Hart: The Experience of God

May 1, 2014

The Experience of God
Being, Consciousness, Bliss
David Bentley Hart
(Yale, 2013)
374 p.

Hart’s professed purpose in this book is not so much to defend or advance arguments for the existence and nature of God, but simply to explain, as a contribution to greater clarity in contemporary discussions, what the meaning of the word “God” has been understood to be in the classical theistic traditions. It is a modest goal, one would think, but it nonetheless leads into deep waters.

He deliberately pitches a capacious tent: although Hart is himself an Orthodox scholar, there is nothing in his argument that is uniquely Orthodox, nor even specifically Christian. The God he presents is one which is common, he argues, to “Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, [and] various late antique paganisms…” Despite the many unarguable differences between these religious traditions he contends that on the basic question of the nature of the one or ultimate God there is nonetheless substantial agreement:

“no one really acquainted with the metaphysical and spiritual claims of the major theistic faiths can fail to notice that on a host of fundamental philosophical issues, and especially on the issue of how divine transcendence should be understood, the areas of accord are quite vast.”

Even the seemingly basic distinction between monotheistic and polytheistic religions is not an especially troubling obstacle to this programme, for he contends that when one considers the hierarchies of angels in the monotheistic religions, on one hand, and the rumours of the One or Great god lying behind and beneath the tumult of the hierarchy of gods in the polytheistic religions, on the other, there is a basic structural resemblance between the two sides that is obscured by the relative emphases and characteristic language normally used to describe them. In particular, in many traditions, whether monotheistic or not, there is conceived a Being that is the fount and origin of all, and this is the reality for which the word “God” is specially reserved and on which Hart trains our attention.

A possible hesitation at the threshold of this project derives from its limited objective. Few theists are simply “classical”; most adhere to a specific religious tradition, not one of which describes God as identical to the God of classical theism. The God of classical theism is fount and end of all things, but is not, without remainder, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of classical theism is the resplendent reality which grounds the transcendent goods of truth and beauty, but is not, simply as such, the Trinitarian God whose Second Person was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Understanding the God of classical theism will therefore never, without further considerations, make one an adherent of a specific religious tradition, and from the viewpoint of a religious person, this may well appear as a defect. But if it is a defect, it is not a serious one. Classical theism is not intended to be the last word on God; it is, rather, the first word; it is the core around which more elaborated visions of God cluster; it is the sine qua non of theism.

There is a certain irony, therefore, in the fact that some theists today do not hold to classical theism. In Christian circles, these theists have been usefully described (by Brian Davies, I believe) as “theistic personalists”. They tend to think of God, explicitly or implicitly, as an especially powerful (even infinitely powerful) person who lives and moves through a world of lesser beings. He is the Supreme Being, greater and more powerful than any other, who intervenes at times in the world of human affairs but, perhaps more often than not, retires into silence. We have to be careful not to construct a straw-man here; I am not sure that this view is as widespread (among Christians, at least) as Hart suggests, but it would seem to be a fair description of, for instance, the “open theism” that has influenced some varieties of Protestantism.  A telling characteristic of these non-classical views of God’s nature is that they tend to conceive of his relation to the natural world principally through efficient causation, rather than (as is characteristic of classical theism) through final and formal causation. Non-classical theism is superficially compatible with the “plain sense” of certain passages of Scripture, but it has generally been considered incompatible with the claim, fundamental to all the great theistic traditions, that God is the origin of all things. Hart argues that we ought to call the God of theistic personalism by its proper philosophical name: the demiurge (from Plato’s Timeaus).

This is relevant to our current cultural moment because, as he points out, much if not most of the contemporary talk about God, both from the so-called “New Atheists” and from their opponents (who, on this view, might well be called the “New Theists”), is actually about the demiurge, and not about God at all. His express hope is that his book will be a contribution toward refocusing the conversation on the central claims of the principal theistic traditions, rather than on the parochial sideshow where it currently squanders much of its energy.

***

The book, as indicated by its subtitle, has a tripartite structure. Hart approaches the central claims of classical theism under three aspects: being, consciousness, and bliss, which he describes as “a particularly elegant summary of many of the most ancient metaphysical definitions of the divine nature.”

