Posts Tagged ‘David Bentley Hart’

Harts: The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla

June 1, 2020

The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla
David Bentley Hart and
Patrick Robert Hart

Illustrated by Jerome Atherholt
(Angelico, 2019)
180 p.

The flyleaf teaser begins in this way:

It is known, of course, that soft toys — teddy bears, cotton-stuffed rabbits, velveteen squids, and the like — are all but incapable of deceit, greed, or criminality. And yet, when the treasure of the ancient MacGorilla clan is stolen from their castle in the Scottish Highlands, it seems that one or more of the soft toys gathered there must surely be the culprit, or culprits.

That “or culprits” is a nice touch, and gives a flavour of the pleasures to be had in this delightful book. We are off to Scotland, to the castle of Laird MacGorilla, a stuffed gorilla of great wealth and generosity of spirit and something less than great wit, where a number of guests are assembled, including Theodore Bear — Teddy Bear, to his friends — a soft toy bear with a knack for solving mysteries.

The story, as it unfolds, has the shape of a classic whodunit, where the “it” is brazen theft rather than lethal violence (although MacGorilla does get knocked on his soft head with a lily). There are mysteries, diversions, suspicions, bananas, secrets, discoveries, revelations — and, in the end, justice  (albeit tampered by Murphy).

David Bentley Hart, whom I count among my favourite contemporary writers, and whose previous collection of fiction I have praised in this space, but whose recent books have had the faint scent of quixotism about them, here returns, gently and winsomely, to fine fettle. He has co-written the book with his son, Patrick, who was 11 years old at the time of writing, and I’d love to hear more about how the collaboration worked. It must have been great fun.

The elder Hart has a reputation as a purveyor of elegant erudition, but that strain of jollity is mostly muted here. The book is written for intelligent children to enjoy, and skirts both condescension and ostentation. Some of the dialogue I found lacked a certain sparkle, being too liberally salted with ellipses and inert verbalisms of the “um, oh” sort, and some of the smaller scale sallies of wit had for me a strained quality, but on the whole I found it a good story enlivened by ready wit and smelling sweetly of banana tarts. I look forward to reading it to my children sometime soon.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me

April 5, 2019

We need to recognize […] that this commandment is a hard discipline: it destroys, it breaks in order to bind; like a cautery, it wounds in order to heal; and now, in order to heal the damage it has in part inflicted, it must be applied again. In practical terms, I suspect that this means that Christians must make an ever more concerted effort to recall and recover the wisdom and centrality of the ascetic tradition. It takes formidable faith and devotion to resist the evils of one’s age, and it is to the history of Christian asceticism — especially, perhaps, the apophthegms of the Desert Fathers — that all Christians, whether married or not, should turn for guidance. To have no god but the God of Christ, after all, means today that we must endure the lenten privations of what is most certainly a dark age, and strive to resist the bland solace, inane charms, brute viciousness, and dazed passivity of post-Christian culture—all of which are so tempting precisely because they enjoin us to believe in and adore ourselves.

It means also to remain aloof from many of the moral languages of our time, which are — even at their most sentimental, tender, and tolerant — usually as decadent and egoistic as the currently most fashionable vices. It means, in short, self-abnegation, contrarianism, a willingness not only to welcome but to condemn, and a refusal of secularization as fierce as the refusal of our Christian ancestors to burn incense to the genius of the emperor. This is not an especially grim prescription, I should add: Christian asceticism is not, after all, a cruel disfigurement of the will, contaminated by the world-weariness or malice towards creation that one can justly ascribe to many other varieties of religious detachment. It is, rather, the cultivation of the pure heart and pure eye, which allows one to receive the world, and rejoice in it, not as a possession of the will or an occasion for the exercise of power, but as the good gift of God.

— David Bentley Hart,
“Freedom and Decency”.

