Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge asks, “Is it possible that there are people who say ‘God’ and think it is something they have in common?” This would have made an apt epigraph to David Bentley Hart’s brilliant, frustrating new book, which he says he wrote from the conviction that

while there has been a great deal of public debate about belief in God in recent years…the concept of God around which the arguments have run their seemingly interminable courses has remained strangely obscure the whole time. The more scrutiny one accords these debates, moreover, the more evident it becomes that often the contending parties are not even talking about the same thing; and I would go so far as to say that on most occasions none of them is talking about God in any coherent sense at all.

The “public debates” Hart has in mind were the subject of his 2009 work, Atheist Delusions, an unanswerable and frequently hilarious demolition of the shoddy thinking and historical illiteracy of the so-called New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris). As Hart and several other critics—including Mark Johnston, Marilynne Robinson, Charles Taylor, and Terry Eagleton—have demonstrated, whatever the New Atheists don’t believe in, it’s not God, at least not God as conceived by a single one of the major theistic traditions on the planet.

Instead, the New Atheists ingeniously deny the existence of a bearded fellow with superpowers who lives in the sky and finds people’s keys for them. Daniel Dennett wants to know “if God created and designed all these wonderful things, who created God? Supergod? And who created Supergod? Superdupergod?”—thereby revealing his lack of acquaintance not only with Augustine and Thomas but with Aristotle.

It was Aristotle who wrote that “one and the same is the knowledge of contraries.” Denys Turner, in his recent Thomas Aquinas (which makes a fine companion piece to The Experience of God), puts the matter like this: “Unless…what believers and atheists respectively affirm and deny is the same for both, they cannot be said genuinely to disagree.”

There are, then, a great many people who say “God” and mistakenly believe that they have the notion, at least, in common. Hart is interested in clarifying the notion, and one of his deeper points is that the major theistic religions do indeed have something in common when they say “God.” In a churlish review for Harper’s, Jane Smiley writes that Hart “is robustly convinced that there is only one definition of God, and that is his own.” She then quotes Hart’s “own” definition: “one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.”

As Hart makes plain, however, and as anyone even slightly familiar with the history of metaphysics is aware, that definition is not Hart’s, but one shared by most major religious and philosophical traditions. It is as much Aristotle’s definition as it is Moses Maimonides’s and Thomas Aquinas’s and Mulla Sadra’s and, indeed, Spinoza’s. It describes equally Brahman and Yahweh. Nor is Hart here proposing a dilution of the real differences among religions, à la Huston Smith; he is interested in what the theistic traditions disclose, a common conception of the ultimate transcendental ground of being. For Bahá’ís as for Sikhs, God is not one being among others, not even an especially powerful and wise being (this, Hart points out, is what differentiates God from gods). As Aquinas puts it, God is ipsum esse subsistens. In fact, Aquinas’s definition of God at the outset of the Summa, which uncannily anticipates Hart’s, has made more than a few Christian theologians uneasy precisely because it is a philosophical definition that could apply just as easily to Allah or Yahweh as to the Trinity.

Hart is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, but The Experience of God is, as the above suggests, wonderfully ecumenical: he draws with ease on the Upanishads, Sufi poetry, Islamic philosophy, and the Church Fathers to support his thesis that “naturalism—the doctrine that there is nothing apart from the physical order, and certainly nothing supernatural—is an incorrigibly incoherent concept, and one that is ultimately indistinguishable from pure magical thinking.” He grounds his argument in three chapters: one on being (“Why is there something rather than nothing” is not a question about what processes within nature—quantum fluctuation, say—gave rise to the universe, but about being as such, a question for religion and ontology rather than for a materialist cosmology); one on consciousness (despite the cocksure proclamations of certain pop neuroscience writers, we still have no idea how the activity of eighty-some billion neurons gives rise to the qualia of subjective experience; mind is obviously related to brain, but there is simply no credible rationale for ruling out the mental as a formally distinct reality); and one on bliss (a rather muddled discussion of epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics).

These sections compose “meditations on the meaning of the word ‘God,’” but I do wish they bore less of a resemblance to repetitive chanting. For Hart, often a subtle and eloquent writer, has come down with Harold Bloom Syndrome, whose sufferers reiterate perfectly good themes until they lose their rhetorical force. He tells us, for instance, that God “is not a ‘being’…not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all.” And that “God…is beyond all mere finite beings.” And that “God is not a being…but is absolute Being as such.” And “God’s being [is] different from the being of a finite thing.” And “God is to be understood as the unconditioned source of all things, rather than merely some very powerful but still ontologically dependent being.” We must not be deluded that “God is just another being among beings.” For the God of the theistic faiths is not “any kind of object at all, but is himself the light of being.” Also, God is not “a finite entity who can be classed alongside or over against the finite entities that belong to nature.”

