When I was six, my best friend Joe and I could give ourselves head-rushes by contemplating the size of the universe. We let our imaginations rise from the Earth, to the Solar System, to the Milky Way, and then stretched our imaginations as far as they would go to comprehend the universe. Then we’d wonder what was beyond that, and for a second we’d feel a sort of dizziness at the mystery in which we found ourselves.
Plato and Aristotle agreed that philosophy begins in this sort of childlike wonder at the weird fact of being here. And the American theologian David Bentley Hart argues in a new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness and Bliss, that we need more of this wonder, and if we follow its glinting, it will lead us to God. The evidence for God is all around us, Hart says. We are saturated in the supernatural. We have just forgotten how to see it, because we have lost a capacity for wonder, and because we have an impoverished idea of God – and this goes for many Christians as well as atheists.
Hart, who is an Eastern Orthodox theologian, has decided that the conversation between New Atheists and Christian fundamentalists has become so moronic that he must re-state the basic character of God, as understood by the great philosophers and mystics of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. He wants to show that materialism is a far less reasonable philosophy than Classical Theism, that it misses out fundamental aspects of human experience, and is fatally lacking in wonder.
Classical Theism, as stated by the likes of Aquinas, Augustine, the Church Fathers, the Upanishads, Avicenna, Maimonides and others, focuses on three experiences of God: being, consciousness and bliss, or sat, chit and ananda according to the Upanishads. I’ll go through them one by one, trying to sketch Hart’s position (the Classical Theist position) as briefly as possible.
Western modernity’s great error is to mistake God for a being among other beings, rather than Being itself. This is a category error born of the Enlightenment, when the Deists – startled by the success of the Newtonian mechanistic philosophy – redefined God as a sort of cosmic watch-maker shaping matter into order. If you wanted to find evidence for God, you should look for it in the things of this world – in the exquisite design of an eye, for example, or the feathers of a peacock. In chess terms, this was the equivalent of giving away your Queen. As soon as rival explanations of natural processes arose, like evolution or geology or the Big Bang, it seemed to render the God hypothesis redundant.
Contemporary New Atheists and Christian fundamentalists are both still labouring under the Deist mistake of seeing God as just a very powerful being among other beings in the cosmos. This is to mistake gods with God. There may be many gods out there, who exist in the cosmos and have a beginning and end – Shiva, Thor, Zeus, Dr Manhattan, even the Spaghetti Monster may all exist or have existed at some point, or not. But this is nothing to do with God, as understood by Classical Theism.
The God of Classical Theism is Being itself. He is the Absolute Being on which all contingent beings must rely for the gift of their existence. Our ideas of Zeus or the Spaghetti Monster, by contrast, are closer to what Plato called the Demiurge – some local enforcer who runs things in a corner of the universe but who is really just another being, and who will pass away like all beings. The God of New Atheism, the psychopath prison-guard at whom Christopher Hitchens shook his fist, is really this Demiurge, what Philip Pullman called The Authority, not the Ocean of Being in which all things find their being. The God of Christian fundamentalism is also a mere demiurge, as is the chatty physiotherapist who passes for God in Christian evangelicalism.
To Hart, the Classical Theist argument that God is the reality in which beings find their existence is far more rational and persuasive than the materialist position that nature magically produced itself out of nothingness. A universe of contingent beings must, logically, be supported by a non-contingent absolute reality (apparently). Contemporary physicists who say the Big Bang renders God otiose are failing to explain the miraculous transition from non-existence to existence. The universe may have arisen from quantum fluctuations, but such fluctuations are still a form of existence. The God of Classical Theism did not merely push ‘run programme’ and then put his feet up, like the God of Deism. He is the ever-present, ever-necessary Ground of Being.
Contemporary thinkers, says Hart, exhibit a marked lack of wonder at the weird fact of Being, with a few exceptions like Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and me and my friend Joe. Existence ‘just is’, say the naturalists, refusing to countenance any super-natural explanation for nature. To wonder at being is to sense the supernatural, the Beyond which makes beings like us possible.
