David Bentley Hart as Atheist (On Creative Principle and Creator Principal)

We conclude, therefore, that God is described as a lawgiver or prince, and styled just, merciful, &c., merely in concession to popular understanding, and the imperfection of popular knowledge; that in reality God acts and directs all things simply by the necessity of His nature and perfection, and that His decrees and volitions are eternal truths, and always involve necessity.1

experience of god coverYogi Scott asks in a private email how I think an atheist might begin a discussion with David Bentley Hart, author of the recently published The Experience of God, and how I think Hart might respond in turn. Scott has in mind, of course, something more useful as well as more cordial than the familiar exchange of ridicule and ridicule of ridicule followed by re-discovery of the pointlessness or impossibility of discussion at all: The objective of a meaningful discussion is always implicitly agreement, necessarily equating with conversion for those on at least one side of the dialogue, perhaps a mutual conversion along unanticipated lines, even if the very best we will realistically expect from any particular discussion, whether by the grace of God or the dislodgement of organic impediment, is to make some small amount of progress in comprehending a position of someone likely to remain on the other side.

Responding to a recent New Yorker article on atheism, by Adam Gopnik, Hart isolates the central feature of the atheist reaction to his book, quoting the following paragraph:

As the explanations get more desperately minute, the apologies get ever vaster. David Bentley Hart’s recent ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’ (Yale) doesn’t even attempt to make God the unmoved mover, the Big Banger who got the party started; instead, it roots the proof of his existence in the existence of the universe itself. Since you can explain the universe only by means of some other bit of the universe, why is there a universe (or many of them)? The answer to this unanswerable question is God. He stands outside everything, ‘the infinite to which nothing can add and from which nothing can subtract,’ the ultimate ground of being. This notion, maximalist in conception, is minimalist in effect. . . . A God who communicates with no one and causes nothing seems a surprisingly trivial acquisition for cosmology.

Hart’s response to this summary may not, however, be very useful for the yogi. Hart first offers a “sigh of vexation,” one of several detectable in the post (that is, in its less splenetic parts and therefore hearable at all). He questions whether Gopnik even read his book, introduces some demurrals that read at first like terminological quibbles but may refer to much more complex questions, and then, very briefly, seems to close in on Gopnik’s point – only to move immediately to appeals to all the authorities of the ages: first a list of great theologians, then a list of great scientists, all of whom he seeks to claim for his side, if not, in my view, very convincingly.

That brief and somewhat vague statement, sandwiched between the demurrals and the authorities, consists in its entirety as follows: “[T]he God described in my book is the creator of everything, who communicates with all persons in a constant and general way, and with many individuals in an episodic and special way.” “Episodic and special” communication by a being in a strict sense properly, rather than merely conventionally, referenced by the pronoun “who” may, but may not, mean something approaching what the scornful objects of Hart’s scorn understand by religion or religious theism, but Hart does not pause here for reflection. The problem that he scants and thus avoids can be compactly stated as follows: Even apart from or well before the discussion of religious practices, beliefs, and history, the theist is prepared to cross a conceptual threshold, or may be found already on the other side of a threshold, that the atheist will not or cannot cross or may not even acknowledge as authentically a threshold. It would mark the transit point from the “it” to the “who,” from a theorem to a sentience, or, if you will, from a principle to a principal, or from creation or the creative to a or the creator (or Creator).

Anyone ought to be able at least to consider the principle as a principle. The theist can accept both the principle as well as the principal being, though may be insensitive to the former. The atheist may or may not accept the former, but does not accept the latter. The direction or movement of atheism in relation to theism and in criticism of theistic culture is of the elimination of the Creator-Principal. The movement or direction of theism in relation to atheist belief would be toward restoration or a demonstration or, as some will insist, direct experience of a or the Creator’s (or Its or His or Her) actuality and necessity.

In my reading of The Experience of God (yes, I did read it, and with interest and pleasure, if also with disappointed special attention in regard to special communication from a special sentience), Hart never grapples with this problem seriously except, ironically-indicatively, to deny its existence. On the basis of this denial or inattention, Hart is able, or seems to allow himself, to engage in a bait-and-switch – the bait in this instance happening to be comprised of everything and every nothing that ever was or could be or could be thought to be or possibly to be, in a word the All. Observers like Isaac Chotiner, echoing Gopnik, doubt that believers will recognize their beliefs in Hart’s, or be sure that proponents of Hart’s approach will not be doing a greater service to disbelief, while, in this respect quite unappreciatively, the notoriously combative New Atheist Jerry Coyne uses the expression “confidence game“: Atheist true believers like Coyne see Hart vacating nearly the entirety of what they understand “religion” and specifically “theistic religion” to entail: all of the mythopoetic drama, all of the magic, all of the miracles, all of the creedal requirements, all of the soteriologically indispensable ritual and sacraments, all of the revealed laws of human conduct and morality, and especially all of the direct intervention by the deity in human events and all of the anthropomorphic descriptions of its or His or Her supposed appearance and subjective states. In short, in The Experience of God and other defenses of “classical theism,” at least, Hart seems to insist that true religion has always been essentially a panpsychism or panentheism whose god concept can be reduced to the heading for a philosophical or metaphysical perspective or notion, but whose relation to Earthly affairs, if any, can be deduced or discerned only indirectly or philosophically, or perhaps ecstatically or imaginatively – and possibly only rarely from sacred scripture or religious tradition.

