The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss
by David Bentley Hart.
Yale University Press, 2013.
Hardcover, 376 pages, $25.
To listen to many contemporary atheists, it would seem that the question of whether or not God exists is meaningless. It is not so much that the question deserves a clear negative, but that it doesn’t deserve serious consideration at all. Entirely lost on such people is the urgency behind Ivan Karamazov’s famous claim, “if there is no God, I can do anything I want,” a claim that makes the question of God’s existence the supreme and all-determining dilemma of human life. How does one make sense of such an enormous discrepancy? How is it possible that whatappears to one set of people as the ultimate question regarding reality appears to another set as jejune nonsense? One answer would be that modern disbelievers, under the influence of their positivist assumptions, simply have no idea what earlier thinkers meant by the concept of God. Their failure to appreciate the magnitude of the question of his existence results directly from this ignorance rather than from modernity’s purported progress towards enlightenment; it is a consequence of what has been lost to Western thought, not what has been gained.
This is largely the thesis of David Bentley Hart’s magnificent new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. According to Hart, today’s atheists—and many of their theist antagonists—are no longer discussing the concept of God as it was classically propounded in the major religious traditions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism. His stated intention is 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.” By doing so, he aims to convince the reader of the irrelevance—the silliness, even—of most of the current theological controversies in light of a real acquaintance with what religions have always taught concerning God.
Hart emphatically concurs with Ivan Karamazov about the fundamental importance of the question of God’s existence. “It is not enough,” he writes, “simply to remain indifferent to the whole question of God … because … it is a question ineradicably present in the very mystery of existence, or of knowledge, or of truth, goodness, and beauty,” a question that “must be posed again and again in the course of any life that is truly rational.” As for the answer to that question, Hart claims—with a provocative confidence—that it is obvious. An atheist is just someone who has failed to notice the perfectly evident necessity of God’s existence.
Why is that so many people cannot see this obvious truth? The roots of the problem lie in the mechanical philosophy that emerged at the outset of the scientific revolution in order to provide a conceptual framework for the progress of the new science. At the heart of this philosophy was a rejection of the concepts of formal and final causality, dismissed then—and dismissed continually ever since—as so many remnants of scholastic obscurantism or anthropocentric myth-making. Such an “ascetic” (as Hart calls it) view of nature could be justified in terms of methodology, as the approach most likely to focus the scientist on just those features of nature prone to answer to experimental verification. But as a metaphysical picture of the world, it is simply untenable; form and finality always reassert themselves in any disinterested account of nature. Their exclusion from philosophical discourse has merely followed from an ungrounded, though long-standing, supposition on the part of modern thinkers. Consequently, discourse concerning God has grown all but unintelligible to modern ears, since such discourse is wound up inextricably with the vocabulary of formality and finality. It is that more ancient metaphysics that Hart proposes to defend, a
vision of reality in which the higher is not the epiphenomenal and largely illusory residue of the lower … but a causal order in its own right, comprising the forms and ends and rational harmonies that shape and guide and explain the world. Then, beyond all those forms of causality, comprehending, transcending, pervading, underlying, and creating them, is that which is highest and most eminent of all, the boundless source of all reality, the infinity of being, consciousness, and bliss that is God.
Enthralled to the mechanistic picture of reality, modern persons—even devout believers—have a hard time envisioning God’s relationship to nature through any other conceptual lens than efficient causality, positing him as the one who bestows on matter its appearance and proper functioning. Hence the ubiquitous, though irritatingly imprecise, image of God the watchmaker. But this is to turn God into only one more being among beings, robbing him of his unique status as Being itself, and the origin of all other beings, complete with the remarkable philosophical ramifications this status bears. Modern atheists, for all of their supposed fury against theistic belief, have only ever aimed their barbs at a supreme being, and thus have never “actually written a word about God.”
In contrast, all of the religious traditions Hart refers to define God as Being itself, “the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.” This is why a recognition of God’s reality is, as stated, an acknowledgment of something obvious, because none of us can keep from experiencing being, thinking about being, coming to know being in some way. As Hart puts it, “Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, saturates every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us.” Yet precisely because God’s presence is implicit in the totality of our encounter with the world, it is liable to our neglect. The ability to recognize God in his creation requires a disciplined attentiveness to the three primary modes of his revelation: in being, in consciousness, in bliss; and it is around these three “moments” of experience that Hart structures the argument of his book.
