Saturday, January 6, 2018

David Bentley Hart's "The Experience of God": Book Review

December | 2013 | "Sublunary Sublime"
I found out about David Bentley Hart from a review of his 2018 translation into blunt English of the clunky Greek often expressed in the New Testament. His acerbic reputation against "The New Atheists" as well as other thinkers who cross his sylvan path intrigued rather than dissuaded me, and I checked this out. This 2013 book is not a work of apolegetics, and not a defense of the proofs of God's existence. Instead, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss applies what the Hindu labeled as sat, chit, and ananda to assert the non-contingent, ultimate, and transcendant force that many call one God. He encourages skeptics and naysayers to at least take seriously the truth of what a God outside of as well as permeating all creation means, as opposed to the childish notions of a fussy judge noting what's naughty or nice, or an addled fundamentalist's blinkered creationism.

Beginning each part with a moving, eloquent analogy of a dreamer imagining what occurs parallel to what's actually happening outside his sleep, which is filtered into his sensorium as transformed, sets up a main text demanding attention, widening one's vocabulary, and presuming philosophical insight.

Therefore it may prove daunting to many, believer, seeker, denier, or wanderer. It could have been shorter. The "pleonastic fallacy" Hart often decries in his opponents' claims--too many words--enters these three-hundred-plus pages frequently, as the author shares this weakness. He digresses, and then catches himself over and over. Much of this resembles a sage's ruminations to an erudite fellowship.

I wonder who's the target demographic for this Yale UP publication. It'll never get the notoriety of bestsellers by his detractors, nor will it entice many believers unable to handle his dense forays into the history of ideas and the shape of theology which have enriched and warped this perennial theme.

I come to this matter as a fence-sitter, and I aver it's rewarding to hear out both sides in this long debate. How it may be settled may defy the evolutionary biology Hart detests, and the defections of many of the formerly faithful, or, who knows, the final secret may be found, against all logic or odds. Hart counters that God outside of the cosmos, the sole non-contigent presence in the universe, can never be satisfactorily understood by the nature of our limitations within our human mind and body.

However, Hart dismisses the "Just-So Stories" of the adherents to a reductionist materialism in a manner which tempts a mirror image of a empiricist who wonders how God can be grasped if essentially and existentially beyond the reach of human comprehension, as equally (?) intangible.
I am unsure how this argument will convince any who reject the simpler notions of a creator God similar to the "watchmaker" metaphor, or how "magic" ex nihilo which is never "quite" nothing itself can substitute for the discarded divinity, for "naturism" might be swapped for "belief" in crude terms.

Yet the value of the notes, and the help of his annotated list of further reading is welcome. He praises the atheist J.K. Mackie's work as a worthy foil; he recommends John Lennox's God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? as a primer to many topics overlapping with his own deeper examination.

I share some highlights, for in such a challenging project, Hart's own words deserve their place rather than paraphrase or summary which may distort his patterns of inquiry or dilute his concentrated prose. At its best, it will inspire many bookmarks and times for an attentive reader to reflect upon. Its shortcomings remain, and will be countered surely by his eager rivals, but it's a valuable investment in one's time, and I found myself staying up more than one night, curious about what came next.

"The human longing for God or the transcendent runs very deep—perhaps far too deep to be trusted, but also too deep to treat as mere primitive folly—and it has produced much good and much evil in human history. It lies at the heart of all human culture. All civilizations to this point have grown up around one or another sacred vision of the cosmos, which has provided a spiritual environment and a vital impulse for the arts, philosophy, law, public institutions, cultural revolutions, and so on. Whether there will ever be such a thing as a genuinely secular civilization—not a mere secular society, but a true civilization, entirely founded upon secular principles—is yet to be seen. What is certain is that, to this point, most of the unquestionably sublime achievements of the human intellect and imagination have arisen in worlds shaped by some vision of transcendent truth. Only a thoughtless person can possibly imagine that the vast majority of those responsible for such achievements have all clung pathetically to an understanding of the transcendent as barbarously absurd as the one casually presumed in the current texts of popular unbelief. We really ought to put such things away and discuss these matters like adults." What may escape notice is that Hart never tries to use his theories to prove a particular God or religious revelation. It's refreshing to find a non-Christocentric approach. He admits that God after all may not be founded on what we surmise as outside our sensorium, too. This appears to challenge his thesis, to say the least, but I may have missed some sly subtlety here.

