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TagDavid Bentley Hart

how could we be convinced?

George Scialabba is one of the best essayists around, but his review of John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism is not one of his better efforts. It begins thus:

Our hominid ancestors first appeared around six million years ago. They started to use symbols around 150,000 years ago, and the first of the major religions began 5,000 years ago. What are we to make of this? Did humans have souls before then? If not, how did we acquire them? If so, why didn’t God reveal Himself throughout 99.9 percent of humanity’s life span? What was He thinking? And God’s puzzling silence didn’t end with the advent of religion. The God of the Old Testament was fairly communicative, and the gods of the Hindu pantheon made frequent appearances, at least for a while. But since Jesus ascended to heaven (or, if you prefer, since the angel Gabriel finished dictating to Muhammad), transmissions have all but ceased.

This would seem to call for some explanation. As the infidel Tom Paine scoffed: “A revelation which is to be received as true ought to be written on the sun.” The devout Cardinal Newman agreed but thought it had been: “The Visible Church was, at least to her children,” he wrote in 1870, “the light of the world, as conspicuous as the sun in the heavens, and the Creed was written on her forehead.” Unfortunately, the Church’s radiance has dimmed somewhat since then, and many unbelievers have wondered why God can’t write “YES, I EXIST” across the night sky in mile-high flaming letters visible (to each viewer in her own language, of course) everywhere on earth, each night for a week, once a year. Is that too much to ask of an omnipotent, infinitely loving Being?

To which my first reply is: You really haven’t thought this through, have you? Let’s set aside any doubts about the assumption that our hominid ancestors of six million years ago belong naturally in the category “humanity.” Let’s also not ask too many hard questions about what a “major religion” would have looked like among the early symbol-using hominids. (Does Scialabba expect to find prayer books and sacred vestments in the remnants of the Pleistocene? He might as well say that we know those ancestors didn’t war with each other because they had no guns.) Let’s not bring in a Pentecostal or Sufi to address the question of whether transmissions from the Divine “have all but ceased.”

Let’s focus instead on the second paragraph quoted above. I would like to ask Scialabba this: If you looked up one starry evening and saw “YES, I EXIST” — presumably signed “Love, God” or something, because otherwise the point would scarcely be obvious — written across the night sky in mile-high flaming letters, would you immediately start believing in God?

And the answer is: Of course not. You’d think that this was some kind of high-tech prank, or a covert operation of the Koch Brothers. Later, when you discovered that other people had seen the same thing in their own language you’d be more concerned, but you’d doubt that it could be God, because why would God want to reveal Himself or Itself only to the literate? Surely the committed atheist would attribute this sky-writing to some powerful extraterrestrial civilization with a weird sense of humor — the Culture, maybe — before admitting the existence of God on these grounds.

Now, gentle readers, some of you may be saying that I am missing the point, the point being not that God, if there were a God, would reveal His existence to us in precisely this way, but that He would reveal it in some way, in some unmistakable way. But what would that unmistakable way be? What method of communication might avoid the rather obvious drawbacks, the clearly limited power to convince, of fiery skywriting?

I’m not sure it’s even possible to convince everyone that a given being is the Biggest Baddest Being of Them All — who knows what lurks out there in the universes? But even if that were possible it wouldn’t address the God of classical theism. David Bentley Hart puts this point with exemplary precision and clarity in The Experience of God:

To speak of “God” properly, then — to use the word in a sense consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism , Bahá’í, a great deal of antique paganism, and so forth — is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation. All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension; hence, much of the language used of him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence. All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known: that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with a fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.

How might that God impress Himself upon our understanding in unmissable, unambiguous, indisputable ways? I confess that I can think of no way except to write a conviction of His existence on every human heart. And whether that has been done, who can know? It’s not the kind of point on which it would be safe to take anyone’s word for Yes or No.

I’ll end with this. In Book V of Milton’s Paradise Lost, an angel named Abdiel asserts that God the Father created every creature, including the angels themselves, through the mediation of the Son. To this Lucifer replies scornfully:

That we were formd then saist thou? and the work

Of secondarie hands, by task transferd

From Father to his Son? strange point and new!