But we may want to ask questions of this Absolute Being. Who are You? Where did You come from? If You’re so perfect, why did You create the cosmos? What do You want with us? Is existence really such a gift? The God of Classical Theism is less chatty than the God of fundamentalism or evangelicalism. We can’t comprehend Him or His reasons for creation. The best way to consider Him is through apophatic or negative theology, withdrawing one’s mind from created beings to consider Being itself. And yet He is not entirely remote, because consciousness and bliss give us means to reach Him.
Our minds are fitted to the cosmos. Through the divine gift of rational consciousness, we can comprehend the universe and ourselves, and find meaning and intelligibility in both.
Consciousness is ‘a reality that defeats mechanistic or materialist thinking’. According to materialism, the universe is entirely made up of mindless matter. So how did it give rise to human minds, which possess reason and intention, and everything that matter apparently lacks?
One materialist solution has been to try and argue that we are not really conscious at all. Our minds are mechanical automatons. Consciousness is either a helpless epiphenomenon or an illusion. It is best described using metaphors of non-conscious machines, like computers or cameras. These, Hart thinks, are fanciful and even fanatical attempts to sacrifice the obvious fact of consciousness on the altar of materialism.
But what about Libet’s famous brain-scan experiment, which seemed to show neurological movements a few milliseconds before people made a choice to move their finger: doesn’t that show our conscious choices are unconscious and automatic? No, says Hart. It’s not clear what it shows, but it may show an unconscious readiness or potential to act, which precedes a conscious choice to act on that potential or not. We need more than one experiment to explain away the everyday miracle of consciousness.
Another materialist solution is to suggest that rational consciousness arose through ‘emergence’, but this commits the ‘pleonastic fallacy’ of suggesting something radically different like subjective consciousness could emerge by gradual steps from mindless matter.
Others have suggested rational consciousness emerged as an evolutionary adaptation. But why should evolution have led to rational minds capable of knowing the truth about the cosmos? Why is that adaptive? Isn’t it far more adaptive to be swaddled in comforting illusions – in which case, how can naturalists trust in human reason, including their own reasons? Materialism ends up in a sort of ‘radical absurdism’, a distrust of all reasons, including materialism.
Well, perhaps – but couldn’t one make the argument that rationality is adaptive, because our illusions can kill us? And while the existence of mind is an embarrassment for materialists, the existence of matter is also something of a quandary for mentalists. Still, I personally agree with Hart (and with all those Big Minds of Classical Theism) that the weird fact of rational consciousness is not an illusion, nor is it a fluke. It’s a gift.
The final argument for God, according to Classical Theism, is bliss, by which Hart means our ecstatic longing for transcendent absolutes, such as Truth, Beauty, Justice and Love. We are driven by an insatiable hunger for these moral goods. This longing cannot be accounted for by materialist or evolutionary explanations, they are supernatural – they point beyond nature to God.
How, for example, can we account for our longing for Beauty? Darwinian explanations are utterly unconvincing. Take E.O Wilson’s argument that our love of poetic symbols can be explained by evolutionary psychology – snakes are powerfully emotive symbols in poetry and myth because snakes were a threat to our ancestors. Come again? How does that reductionism explain all the incredible ways humans have shaped snakes in their imagination, from the ouroboros of the Middle Ages to the emperor of DH Lawrence’s poetry?
Others have tried to explain our love of landscape painting as evolving from our cave-man need for water and shelter. Other evolutionary psychologists, like Steven Pinker, have simply dismissed our love of music as an evolutionary spandrel, like our love for cheesecake. No sacrifice is too great for the altar of materialism, not even beauty.
Those materialists who care more for beauty have tried to fit it in to a materialist philosophy by simply smuggling it in and hoping we won’t notice. Hitchens, for example, said he was a materialist but he also thought ‘there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, what you could call the Numinous, the Transcendent, or at its best the Ecstatic..without this we really would merely be primates.’ Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker, also argued for a sort of ‘materialism plus the transcendent’. But materialism plus the transcendent is not materialism at all, it is transcendentalism. Sam Harris, when he talks about ‘self-transcending moments’ of spiritual experience, is being incoherent – how can an automaton transcend itself?
The best way to understand our longing for beauty is not to reduce it down to chemical or evolutionary processes, but to follow it up to what it points to, beyond the limits of nature. Beauty ‘is the movement of a gracious disclosure of something otherwise hidden… In the experience of the beautiful, and of its pure fortuity, we are granted our most acute, most lucid and most splendid encounter with the difference of transcendent being from the realm of finite beings.’ Beauty affords us ‘our most perfect experience of that existential wonder..which lies always just below the surface of our quotidian consciousness’.