"From the perspective of classical metaphysics, Hawking misses the whole point of talk of creation: God would be just as necessary even if all that existed were a collection of physical laws and quantum states, from which no ordered universe had ever arisen; for neither those laws nor those states could exist of themselves." Hart likes to go at the cosmologists who reckon that the quantum foam and random wave fluctuations from a vacuum spontaneously coming in and out of reality have always been there, prior to the Big Bang. He hammers home the simple denial that these are still created. I wondered why an eternal, recurring universe or set of such might be calmly suggested. But although Hart nods briefly to Buddhist contexts, he does not delve into their supposition. I was also disappointed that other Eastern concepts such as Dao did not enter this endeavor. He makes an aside early on that they may apply, but he will not incorporate or remove them from his central emphasis.

"And my final reason for using precisely these three words {of the subtitle} is that, so it seems to me, they perfectly designate those regions of human experience that cannot really be accounted for within the framework of philosophical naturalism without considerable contortions of reasoning and valiant revisions of common sense. 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.' Hart here shows his opposition to naturalism.

"Even if one could conceivably prove, as is occasionally suggested these days, that cosmic information is somehow ceaselessly generated out of quantum states, this still would not have decided the issue of causality in favor of the naturalist position. As a brilliant physicist friend of mine often and somewhat tiresomely likes to insist, 'chaos' could not produce laws unless it were already governed by laws." Mentioned above, this estimation refuses to accept any "eternal" possibility.

"To use an old terminology, every finite thing is the union of an essence (its 'what it is') with a unique existence (its 'that it is'), each of which is utterly impotent to explain the other, or to explain itself for that matter, and neither of which can ever be wholly or permanently possessed by anything. One knows of oneself, for instance, that every instant of one’s existence is only a partial realization of what one is, achieved by surrendering the past to the future in the vanishing and infinitesimal interval of the present. Both one’s essence and one’s existence come from elsewhere—from the past and the future, from the surrounding universe and whatever it may depend upon, in a chain of causal dependencies reaching backward and forward and upward and downward—and one receives them both not as possessions secured within some absolute state of being but as evanescent gifts only briefly grasped within the ontological indigence of becoming." The "how" of the universe may be ascertained, but not the "why." That remains inaccessible to any discovery or test made by science.

Likewise, Hart gives no credence to the "strategy of avoiding the word 'God' only by periphrastically substituting the word 'universe.' In the end, ontological necessity is not a property that can intelligibly attach to any nature other than God’s. If one wishes to view the physical universe as the ultimate reality—whether one imagines it as having no beginning or as having a beginning without cause—then one must also accept that it is still an entirely contingent reality, one which somehow just happens to be there: an 'absolute contingency,' to use an unavoidable oxymoron. It may be an absurd picture of things—certainly there seems to be no argument against it more potent than its own perfectly self-evident incoherence—but it seems to me to be an absurdity that one can quite blamelessly embrace so long as one is willing to grasp the nettle and accept that this just-there-ness is logically indistinguishable from magic. Everyone needs a little magic in life now and then." Surprise!

"God is the infinite 'ocean of being' while creatures are finite vessels containing existence only in limited measure." Hart holds this is a frequently used image in spiritual works, but it's new to me.

"At that uncrossable intellectual threshold, religions fall back upon inscrutable doctrines, philosophers upon inadequate concepts, and mystics upon silence. 'Si comprehendis, non est deus,' as Augustine says: 'If you comprehend it, it is not God.'" So, what surpasses commonsense or speculation therefore comprises that which we cannot comprehend, but nonetheless, we by our senses say this? This reminds me of Thomas Aquinas' bow to mysticism, for all his texts were but "straw."

"The first-person perspective is not dissoluble into a third-person narrative of reality; consciousness cannot be satisfactorily reduced to physics without subtracting something." Hart doggedly insists that we can never get outside our own heads to truly explore the mystery of what our consciousness "is."

"What, precisely, did nature select for survival, and at what point was the qualitative difference between brute physical causality and unified intentional subjectivity vanquished? And how can that transition fail to have been an essentially magical one?" He nags at the biologists who aver that evolution can account fully for these leaps from animal to human within the evidence of the record.