Doctrin which we would know whence learnt: who saw

When this creation was? rememberst thou

Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?

We know no time when we were not as now;

Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d

By our own quick’ning power, when fatal course

Had circl’d his full Orbe, the birth mature

Of this our native Heav’n, Ethereal Sons.

Our puissance is our own, our own right hand

Shall teach us highest deeds, by proof to try

Who is our equal: then thou shalt behold

Whether by supplication we intend

Address, and to begirt th’ Almighty Throne

Beseeching or besieging.

“Created by someone else? I don’t recall being created by someone else. We must be self-begot, self-raised by our own quickening power. I am my own maker.”

David Bentley Hart’s grocery list

– The notion that there is any milk in this house is a laughable error, one that could be committed only by the most willfully imperspicacious of observers;

– That we need bread is a conclusion inescapable to any but the most doltish and slack-witted of my co-residents;

– The fatuousness of the belief that a carton of orange juice resides in the refrigerator is so palpably evident that I struggle to comprehend that I must, after all, refute it;

– That any sugar may be found anywhere in this domicile is demonstrably false, and only a fool or a knave, or some unfortunate who contrives to be both at once, could affirm otherwise;

– The claim that we are in no need of beer is so flagrantly nonsensical that one could be forgiven considerable exasperation at the perceived need to signal its nullity — and yet such a requirement remains in force, so that silence on my part would constitute an effectual concession to idiocy;

– I pity the fool who thinks we have coffee.


Update: DBH writes to say that he is flattered by my parody, but wishes to protest the inappropriately high proportion of Latinate words here. I fear I must plead guilty, especially with regard to “imperspicacious.”

Dr. Dinosaur

This is going to sound terrible, but Dr. Dinosaur always reminds me of David Bentley Hart. They have similar levels of self-confidence, they often make people think that they’re crazy, and just when you’ve decided to write them off they do something strangely brilliant.

I realize that The Venn diagram of (a) people who read D B Hart and (b) people who read Atomic Robo comics has an infinitesimal intersection. But still.

rags and brambles: a meditation for Holy Week

What is at issue here is a species of vision that breaks down the rigid lineaments of a world that interprets itself principally according to the brilliant glamour and spectacle of power, the stable arrangement of all things in hierarchies of meaning and authority, or the rational measures of social order and civic prestige … The scale of the reversal cannot be exaggerated: when Jesus stands before Pilate for the last time, beaten, derided, robed in purple and crowned with thorns, he must seem, from the vantage of all the noble wisdom of the empire and the age (which wisdom Nietzsche sought to resuscitate), merely absurd, a ridiculous figure prating incomprehensibly of an otherworldly kingdom and some undefined truth, obviously mad, oblivious of the lowliness of his state and of the magnitude of the powers into whose hands he has been delivered. But in the light of the resurrection, from the perspective of Christianity’s inverted order of vision, the mockery now redounds upon all kings and emperors, whose finery and symbols of status are revealed to be nothing more than rags and brambles beside the majesty of God’s Son, beside this servile shape in which God displays his infinite power to be where he will be; all the rulers of the earth cannot begin to surpass in grandeur this beauty of the God who ventures forth to make even the dust his glory. There is a special Christian humor here, a special kind of Christian irreverence: in Rome the emperor is now as nothing, a garment draped over the shoulders of a slave and then cast aside. Christianity is indeed a creed for slaves, but in neither the subtle Hegelian nor the crude Nietzschean sense: in contrast to Hegel and Nietzsche—to dialectic and diatribe alike — Christian faith speaks of the slave as God’s glory, the one who lies farthest out in the far country, to whom tidings of joy are sent from before the foundation of the world, and from whom the free and infinite God cannot be separated by any distance, certainly not that between the high and low, because he is the distance of all things.

— David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite

Karl Barth and The Thing Itself

In speaking of God, human logic characteristically ignores both His nature and the fact that, when the reference is to Him, the argument from operation to cause is inapplicable, since He is not a known thing in a series of things.

