in God is inductively so much stronger than the case for unbelief that true philosophical atheism must be regarded as a superstition, often nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations” (p. 16).  In general, today’s celebrated atheists “appear to know almost nothing about the religious beliefs they abominate, apart from a few vague and gauzily impressionistic daubs or aquarelle washes, and who seem to have no real sense of what the experience of faith is like or of what its rationales might be.  For the most part, they seem not even to know that they do not know” (p. 20).  Still more:  quite often “those who make the most theatrical display of demanding ‘proof’ of God are also those least willing to undertake the specific kinds of mental and spiritual discipline that all the great religious traditions say are required to find God” (p. 327).  

Hart’s disdain for atheism’s intellectual vacuity is set forth in his 2009 treatise, Atheist Delusions:  The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven:  Yale University Press), wherein he contends that history’s zenith was reached when Christian theology, shaped by classical Church Fathers and Medieval Schoolmen, best sounded the depths of Reality and crafted Western Civilization.  An unapologetic apologist (much like C.S. Lewis) for pre-modern thought, he believes there was a “peculiar and radical nature” in the Christian faith that transformed the world, liberating it “from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of occult agencies” and creating “a new conception of the world, of history, of human nature, of time, and of the moral good.”  Compared with the grandeur of the Christian worldview, modernity—most clearly defined by its atheism—is rather like a parasite destroying the goodness, truth, and beauty most needed by our species.  

Still, the “deep reflection” absent in atheism is what’s needed when thinking about God, and Hart pitches his text at the highest level of philosophical thought.  Indeed, he believes that “There are, in fact, truths of reason that are far surer than even the most amply supported findings of empirical science because such truths are not, as those findings must always be, susceptible of later theoretical revision” (p. 71).  And such “truths of reason” have been plumbed profitably by great theologians.  Deeply immersed in Church Fathers such as Athanasius and Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius the Aeropogite, Augustine and Aquinas, Hart makes no new claims for his presentation.  Rather, he purports to set forth “a faithful digest of the primary claims made about the nature of God” by the true masters of theology.  “Far from being some weak, etiolated remnant of the more robust flora of the age of faith, it is the strongest and most comprehensive set of claims about God that it is possible to make.  There is no note of desperation or diffidence in this language; it forthrightly and unhesitatingly describes a God who is the infinite fullness of being, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, from who all things come and upon whom all things depend for every moment of their existence, without whom nothing at all could exist” (p.  7).  

“Deep reflection” should nurture wisdom, which Hart defines as “the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience; it is the ability to see again what most of us have forgotten how to see, but now fortified by the ability to translate some of that vision into words, however inadequate” (p. 9).  “God is not only the ultimate reality that the intellect and the will seek but is also the primordial reality with which all of us are always engaged in every moment of existence and consciousness, apart from which we have no experience of anything whatsoever.  Or, to borrow the language of Augustine, God is not only superior summo meo—beyond my utmost heights—but is also interior intimo meo—more inward to me than my inmost depths.  Only when one understands what such a claim means does one know what the word ‘God’ really means, and whether it is reasonable to think that there is a reality to which that word refers and in which we should believe” (p. 10).  

This leads Hart to propose “being, consciousness, and bliss” as keys to knowing ultimate reality.  To simply wonder at their sheer reality prompts the experience of God.  To move from the indubitable certainty of my own being, immersed in a welter of other beings, cannot but provide “a genuine if tantalizing brief glimpse into an inexhaustibly profound truth about reality.  It is the recognition, simply said, of the world’s absolute contingency.  The world need not be thus.  It need not be at all.  If, moreover, one takes the time to reflect upon this contingency carefully enough , one will come to realize that it is an ontological, not merely an aetiological, mystery; the question  of existence is not one concerning the physical origins of things, or of how one physical state may have been produced by a prior physical state, or of physical persistence across time, or of the physical constituents of the universe, but one of simply logical or conceptual possibility  How is it that any reality so obviously fortuitous—so lacking in any mark of inherent necessity or explanatory self-sufficiency—can exist at all?” (p. 90).  

To know what a being is—its essence—involves inductive and deductive thinking; a specific tree or a species of trees may be analyzed and categorized with precision.  But to know that a being is—its existence—demands an entirely different kind of thinking, metaphysical thinking, and “an old and particularly sound metaphysical maxim says that between existence and nonexistence there is an infinite qualitative difference.  It is a difference that no merely quantitative calculation of processes or forces or laws can ever overcome” (p. 95).  Before we even begin to ask what a thing is we have already acknowledged that it isWhy it is no physicist can say!  Only the metaphysician or theologian, peering through the phenomenal world as an icon, can catch a glimpse of “some truly unconditioned reality (which, by definition, cannot be temporal or spatial or in any sense finite) upon which all else depends; otherwise nothing could exist at all.  And it is this unconditioned and eternally sustaining source of being that classical metaphysics, East and West, identifies as God” (p. 106).  