"My claim throughout these pages is that the grammar for our thinking about the transcendent is given to us in the immanent, in the most humbly ordinary and familiar experiences of reality; in the case of our experience of consciousness, however, the familiarity can easily overwhelm our sense of the essential mystery. There is no meaningful distinction between the subject and the object of experience here, and so the mystery is hidden by its own ubiquity." God surrounds, if to us routine?

"If one is to exclude the supernatural absolutely from one’s picture of reality, one must not only ignore the mystery of being but also refuse to grant that consciousness could possibly be what it self-evidently is." Tricky. I guess that he reiterates the hard fact that we cannot figure out our own mind.

"The vanishing point of the mind’s inner coherence and simplicity is met by the vanishing point of the world’s highest values; the gaze of the apperceptive 'I' within is turned toward a transcendental 'that' forever beyond; and mental experience, of the self or of the world outside the self, takes shape in the relation between these two 'supernatural' poles." Within the book, this passage gains support. Maybe, that horizon is where God lurks, and where morals and what we yearn for rests by design.

"God is the one act of being, consciousness, and bliss in whom everything lives and moves and has its being; and so the only way to know the truth of things is, necessarily, the way of bliss." Late in the book, Hart tells us that without God, neither good nor evil would be present among us. I admit I remained unclear about this bold statement. Perhaps it's that God generates all that "matters" even if as conceived as mental constructions (aesthetics, love, truth, goodness?) rather than evolution itself?
Sometimes I felt as if Hart was hacking his way into thickets determined to strike down the biologists who advance the primacy of these "moral" conceptions as generated from our inner workings. He kept cutting down Daniel Dennett, for instance, but I wished he'd given his foe more of a fair hearing.

"Whether God is indeed to be found in these dimensions of experience, that is where he has traditionally been sought, as the unconditioned and transcendent reality who sustains all things in being, the one in whom all that nature cannot contain but upon which nature depends has its simple and infinite actuality." Hart encapsulates the central gist of his formidable repetition of this verity.

"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." Hart repeats his immaterial worldview.

So "much of what passes for debate between theist and atheist factions today is really only a disagreement between differing perspectives within a single post-Christian and effectively atheist understanding of the universe. Nature for most of us now is merely an immense machine, either produced by a demiurge (a cosmic magician) or somehow just existing of itself, as an independent contingency (a magical cosmos)." Back to that magic he mocks in the materialists as the only fallback they have for the evolutionary leaps. A bit of the "god of the gaps" inverted against the fact-checkers.

"It is rather as if a dispute over the question of Tolstoy’s existence were to be prosecuted by various factions trying to find him among the characters in Anna Karenina, and arguing about which chapters might contain evidence of his agency (all the while contemptuously ignoring anyone making the preposterous or meaningless assertion that Tolstoy does not exist at all as a discrete object or agent within the world of the novel, not even at the very beginning of the plot, and yet is wholly present in its every part as the source and rationale of its existence)."" I liked this all the more as I just finished that novel. It assists those of us who at this rarified level of cogitation wait for an easier sussed idea.

He turns Marx inside out a bit next. "In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys." He's getting warmed up at the conclusion, encouraging contemplation to get beyond all this mental exertion, and warning us that without such committed endeavor, these distractions will dull us, and we will fail to make the necessary attempt to turn from the shadows and leave Plato's screened cave.

"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."

"Late modernity is, after all, a remarkably shrill and glaring reality, a dazzling chaos of the beguilingly trivial and terrifyingly atrocious, a world of ubiquitous mass media and constant interruption, a ceaseless storm of artificial sensations and appetites, an interminable spectacle whose only unifying theme is the imperative to acquire and spend. It is scarcely surprising, in such a world, amid so many distractions, and so many distractions from distraction, that we should have little time to reflect upon the mystery that manifests itself not as a thing among other things, but as the silent event of being itself. Human beings have never before lived lives so remote from nature, or been more insensible to the enigma it embodies. For late modern peoples, God has become ever more a myth, but so in a sense has the world; and there probably is no way of living in real communion with one but not the other." Preaching to me, a disenchanted and disaffected member of the late capitalist choir, this concludes Hart's spirited counter-cultural turn, where he encourages us to stay still. Few of us may have the privilege he does to live in hilly woods, but we can seek a better place to reflect.
(Amazon US 1/5/18 in much shorter form)