The supernaturalism of everyday life

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.

Being

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.

5eff246e7ac4ba2c7785bed9d0214848Contemporary 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.

Consciousness

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?

Brain-As-ComputerOne 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.

Bliss

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.

Shelter, firewood and water: perfect!

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?

true-detective-S01-about-16x9-1Take 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.

300px-Socrates_in_Nuremberg_Chronicle_LXXIIvWhat 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.

Comments:

  • Rob says:

    Hello Jules.

    It strikes me that, on the face of it, the first two aspects of Hart’s position are in tension with each other. If God is Being (granting for a moment that this even makes sense as a concept of God), then why should the concept of God as such provide any particular route for explaining consciousness? If one abstracts so much away from particular divine characteristics, what is there left to found an explanation of consciousness on? So, if one’s idea of God is that of Being-as-such, any version of theism grounded on it doesn’t seem superior to the particular kind of materialism in explaining consciousness. In fact, it seems worse off. (God’s less chatty, as you write!)

    I’d also urge that the question of whether there could be an evolutionary explanation for _our longing for beauty_, is a different question from that of whether one can make sense of beauty in a variety of ways that might be open to different kinds of materialist. For instance: if one thought that there was no obvious metaphysical reduction, or explanation, of beauty in ‘naturalistic’ terms, it might still be true that our longing for it could be given a partially evolutionary explanation. In this way: the experience of beauty (however understood, metaphysically) evidently often makes creatures like us feel really, really good. And something that makes us feel really, really good, is going to buck us up and help us survive better. (I stress: this would only be partial.)

    • Jules Evans says:

      Hi Rob,

      I don’t know – this is my first foray into theology – but I suppose the Absolute Being could also be Absolute Mind? And that one could argue that mind is something different to matter, and therefore posit a Big Mind to explain our little minds? But there is perhaps a tension between him saying on the one hand that Absolute Being is incomprehensible to our minds, while saying on the other hand that the universe is intelligible to our rational minds. Can we know the reality we’re in, or not? Is our reason up to the task, or isn’t it?

      As someone more trained in these areas than me, I’d like to know your opinion on his (perhaps rather strong) claim that materialism is incompatible with rationality – I mean, one can coherently be a materialist and still believe in rationality, no? Perhaps not if you don’t believe in consciousness, but some materialists like Dennett *do* believe in consciousness, albeit a rather weak one. So one can believe that humans are occasionally capable of rationality, it’s just a particularly bounded one…No?

      As for an evolutionary psychology of art – perhaps we could say that our minds evolved rational consciousness for adaptive reasons, but the ‘spandrel’ or unintended side-effect was that we could foresee our own death and had a sense of our smallness and insignificance in the cosmos. And this gave us a deep need for meaning and myth, or else we would collapse into despair. So perhaps art is an evolutionary adaptation to the spandrel of existential dread? That would be one evolutionary-existentialist position, perhaps!

      • Rob says:

        Hi Jules,

        Long, rambling reply.

        I read your account of Hart (I haven’t read his book) as saying that God would be understood as Being itself. That seems pretty topic-neutral to me; it’d be the same Being of mud, humans, sets of humans, desires, values, etc. I guess making the idea acceptable to some philosophers depends on its being so abstract. But I can’t myself see any reason to think that something so abstract would be more associated with Absolute Mind, than with (say) Absolute Evil, or Absolute Blue, etc. So I sort of agree with what you say – I think anything brought in to explain some particular characteristic of the world (e.g., that there are humans with minds) is going to have to rely on some more specific property of whatever does the explaining – that it’s Absolute Mind, e.g. (Though I don’t know what that would be.)

        On the question of whether materialism can accommodate rationality – I don’t know. I think what you say in the post as response to doubts about its adaptiveness is completely right: the capacity to acquire true beliefs (of certain sorts) is very clearly going to stop us being killed. But admitting this was never the hard problem, which is how to get things right metaphysically – what kind of thing is a mind, and does the metaphysics of it fit with materialism? The availability of an evolutionary explanation for one aspect of mindedness (that it fits us to know truths) is orthogonal (doesn’t tell us anything about metaphysics). (It’s for this reason that I think the idea of rationality as a gift doesn’t help on this question: for it speaks, it seems to me, more to the question of origins than the question of the thing’s metaphysical nature. But you might disagree about that?)