— Karl Barth, making a point that he makes often. In so doing he almost always means to show the necessary absurdity of Christian apologetics, but it’s worth noting that it’s a point equally relevant to the New Atheists, as David Bentley Hart points out in his powerful book The Experience of God: “Suffice it to say that the demiurge is a maker, but not a creator in the theological sense: he is an imposer of order, but not the infinite ocean of being that gives existence to all reality ex nihilo. And he is a god who made the universe ‘back then,’ at some specific point in time, as a discrete event within the course of cosmic events, rather than the God whose creative act is an eternal gift of being to the whole of space and time, sustaining all things in existence in every moment. It is certainly the demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually ever written a word about God.”

But then many proponents of Intelligent Design don’t either. Here’s a long but vital passage in which Hart shows what the two sides have in common:

[Stephen] Hawking’s dismissal of God as an otiose explanatory hypothesis, for instance, is a splendid example of a false conclusion drawn from a confused question. He clearly thinks that talk of God’s creation of the universe concerns some event that occurred at some particular point in the past, prosecuted by some being who appears to occupy the shadowy juncture between a larger quantum landscape and the specific conditions of our current cosmic order; by “God,” that is to say, he means only a demiurge, coming after the law of gravity but before the present universe, whose job was to nail together all the boards and firmly mortar all the bricks of our current cosmic edifice. So Hawking naturally concludes that such a being would be unnecessary if there were some prior set of laws — just out there, so to speak, happily floating along on the wave-functions of the quantum vacuum — that would permit the spontaneous generation of any and all universes. It never crosses his mind that the question of creation might concern the very possibility of existence as such, not only of this universe but of all the laws and physical conditions that produced it, or that the concept of God might concern a reality not temporally prior to this or that world, but logically and necessarily prior to all worlds, all physical laws, all quantum events, and even all possibilities of laws and events. 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. But — and here is the crucial issue — those who argue for the existence of God principally from some feature or other of apparent cosmic design are guilty of the same conceptual confusion; they make a claim like Hawking’s seem solvent, or at least relevant, because they themselves have not advanced beyond the demiurgic picture of God. By giving the name “God” to whatever as yet unknown agent or property or quality might account for this or that particular appearance of design, they have produced a picture of God that it is conceivable the sciences could some day genuinely make obsolete, because it really is a kind of rival explanation to the explanations the sciences seek. This has never been true of the God described in the great traditional metaphysical systems. The true philosophical question of God has always been posed at a far simpler but far more primordial and comprehensive level; it concerns existence as such: the logical possibility of the universe, not its mere physical probability. God, properly conceived, is not a force or cause within nature, and certainly not a kind of supreme natural explanation.

Reading this passage, I find myself thinking of Hart’s title and asking: What might it be like, then, to have an encounter with the real God, the God beyond categories and logic, the God who is “experience as such,” whom we encounter as sat, chit, ananda? It’s a question Adam Roberts asks too.

The Thing Itself is all kinds of amazing, and very hard to describe: if you imagine a mashup of The Thing, Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Kant’s metaphysics, you’ll … not quite get it. Just read it, please.  Among the many things that Roberts does here, one of the most intriguing is to ask whether Kant’s antinomies — which attempt to address some of the same limitations in our language and thought that Barth and Hart also point to — might be a key to unlocking, even in computational as well as experiential terms, the mysteries of the universe.

Adam and I have been corresponding a bit about these matters, and lo, as I am trying to wrap up this post I see that he has just put up a post of his own about Karl Barth! Wonder of wonders! But he the atheist and I the Christian are finding some significant points of common interest here, points that I hope we will find ways to explore further.

For now I’ll leave you with these questions, which have been turning and turning in my head since I read Adam’s book: What if we thought of our current debates about God, our current confrontations between theists and atheists, as the inevitably sorry by-products of a failure to grasp what Hart argues, what Barth argues, what Kant says when he presents us with his Fourth Antinomy? And what would happen to our conversations if we took seriously the possibility that we don’t have any real idea what we have been arguing about?

