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Experiencing God

“Experience” is a contentious category. Our hesitation over it comes in a variety of forms. There is, for example, the characteristically modern assumption that, when it comes to religious experiences, people are more likely to be mistaken, lying, or self-deluded than to be giving a reliable account of reality.

Many Episcopalians would reflexively balk at overly “experiential” ways of speaking about Christian faith, often from an understandable disillusionment with forms of the faith that elicit intense emotional highs but may lack the patterns and habits of living and praying that can sustain faith over the long haul. The category of “experience” can be a contentious one, and we’ve seen debates on this blog again and again about the issue of experience and the liturgy (see, for example, Christopher Yoder’s post “Christian worship is boring“).

With such thorny thickets surrounding the notion of “experience,” we might be automatically wary of a book titled The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (2013). But anyone who has read David Bentley Hart will know that he would not organize a book around such a potentially vague and contentious idea as “experience” without good reason. He acknowledges throughout this book that a certain amount of skepticism towards experience is appropriate. But he also wants to suggest that the ideological tradition of modernity has taken this skepticism to such an extreme that it leads us to beliefs that are absurd. He wants to recall us to features of our existence that are so fundamental that to deny their reality is to ascribe to an incoherent vision of reality. What Hart means, therefore, by “experience” are things that are so close to us that they are not controvertible and that are, for that very reason, strangely easy to ignore. Hart wants to advance a kind of “universal grammar of human nature,” to identify “certain common forms of experience so fundamental to human rationality that, without them, we could not think or speak at all” (15).

The purpose of the book, as Hart establishes at the outset, is a simple one: to define the meaning of the word “God” as that word has been understood in the metaphysical tradition of classical theism. One might quibble with the suggestion that this is a singular thing, and Hart acknowledges those quibbles; but he also appeals to the traditional distinction in Christian theology between treatises written “about the one God” (de Deo uno) and those written “about the Trinitarian God” of Christian doctrine (de Deo trino).

He identifies The Experience of God as the former sort. You might say that this is Hart’s go at natural theology: “the grammar for our thinking about the transcendent,” he says, “is given to us in the immanent, in the most humbly ordinary and familiar experiences of reality” (225). His method here can be compared to that of Thomas Aquinas in his famous “Five Ways:” which work their way up to “proofs for God” from observations of basic (and mostly incontrovertible) features of existence.

Something that might strike some readers as odd is that Hart chooses to speak of God using a triplet of terms borrowed from the traditions of the Indian subcontinent: being, consciousness, and bliss (sat, chit, and ananda in Sanskrit). His reasons for using these terms effectively summarize the basic theses of the book. First, they offer a “particularly elegant summary of many of the most ancient metaphysical definitions of the divine nature” (42). He notes, in particular, how “hauntingly close” this triplet comes to classical Augustinian formulations of the Trinity, for example. Second, these terms offer not only a “metaphysical explanation of God, but also a phenomenological explanation of the human encounter with God” (44). That is, just as these terms helpfully organize our thinking about God, they also identify fundamental features of our own existence. Third, these terms “perfectly designate those regions of human experience that cannot really be accounted for within the framework of philosophical naturalism” (44). There can be no experience, in other words, of something called “nature” at all apart from or prior to these terms; they are the necessary conditions for that experience, and “as such they precede and exceed the mechanisms of natural causality” (45).

Hart organizes his book around a treatment of these three terms, and his central purpose in each case is to demonstrate that each of these terms designates something essentially supernatural in the literal sense of being above or prior to any explanation on the strictly natural level of things.

First, physical (natural) reality is incapable of accounting for its own existence, and therefore the existence of things “lies logically beyond the system of causes that nature comprises” (96). Moreover, our experience of the world does not involve a direct, unmediated encounter with nature as such. Rather, we only have immediate experience of the being of a thing; we encounter the reality that a thing is before we can even begin to consider what it is. A deeply provocative conclusion follows: it is the supernatural, rather than the natural, of which we have direct certainty, and our knowledge of nature is entirely dependent on that prior and more fundamental “experience” of being itself.