        For the question of fitting rational consciousness in metaphysically, the first thing to do would be to say exactly what kinds of materialism are meant. If it’s Hart who takes materialism to be the view that the universe is completely made out of mindless bits of matter, then that’s still going to leave it open, for example, whether tables really exist or not (there are people who would call themselves materialists out there who thing they do; others who think they don’t). (If in doubt, split hairs?)

        I this theme – accommodating rational consciousness in a materialist worldview – really involves two major areas of worry. The first – how do we understand what normativity is, what reasons are, and can we do that on materialism? The second – how do we understand what minds and consciousness are, and can we do that on materialism? Also, for some people the main issue in the latter is going to be about Nagelian “What-It-Is-Like-To-Be-ness”, qualia etc., but that might not be the enough for the capacity for rationality you mention. (At least, the relations are hugely unclear—like everything.)

        Still, plenty of people do think that something they’d call materialism is consistent with rationality, and I’m more one of them. But my materialism isn’t scientistic or reductive. (That doesn’t help much – sorry.)

        What you say about art in your reply seems right to me, too. I didn’t want to suggest that I think much can be done with evolutionary theory in that area – the broad idea I gave before, and the more specific one you wrote down, might be about it.

        That said, I really like Wittgenstein’s remarks on awe at the end of the “Tractatus” and in the “Lecture on Ethics”; but any idea of God they’d support would be icily philosophical. And I tend to think that God and religion has much more to do with sin, redemption, and that any version of God I could accept would be far more fleshed out than Being Itself.

        Cheers.

  • Roger Bull says:

    Interesting, as always, Jules.
    It must be very irritating for the more sophisticated cosmically minded deists, like Ward (and Rowan Williams, so it seems) to read the New Atheists’ writings dismantling a deity they really don’t believe in. However, as you say, most British and US Protestants do believe in an interventionalist personal God. Indeed, I would go further – of the 3.7 billion Christians and Muslims (OK, so that stat is Google but it’s probably about right) – would you put any more than 10% as sharing Ward’s view of God? I don’t think I would.
    Ward’s view is shared to a great extent by the molecular systems biologist, Stanley Kauffman (See http://www.edge.org/conversation/beyond-reductionism-reinventing-the-sacred
    did I come across this from you Jules? Could have been. If so, thanks).
    Kauffman concludes that we should now choose to call this source of wonder, mystery, beauty etc in the cosmos – “God”.

    “God is the most powerful symbol we have created. …. Shall we use the God word? It is our choice. Mine is a tentative “yes”. I want God to mean the vast ceaseless creativity of the only universe we know of, ours. What do we gain by using the God word? I suspect a great deal, for the word carries with it awe and reverence. If we can transfer that awe and reverence, not to the transcendental Abrahamic God of my Israelite tribe long ago, but to the stunning reality that confronts us, we will grant permission for a renewed spirituality, and awe, reverence and responsibility for all that lives, for the planet.”

    He concludes -
    “You see, we can say, here is reality, is it not worthy of stunned wonder? What more could we want of a God? Yes, we give up a God who intervenes on our behalf. We give up heaven and hell. But we gain ourselves, responsibility, and maturity of spirit. I know that saying that ethics derives from evolution undercuts the authority of God as its source. But do we need such a God now? I think not. Nor do we need the spiritual wasteland that post-modernism has brought us. Beyond my admired friend Kenneth Arrow, natural parks are valuable because life is valuable on its own, a wonder of emergence, evolution and creativity. Reality is truly stunning. So if you find this useful, let us go forth, as was said long ago, and invite consideration by others of this new vision of reality. With it, let us recreate spiritual community and membership. Let us go forth. Civilization needs to be changed.”

    All inspiring stuff – but is it fair to appropriate the term God, which I would guess well over 3 billion Christians and Muslims (leaving aside all the Hindus and Buddhists) use in a much more personal way. I think not. I find much to like in Kauffman’s approach but surely, shouldn’t we simply pay our dues to the cosmos. It was good enough for the Stoics. Maybe their view of an immanent deity threaded though all the universe, including us, (as opposed to a transcendent deity, standing outside it) is a much more helpful picture of what the cosmic reality may be like.
    I’ve always liked Marcus Aurelius’ use of the word Logos (a hugely elastic term but as used by him) simply meaning – the way the cosmos is. It is to be noted that Marcus is always at his most spiritual and reverential when talking of the Logos.
    When I think of this central mystery, I use Marcus’ term, Logos. Maybe there’s a better word out there. However, to appropriate the term God for this is, at best, hugely confusing and at worst, hopelessly misleading.