There would be little in this view to distinguish it from Spinozism, or “natural divine law,” which for many traditional believers – despite Spinoza’s deployment of a personal pronoun in reference to a concept and his intermittent seeming attributions of vitality and sentience to it or to “him” or to “Him” – has long been taken by believers to be atheistic, precisely for the above reasons. For Spinoza as for many others, apparently including Hart in The Experience, this God of the philosophers is a source of all true happiness and morality or justice – not to mention “being,” “consciousness,” and “bliss” – at least for philosophers: Everyone else, to approach it or its benefits at all, will require, or in the case of priests or prophets will utter, fables.

The difficulties, as noted by philosophers and theologians since ancient times, arise with those, identifiable as a middle class of some type, or alternatively of a typically modern and democratic sensibility, who demand a perfect alignment of esoteric and exoteric doctrines. Without delving any deeper for now into that ancient discussion2, we can observe that some atheists may not have much interest or see much use in metaphysical speculation, even where the metaphysician’s “God” is a “God in name only,” but either way it is not what they mainly think of themselves as resisting. For them, Spinozism in concept, if not in its pre-occupation with theistic discourse and its openness to theistic terminological conventions, would remain nearly indistinguishable from atheism until someone like Hart claims the opposite, and, stealthily or without explanation, or serious explanation, smuggles the “personal God,” or maybe an “episodic and special” communicator, back into the picture, re-converting the at length de-materialized conceptual it into the name of a gendered entity capable of desires, of considered responses to our conduct, of judgments, of agency. Hart may insist that the word or name “God” or whatever cognate is not to be treated like your name or my name, but that is not how theists seem to be treating it when thanking him/it for love or mercy or companionship or touchdowns. It does not seem sensible to thank a concept, or a necessity, or an ultimate ground of being.

Having already noted that this discussion is a very old one, we can further suggest, contrary to Hart, that its continuation in our time, even under some inverted presumptions and much confusion, may not constitute some peculiar proof of the decadence of our consumer-capitalist and secularist age. More to the present point, we could, I think, bring an honest and open-minded atheist, even a convinced naturalist-physicalist-materialist, to the verge of the Creator Principal without forcing an abandonment of all atheist precepts. The movement would be along Spinozist lines, in which reference to the deity by name becomes at best or at worst a manner of speaking for an otherwise naturalist philosophy.3 Occupation of this point for the atheist would still leave unaffected a vast corpus of theistic doctrine and dogma, and a vast amount of ongoing religious practice – in short, nearly everything that everyone other than DB Hart in his book commonly identifies with theistic religion.

In the meantime, simply to assert, as Hart very much seems to, that the truth of a religious tradition is utterly severable from every particular element of that tradition, that it is essentially irrelevant to the inquiry into religion what the mass of believers believe or say they believe or are asked to believe, is, for the atheist, bad faith: a mere changing of the subject if not a deception. To borrow a comparison offered by our yogi friend, for atheists it is as though they have been conducting a comprehensive discussion on air travel only to be interrupted by a visitor insisting impolitely that the only real discussion is the one restricted to aerodynamics, and that all passengers, air crews, airport and TSA employees, and so on who maintain a different view either are wrong or, even more annoying, deep down actually agree whether or not they know or are willing to admit it. The effect may be to persuade them that the aerodynamics-obsessive, in addition to having little of interest to contribute, is rather out of his mind – obscuring the fact that, when it comes to flight, they might have much in common.


