After that last post, it seems that I should immediately write another one. I do not want to give the impression that I am learning nothing from reading David Bentley Hart’s book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. I am enjoying it. I just have some fundamental disagreements.
I am not one to think that trotting out the word “mystery” is a good thing to do, by and large, in theological writing. I have a mentor who instilled in me a profound respect for the word. He did not advise against it, just noted that 99.9% of the time “mystery” is just a sign of intellectual confusion. Hart obviously did not have such a mentor. His writing is not riddled with mystery, but it is used enough to make me cringe. On the other hand, his writing is almost poetic, even while being obviously of the genre of philosophy so I have tried to remain alert to a potential offering in it. And I see a thinker really grappling with great questions and doing so from the perspective of a questioner, not a knower. I like that.
. . . this book is to a great degree a rather personal approach to the question of God. I do not mean that it is subjective or confessional; rather, I mean that it takes the structure of personal experience — not mine particularly, but anyone’s — not only as an authentic way of approaching the mystery of the divine but as powerful evidence of the reality of God (9).
In any other genre of writing, you would not see the idea of mystery as expressive of reality. In on sense of the definition of the word, if it’s a mystery, it’s unknown. Of course it can also be used to define something that is difficult to understand. And I think that’s what Hart’s up to. He inspires me with his following description of his method.
In a sense, the perspective from which I write might vaguely be described as “Platonic.” I start from the conviction that many of the most important things we know are things we know before we speak them; indeed, we know them — though with very little in the way of concepts to make them intelligible to us — even as children, and see them with the greatest immediacy when we look at them with the eyes of innocence (9).
Indeed, it is the this emphasis on experience that compelled me to purchase the book initially. So much of the serious theological literature forgets this point and the result is that theology becomes the distillation of other ancient experiences of God, into propositions for belief, which you accept or deny upon your salvation. Such “theology” has been the ruination of church. I am convinced by such thinkers as John Cobb and Philip Clayton, that we must change theology or witness the end of church.
Their thoughtful members are more aware of the problems with the Christian beliefs that inform their liturgy, creeds, and hymns than of solutions offered by Christian thinkers. They find reasons to continue to be supportive and active, but they are reluctant, or perhaps unable, to encourage others to share Christian beliefs that they themselves find problematic. Even their children are unlikely to be inspired to shape their lives according to these beliefs. As social pressure to take part in church life diminishes, they are likely to drift away. As the future of the institution becomes more uncertain, its leaders typically become more cautious. Controversy seems ever more threatening. To avoid controversy is to avoid facing theological issues. It becomes increasingly difficult to introduce theological discussion into congregations. . . the only form of the oldline church that is worth preserving is the one that is open to all truth and ready to reformulate its faith in light of new learning. Such a church is ready to change its practice to conform to new understanding, but it must do so as a faithful response to the gospel, not as compromise with the world. This can happen authentically only through continuous rethinking and reappropriation of its heritage. In short, it is a major theological undertaking. (John Cobb, “Do Oldline Churches Have a Future?”, 1998).
It feels to me like Hart is trying to be a faithful response to the gospel as it is also responding to 21st century realities. Scientific understandings have exploded beyond the ken of most laypersons to grasp beyond an extremely rudimentary way, and the religions of the world have been forced to interact in ways they never have, leading to hardened exclusivism on the one hand and pure relativism on the other extreme hand. Hart wants to use science and to be a responsible citizen of the world and to be a responsible theologian. That’s a trinity I can get excited about precisely because it might lead to the kind of reappropriation of our heritage that the church requires today.
There are other moments that under my skin in a good way. Here are two:
When I say that atheism is a kind of obliviousness to the obvious, I mean that if one understands what the actual philosophical definition of “God” is in most of the great religious traditions, and if consequently one understands what is logically entailed in denying that there is any God so defined, then one cannot reject the reality of God tout court without embracing an ultimate absurdity (16).
It is true that a great deal of the rhetoric of the new atheism is often just the confessional rote of materialist fundamentalism (which like all fundamentalisms, imagines that in fact it represents the side of reason and truth); but it is also true that the new atheism has sprung up in a garden of contending fundamentalisms. There would not be so many slapdash popular atheist manifestos, in all likelihood, if there were not so many soft and inviting targets out there to provoke them: young earth creationists who believe that the two contradictory cosmogonic myths of the early chapters of Genesis are actually a single documentary account of an event that occurred a little over six millennia ago, and that there really was a Noah who built a giant ark to rescue a compendious menagerie from a universal deluge, or Hindu nationalists who insist that Rama’s Bridge was actually built by Hanuman’s monkeys, and so forth. Here, certainly new atheism has opponents against which it is well matched (24).