Meanwhile, elsewhere

October 26, 2017

A few recent items that might be of wider interest:

  • The next volume in Bob Dylan’s “Bootleg Series” is scheduled for a November issue. Trouble No More, the thirteenth volume in the series, will treat Dylan’s “Gospel period” of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Gospel records are not among my favourites, but there is likely to be some good, previously unreleased material in this set. In fact, we know there is, because we can listen to “Making a Liar Out of Me”, which is pretty fabulous by just about any measure.
  • David Bentley Hart has had, I think, 4 books published in the past year. There were three collections of essays on various subjects, and his translation of the New Testament appeared this week. I am indifferent to the Bible translation; I’m sure it will be interesting, and controversial (on account of the “pitilessly literal” course he set himself), but another Bible translation is likely to just sink beneath the flood of Bible translations. I’d prefer to have fewer translations than more, and this project strikes me as an unfortunate distraction for a man whose talents are so prodigious. Anyway, all that aside, there was a nice essay by Brad East at the LA Review of Books about his recent essay collections, and I highly recommend it. Hart also delivered a good lecture at Fordham on the topic “Orthodoxy in America and America’s Orthodoxies”, very much worth hearing.
  • At City Journal, Heather Mac Donald takes a critical look at the idea of “unconscious bias”. A good and instructive read.
  • Following up on the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2017, which was for the discovery, a few years ago, of a black hole collision using gravitational waves, the same technique has now been used to discover a collision of neutron stars. Physicists were able to identify the direction from which the space-time ripples were coming with sufficient precision for optical telescopes to turn and see the electromagnetic radiation from the collision as well. Amazing. This happened in August, but I was on holiday and missed it.
  • Everybody knows that Stradivarius made the best violins, right? Right? A group of French and American researchers asked several renowned violin soloists to blind-test modern violins against old Italian instruments, including a few by Stradivarius. The result: they could not reliably distinguish the old from the new, and they generally preferred the sound of the new.  Adding insult to injury, a follow-up study of audience perceptions found that they, too, could not reliably tell the difference between old and new, but generally preferred the newer instruments. How to fittingly bid farewell to the beloved myth of the Stradivari? Here is the Tokyo String Quartet, all playing Stradivari instruments, performing Barber’s sad Adagio:

St Athanasius: On the Incarnation

October 22, 2017

On the Incarnation
St Athanasius
(Fig, 2012) [c.315]
72 p.

Christianity is distinctive first for claiming that God, the fount and origin of all things, entered human history as a man, and that this man suffered and died the death of a criminal before being resurrected. It is a story that has seemed messy and arbitrary to some, and manifestly unfitting, or even blasphemous, to others. In this important early work of Christian theology, St Athanasius mounts a series of arguments to convince his readers that the Incarnation was fitting, and that the death of Christ, both as to fact and to manner, was neither arbitrary nor unreasonable. His understanding of these events sets forth a powerfully attractive account of the meaning of Christianity.

He begins with an assessment of the state of humanity prior to the Incarnation, and specifically with the twin premises of, on one hand, sin, and, on the other, God’s promise that the wages of sin would be death. Together these two posed a dilemma:

It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption.

It would not be fitting for a work of God to suffer destruction, for we, being made in his image and likeness, ought properly to enjoy the fulfillment of our nature as God Himself enjoys His own infinite fulfillment in Himself. The Incarnation then appears, says St Athanasius, as the solution to this dilemma, for by taking on human nature God healed it of the corruption and injury which sin had produced in it, and by his death he suffered the consequence of sin, and by his resurrection he overcame both sin and death: “through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection.”

Athanasius illustrates this re-creation of human nature by means of an analogy:

You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honoured, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.

He also wants us to appreciate that when God the Son became part of the created order, this was not an act wholly alien to his nature, for, being the Logos by whom all things were made that have been made, he entered a world to which he had always been intimately related:

He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us.