Second, Hart identifies the unified, intentional, subjective awareness that each person has of being — i.e., the phenomenon of the first person — as a feature of existence that is probably fatal to purely materialist thinking. This “phenomenon of the first person” is the very condition that makes something called “third person investigation” possible. That is, I can only conduct scientific experiments regarding other objects or persons, and make hypotheses based on those experiments, because there is an “I” to do these things. But the phenomenon of the first person is also entirely inaccessible to “third person” investigation. You can track the electrical impulses in my brain all you want, but you can have no access to my interior sense of being precisely my self. Hart moves seamlessly from this “phenomenal” point to a theological one. If we only have access to nature as a reality mediated to us across the interval of something beyond and prior to nature, and if we yet find that the being of the world is intelligible, then it makes sense to say that rational coherence and intelligibility are themselves grounded in some prior reality of pure rational coherence or pure intelligibility. Indeed, to care about something making “sense” at all, or to think that “rational coherence” refers to something real, is already to accept this, as neither of these terms designates any identifiable material reality. Hart is quick to point out that the very quest for truth that motivates scientific inquiry takes all of this for granted: there is an intelligible order to reality and it is possible for us to have some true ideas about it.

The openness of the world to the mind, then, points to Hart’s final term: bliss. Hart observes that consciousness is never merely a passive spectator before reality, but rather is always inclined towards ends outside itself. “One cannot so much as freely stir a finger without the lure of some aim, proximate or remote, great or small, constant or evanescent” (240). In other words, not only is reality wondrously transparent to consciousness, but consciousness also reaches out and is inclined towards some communion with that reality. Consciousness does not simply desire the material objects that are presented to it (the green paper that is money). It always aims for more basic and elementary ends (money is desired for comfort, prestige, and ultimately, happiness). And the only objects of desire that are not reducible to more general objects of desire are the “transcendentals,” the “intrinsic perfections of being in its fullness,” such as being, unity, truth, goodness, and beauty (243).

Hart’s point is that, here again, we have another basic and supremely ordinary feature of our existence in which reality is being mediated to us only “across the interval of the supernatural” (244). These transcendental terms are supernatural in the sense that, whatever metaphysical or ontological status one might want to accord to them, it is still a basic feature of our existence that “the very shape of [our] conscious intentionality is entirely determined by them” (243). Like being and consciousness, one can’t get behind them.

Hart puts this in a way that he admits may be infuriating to atheists: “If one refuses to believe in God out of one’s love of truth, one affirms the reality of God in that very act of rejection” (250). Similarly, “to seek the good is already to believe in God, whether one wishes to do so or not” (257). The reality of God is as close to us as the very fact that we desire things, since desire is a phenomenon that presupposes that some things are desirable, i.e., good. As I once heard Stanley Hauerwas say, a simple answer to the question, “Why should I believe in God?” is, “Well, do you like to eat?”

This terribly brief (and yet not brief) review of Hart’s book does a grave injustice to the richness and clarity and stunningly beautiful vision he gives of the meaning of the word God. And yet this post has already been unwieldy.

I will simply say that this is a terrific book. It probably ought to be one’s go-to book to recommend to atheist/agnostic friends who are genuinely curious about what kind of God Christians believe in. I’ve heard a story of an Episcopal priest who brought an atheist into the faith with this book. The atheist’s response after reading it was, “I realize now that I had absolutely no idea what Christianity is.”

It’s not just Hart’s characteristic facility at dismantling the illusions (or “delusions,” as it were) of the new atheist crowd regarding the substance of the word “God.” I found in these pages a deep spiritual passion that made me love God more. Hart’s presentation of classical theism impresses upon the reader again and again just how close, how immediate, this reality we call “God” is: close to each of us at every moment of our existence, in every act of our conscious minds, in every movement of our wills. And although he only explicitly identifies his subject as “the one God” of classical theism, anyone remotely familiar with Christian theology will be struck again and again in these pages by the vestigial presence of God the Holy Trinity in the most common human experiences.

In that sense, you might read this book not only as an echo of the “natural theology” of St. Thomas, but also of St. Augustine’s recognition of an image of the Trinity in each of our very selves: “We resemble the divine Trinity in that we exist; we know that we exist, and we are glad of this existence and this knowledge” (City of God, 11.26).

Above all, though, Hart kindles afresh the power of that other great Augustinian insight, that God is interior intimo meo — closer to me than I am to myself.



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