Notes on The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart

Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion, philosopher and cultural commentator, and he has written a response to atheism, which seems in vogue now. He claims that his objective isn’t to prove God’s existence, but to clarify a false premise in the debate. Here’s how he puts it:

If one imagines that God is some discrete object visible to physics or some finite aspect of nature, rather than the transcendent actuality of all things and all knowing, the logical inevitable Absolute upon which the contingent depends, then one has simply misunderstood what the content of the concept of God truly is, and has nothing to contribute to the debate (p. 327)

Using this as a starting point, Hart discusses the way this conception of God relates to problems with a strictly materialistic view of the world (which he generalizes, rightly in my opinion, as the main world view of the New Atheists.), going into three aspects of the concept of God that highlight this problem—-being, consciousness, and bliss/

As in other “notes” threads, I’m going use this to jot random thoughts and notes as a way to help me process the book.

4 thoughts on “Notes on The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart

  1. (Note: I ‘m not reading the book in linear fashion. My comment below comments from reading the last chapter, specifically a section towards the very end; p. 331)

    We stand amazed before the gratuity of being and the luminosity of consciousness and the transcendental splendor that seems to shine in and through all things, before indurated habits of thought and will can distance us from the radiant simplicity of that experience. We see the mystery, are addressed by it, given a vocation to raise our thoughts beyond the apparent world to the source of its possibility. In time, though, we begin to seek power over reality and so become less willing to submit our minds to its power over us. Curiosity withers, ambition flourishes. We turn from the mystery of being to the availability of things, from the mystery of consciousness to the accessible objects of cognition, form the mystery of bliss to the imperatives of appetite and self-interest. We gain what we can take by relinquishing what we can only receive as a gift, and obtain power by forgetting that dimension of reality we cannot dominate but can approach only when we surrender ourselves to it. And late Western culture may well be the social order that has ventured furthest away from being in the it’s quest to master beings.

    Reading the above made me think of an important narrative in in my understanding of human existence, particularly the relationship between God and people. The narrative involves the ascendance of human pride and how this relates to separation from God. The initial state, when we’re closest to God, involves a sense of awe, an awareness of the mystery that is associated with God. This is a state of humility and vulnerability; We’re more aware of our limitations, frailty, and smallness. When we turn to God we enter into this state, and actually, we need to be in this state, at least to some degree, to be able to experience God.

    But, as the progression in Hart’s passage indicates, people turn away from the mystery and wonder linked to God and direct their attention at the things in the world; they direct their energies at controlling and mastering those things. It is a quest for power, and I’d argue independence from God, and as our mastery grows, so grows a sense of pride, a greater emphasis on what we know and what we can do versus what we don’t know and what we can’t do. At this point, turning our attention back to God can be very difficult, because doing so brings us back to state of vulnerability, limitation, weakness, and humility. If one’s soul pain, this would be an example of that.

    Perhaps a shorter way of saying this: Lucifer’s Fall.

    (Note: One of the things I want to write about later: The way turning out attention to God also relates to turning our attention and efforts at loving our neighbor as ourselves; how the impetus behind gaining greater mastery of the world has an inverse relationship to recognizing the truth behind loving our neighbor as ourselves. These thoughts are currently fuzzy and a-jumble…I might be getting at the metaphysical underpinnings of the command of loving one’s neighbor and how that relates to the metaphysics of God and loving Him.)

  2. A Concept of God That is Wrong

    There’s one conception of God that Hart rejects–at least in relation to the Abrahamic and even Hindu concept of God. I’m going to explain my understanding of both the concepts of God he rejects and accepts.

    Starting with the concept of God Hart rejects, imagine a picture of a deity like Zeus or Odin on a piece of paper. I’m not sure if people considered them creators of universe, but let’s suppose they had those powers–that the god we’re talking about created all things–matter, planets, plants, animals, etc. While they have these vast powers, the god is still humanoid, existing in specifics points in space and time. That Hart would reject this conception of God is unsurprising and frankly obvious, but I’m not finished. Let’s now transform the god into a molecules–picture the image of Zeus or Odin slowly turning into a gaseous cloud on the paper. Let’s further suppose this cloud was made up of trillion molecules and those molecules are spread evenly throughout the entire universe. This god still is the Creator, but has lost its body and has spread out across the universe. You could say that this god is almost like a spirit. This is a conception of God that Hart would also reject. That may not be too surprising because molecules or atoms are still a kind of substance, albeit extremely tiny substances, and God really isn’t a substance, but a spirit. So now let’s assume that the molecules “dissolve” and turn into a kind of spirit–a spirit that is present every where in the galaxy. Based on my understanding, Hart would also reject this conception of God as well.

    So what is the conception is his conception of God? Using the example above, God would be the piece of paper. I should confess that illustration isn’t original, but something I heard from C.S. Lewis, explaining the relationship between an eternal God relating to finite beings through history. If I recall correctly, used the illustration of drawing a straight line on a sheet of paper, the line representing time. The paper, Lewis said, was God. I’m using basically the same sort of illustration involving the concept of being. What is the nature of God’s being? In terms of matter, time, space–what is the nature of being of those things? God is being. The existence of all things are rooted in the being of God. I don’t want to go much further because I suspect I’ll be over my head (if I’m not already). Here’s something that Hart says on the matter:

    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 Christian scripture) 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!