Furthermore, granting God’s initiative to himself assume the nature of a thing he created, it was of all parts of Creation most fitting that he should take on human form, for the human being is made in God’s likeness and image. David Bentley Hart (on whose recommendation, incidentally, I undertook to read this book) has expressed the point in this way:

“The act by which the form of God appears in the form of a slave is the act by which the infinite divine image shows itself in the finite divine image: this then is not a change, but a manifestation, of who God is.” (The Beauty of the Infinite, p.357.)

We have then, one motive for the Incarnation: by taking human nature into himself in a particularly intimate way, he healed it and even re-created it, thereby carrying on the creative activity that he always exercises with respect to the world in general, and our nature in particular. That the Incarnation corresponded so well with the nature of God — as saviour, creator, and Logos — made it fitting.

But of course God might have healed our nature by some means other than the Incarnation had he so wished. Athanasius therefore introduces another line of argument to show its fittingness: it provided it a particularly apt means for us to know God. Before Christ, the situation was this:

Three ways thus lay open to them, by which they might obtain the knowledge of God. They could look up into the immensity of heaven, and by pondering the harmony of creation come to know its Ruler, the Word of the Father, Whose all-ruling providence makes known the Father to all. Or, if this was beyond them, they could converse with holy men, and through them learn to know God, the Artificer of all things, the Father of Christ, and to recognize the worship of idols as the negation of the truth and full of all impiety. Or else, in the third place, they could cease from lukewarmness and lead a good life merely by knowing the law.

Yet even with these ways, many men did not seek God, and did not find him. What was God to do, for it was unworthy of man, made in God’s image, not to know God. By the Incarnation, therefore, God revealed himself in a new, clearer way, suitable to our way of knowing:

He became Himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God, did in the body.

To summarize, two things were accomplished by the Incarnation:

He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.

or, restated in a more elaborate way:

We have seen that to change the corruptible to incorruption was proper to none other than the Savior Himself, Who in the beginning made all things out of nothing; that only the Image of the Father could re-create the likeness of the Image in men, that none save our Lord Jesus Christ could give to mortals immortality, and that only the Word Who orders all things and is alone the Father’s true and sole-begotten Son could teach men about Him and abolish the worship of idols.

And added to this is a third reason for the Incarnation: so that Christ could die. But why did he have to die, and why in the way that he did?

Christ renewed and transformed sinful human nature by his Incarnation, but this alone was not enough to erase the calamity of sin. God had promised that the wages of sin would be death, and that promise created a debt that had to be paid, and so Christ, by dying, proceeded “to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression”.

I am not a theologian, but I believe that this understanding of Christ’s death is called “substitutionary atonement” — personal sin imputes guilt; guilt, in justice, requires restitution; and Christ, in love, offers his own life as restitution. But I confess that I am confused, for this seems to allow that God is not free in his dealings with us, but subject to some higher moral requirement. Why could God not “overrule” the punishment for sin by offering mercy out of his sovereign power? I can think of two possible responses to this. The first is that the requirement of justice which demands a punishment for sin is not actually independent of God but an expression of God’s own just nature. (But, troubling this possibility from within is the question of whether substitutionary punishment is consonant with justice in the first place.) The second is that although God, strictly speaking, was not compelled by anything to impose punishment for sin, he did so because this logic makes sense to us, and he wanted our salvation to make sense to us. And it is true, generally speaking, that our sense of justice does make such demands in the ordinary course of events, even though, in an ironic turn, Christianity itself has gradually undermined the absoluteness of these just demands.

But there is a further reason why Christ died: by doing so, he dramatically overcame death. In the Gospels he asked, “Is it easier to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”, and he said the latter so as to assure all that he had the power to say the former. In a similar way, it was one thing for him to restore and heal our nature, and another to demonstrate his power to do so by actually conquering our final enemy: “He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection.” This is the drama of Holy Saturday, and it is a magnificent drama. Too often, I think, we get a genteel account of Christ’s death and Resurrection: by dying he showed his love, and by raising him God the Father gave us a kind of “endorsement” of Christ’s life and message. But here, instead, we find Christ descending to the depths in power, doing battle with all the powers of evil and decay and destruction, bursting the bonds that sin had laid upon us, and rising in triumph.