These three are doubly appropriate, for they are not only descriptive of the nature of God, but also of our experience of the divine. The reality of God, the tradition claims, is implicit in the most fundamental aspects of our experience: in our desires, in our knowledge, and in our very existence. Much of the book is concerned with describing this “transcendental structure of consciousness” by which the contours of experience are inescapably shaped. God is “the one reality in which all our existence, knowledge, and love subsist, from which they come and to which they go, and [...] therefore he is somehow present in even our simplest experience of the world, and is approachable by way of a contemplative and moral refinement of that experience.”

But these three are triply appropriate also, and for a very interesting reason:

“they perfectly designate those regions of human experience that cannot really be accounted for within the framework of philosophical naturalism… They name essential and perennial mysteries that, no matter how we may try to reduce them to purely natural phenomena, resolutely resist our efforts to do so, and continue to point beyond themselves to what is “more than nature.”

These are the three “supernatural” forms of the natural. For us, they are the prior conditions that must be in place before anything called nature can be experienced at all, and as such they precede and exceed the mechanisms of natural causality.”

He is quite right: existence, consciousness, and goodness (the ultimate object of desire and so the condition of bliss) are three aspects of reality with which naturalism seems incapable of adequately coping. This very fact should confirm for us that they are especially appropriate and interesting avenues of exploration for our purposes.

***

We begin with being. The basic claim which underlies classical theism — the claim which calls for the response which just is classical theism — is the claim that the natural world, in its totality, is a contingent reality, one which bears within itself no adequate account of its own existence. It is distinct from the claim that the natural world is finite or had a temporal beginning; even a universe infinite in time and space would be metaphysically contingent or, equivalently (?), logically contingent insofar as it failed to exist necessarily. The insight which gives birth to theism is that this contingency of the natural order quite reasonably opens onto the question of why, if the universe need not exist, it nonetheless does.

It is important to understand that, by its very nature, this is a question which is beyond the competence of the natural sciences to address, and Hart states the reason well:

“Physical reality cannot account for its own existence for the simple reason that nature – the physical – is that which by definition already exists; existence, even taken as a simple brute fact to which no metaphysical theory is attached, lies logically beyond the system of causes that nature comprises…”

So no experiment or discovery of the natural sciences could, even in principle, shed light upon this question of the being of things. Philosophical naturalism, insofar as it is wed to the methods and findings of the natural sciences, is therefore impotent to address the question. Its only move is to forbid the question, to somehow brand it as meaningless or pointless. It must therefore, according to Hart, be considered an intellectual project whose futility waxes in proportion to its ambition:

“…philosophical naturalism could never serve as a complete, coherent, or even provisionally plausible picture of reality as a whole. The limits of nature’s powers are the same whether they are personified as deities or not. It is at the very point where physical reality becomes questionable, and reason finds it has to venture beyond the limits of nature if it is to make sense of nature, that naturalism demands reason turn back, resigned to pure absurdity, and rest content with a non-answer…”

To a naturalist, the whole of physical reality is an “absolute contingency,” a brute fact that is ultimately inexplicable. Hart describes existence as “the single ineradicable “super-natural” fact within which all natural facts are forever contained, but about which we ought not to let ourselves think too much.” It is possible to rest content in this suspended state, not thinking too much, accepting the “just-there-ness” of things and not probing deeper, but it would seem to be a position that requires a good deal of doctrinaire compliance with the established rules of the game, so to speak. Because — let’s be honest — why not look for a reason for why things exist?

It is sometimes argued that introducing God into the discussion does nothing to address any of the issues, because all of the problems associated with contingency are simply bumped from the universe onto God, and we’re right back where we started. Thus people ask, “Who created God?” But such arguments are wide of the mark, for it is a central claim of the classical theist tradition that God just is that being which exists necessarily:

“God alone … has necessity in and of himself. That is, if the word “God” has any meaning at all, it must refer to a reality that is not just metaphysically indestructible but necessary in the fullest and most proper sense; it must refer to a reality that is logically necessary and that therefore provides the ultimate explanation of all other realities, without need of being explained in turn… When talking about the source of all reality, the distinction between metaphysical and logical necessity is merely formal, as each is inseparable from and ultimately convertible with the other: God is really metaphysically necessary only if he is logically necessary, and vice versa.”