To appreciate the way God reveals himself to us under the mode of being, Hart invites us to reflect—in often rapturous prose—on those rare but entrancing moments when we experience a startling awareness of the world’s contingency, an “abiding amazement” that “everything one knows exists in an irreducibly gratuitous way: ‘what it is’ has no logical connection with the reality ‘that it is.’” Such moments of wakefulness to the “mystery of being” verify or engender our intuition that nothing we experience in nature carries within itself the “ground of its own being … every finite thing is the union of an essence (its ‘what it is’) with a unique existence (its ‘that it is’), each of which is utterly impotent to explain the other, or to explain itself for that matter, and neither of which can ever be wholly or permanently possessed by anything.” This is the reason why it appears blindingly obvious to Hart that naturalism is no answer to this enigma because “physical reality cannot account for its own existence for the simple reason that nature—the physical—is that which by definition already exists.” The best the philosophical naturalist can do, in the face of this primordial enigma, is to postulate dogmatically the impossibility of saying anything rational about it, and thus resign himself to the fundamental absurdity of Being, to “rest content with a non-answer that closes off every avenue to the goal the mind necessarily seeks.”
Hart proceeds to trace the general lineaments of the classical arguments for God’s existence beginning from this intuition of the world’s contingency. He cites the universal concurrence among ancient philosophers that there cannot be only contingent beings, since such beings are, by definition, conditioned by (or dependent upon) the existence of things beyond themselves, and an “order of ubiquitous conditionality” could never supply a “source of existence as such.” Yet only such an unconditioned source of being could constitute an ultimate explanation for the existence of all those conditional beings, since an infinite regress of conditional, dependent beings would simply result in the same fundamental absurdity already mentioned. To speak of God, according to classical religious traditions, is to speak of that “unconditioned and eternally sustaining source of being” which alone can supply an explanation for the existence of the world’s dependent beings. This is what it means to think about God as a necessary being, or as “Absolute Being,” since “a logically correct description of what the word ‘God’ means would necessarily imply that there is no coherent sense in which God could not be.”
Later, in a chapter that struck me as the most richly suggestive portion of the book, Hart traces the “bliss” of God’s revelation to the primal disposition of the mind towards reality, which is always infused, to one extent or another, with a “rational appetite,” a “longing for the ideal comprehensibility of things, and a natural orientation of the mind toward that infinite horizon that is being itself.” Reflecting upon this “rational appetite,” we discover that our reception and interpretation of reality is always conditioned by—always subsumed under—certain conceptual absolutes which have traditionally been known as the “transcendentals”: “the very shape of conscious intentionality is entirely determined by [truth, goodness, and beauty]; they constitute an absolute orientation for thought.” These “absolute values … appear as concrete realities nowhere within the physical order,” and therefore point to an order of reality beyond—or transcendent of—that physical order, and thus begin to disclose to us the reality which is God: “for classical theism, the transcendental perfections of being are simply different names for—different ways of apprehending—being itself, which is God … any movement of the mind or will towards truth, goodness, beauty, or any other transcendental end is an adherence of the soul to God.” The mind’s pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty is a pursuit of its most basic form of satisfaction, and thus we are disposed by nature not only to know God, but to desire him above all things:
The structure of rational consciousness is ecstatic: our minds are capable of reflecting the world because there is a kind of elation in our thinking, a joy, or at least anticipation of joy, which seeks its fulfillment in an embrace of truth in its essence. Every movement of the intellect and will toward truth is already an act of devotion …
Together, then, the experiential “moments” of being, consciousness, and bliss disclose the reality of God with a completeness that renders, according to all the major religious traditions, the denial of that reality an absurdity. And yet so many do deny it. In part, this is a liability of our natures, which tend to grow indifferent toward those conditions of our existence that are most fundamental, but it is also the cumulative effects of the centuries-long dominance of the mechanical philosophy, “the final, predictable, and unsurprisingly vulgar expression of an ideological tradition that has … become so pervasive and habitual that most of us have no idea how to doubt its premises, or how to avert its consequences.”
Massively learned and gorgeously written, The Experience of God should entirely transform contemporary debates concerning the validity of belief in the divine. Readers may or may not be convinced by its arguments for the reality of God, but they can hardly doubt the momentous significance of the question when confronted here with the philosophically serious way the major religious traditions of the world have always explained that reality. Hart’s book finally stands as a testament to the permanent wisdom embodied in those traditions, a wisdom that grows not from the understanding of this or that being, but from the joyful meditation upon the mystery of Being itself.
Mark Anthony Signorelli is an editor-at-Large at Front Porch Republic and a contributing editor at the New English Review. His poetry has appeared in the Evansville Review, the Publican of Philadelphia, and the New English Review.