Now, this is a vital point, and it is precisely where most atheists go wrong. (After I published an article on the subject, someone wrote to protest that the laws of physics suffice to disprove the existence of God. This really is the philosophically illiterate level at which these “debates” take place.) But the above is a mere sampling of the morass of repetition into which Hart repeatedly falls back. At crucial junctures, he will restate some thesis, disclaim the desire to prove anything, and self-consciously gesture toward his bibliography.

These faults, however, do not sink The Experience of God. Hart is a phenomenally gifted thinker who recalls believers of all faiths to the best of their traditions, challenges unbelievers to examine their own metaphysical presuppositions, and does these with tremendous gusto. He has written a necessary book in a bad time. In this country, for instance, the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich continues unabated while the CIA assassinates Pakistani grandmothers tending their gardens. Yet a great many American Christians are content to ignore their own Scripture’s not exactly subtle precepts regarding economic justice and state murder, preferring to fret about the age of the earth and the calamitous threats posed by same-sex marriage. And non-Christians are likely to believe all sorts of dumb things about a religion unbelievers used to actually study for its sociocultural relevance.

Hart, on the other hand, will suffer no fools of any creed. He notes that biblical literalism—a very recent phenomenon, as he points out—requires one to believe “that Adam could have hidden from [God] behind a tree,” while Origen, in the third century, thought it was self-evident “that these are figural tales, communicating spiritual mysteries, and certainly not historical records.” And Hart is right to hold “young earth creationists…who believe that there really was a Noah who built a giant ark to rescue a compendious menagerie from a universal deluge” partly responsible for the proliferation of lazy atheist manifestoes.

Of course, showing up American fundamentalism is about as hard as shooting the deck of an aircraft carrier when you’re standing on it, and it is the absurdities of popular scientism that Hart was put on this earth to expose. Here he is on Dawkins’s vacuous concept of the “meme”:

Genetic materials are propagated by physical transactions because they themselves are physical realities; at their level, no conscious acts need be present. Whatever else “memes” might be, however, if such things really did exist, they would most definitely be composed of intentional content and would exist only as objects of mental representation. They would not therefore be metaphorically “selected” by nature, in the way the units of biological evolution are said to be, but would literally be chosen (even if often a little passively) by a conscious mind.

What’s astonishing isn’t that Dawkins can’t see that the meme is merely a metaphor, but that he doesn’t realize it’s a metaphor that presumes intelligent design. (Hart dismisses the Intelligent Design movement, though more kindly than it deserves.)

Hart is at his impish best when prompting us, with understandable exasperation, to remember that the natural sciences study nature—which is to say, what exists within spacetime. There is no doubt that they are very good at this: I’m typing these words on a new MacBook Pro, and antibodies are developing in my body in response to a flu vaccine, and I can hear an airplane in the skies above Chicago. Thomas Aquinas was in no more doubt of science’s validity within its sphere than is Dawkins. But “within its sphere” is easily misread in the dim light naturalism casts upon metaphysical questions today, when science is said to explain Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” and why I love both so much. (You won’t be surprised to learn it has something to do with natural selection.)

The central folly of scientism is the assumption that “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is a question for science—whose proper field is, after all, “something”—or, even more perniciously, that it isn’t a question worth bothering about, isn’t really a question at all. Hart borrows a delightful illustration of the problem:

How is it that any reality so obviously fortuitous—so lacking in any mark of inherent necessity or explanatory self-sufficiency—can exist at all? The American philosopher Richard Taylor once illustrated this mystery…with the image of a man out for a stroll in the forest unaccountably coming upon a very large translucent sphere. Naturally, he would immediately be taken aback by the sheer strangeness of the thing, and would wonder how it should happen to be there. More to the point, he would certainly never be able to believe that it just happened to be there without any cause, or without any possibility of further explanation; the very idea would be absurd. But, adds Taylor, what that man has not noticed is that he might ask the same question equally well about any other thing in the woods too, a rock or a tree no less than this outlandish sphere, and fails to do so only because it rarely occurs to us to interrogate the ontological pedigrees of the things to which we are accustomed.

This is certainly the dark wood in which we seem to find ourselves. But while I agree with Hart that naturalism appears incoherent—its incoherence is the external warrant for my belief in God—I think he is too hasty to dismiss the possibility that our bafflement before ontological mystery is the result of our being the particular kind of limited animals we are. A badger cannot understand differential equations, but that tells us something about badgers, not equations. I’m not sure I share Hart’s confidence in human “reason’s power to illuminate reality.” My own beliefs notwithstanding, there might be some natural but unfamiliar perspective from which the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” simply dissolves—as from our perspective differential equations pose no insurmountable obstacle to understanding.

Still, the badger doesn’t know there is a problem to be faced in the first place. And the giant translucent spheres that surround us everywhere we turn are astonishing indeed.

Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator (Penguin, 2012) and The Second Sex (Penguin, forthcoming). He’s at work on a collection of criticism, Equipment for Living, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.
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Published in the February 7, 2014 issue: View Contents
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