    • Jules Evans says:

      I believe there’s an evolutionary psychologist of religion, Justin Barrett, who suggests there is a difference between people’s theological position on God, if you asked them what sort of God they believed in, and their working position, which is often much more anthropomorphic. We slip, he suggests, into anthropomorphism under pressure….

      One can differentiate between the Gods you describe – one is simply nature, the Way Things Are. But the Logos means more than that for Marcus – it’s Nature directed by an intelligent principle (similar perhaps to the Tao). It’s more of a pantheist conception. And then there’s this classical theist position Hart is defending – that God is not just within Nature, He enables Nature to be in the first place, which I think is more than the Stoics claim….

  • Roger Bull says:

    Sorry! For Ward, read Hart – above.

  • carel muller says:

    Dear Jules,

    first of all you are an adorable writer ! I find your blogs always a delight to read.
    The crux,though, I said it before, is the question: is there consciousness without matter.There is. Near Death Experiences prove
    that beyond doubt. So do the experiments of Sheldrake.
    If Science and Filosofy would consider this an established fact,our thinking would be freed to ponder on other than material realms.
    Now it is not .

    Carel.

  • margaret says:

    Yes I’m with Carel – What a wonderful posting and delight to read!
    Hopeful. Interesting. And thought-provoking.
    I too was a child made dizzy by wonder and think my love of philosophy did start there.
    What I’m wondering while I read is how on earth you manage to write all that in a week Jules?
    Amazing!
    And a real gift – thank you for this blog!
    Margaret

  • Mark Vernon says:

    Great review. And I like Plato! But you’re right, few do… Though I’d say that a bit like Stoicism, Plato is buried in everyday Christian convictions, even fundamentalists – who are as is often argued, a kind of perverse product of the scientific age, as scientistic in their way as a Sam Harris (the Bible must be read literally because only literal readings are true. Replace ‘literal’ for ‘empirical’ and you get the same fundamentalism). And as Hart argues, any kind of rationality rides on the back of theism.

    To be fair to Hart, on evil, he does say as I recall that it’s the best reason to worry about the God of classical theism, but adds that’s not his concern in this book.

    As to Jesus, his theology of beauty has a Christological element, I think – roughly that beauty is something that can be said of a life too and, to cut to the chase in a horrible way, the life described by the classical doctrine of the Trinity is beautiful. Though I guess his orthodoxy would come in here too, orthodoxy unlike western Christianity being far less concerned with the inner life of God in Godself, and much more with how we experience God – as a beautiful reaching out and overflowing of love in the incarnation, as it were…

  • Stephen says:

    I need to read this again to get my head around it properly. Suffice to say for now, great post and great responses from all.

  • Kirk McElhearn says:

    So, theologians criticize atheists who criticize believers for their ridiculous beliefs. The theologians say that the believers are wrong in their idea of god. The atheists criticize this incorrect belief. But the theologian doesn’t see the contradiction here. This argument is already getting old.

    What this author is saying is that he knows the “right” way to think of god, and that many others don’t. I think this is a moot point: what most religions profess today is the view that matters, and how they act is based on those views. If there were a more Platonic view of god in contemporary religion, there wouldn’t be such a reaction from atheists.

    • Jules Evans says:

      ‘This argument is already getting old’ – well, it’s been going on for several millennia and I don’t think it’s going away!

      Surely it’s not just a question of what people do believe – though that’s an important question. It’s also a question of what people *should* believe, what makes sense, what fits with our nature and the cosmos we’re in…

  • Jim Houston says:

    Hart does mention the problem of evil in passing if only to qualify his “peculiar prejudices” about ‘philosophical atheism’* by pointing out that he does not mean there is anything ‘intellectually contemptible’ in being ‘formally godless’:

    ‘One might very well conclude… that the world contains far too much misery for the pious idea of a good, loving, and just God to be taken very seriously, and that any alleged creator of a universe in which children suffer and die hardly deserves our devotion. It is an affective—not a strictly logical—position to hold, but it is an intelligible one, with a certain sublime moral purity to it; I myself find it deeply compelling; and it is entirely up to each person to judge whether he or she finds any particular religion’s answer to the “problem of evil” either adequate or credible.’