This dramatic, narrative approach to the meaning of Christ’s death strikes my own heart with greater power than does the more legalistic language of substitutionary atonement. Through Christ, the Word made flesh, God speaks our story again, and by so speaking he re-shapes and re-makes it, for it is always in his words that his creative power is manifest. Again, David Bentley Hart has put this point more eloquently than I can:

“It is because Christ’s life effects a narrative reversal, which unwinds the story of sin and death and reinaugurates the story that God tells from before the foundation of the world – the story of the creation he wills, freely, in his eternal counsels – that Christ’s life effects an ontological restoration in creation’s goodness; it is because the rhetoric of his form restores the order of divine rhetoric … that created being is redeemed in him.” The Beauty of the Infinite, p.325.)

Athanasius then proceeds through a quite interesting set of arguments in which he looks at the manner in which Christ died, and explains why it was an appropriate death. It was fitting that his death be public, for instance, because his triumph over death was fittingly public. His death was something he suffered at the hands of others so that he would not seem to have chosen one manner of death over another: “He, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior, did not arrange the manner of his own death lest He should seem to be afraid of some other kind.” It was fitting that the manner of his death did not divide his body (as in a beheading), for his body represented the Church: “even in death He preserved His body whole and undivided, so that there should be no excuse hereafter for those who would divide the Church.”

In two final sections of the book he addresses two specific audiences in turn: Jews and Gentiles. To the former he argues his views on Incarnation, death, and Resurrection from the Hebrew Scriptures, and to the latter he argues from pagan philosophers. His arguments to the Gentiles include a well-known celebrations of the triumph of Christ over the pagan deities:

And here is another proof of the Godhead of the Savior, which is indeed utterly amazing. What mere man or magician or tyrant or king was ever able by himself to do so much? Did anyone ever fight against the whole system of idol-worship and the whole host of demons and all magic and all the wisdom of the Greeks, at a time when all of these were strong and flourishing and taking everybody in, as did our Lord, the very Word of God? Yet He is even now invisibly exposing every man’s error, and single-handed is carrying off all men from them all, so that those who used to worship idols now tread them under foot, reputed magicians burn their books and the wise prefer to all studies the interpretation of the gospels. They are deserting those whom formerly they worshipped, they worship and confess as Christ and God Him Whom they used to ridicule as crucified. Their so-called gods are routed by the sign of the cross, and the crucified Savior is proclaimed in all the world as God and Son of God. Moreover, the gods worshipped among the Greeks are now falling into disrepute among them on account of the disgraceful things they did, for those who receive the teaching of Christ are more chaste in life than they. If these, and the like of them, are human works, let anyone who will show us similar ones done by men in former time, and so convince us.

This routing of the imposter gods, which left the sacred groves and temples vacant, was one of the most momentous developments in the history of our civilization; it is one of the main burned bridges separating us from our Greco-Roman roots, and it was a necessary condition not only for the emergence of monotheism but also, I would think, for the materialist atheism of modernity. We are contending with its consequences still.

At the very end of the book he takes a pastoral turn. Much as did David Bentley Hart in the closing pages of The Experience of God, Athanasius tells us that Christianity is not a theory addressed solely to the intellect. It cannot be understood unless one undertakes to live according to its precepts:

One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so.

He invites us, therefore, to wipe our eyes with prayerful tears, and to make the journey to see the goodness of God made manifest in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ. “For the Lord touched all parts of creation, and freed and undeceived them all from every deceit.”

Lecture night(s): At Notre Dame

December 1, 2016

A couple of weeks ago the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame held their annual fall conference, this year on the theme “You Are Beauty: Exploring the Catholic Imagination”.

