Saturday, August 9, 2014

Defending the God Who Isn't There: David Bentley Hart on The Experience of God

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was one of the most exasperating books on the existence of God I have ever read. It was also one of the most enjoyable. My exasperation resulted from Hart's boringly repetitious variations on the assertion that his intellectual opponents are idiots and any minimally intelligent person will of course agree with him and the intellectual proofs that he endorses.

I hate it when militant atheists try to shovel horse manure on that basis and hate it even more when theists like Hart do the same.  It is embarrassing in the extreme to have that old canard trotted out. Reasonable, highly intelligent individuals have taken positions on both sides of the God debate for millenia--- literally millenia.  To say that only idiots believe or don't believe has been proven beyond doubt to be the most brainless assertion that anyone can attempt to foist upon his or her fellow human beings.

However, when Hart is not succumbing to fits of hubris he provides incisive critique of the God debate in general- namely that neither side can be accused of actually talking about God at all.  Militant atheists continually trot out some variation of the bearded man in the sky as their definition of God and proceed to flail away at a God that is, by definition, NOT God at all and one that only cursory examination of the best arguments for the existence of God proves to be, well, nonexistent.  Fundamentalist apologists in the meantime, obediently fling themselves into the fray to defend a God that does not exist.  Hart's clarification of the classical statements by each of the great theistic traditions rescues the conversation and reminds us of what the best arguments for God have been asserting all along.

Hart develops his thesis by examining three basic arguments for the existence of God as he restates the philosophical and theological explanations of God as ground and source of all being (in whom we live and move and have our being), not as a demiurge or being like other created beings, but as the source of being itself. He then addresses the phenomenon of consciousness to point to the fact that reductionist materialist assertions about human existence as well as the existence of God fail to adequately account for the most ubiquitous experience that we know, namely consciousness.  Lastly he appeals to the experience of bliss- not in a narrow hedonistic sense of the word but more in the line of Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia- the highest order of satisfaction and functioning available to human beings- to point to the transcendent nature of human experience as it relates to the ground and source of all that we are- namely, God.  You'll have to read Hart's book to decide for yourself whether he makes these arguments in as compelling a fashion as I believe he did.

What Hart does NOT do in the Experience of God is to either prove the existence of God or give attention to the validity of Christianity as the unique and final revelation of God's activity among human beings.

Insofar as proving the existence of God I enthusiastically agree with Hart's approach because attempts to "prove" God exists all lead to the same spiritual dead end.  For Christians the definitive statement is this- "The just shall live by faith (Romans 1:17)."  Alvin Plantinga develops much more fully the ideas of "warrants" for belief in God- roughly that belief in God is an imminently plausible and justifiable (as well as justifying) concept and that faith is a special category of knowing available to all human beings.

The closest Hart comes to connecting his arguments for belief in God to his practice of the Christian faith is to point to the scientific validity of personal experience as a category of knowing (see above for my reference to Plantinga's argument for this category of knowing).   By extension Hart points to the contemplative experience of God as one means of confirming God's existence in one's life.
I have to admit that I did not really pay attention to this last until I read the sharp critique offered by Jerry A. Coyne in The National Review. To paraphrase the critic's objection, Hart seems to be challenging the critic to engage in arduous testing and diligent personal experimentation to prove God's existence. 
". . . . he declares that we can’t fully absorb his arguments until we fall on our knees and make ourselves open to a God we don’t accept—and for a long time, too." 
If God really exists, Coyne complains, why do we have to work so hard to "find" him?

I "found" myself reacting to his complaint with the following questions, "You mean you see it as unreasonable to ask you to apply the same disciplined and persistent inquiry that Edison did to the development of electricity? Or perhaps the same self-sacrifice displayed by Curie in her research on radiation? Or Salk, Einstein, Hawking, and on and on and on?  It seems that scientific diligence and dedication is, at least for this one critic, extended to anything BUT the question of God.  THAT question must have an easy answer that requires no discipline or dedication to understand, and if it cannot be known so easily, then the experiences of those millions of individuals who have engaged that kind of effort must be completely invalid.

Hart's book is not going to convince many committed atheists to become theists but my good hope is that it may challenge theists to apply greater discipline to their thinking about God and to their efforts to realize God's presence in their lives.

The very best preaching and theological teaching I've heard over my lifetime has pointed to the same human tendency among those of us who think of ourselves as faithful.  What we often revere is something much less than the God who is calling us to live in dedicated and humble relationship to that One in whom we live and move and have our being.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Join the conversation! Leave a comment.