And with that, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

straw men and new atheists

A straw man can be a very convenient property, after all. I can see why a plenteously contented, drowsily complacent, temperamentally incurious atheist might find it comforting—even a little luxurious—to imagine that belief in God is no more than belief in some magical invisible friend who lives beyond the clouds, or in some ghostly cosmic mechanic invoked to explain gaps in current scientific knowledge. But I also like to think that the truly reflective atheist would prefer not to win all his or her rhetorical victories against childish caricatures. I suppose the success of the books of the ‘new atheists’—which are nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men—might go some way toward proving the opposite. Certainly, none of them is an impressive or cogent treatise, and I doubt posterity will be particularly kind to any of them once the initial convulsions of celebrity have subsided. But they have definitely sold well. I doubt that one should make much of that, though. The new atheists’ texts are manifestoes, buoyantly coarse and intentionally simplistic, meant to fortify true unbelievers in their unbelief; their appeal is broad but certainly not deep; they are supposed to induce a mood, not encourage deep reflection; and at the end of the day they are probably only a passing fad in trade publishing, directed at a new niche market.

— David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God. Reading Hart is such a … bracing thing. Sort of like knocking back a tumbler of white lightning.

 

There is a tacit contempt for those whose experience and beliefs don’t fit in to the modern world as neatly as they ought to. And that includes not just people of the past, but people of other cultures who haven’t embraced western modernity, either because of material privation or because of cultural resistance.

It is an odd belief, that somehow we know more about reality and that therefore we realise there is no spiritual dimension to reality – because, what? Because we have functioning capitalist societies that are only occasionally on the verge of complete collapse? Or because we understand the molecular architecture of cells better?

Every historical period has its own presiding powers and principalities on high. Ours, for what it is worth, seem to want to make us happy, even if only in an inert sort of way. Every age passes away in time, moreover, and late modernity is only an epoch. This being so, one should never doubt the uncanny force of what Freud called die Wiederkehr des Verdrängten—“the return of the repressed.” Dominant ideologies wither away, metaphysical myths exhaust their power to hold sway over cultural imaginations, material and spiritual conditions change inexorably and irreversibly. The human longing for God, however, persists from age to age. A particular cultural dispensation may succeed for a time in lulling the soul into a forgetful sleep, but the soul will still continue to hear that timeless call that comes at once from within and from beyond all things, even if for now it seems like only a voice heard in a dream. And, sooner or later, the sleeper will awaken.

— David Bentley Hart. Thoughts to meditate on, often and long.

I have to admit that I have never been an admirer of Jung’s writings, even on those rare occasions when I have fleetingly spied what looked like a glimmer of insight among their caliginous fogs. The Red Book, however, makes his other works seem quite tolerable by comparison. It is an essentially silly exercise—sub-Nietzschean, sub-Blakean, sub-Swedenborgian—full of the kinds of garish symbolism and pompous antinomianism one expects from more adolescent minds. To anyone seeking fantastic journeys through strange oneiric realms, I would much more readily recommend Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, which are far better written, far better illustrated, and far more profound (Humpty Dumpty’s discourse on the meanings of words puts all of Philemon’s drearily portentous maunderings to shame). The Red Book is fascinating not in itself, but as an extraordinary symptom of a uniquely late-modern spiritual paradox, which I can only call the desire for transcendence without transcendence.

Now that I have a family of my own, we do observe the changing of the calendar year in our own tepid way. A glass of champagne at midnight on New Year’s Eve, a few mince pies—that sort of thing. My wife, being English, also likes to scare up a few Christmas crackers to pull open, for the amusement of our son, who quite likes having a reason to stay up late.

But, on the whole, it is still a minor observance for us, and nothing to compare to the celebrations we like to hold on Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany, when the last of the Christmas presents are opened, games are played, and the decorations come down from the tree. (I know many Americans think of Christmas as a single day and like to clear away the trappings of the season well before the fifth of January, but that is sheer barbarism, if you ask me, morally only a few steps removed from human sacrifice, cannibalism, or golf.)

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