Thus God is conceived as the being in which all of those quite legitimate questions about “why” and “how” find their terminus. God is, in a classic formulation, Being itself. And it is plain nonsense to ask what made Being, for if anything made it, that thing would itself have to first be, which is a contradiction. Being is the foundational metaphysical reality on which all else is founded. Unless this is understood — not necessarily the reasons for it, but at least the content of the claim — questions about God and his relationship to nature will never get anywhere. But once it is understood, it opens up a whole series of interesting questions about the nature of this fundamental reality.

Thinkers in the classical theist tradition have, over the centuries, invested a good deal of effort in deducing and articulating the nature of God so understood. I wish that I understood the arguments better than I do, but it seems to me that a basic “finding” is that this being which is metaphysically and logically necessary must be “unconditioned,” which seems to mean something like “independent” or “unlimited”, or even (in a venerable formulation that might or might not be equivalent) “simple”. The simplicity of God is, in any case, one of the principal axes around which classical theism pivots. “To speak of God’s metaphysical simplicity is to speak of the total absence of any of those limitations or conditions that might inhibit the power of actuality that he is.” It is from this claim of divine simplicity that many of the divine attributes are claimed to follow: God’s unity, oneness, eternity, impassibility, and so on. Hart lays great stress on divine simplicity, going so far as to state that its denial is tantamount to atheism:

“If God is to be understood as the unconditioned source of all things, rather than merely some powerful but still ontologically dependent being, then any denial of divine simplicity is equivalent to a denial of God’s reality.”

One of the rejoinders that sometimes greets the theological framework Hart is describing is that it is airy and cool: a matter of intellectual interest, perhaps, but not something to quicken the heart or inspire devotion. There is something to this feeling: God so understood is not yet a God of love, nor a God who enters into communion with humanity, or any of the other more elaborated understandings of God that are central to, and indeed constitutive of, our religious tradition. Yet Hart nonetheless finds it in himself to wax eloquent about this God who is Being and who bestows being on all things, for one of the implications of the view that God is wholly unconditioned is that God cannot stand in need of anything beyond himself, in which case the act of creation whereby all things are cannot be an act of necessity, but only of generosity, a kind of gracious overflow of being freely given. Insofar as we cultivate attentiveness to this gift and awareness of its gratuity it is possible for us to enter into a quite intimate relationship with God:

“That sudden instant of intellectual surprise is, as I have said, one of wakefulness, of attentiveness to reality as such, rather than to the impulses of the ego or of desire or of ambition; and it opens up upon the limitless beauty of being, which is to say, upon the beauty of being seen as a gift that comes from beyond all possible beings. This wakefulness can, moreover, become habitual, a kind of sustained awareness of the surfeit of being over the beings it sustains, though this may be truly possible only for saints.”

***

When he turns to a consideration of consciousness within the framework of classical theism, Hart is forced by the prevalence of certain prejudices in modern thought to make a long excursus into contemporary philosophy of mind. This is somewhat beside the point for his larger project, but it is probably a necessary labour, if only to clear the ground of misconceptions.

The main point he wants to make, following up on the themes of the previous section, is that being and intelligibility are intimately related, and that therefore consciousness, being the forum within which intelligible realities are made intelligible to a particular mind, is also closely linked to being. For a classical theist, the “transparency of the world to thought” is natural, for consciousness is by no means foreign to being.

The bridge from being to consciousness is via the concept of intelligibility:

“There is no such thing as ontological coherence that is not a rational coherence. There is a point then, arguably, at which being and intelligibility become conceptually indistinguishable. It is only as an intelligible order, as a coherent phenomenon (sensible or intellectual), that anything is anything at all, whether an elementary particle or a universe; perhaps it is true that only what could in principle be known can in actuality exist.”

