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The Experience of God: Being, consciousness, bliss

Kate Kirkpatrick

David Bentley Hart

Yale, 376pp

This book has left me ambivalent. I am enthusiastic about its stated aim: to redress the imbalance in recent debates about the existence of God by clarifying what the word 'God' itself is taken to mean. When I read in the introduction that 'one of the more insidious aspects of today's public debates over belief and unbelief is that they are often sustained by the illusion that both sides are using the same words in the same way', my hopes were raised.

But they were soon to be disappointed. Hart states at the outset that he wants to confine his discussion to 'metaphysical or philosophical descriptions of God' as opposed to 'dogmatic or confessional descriptions'; his subject is the God of theism rather than the God of any faith in particular. While this may be a sensible strategy for a book that is intended to further the often dessicated public debate between theism and atheism, many readers may want to question Hart's assumption that, 'as a practical reality, the God of faith and the God of philosophers are in many crucial respects recognizably one and the same'. As a practical reality, 'many crucial respects' of the two are quite different, and glossing over this may be problematic. In particular, Hart's definition of God as 'the infinite fullness of being, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, from whom all things come and upon whom all things depend for every moment of their existence, without whom nothing at all could exist' - while presumably something philosophers and the faithful would assent to - may seem not to do justice to an important dimension of the latter group's experience of God: namely, that God is a personal relational being with whom they are in relationship - and not just a relationship of ontological or metaphysical dependence.

Perhaps I was led astray by the title. If the book had been called Thinking about God or The Concept of God my expectations might have been better suited to the project. Having worked as an editor, I know not to make the unreasonable demand that a title perfectly portray a book's contents. But there are two reasons I take issue with it which go deeper than what features on the cover. As we have seen already, one is the way the book defines and relates to God. The second is the way it describes and relates to atheism.

On page two we read the following: 'Honestly, though, my chief purpose is not to advise atheists on what I think they should believe; I want merely to make sure that they have a clear concept of what it is they claim not to believe.' A few pages later we read that 'An honest and honourable critic of any idea will always seek to try to understand the strongest possible formulations of that idea, as well as the most persuasive arguments in its favour, before attempting its refutation'. Both of these are noble aims. But I am not sure the author achieved them.

Hart is quite clear that he does 'not regard true philosophical atheism as an intellectually valid or even cogent position'; in his view it is 'a fundamentally irrational view of reality'. Whatever one thinks of that position, one wonders whether it is necessary to claim that atheists are 'deceiving themselves'. What is gained by calling them 'strident 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 of what its rationales might be'? Given that he thinks the new atheists are characterized by 'flimsy arguments' and 'sheer lack of intellectual curiosity', why does he give these straw atheists so much ink? Surely it would be better to address what he calls 'a true philosophical atheist', to do justice to the position he opposes?

These two treatments - of God and atheists - led me to question whether the explicitly stated aim should be taken at face value. Is the book really about the experience of God or is it more about why theism makes better sense of experience than materialism does?

Such confusions aside, the book has many virtues. In Part One, Hart sets out to introduce two themes: (a) that 'God is not a proper name'; and (b) that the only viable alternative to belief in God is materialism (or physicalism or naturalism), but that this alternative is not really a live option. On the first point, he writes:

'[...]the most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God -especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side - is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact.'

After introducing his second point - that the commitment that there is nothing except the natural world is explanatorily deficient when we consider certain aspects of our own human experience - Hart's discussion then moves to being, consciousness and bliss because he thinks this ternion reflects the ways God can be experienced and known by us. In these wide-ranging discussions Hart draws on many and varied religious and philosophical traditions - ontology, the philosophy of mind, phenomenology, etc.

In the chapter on being, he appeals to Plato's dictum that 'wonder is the beginning of philosophy'. Here we find discussions of the ontological and cosmological arguments for God's existence, and also of the 'sudden existential surprise' of discovering 'the limitless beauty of being'. Hart wants a return to wonder, a return to innocence, where the very experience of living reveals God.

In discussing consciousness, however, 72 pages are spent discussing the inadequacy of materialist accounts before returning to the topic at hand - '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.'

The 'third mystery', bliss, explains morality and beauty - both of which Hart takes as irreducible absolutes that materialism fails to account for. Even atheists - in their pursuit of true belief, or in any good deed - are directed towards God, on his view, for 'to seek the good is already to believe in God, whether one wishes to do so or not.'

I opened this review with a clear declaration of ambivalence. On the one hand, Hart's call to wonder rings true, as does his invitation to atheists to do due diligence. On the other hand, for this reader what Hart said was obscured by how he said it.