I agree with Hart – it’s a pity that the only academic discipline which considers our longing for beauty to be a transcendental impulse is theology. There has been a terrible failure of nerve in the humanities over the last fifty years, a timid unwillingness to think beyond materialism, which perhaps explains the smallness of most post-war art and literature. The choice between the optimistic materialism of the Sciences and the winsome materialism of the Humanities is no choice at all.
Our longing for truth and integrity would also appear to be a transcendent impulse – and one that plagues just as many atheists as theists (Einstein spoke of the ‘conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality and intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order’). But why should we trouble ourselves about truth, or justice, or integrity or any other transcendent good in a materialist universe? Why assume the universe is intelligible?
Take the atheist hero of HBO’s True Detective, Rustin Cohle. He thinks human consciousness is a ‘tragic misstep in evolution’, we are all just puppets of our genes, slaves to our delusions, not really ‘persons’ at all. So far, so orthodox materialist. And yet Rust burns with an ardor for truth and justice, he is convinced the world is intelligible, that crimes are solvable, and he prides himself on his moral integrity. In all these respects, he is not really a materialist, he is a transcendentalist. If he was really a materialist, if consciousness was really an irrelevant sideshow in a universe of mindless matter, why get worked up about truth or justice? Hart writes: ‘To seek the good is already to believe in God, whether one wishes to do so or not.’
To be a coherent materialist, you must do away with all your transcendent illusions, all your primitive longing for goodness, beauty, truth and so on. They are the detritus of the Christian past, a cosmic joke, the gibbering of a madman mistaking the shadows on his wall for angels.
The consolation of atheism
Hart evidently has little time for New Atheists (he finds AC Grayling particularly irksome) who he blames for mistakenly converting the method of empirical science into the metaphysical ideology of materialism. It is, he suggests, an irrational, fanatical ideology, which perhaps provides an emotional consolation of sorts to its believers – the consolation of thinking yourself a superior intellect surrounded by fools, the self-righteous certainty of thinking the world would definitely be a better place if only everyone accepted they are mindless automatons, the consolation of never having to wonder what is beyond your conceptual cage.
Perhaps – although Lord knows there is a great deal of fundamentalist Christianity in the US which makes even scientistic materialism look the height of common sense. And there are many thorny issues which Hart does not consider at all, such as the problem of evil. Does this Absolute Being care for individuals at all? Is there any point in praying, other than as a contemplative practice? Is evil merely a Platonic illusion? Is existence really such a gift? Do our transcendent longings really find a blissful home in God, and if so, why have so very few humans found that home, while the rest of us have only the unfulfilled longing?
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writes that Hart ‘sets the record straight as to what sort of God Christians believe in and why’. But I’d suggest both Hart and Williams are far more Platonic / Eastern Orthodox than most American or British Protestants, for whom God is a Person one can petition for everything from back-aches to parking spaces.
Nor is Hart’s admirable ecumenicalism at all typical of modern Protestants, who usually insist (with some Biblical accuracy) that the only way to God is through Jesus. Hart is obviously a fan of Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy, and has a similar interest in the ideas and practices of the great mystical traditions. But if Hindu and Sufi mystics can also get to God, why did Jesus need to die, why must we have faith in his resurrection? Is Jesus just one being among other beings, rather than the Ground of Being? Hart may answer these questions in other books, but in The Experience of God he barely mentions Jesus, while Plato shines through every page. I know very few Christians who are into Plato. If anything, the direction of Protestant theology is to downplay the Hellenic aspects of Christianity in favour of the Hebraic.
What I like about his book, finally, is the sense that reason and revelation are not enemies, that they both point to God. There has been a tendency in the last century to think we can only reach God through irrationality, through ecstasy, through the unconscious or right-brain or drugs or what-have-you. Hart, following Plato, argues that our reason also reaches towards God. Our longing to make sense of the cosmos is a sort of ‘rational ecstasy’ as he puts it. It is an encouraging book for someone like me, who came to Christianity via Greek philosophy, because it suggests they are much closer than I realized.