Archives For Experience of God

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I recently interviewed David Bentley Hart, my man-crush Mt. Rushmore theologian as well as my former teacher. You can find the interview here above from our podcast Crackers and Grape Juice. In it, I mention how DBH taught me as a new Christian and undergraduate that God is the most obvious thing of all.

This is a theme DBH picks up again in his latest book, The Experience of God.

In a nutshell, The Experience of God is a retrieval of the ancient metaphysical definition of God. Like all of his previous works, this is a significant book. Unlike his previous works, this book is accessible for the average lay person- that’s not to say it’s easy reading, just accessible.

Hart reminds the reader of the philosopher Richard Taylor with this wonderful illustration, which in turn reminds me of the Terrence Malick film, Tree of Life.

Here’s the quote from Hart. Imagine, he writes:

“a man out for a stroll in the forest unaccountably coming upon a very large translucent sphere.
Naturally he would immediately be taken aback by the sheer strangeness of the thing, and would wonder how it should happen to be there.

More to the point, he would certainly never be able to believe that it just happened to be there without any cause, or without any possibility of further explanation; the very idea would absurd.

But, what that man has not noticed is that he might ask the same question equally well about any other thing in the woods too, a rock or a tree no less than this outlandish sphere, and fails to do so only because it rarely occurs to us to interrogate the ontological pedigrees of the things to which we’re accustomed.

What would provoke our curiosity about the sphere would be that it was so obviously out of place; but, as far as existence is concerned, everything is in a sense out of place.

The question would no less intelligible or pertinent if we were to imagine the sphere either as expanded to the size of the universe or as contracted to the size of a grain of sand, either as existing from everlasting to everlasting or as existing for only a few seconds.

It is the shear unexpected ‘thereness’ of the thing, devoid of any transparent rationale for the fact, that prompts our desire to understand it in terms not simply of its nature but of its very existence.

The physical order confronts us at every moment with its fortuity.

Everything about the world that seems so unexceptional and drearily predictable is in fact charged with an immense and imponderable mystery.

How odd it is, how unfathomable, that anything at all exists: how disconcerting that the world and one’s consciousness of it are simply there, joined in a single ineffable event.”

david_bentley_hartMy former teacher and current muse, David Bentley Hart, will be lecturing on his new book, The Experience of God, at UVA on March 25. As a way of rejoicing, here’s an essay by Father Robert Barron which is inspired by Hart’s work in his most recent two books. If anyone wants to road trip down to Cville with me to hear DBH, let me know.

The most signal contribution of David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss is to clarify that serious theists and atheists, though they debate frequently concerning the reality of God, are hardly ever using the word “God” in the same way. This fundamental equivocation contributes massively to the pointlessness and meanness of most of these discussions.

It is not so much that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins disagree with Thomas Aquinas on the existence of God; it is that neither Hitchens nor Dawkins has any real grasp of what Aquinas even means when he speaks of God.

 

To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of “being.” But this is precisely what Aquinas and serious thinkers in all of the great theistic traditions hold that God is not. Thomas explicitly states that God is not in any genus, including that most generic genus of all, namely being. He is not one thing or individual — however supreme — among many. Rather, God is, in Aquinas’s pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.

It might be helpful here to distinguish God from the gods. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, the gods were exalted, immortal, and especially powerful versions of ordinary human beings. They were, if you will, quantitatively but not qualitatively different from regular people. They were impressive denizens of the natural world, but they were not, strictly speaking, supernatural. But God is not a supreme item within the universe or alongside of it; rather, God is the sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists.

It is absolutely right to say that the advance of the modern physical sciences has eliminated the gods. Having explored the depths of the oceans and the tops of the mountains and even the skies that surround the planet, we have not encountered any of these supreme beings. Furthermore, the myriad natural causes, uncovered by physics, chemistry, biology, etc. are more than sufficient to explain any of the phenomena within the natural realm. But the physical sciences, no matter how advanced they might become, can never eliminate God, for God is not a being within the natural order. Instead, he is the reason why there is that nexus of conditioned causes that we call nature — at all.

The Russian cosmonaut from the 1950’s who, having pierced the heavens, confidently asserted, “I have found no God,” was speaking so much nonsense, though he would have been right had he changed the “G” from large case to small. This is why the new atheists and their army of disciples are committing a category mistake when they confidently assert that scientific advances cause religion to retreat onto ever-shrinking intellectual turf or when they stridently challenge religious people to produce “evidence” for God. No amount of scientific progress can even in principle pose a threat to authentic religion, and no amount of experimental evidence can tell for or against the true God.

So how do we get at the true God? Hart clarifies that real religion begins with a particular type of wonder, namely, the puzzle that things should be at all. We are surrounded on all sides by things that exist but that don’t have to exist. The computer on which I am typing these words indeed exists, but its existence is not self-explanatory, for it depends on a whole range of causes, both extrinsic and intrinsic. It exists only because an army of manufacturers, designers, technicians, etc. put it together and only because its molecular, atomic and sub-atomic structure sustains it. Furthermore, it is situated in an environment that conditions it in numberless ways. The technical philosophical term for this caused and conditioned existence is “contingency.”

Now a moment’s meditation reveals that all of the conditioning elements that I mentioned are themselves, in similar ways, contingent. They don’t explain their existence any more than the computer does. Therefore, unless we permanently postpone the explanation, we have to come, by logical deduction, to some reality which is not contingent and whose very nature is to exist. This power of Being itself, which explains and determines all the contingent things or our ordinary experience, is what serious theists of all of the great religious traditions mean by the word “God.” I fully realize, of course, that the vast majority of religious believers wouldn’t say that their faith in God is a function of this sort of philosophical demonstration. Nevertheless, they are intuiting what the argument makes explicit.

I often tease the critics of religion who take pride in the rigor of their rationalism. I tell them that, though they are willing to ask and answer all sorts of questions about reality, they become radically uncurious, irrational even, just when the most interesting question of all is posed: why is there something rather than nothing? Why should the universe exist at all?

David Bentley Hart’s book helps us to see that the question of God — the true God — remains the most beguiling of all.