Sunday, 2 August 2015

The Experience of God, by David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness and Bliss, 2013 Yale University Press

I first heard of this book when I read the review in the Guardian (yeah, I really do read the Guardian). The Guardian does not praise a lot of Christian books, but the reviewer acknowledged that this book landed a significant blow against the atheist camp.

Classic theism has come under a lot of attack over the last century, from both liberals and conservatives. Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart, however, not only affirms the classic theistic view of God, but also demonstrates the apologetic value of classic theism against atheism.

Hart argues that for the most part, atheists have largely misunderstood what kind of God Christians believe in. He points out that atheists frequently compare belief in God to belief in fairies or pagan deities like Zeus. Hart responds by arguing that the question of the existence of such entities is a quite different question. Zeus is one god among many gods, who might or might not exist. Fairies are simply a category of spiritual being. The question of the existence of Zeus or fairies is a purely local question and has no more cosmic significance than the existence or non-existence of the Loch Ness Monster. The God of major religions, on the other hand, is an entirely different category of being, in fact this God is being itself. God is not merely a thing that exists, but is existence itself, the ground on which other beings exist. Through existence, all beings participate in God and He holds them altogether. Thus, ahteists and theists have completely different understandings of the nature of reality.

When one understands this definition of God, one can answer the common claim of atheists that they do not need to disprove the existence of God, as one does not need to prove a negative. By claiming that there is no God, they are in effect making a positive proposition about reality, that is that it is a self-contained system.

I like Hart's diagnosis of the problem with the 'New Atheism':

"When it first arose, however, like any new creed, modern atheism had to win its converts from other adherences; and so its earliest apostles were persons who had for the most part been formed by a culture absolutely soaked in the language, images and sentiments of belief. All of them had at least some understanding not only of the nature of religious claims but of the pathos of faith. No matter how much the new convert may have hated his or her native religion a complete ignorance of its guiding ideas or of its affects and motives was all but impossible. And this remained the case until only fairly recently. Now, however, we have arrived at an odd juncture in our cultural history. There has sprung up a whole generation of confident, even strident atheist proselytizers who appear to know almost nothing about the religious beliefs they abominate, apart from a few vague and gauzily impressionistic daubs or aquarelle washes, and who seem to have no real sense of what the experience of faith is like or what its rationales might be. For the most part, they seem not event to know that they do not know."

Hart assists the atheist by providing a thorough exploration of not only what we mean when we talk about God, but also the whole dimensions of religious belief, going into the fields of consciousness, ethics and aesthetics. I think the apologetic of this book would work well with the approach of Reformed Epistemology, were it not for the fact that the adherents of Reformed Epistemology tend to reject the Classic Theism central to Hart's case for God.

One question in mind is raised by Hart's references to Hinduism and sometimes Buddhism. What difference does it make that Christians believe in a personal God while those religions do not?

I think this book makes a vital contribution to apologetics and is well worth reading.


  1. I just listened to some Itunes lectures he gave on this topic. Good stuff.