I wasn’t able to be there, and neither, I expect, were you, but they’ve just published a set of the lectures to their YouTube channel, and quite a number of them look intriguing. Roger Scruton was there, Mary Ann Glendon, Alasdair MacIntyre, Daniel Mahoney. Here is a list of the featured presentations, with links to the videos. Where to begin? Right here, of course:

Lecture night: Hart on consciousness

October 19, 2016

Today’s lecture is a treat: David Bentley Hart speaks about consciousness to an audience at (I believe) Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. Hart is currently writing a book on the subject, a book which is to be an expansion of the treatment he gave the topic in The Experience of God. The talk describes a number of the problems faced by attempts to provide a materialist account of mind and consciousness, and outlines the features that a successful account of consciousness would need to have.

As usual with Hart, the ideas are challenging, the perspective is fresh, and the whole is expressed in melodious prose.

The talk raises a number of questions in my mind, but foremost among them is an issue that has long puzzled me. Many of the arguments against a materialist account of mind have the following structure: “Given the premises of the mechanical model of nature, it is impossible to provide a scientific account of this-or-that feature of mind.” The mechanical model is the one that has prevailed since the early modern period: the real is just atoms and the void, there are no formal or final causes, the mathematical structure of matter exhausts its properties. And, given those premises, I think the arguments Hart (among many others) offers are persuasive.

Yet it seems to me that one possible response, for those committed to a “naturalistic” view of mind and consciousness, is to challenge the prevailing premises of the mechanical model. Perhaps a materialist model of mind could succeed if the potentiality of matter were not stripped down to its mathematical minimum. For instance, if contemporary models of mind fail to bridge the gap between matter, on one hand, and characteristically mental properties (intentionality, unity, conceptualization, teleology), on the other, might this not be plausibly due to the fact that, in our theory of nature since Descartes, matter has been defined to have none of those characteristically mental properties, no final or formal causes? As such, the project was doomed from the outset by the very terms in which it was posed. If we were to restore the full panoply of causes to nature, à la Aristotle, might that not provide sufficiently rich resources to permit mind to find its place within the natural order? The pan-psychism that has been advocated by, for instance, Thomas Nagel, seems to me a step in this direction, and a not unreasonable one, given the objective and the obstacles.

In the lecture, however, Hart raises this prospect only to dismiss it, and I admit I didn’t understand his reasoning. If somebody feels able to explain this to me, I’d be grateful.

Favourites of 2014: Books

January 2, 2015

With the advent of the new year, it is time to look back at 2014. Over the next week or so I’ll write a series of posts about my favourites of the books, music, and film that I encountered in the past 12 months. Actually, these posts are already written, but it will take some time to embellish them with little pictures.

I’ll begin today with books.


This year much of my reading was devoted to re-reading: I re-visited Virgil, Augustine, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Dickens. This did not leave a great deal of time for other things, but from those slim pickings I offer a few brief recommendations.

aubrey-maturinA couple of years ago a friend told me that he had read the twenty-one volumes in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, and had enjoyed them so much that, upon completion, he had returned immediately to the first volume and read all twenty-one volumes again! His was perhaps an extreme case of Aubreyphilia, but he was not the first person whom I had heard praise these books in glowing terms, and so this year I set sail on my own voyage, reading the first half-dozen titles in the series. For the landsmen among us, the books chronicle the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend and physician Stephen Maturin aboard His Majesty’s naval vessels during the Napoleonic Wars. O’Brian has been praised for his richly textured historical writing, and justly so, but the heart of the books is their portrayal, both separately and in friendship, of the two principals. They are wonderful characters. The books are not to be ranked with the greatest literature, but they are examples of compelling storytelling wedded to admirable craftsmanship. I am looking forward to reading another half-dozen or so volumes in the coming year.

hart-experienceMy favourite nonfiction of the year was David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Hart mines the basic features of conscious experience, and even the very conditions for such experience, to exhibit what they reveal to us about God, or at least about a transcendent order surpassing those things in heaven and earth dreamed of by our modern Horatios. It is a serious book that gives the reader a good deal to grapple with, and beautifully written. I wrote extensively about the book, so I shant elaborate further here.

bate-johnsonMy runner-up is W. Jackson Bate’s much-praised biography Samuel Johnson, published in 1977. There is a temptation, even among Johnson’s admirers, to reduce him to a wit or a sage merely, but Bate wants to unfold for us the man in all of his complexity: his generous heart, his pride, his insecurities and fears, his depressions, his moral wisdom and piety, and, yes, his genius. It is a thoroughly engrossing portrait of a great man, which I hope to write about in more detail in the coming months.