    I gather the problem of evil is the subject of Hart’s earlier book ‘The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?’ He authored a couple of articles on the topic – I did read the short piece “Tremors of Doubt: What kind of God would allow a deadly tsunami?” which is available online here if that’s of interest to anyone:

    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB110445823834113820

    Therein, Hart concedes ‘as a Christian’ that he “cannot imagine any answer to the question of evil likely to satisfy an unbeliever”. He also shows some appreciation of Voltaire’s “exquisitely savage — though sober — assault upon the theodicies prevalent in his time” in the latter’s poem on the Lisbon disaster. But Hart claims Voltaire’s question is not “theological” in any proper sense and that the “deist” God of Voltaire’s poem “is not the Christian God” (though “reckless Christians have… occasionally spoken in such terms”). He also makes the striking claim that the ”Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all.”

    It seems to me Hart overstates (and understates) things somewhat, framing prescriptions for how he thinks Christians ought to conceive of things as if they were descriptions of how they do so but such points have been raised more generally already. As an unbeliever, of course, I did not find it very satisfying to read that “we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe, that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is the shadow of true time, and that the universe languishes in bondage to “powers” and “principalities” — spiritual and terrestrial — alien to God”. He suggests that perhaps “no doctrine is more insufferably fabulous to non-Christians” than this and seems to have a point. But I did rather take to this passage:

    “When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering — when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children’s — no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends.”

    Hart’s lengthier “Tsunami and Theodicy’ would doubtless be wasted on a ‘formally godless’ chap like me. But it can be found here:

    http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2010/01/tsunami-and-theodicy

    -

    * Regarding Hart’s claims that ‘philosophical atheism’ can be sustained “only by a tragic absence of curiosity or a fervently resolute will to believe the absurd” and is “often nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations”, I think some of the comments made by the atheist philosopher Louise Antony in her recent interview with Gary Cutting are pertinent. She spoke against insisting (as some atheists do) that a religious person’s “belief has some hidden psychological cause, rather than a justifying reason, behind it” saying:

    “I believe I have reasons for my position, and I expect that theists believe they have reasons for theirs. Let’s agree to pay each other the courtesy of attending to the particulars.”

    This way, I think, the high road lies for the theist and atheist alike.

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/25/arguments-against-god/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

    • Jules Evans says:

      Thanks Jim, I agree with your last point – I think I was amused, in a childish sort of way, by his suggestion that atheism is a sort of infantile emotional consolation, because that accusation is thrown at Christians so often. But you’re absolutely right – as William James put it, we should no more assume that atheism is a product of glands or bile or manic depression or what-have-you than we should assume religion is.

      I’ll have to read that other book of Hart’s. The God he describes in this book seems more like the Platonic Logos or the Brahman of the Upanishads – and neither of those Gods particularly care about individuals. Likewise the Tao, for whom humans are mere straw dogs. That seems perhaps an easier God to believe in, given what life is like…

      Personally I find the idea of Original Sin / the Primordial Catastrophe very hard to swallow, and yet so much of Christianity seems to rest on it. The absence of that doctrine from The Existence of God made it an palatable book for me – but The Existence of God does not really defend a Christian position, it defends a much more general theist position.

      All best

      Jules

  • Ikechukwu Azuonye says:

    If you have ever read the Gospels (in the New Testament of the Holy Bible) you would have noted that Jesus Christ totally avoided theology. All of our theology is guesswork. We unfortunately kill one another over our ignorance of what God is. Let us simply love our neighbours as ourselves and see where that takes us.

  • Jules says:

    Jesus talked a lot about theology – who God is, who he is, what’s going to happen, how we can get to heaven. All he talked was theology.

  • Jules says:

    Not to say we should get so caught in theory we forget ethics – but the two are really one.

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    • Ikechukwu Azuonye says:

      Jesus Christ, when presses by His disciples to tell them about God, said to them that He was surprised that they had been with Him all that time and were still asking about God. “He who has seen me has seen the Father”, He told them. At another time He said “God is spirit, and all who worship Him should worship in spirit and in truth.” He never ventured into any details about God.

  • Ikechukwu Azuonye says:

    Correction: When ‘pressed’, not ‘presses’.

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