“And God, therefore, is the creator of all things not as the first temporal agent in cosmic history (which would make him not the prime cause of creation but only the initial secondary cause within it), but as the eternal reality in which ‘all things live, and move, and have their being,’ present in all things as the actuality of all actualities, transcendent of all things as the changeless source from which all actuality flows.  It is only when one properly understands this distinction that one can also understand what the contingency of created things might tell us about who and what God is” (p. 107).  Given this understanding, we can develop reasonable positions regarding God’s simplicity, infinity, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, freedom, impassibility, etc.  With vast erudition and verbal dexterity Hart moves throughout the history of philosophy and theology, interacts with the most trenchant of postmodern thinkers, and illustrates the perennial power of ontology, the study of being.

We not only know that we are—and that other things are—but we know that we know!  Regarding the reality of human consciousness, Hart says:  “No less wonderful than the being of things is our consciousness of the:  our ability to know the world, to possess a continuous subjective awareness of reality, to mirror the unity of being in the unity of private cognizance, to contemplate the world and ourselves, to assume each moment of experience into a fuller comprehension of the whole, and to relate ourselves to the world through acts of judgment and will” (p. 152).  “Being is transparent to mind; mind is transparent to being; each is ‘fitted’ to the other, open to the other, at once containing and contained by the other.  Each is the mysterious glass in which the other shines, revealed not in itself but only in reflecting and being reflected by the other” (p. 152).  

Neuroscientists running brain-scans, determined to reduce such self-awareness to matter-in-motion, are as blinded by their descriptive calculations as naturalistic physicists, shackled to their laboratory devices, who deny metaphysical realities.  When I’m told that my thoughts are merely neurons firing in my brain and compare such diagrams with my rich inner world (filled with memories of childhood and thoughts about building projects and concerns about loved ones and debates regarding decisions) I cannot but question the wisdom of “brain science.”  For I’m intensely aware of qualities (such as the colors of Colorado aspen trees in the fall), or of abstract ideas (such as geometric circles or distributive justice), or of my reasoning capacities (logic) and mental intentions (freely turning my thoughts assorted items), and I cannot believe they are merely physical perturbations.  Indeed, “considered solely within the conceptual paradigms we have inherited from the mechanical philosophy, it is something of a conundrum that such a thing as consciousness should be possible for material beings at all” (p. 154).  

This modern, mechanistic vision, solidified by the theories of Newton and Darwin, had been presciently rejected by most of the great philosophers Hart defends, for “neither Platonists, nor Aristotelians, no Stoics, nor any of the Christian metaphysicians of late antiquity or the Middle Ages could have conceived of matter as something independent of ‘spirit,’ or of spirit as something simply superadded to matter in living beings.  Certainly none of them thought of either the body or the cosmos as a machine merely organized by a rational force from beyond itself.  Rather, they saw matter as being always already informed by indwelling rational causes, and thus open to—and in fact directed toward—mind.  Nor did Platonists or Aristotelians or Christians conceive of sprit as being immaterial in a purely privative sense, in the way that a vacuum is not aerial or a vapor is not a solid.  If anything, they understood spirit as being more substantial, more actual, more ‘supereminently’ real than matter, and as in fact being the pervasive reality in which matter had to participate in order to be anything at all.  The quandary produced by early modern dualism—the notorious ‘interaction problem’ of how an immaterial reality could have an effect upon a purely material thing—was no quandary at all, because no school conceived of the interaction between soul and body as a purely extrinsic physical alliance between two disparate kinds of substance.  The material order is only, it was assumed, an ontologically diminished or constricted effect of the fuller actuality of the spiritual order” (p. 168).  Thus my soul, as Thomas Aquinas said, is the form of my body, the true substance of my being.   

As is true of the mystery of being, Hart argues, the mysterious reality of consciousness leads directly to the mysterious reality of God, who “is in himself the absolute unity of consciousness and being, and so in the realm of contingent things is the source of the fittedness of consciousness and being each to the other, the one ontological reality of reason as it exists both in thought and in the structure of the universe” (p. 235).  Still more, He is the “bliss” present in our moments of ecstasy and our longing for endless joy.  We desire many things, but above all we desire, as Aristotle wisely said, lasting happiness.  We surely desire to know “truth,” and we desire it because there is a delight to discovering it.  Knowing it, we “transcend” the flux of finite things and experience a bit of a higher reality.  We also desire moral goodness and make decisions in accord with our understanding of it, for “the good is an eternal reality, a transcendental truth that is ultimately identical with the very essence of God” (p. 253).  “Simply said, if there were not God, neither would there be such a thing as moral truth, nor such a thing as good or evil, nor such a thing as a moral imperative of any kind.  This is so obviously true that the need to argue the point is itself evidence of how inextirpable our hunger for a transcendent moral truth is” (p. 256).  