    (pg. 30)

    Comments and Questions

    1. Would laws of physics, space, time, mathematical concepts and formulas, logic all be included in the “discrete, finite things?” I’m not sure, but I tend to think so.

    2. One thing I realized when reading this: My conception of God is not very clear or well-thought out. If someone asked me to explain my concept of God, I’m not sure I would have given the same definition. It’s probably a good thing to think more clearly about my conception of God.

    3. Do I agree with Hart’s conception? Without having thought deeply about this, I would say yes.

    4. One takeaway: If this is the nature of God, we as human beings are so remote from God. This isn’t a new idea, but the conception of God as described above reveals more clearly how different we are. I used to think the following analogy was apt: God is humans as humans are to ants. The “distance” between God and human beings is really much greater than that.

    5. The positive outcomes from this: It should keep us humble, not just in terms of how we view and relate to God, but our own understanding of God. It seems pretty clear that whatever understanding of God we have now, it is deeply flawed and incomplete (which isn’t to say that it is untrue–or at least that we can’t know certain truths about God). We should be circumspect about our knowledge and understanding of God (and this applies to the concept I described above as well).

    6. A possible drawback: One must wonder how close we can be to God? What does it even mean to have a relationship with a God like this? The God described above is really abstract and so beyond human beings. Luckily, for believers (at least those of the Abrahamic faiths), God so abstract, or has made himself less abstract for us.

    Edit (2/15/2018)

    Another quote:

    …God is not just some ethical individual out there somewhere, a finite subjectivity answerable to some set of moral laws outside himself, but is rather the fullness of being, in whom all powers and perfections are infinitely realized. He is not simply someone who is good, but goodness itself, the ontological reality of that absolute object that moral desire seeks. Or, better, what we call goodness is, in essence, God in his aspect as the original source and ultimate fulfillment of all love, drawing all things to one another by drawing them to himself.

    pg. 274

  3. “Why must a thing be dependent on any continuously real source of being in order to persist?”

    Hart raises this question (pg. 104) , and I want to explore it here. First of all, let’s examine the question. The supposition here is that any thing that exists must have some source that enables that existence or it must be self-existent–i.e., the ability to exist without depending on something else to exist. Hart is saying that all things that exist–including the laws of physics–has to have some underlying cause or source for its existence, and he will attempt to explain the reason for this.

    Based on my understanding, the reason is that everything that exists can be broken into parts–parts that are necessary for the thing in question to exist. A human being has appendages, organs, etc., and these parts can be broken into cells, which can be broken down into molecules, etc.

    Or the existence of a thing is based on some causal force preceding it. My existence as a human being, the next door neighbor’s cats, the grass outside my house–all of these are products of evolution on earth, and earth was derived from space dust…Basically we can go all the way back to the Big Bang.

    This might not be so difficult to grasp. What’s more difficult, however, is something like the laws of physics, mathematical equations, or something like logic. It doesn’t seem like these can be broken down into smaller parts…or maybe there are things

    The idea here is that the being or existence of all things–trees, stars, giraffes, and even the laws of physics, mathematical formulas–are contingent upon something else. For example, a person’s being–their “is-ness”–is dependent on other things. We could break them into parts of the body, then the cells, then the molecules. We could talk about the laws of physics and food, and water for

    Maybe I’m getting something wrong here. If I’m not, I feel like there’s something wrong with the argument, although I’m not sure what the problem is. Here’s a guess: What we’re saying is a function of logic, but the rules of logic might be limited, a game that isn’t fully equipped to capture reality. Or maybe there is an intricacy in the game that I (and Hart) isn’t able to exploit–maybe a smarter materialist will find it where I have failed.

    …I’m still not sure I fully grasp the reason material things just can’t exist without some source for their existence. I’ll have to think about this some more.

  4. A More Compelling Argument Against God

    Two arguments against the God of the major world religions:

    1. While an absolute, eternal transcendental being–the foundation and source of existence–may exist, there’s little reason to think this being has the kind of anthropomorphic qualities ascribed to it by the major religions. Why would this Being necessarily want to have a “relationship” with human beings? I haven’t really thought through this line of thinking, but I feel like it may be a response to Hart’s book. (Of course, the argument concedes that a transcendental Being does exist, which is obviously not a small concession.)

    2. There’s no certainty that such a being exists, and there’s no certainty that such a being does not exist. We don’t know either way. Granted, this isn’t much of a rebuttal, but I guess I’m putting this down because I find this to be an appropriate and compelling response to the whether God exists or not.

    For me, Hart’s book has focused and clarified the notion that both worldviews–one where God exists and the other where He does not (i.e., a materialist/naturalist view) –are based on un-provable assumptions. The book’s value also lies in showing the strangeness and even illogical nature of a purely materialist worldview. For example, think about why there is something rather than nothing. How did this occur? Why do we have something rather than nothing? The mysteriousness of this becomes a little clearer, for me, when you realize that everything that exists now–all the things we can perceive with our senses–comes from something else; they’re products of causal chain going back to the start of the universe. What’s the first cause? What lead to the first cause? What happened before it? One suggest I heard was that the universe is in a constant cycle of starting, expanding, and collapsing. Still, this doesn’t really eliminate the mystery of why and how this cycle takes place. It seems strange to say that “it just is.”

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