I always enjoy looking at when the books I have been reading were written. Here is a histogram showing the original publication dates of those I read this year:


You can see Euripides and Virgil there on the left, then Augustine, then Dante, and so forth. Looking at that last bin, which counts books from the past hundred years, one might wonder how a father of two (now three!) small children, with a full-time job, and a wife working more-than-full-time, and a long commute, and a house to take care of, etc., etc. has time to read so many books! What is the secret of my success? I answer with just two words: Beatrix Potter. Remove those from consideration (as I have not considered any other of the many children’s books I read this year) and my numbers drop off drasti– but let’s not remove those from consideration.

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.”

More on Hart

February 27, 2014

There has been quite a lot of commentary on David Bentley Hart’s latest book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. It has ranged from brazenly uninformed (Jerry Coyne in The New Republic) to thoughtfully engaged (William Carroll at Public Discourse). A short review of the book, by Mark Anthony Signorelli, appeared recently at The University Bookman, and it strikes me as one of the more nimble and informative overviews that I have seen. Signorelli writes, in part:

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.

I do wonder about that initial “enthralled to” — which surely ought to be either “enthralled by” or “in thrall to”, should it not? — but I nonetheless recommend the whole thing.

Beauty and a numinous glory

January 27, 2014

In the experience of the beautiful, and of its pure fortuity, we are granted our most acute, most lucid, and most splendid encounter with the difference of transcendent being from the realm of finite things. The beautiful affords us our most perfect experience of that existential wonder that is the beginning of all speculative wisdom. This state of amazement, once again, lies always just below the surface of our quotidian consciousness; but beauty stirs us from our habitual forgetfulness of the wonder of being. It grants us a particularly privileged awakening from our “fallenness” into ordinary awareness, reminding us that the fullness of being, which far exceeds any given instance of its disclosure, graciously condescends to show itself, again and again, in the finitude of a transient event. In this experience, we are given a glimpse — again, with a feeling of wonder that restores us momentarily to something like the innocence of childhood — of that inexhaustible source that pours itself out in the gracious needlessness of being.

Beauty is also the startling reminder, even for persons sunk in the superstitions of materialism, that those who see reality in purely mechanistic terms do not see the real world at all, but only its shadow. Standing before a painting by Chardin or Vermeer, one might be able to describe the object in terms of purely physical elements and events but still fail to see the painting for what it is: an object whose visible aspects are charged with a surfeit of meaning and splendor, a mysterious glory that is the ultimate rationale of its existence, a radiant dimension of absolute value at once transcending and showing itself within the limits of material form. In the experience of the beautiful, one is apprised with a unique poignancy of both the ecstatic structure of consciousness and the gratuity of being. Hence the ancient conviction that the love at beauty is, by its nature, a rational yearning for the transcendent. The experience of sensible beauty provokes in the soul the need to seek supersensible beauty, says Plato: it is, in the words of Plotinus, a “delicious perturbation” that awakens an eros for the divine within us. All things are a mirror of the beauty of God, says the great Sufi poet Mahmud Shabestari (1288-1340): and to be seized with the desire for that beauty, says Gregory of Nyssa, is to long to be transformed within oneself into an ever more perspicuous mirror of its splendor. Kabir (1440-1518) says that it is divine beauty that shines out from all things, and that all delight in beauty is adoration of God. For Thomas Traherne (c. 1636-1674), one of the sanest men who ever lived, to see the world with the eyes of innocence, and so to see it pervaded by a numinous glory, is to see things as they truly are, and to recognize creation as the mirror of God’s infinite beauty.

— David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God.