This connection strikes me as rather surprising but not therefore misleading; on the contrary, the more I consider it the more profound it seems. But even if it strikes one as rather abstract, I think Hart is right to stress that its truth is tacitly assumed in the whole of intellectual life, and maybe especially in the sciences:

“The human striving to know the truth of things, as far as possible and in every sphere, is sustained by a tacit faith in some kind of ultimate coincidence or convertibility between being and consciousness. There is a natural orientation of the mind toward a horizon of total intelligibility — a natural intellectual appetite for immediate knowledge of what is — that requires us to venture our time, our hopes, our labors, and our contentions on the assumption that rational thought and coherent order are two sides of a single reality, or at least somehow naturally fitted to one another… There is a wonderful transparency of the world to thought, and a wonderful power of thought to interpret reality coherently through forms and principles that are of an entirely noetic nature. The world yields itself to our abstractions, and we cannot help but work upon the assumption that it always will precisely because being in itself is pure intelligibility.”

This “high view” of consciousness and intelligibility must, as I mentioned already, contend, even if only as an annoying contingency, with the fact that contemporary thought about consciousness is dominated by a “low view” of consciousness: modern philosophy of mind has much to say about computational models of mind, functional models of mind, mental epiphenomena, and even the non-existence of mind. (Hart comments: “there really is no other area in philosophy in which the outlandish, the vague, the willfully obscure, and the patently ridiculous are tolerated in such lavish quantities.”) The general assumption is that mind and consciousness are the results of physical processes and nothing more, and therefore that the ascription of consciousness to any non-corporeal being or substance must be impossible, a conclusion clearly incompatible with classical theism. As such, Hart is obliged to mount a critique of contemporary philosophy of mind and the mechanical metaphysics on which it is founded, which he does with his customary lucidity and force.

None of the arguments he presents are, as far as I can tell, original with him, and at times I wished that he would wield a sharper blade (such as the arguments offered by, for example, James Ross) but one could hardly ask for a more concentrated overview of the conceptual difficulties confronting materialist philosophies of mind than that provided in the middle sections of this book. In the interests of time I’ll not rehearse them here, but simply comment that he finally traces the apparent intractability of mental phenomena within a materialist framework to the mechanistic philosophy of nature which informs so much of modern thought. He is not the first to do so, and will not be the last. In the end, he concludes that the most consistent school of contemporary materialist philosophy of mind is the “eliminativist” school — those who deny that there is, finally, anything real or efficacious about mental experience. Such a conclusion, though self-consistent with the principles of materialist metaphysics, also has the notable defect of being, in itself, incoherent, but that is not Hart’s problem to solve. He contrasts that audacious irrationality with theism, which he describes as a kind of total rationalism before finally washing his hands of the affair and continuing on his way:

“It may well be, in fact, that the widely cherished expectation that neuroscience will one day discover an explanation of consciousness solely within the brain’s electrochemical processes is no less enormous a category error than the expectation that physics will one day discover the reason for the existence of the material universe. In either case, the problem is not one of pardonably exaggerated hope but of fundamental and incorrigible conceptual confusion.”

***

We said before that the mind approaches the world with a prior trust in its intelligibility. But there is more to be said, for it is not simply that the mind knows reality, but that it seeks to know reality, it desires truth, and it is this hunger that is the root of the dynamism of intellectual and moral life. Hart sees this desire as the bridge to the third aspect of our experience of God: bliss, or desire fulfilled:

“…what the mind seeks in attempting to discover the truth is a kind of delight, a kind of fulfillment… The indissoluble bond between the intellect and objective reality is forged by this faith that is also a kind of love — a kind of adherence of the will and mind to something inexhaustibly delightful.”

Yet this desire is not anarchic, not willy-nilly, but, in a venerable formulation that goes back at least as far as Aristotle, it is structured in a hierarchy of desirability that terminates in a set of goods traditionally called “transcendentals,” the desire for which is properly inexhaustible. Hart explains:

“In this world, the desirable is always desirable in respect of some yet more elementary and comprehensive need or yearning. All concretely limited aspirations of the will are sustained within formally limitless aspirations of the will.