Finally, punctuating our experience with openings to the reality of God, there is the blissful apprehension of beauty, the finest of all avenues to the Author and Finisher of our faith.  To Hart, beauty more than anything else grants us access to the immediate presence of God in His world, for through the beautiful “we are granted our most acute, most lucid, and most splendid encounter with the difference of transcendent being from the realm of finite beings.  The beautiful affords us our most perfect experience of that existential wonder that is the beginning of all speculative wisdom.” (p. 283).  This thesis was articulated by Hart a decade ago in his first (and in many ways most intellectually daunting) major publication, The Beauty of the Infinite:  The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 2003).  Ultimately, he argues, the Christian message appeals to us more as a writer’s story than a lawyer’s brief; God reveals himself in history and episodes and biographies more clearly than in propositions and deductions.  He seeks “to defend a theological reappropriation of what I have called the ‘covenant of light’—a trust in the evidence of the given, an understanding of knowledge as an effect of the eros stirred by the gift of the world’s truth” (Loc #2294 in Kindle edition).  

“What Christian thought offers the world is not a set of ‘rational’ arguments that (suppressing certain of their premises) force assent from others by leaving them, like the interlocutors of Socrates, at a loss for words; rather, it stands before the world principally with the story it tells concerning God and creation, the form of Christ, the loveliness of the practice of Christian charity—and the rhetorical richness of its idiom.  Making its appeal first to the eye and heart, as the only way it may ‘command’ assent, the church cannot separate truth from rhetoric, or from beauty” (#107).  “Phrased otherwise, the truth of being is ‘poetic’ before it is ‘rational’—indeed is rational precisely as a result of its supreme poetic coherence and richness of detail—and cannot be truly known if this order is reversed.  Beauty is the beginning and end of all true knowledge: really to know anything, one must first love, and having known one must finally delight; only this ‘corresponds’ to the Trinitarian love and delight that creates” (# 2069).

To lay a foundation for his presentation, Hart devotes a lengthy (one-third of the book) section of his book to “postmodern” thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida as well as formative philosophers such as such as Kant, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.  Only the most diligent of academicians can profit from this discussion—but it clearly reveals Hart’s erudition and dazzling rhetorical prowess.  That done, he moves to his central task:  celebrating “the beauty of the infinite” disclosed in the Trinitarian theology of classic Christian thought, for “the Christian understanding of beauty emerges not only naturally, but necessarily, from the Christian understanding of God as a perichoresis of love, a dynamic coinherence of the three divine persons, whose life is eternally one of shared regard, delight, fellowship, feasting, and joy” (# 2427).  

This truth stands profoundly revealed at the inception of Jesus’ ministry, when He was baptized by John in the Jordan River.  In this theophany the Father, Son, and Spirit joined in celebrating their communal mission on earth, for “the descent of the dove at Christ’s baptism reveals that every act of God, as Basil says, ‘is inaugurated by the Father, effected by the Son, and perfected by the Holy Spirit’ (De Spiritu Sancto 16.38), it reveals also that God’s love is always entirely sufficient in itself” (#2740).  Thus America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards, “calls the Spirit the beautifier, the one in whom the happiness of God overflows and is perfected precisely as overflowing, and so the one who bestows radiance, shape, clarity, and enticing splendor upon what God creates and embraces in the superabundance of his love.  And this beauty is the form of all creaturely truth; . . . .  Delight in beauty ‘corresponds’; joy in beauty, when it is truly joy, reflects the way in which God utters himself, and utters creation, in the Spirit’s light; joy repeats, in some sense, the gesture that gives being to beings, and alone grants knowledge of being as original peace” (# 2783).

Thus we experience God immediately as we open ourselves to beauty in all creation, whether it be the soaring Alps or the intricate, counterpoint compositions of Bach (whom Hart asserts is the greatest of all theologians!).  Thus Gregory of Nyssa “likens the soul partaking of divine blessings to a vessel endlessly expanding as it receives what flows into it inexhaustibly; participation in the good, he says, makes the participant ever more capacious and receptive of beauty, for it is a growth into the goods of which God is the fount; so no limit can be set, either to what the soul pursues or to the soul’s ascent” (#3053).  And this involves what patristic theologians routinely called “deification,” for “‘when the bridegroom calls to the soul,’ writes Gregory, ‘she is refashioned into the yet more divine and, by a beneficent change, changed from her glory to one still more exalted’” (#3131).  Inasmuch as we see all that is as a gift, graciously given us by a loving LORD, and insofar as we rejoice at the sheer beauty of these gifts, we discover the divine design orienting us to eternal life through Christ the Lord.