In the end, the only objects of desire that are not reducible to other, more general objects of desire, and that may therefore truly be said to be desirable entirely in and of themselves, are a small number of universal, unconditional, and extremely abstract ideals that, according to a somewhat antique metaphysical vocabulary, are called “transcendentals.” Traditionally, these are said to be predicates or properties that in some way apply to all existing things, because they are essential aspects of existence as such: the intrinsic perfections of being in its fullness. There are both purely ontological transcendentals, such as being and unity, and critical or “criteriological” transcendentals, such as truth, goodness, and beauty; ultimately, though, they are distinct from one another only conceptually, from our necessarily limited vantage, but in themselves are wholly convertible with one another, each being only one name for the single reality that is being itself.”

The mind is naturally oriented toward and responsive to these transcendental goods; without that sensitivity and responsiveness, there would be no structure to mental life. Or, stated another way, it is impossible to experience the world without reference to these transcendental goods. Like it or not, the very structure of mental life is shaped by them:

“Whatever ontological or metaphysical substance one may or may not be willing to accord to such immense generalities as truth, goodness, and beauty, the very shape of conscious intentionality is entirely determined by them; they constitute an absolute orientation for thought … toward which the mind is always turned and against which every finite object is set off, in clear and distinct outlines, in the great middle distance of the phenomenal world.”

Hart expresses this intimate bond between experience and the transcendentals in a provocative but memorable way: “we approach nature only across the interval of the supernatural.” We are already entangled before we begin.

This is all of theological significance for a classical theist because of course the transcendentals themselves are not independent of God’s nature, but are rather part of Him — or, stated more strongly and more properly, as properties of being as such they are God’s nature as manifest to intentional consciousness. God is truth; God is goodness; God is beauty. Hart elaborates on the meaning of these traditional maxims; consider, for instance, these remarks on what it means to say that God is goodness:

“God is not just some ethical individual out there somewhere, a finite subjectivity answerable to some set of moral laws outside himself, but is rather the fullness of being, in whom all powers and perfections are infinitely realized. He is not simply someone who is good, but goodness itself, the ontological reality of that absolute object that moral desire seeks. Or, better, what we call goodness is, in its essence, God in his aspect as the original source and ultimate fulfillment of all love, drawing all things to one another by drawing them to himself. Thus, our rational appetite for being is also a longing for the good, and our longing for the good is an aboriginal longing for God.”

An intriguing (or vexing) corollary of this general view of the transcendentals is that, properly understood, it is not possible to be a rational atheist, for “if one refuses to believe in God out of one’s love of the truth, one affirms the reality of God in that very act of rejection.” The involvement of our transcendental desires with the nature of God is so thorough that it cannot be escaped:

“… faith in God is not something that can ever be wholly and coherently rejected, even if one refuses all adherence to creeds and devotions. The desires evoked by the transcendental horizon of rational consciousness are not merely occasional agitations of the will but constant dynamisms of the mind; they underlie the whole movement of thought toward the world. But for these formally excessive and ecstatic longings, which seek their satisfaction in an end beyond nature, we would know nothing of nature, could not care for it, could not delight in it. To be rational beings, capable of experiencing reality as an intelligible realm of truth, moral responsibility, and disinterested joy, is to be open at every moment before the supernatural. For classical theism, the transcendental perfections of being are simply different names for — different ways of apprehending — being itself, which is God, and are thus convertible with one another in the simplicity of the divine. In the prism of finite existence, that unity becomes a plurality of distinct aspects of reality, and we only occasionally have any sense of their ultimate unity — when, for instance. we are able to grasp a mathematical truth in part because of its elegance. or when an act of compassion strikes us with its beauty, or when our will to act morally in a certain situation allows us to see the true nature of that situation more clearly, or when we sense that the will to know the truth is also an ethical vocation of the mind (and so on). For the most part, however, we have little immediate awareness of how the transcendentals coincide with one another. Even so, any movement of the mind or will toward truth, goodness, beauty, or an other transcendental end is an adherence of the soul to God. “

Or, to quote another source, “In Him we live, and move, and have our being.”

***

In an effort to wrap up these notes, let me try to provide a brief summary of the overall argument. Actually, Hart has distilled the main points better than I could:

“We cannot encounter the world without encountering at the same time the being of the world, which is a mystery that can never be dispelled by any physical explanation of reality, inasmuch as it is a mystery logically prior to and in excess of the physical order. We cannot encounter the world, furthermore, except in the luminous medium of intentional and unified consciousness, which defies every reduction to purely physiological causes, but which also clearly corresponds to an essential intelligibility in being itself. We cannot encounter the world, finally, except through our conscious and intentional orientation toward the absolute, in pursuit of a final bliss that beckons to us from within those transcendental desires that constitute the very structure of rational thought, and that open all of reality to us precisely by bearing us on toward ends that lie beyond the totality of physical things. The whole of nature is something prepared for us, composed for us, given to us, delivered into our care by a “supernatural” dispensation. All this being so, one might plausibly say that God — the infinite wellspring of being, consciousness, and bliss that is the source, order, and end of all reality — is evident everywhere, inescapably present to us, while autonomous “nature” is something that has never, even for a moment, come into view.”

There is a great deal to chew on here, and in these notes I have but scratched the surface. The book’s third panel, especially, on “bliss,” is far richer in both content and rhetorical power than I have been able to convey. As usual with Hart, I can only recommend that you read the book yourself. Though there were times when I wished for a somewhat more incisive line of argument, and though there were many times when I wished that he would argue rather than simply describe the classical theist claims, and though at times I wondered how classical theism is integrated into the more specific and elaborated vision of God that comes from Judaism and Christianity, and though at times he is repetitive, with principal points coming up again and again in different contexts, I hope it is nonetheless clear that the book is excellent. There is an extensive bibliography to guide readers who want to explore classical theism in more detail — among whom I count myself, had I but world enough, and time.

***

But we are not quite finished. Classical theism is not merely an intellectual project, not just a set of propositions to be argued. If it is true that ultimately God’s nature is the good which underlies all our striving, beckoning us forward, then this way of knowledge cannot but also be a way of love. If we want to know this God who is, the religious traditions are united in insisting that we cannot seek him in the abstract, or with laboratory instruments, but must approach with discipline, and devotion. The “proof” will, finally, be a personal one, for we find Him “in the depth of the mind’s own act of seeking”, and especially in contemplative prayer — “the art of seeing reality as it truly is.” Hart is very good on this point, and his exhortation makes for a fitting close to these reflections:

“No matter what one’s private beliefs may be, any attempt to confirm or disprove the reality of God can be meaningfully undertaken only in a way appropriate to what God is purported to be. If one imagines that God is some discrete object visible to physics or some finite aspect of nature, rather than the transcendent actuality of all things and all knowing, the logically inevitable Absolute upon which the contingent depends, then one simply has misunderstood what the content of the concept of God truly is, and has nothing to contribute to the debate. It is unlikely, however, that such a person really cares to know what the true content of the concept is, or on what rational and experiential bases the concept rests. In my experience, those who make the most theatrical displays 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. If one is left unsatisfied by the logical arguments for belief in God, and instead insists upon some “experimental” or “empirical” demonstration, then one ought to be willing to attempt the sort of investigations necessary to achieve any sort of real certainty regarding a reality that is nothing less than the infinite coincidence of absolute being, consciousness, and bliss. In short, one must pray: not fitfully, not simply in the manner of a suppliant seeking aid or of a penitent seeking absolution but also according to the disciplines of infused contemplation, with real constancy of will and a patient openness to grace, suffering states of both dereliction and ecstasy with the equanimity of faith, hoping but not presuming, so as to find whether the spiritual journey, when followed in earnest, can disclose its own truthfulness and conduct one into communion with a dimension of reality beyond the ontological indigence of the physical. No one is obliged to make such an effort: but, unless one does, any demands one might make for evidence of the reality of God can safely be dismissed as disingenuous.”

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2 Responses to “Hart: The Experience of God”


  1. Thanks for the great review. This is on my list of books to read, and I think you helped to bump it up. From what you have written, it sounds like it’s quite pertinent to our times—particularly the thesis that athiesm is, at the end of the day, a flight from understanding (to use one of Lonergan’s favourite phrases).

  2. cburrell Says:

    I hope you find the time to read it, Adam. I’d be very interested in talking about it with you.


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