  1. Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, I:4:76. []
  2. My continuing attempts to examine these questions appear at this blog under the “anismism” heading. []
  3. An alternative foundation of this indistinction between atheist and theist doctrine, of the final untenability of the opposition a/theism is a kind of foundationlessness, the paradox of that familar type that signifies a certain final mutual incapacity of language and logic already implied in the notion of a simultaneously all-important and simply trivial “manner of speaking.” []

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14 comments on “David Bentley Hart as Atheist (On Creative Principle and Creator Principal)

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  1. Well Hart does come close, the main objection to the current anti theistic world view, is that of chaos as the main point, randomness, which has been destructive to society, to try to know
    the mind of God, seems an almost impossible task,

    • The deity whom or deity concept that Hart stands by, or the way that Hart goes about trying to stand by it, doesn’t seem very relevant to “society.” One ends up, as Hart does, arguing oneself into disgust with one’s fellows, with nothing to say to them except “I have nothing to say to you.” Under the older dispensation, one could say, as Spinoza still says, that inspiring obedience and devotion on the part of the rude crude multitude is justification enough for religion. The modern sensibility, that Spinoza helped to shape, promotes a different approach, though whether it can ever actually embody such a truly different approach, or whether the demand for honesty and transparency can ever be honest and transparent about itself, remains questionable.

      From another point of view, and an implication of the view of God in Its infinities, so also in the vicinity of Spinozism – since omnipotence and omnipresence dissolve any difference or distance between desire or will on the one side and actuality or actualization on the other, the only mind truly mind is mind of God or divine, or is all that ever is or is thought, so not hard to know, but all knowing.

      • I don’t understand where this is coming from: Hart is just explaining classical, “catholic” theology at the end of the day – this is normative theology for Roman Catholics, at least in so far as Aquinas can be considered normative these days. I recommend Mascal’s “He Who Is” on Natural Theology.

        I am not defending Hart, but this is just classical Christianity, full stop.

        • this is just classical Christianity, full stop.

          I don’t accept that – least of all the “full stop.”

          It’s been more than a year since I read the book, so, to confirm my recollection I did some quick searches of the Kindle copy. It includes 36 mentions of Christ, all in the form of references to “Christian” thinkers or to “Christianity,” never to the individual Jesus Christ: There is no mention of “Jesus Christ,” the life of Jesus, or the acts or teachings of Jesus Christ. The only mentions of “salvation” are in reference to Hindu religion. There is no mention of “the Cross” or “Crucifixion.” There is one reference to the Gospels of the New Testament. There is one mention of “resurrection,” in a footnote – from the title of Gregory Nyssa’s On the Soul and Resurrection.

          I could go on. I’m not saying, and wasn’t saying in my discussion of the book, that Hart’s approach is “un-Christian.” I wouldn’t presume to judge, but to say that a school or tradition within Christianity, or certain sects or modes of worship or discussion, would overlap with Hart or the “Experience” of which he speaks is trivial. There are idealistic generalized expressions of religious experience or theological concepts common to many major religions. What Hart presents in this book may qualify as “classical theology,” but there’s nothing particularly Christian about it.

  2. Back to the beginning of the post, Scott’s question, how would an atheist might begin a discussion with Hart.

    Perhaps Buddhism doesn’t quite qualify me as either theistic or atheistic. So I might not be the ideal person to respond to Scott’s question.

    But what strikes me in the quote at the top of this post, and in the article Lee M links to, is the role of necessity. So that’s where I would begin such a conversation…Why is God necessary for necessity? Why is necessity necessary?

    • To take the second question first, a concept of necessity would be necessary for any answer to the question to be regarded as a true answer, or as a conclusion necessarily following from whatever premise, meaning that the question itself, as a question, already presumes logical necessity. In other words, without logical necessity there are neither answers nor questions.

      Without getting diverted by a discussion of different notions of necessity, we can, if we choose, rest on logical necessity if we are satisfied with an answer to the first question that does not require “God” to stand for more than a principle: God is necessary for necessity because necessity is necessary for necessity, and the word “God” functions here as just another name for the principle of necessity or the possibility of necessity. We may not need to use the word “God,” but we do need a word for necessity in order to discuss necessity in words.

      The same transposition will occur for each of the parallel notions regarding ultimate ground of being, being itself, the eternal, the infinite, and so on. We define “God” as ultimate, being itself, being of being, eternal, infinite, and then see where that gets us within the ontological system we wish to explore. On this level to ask whether God is the ultimate ground of being or is infinite or is necessary, etc., would be an absurd question or a refusal to have the discussion at all: A refusal to play the game, whether or not accompanied by an insistence that refusing to play the game is really playing the game – that sitting at your computer writing about God is the same as playing basketball if that’s what playing basketball means to you. Or: It’s like asking whether the ultimate ground of being is really the ultimate ground of being: The meaningful question in relation to the system as system is how does the u.g.o.b. function within it and is there any reason for anyone to care. Whether “u.g.o.b.” is a better expression than “g.o.d.” would be a question belonging to some other inquiry – probably a political one.

      Now, you could mean or mean to mean something else, in which case I think your question needs to be more specific, or specific to that something else, more in the form of “Why is the being described as possessing x, y, and z qualities necessary for necessity?” or “Why is God the Heavenly Father of Jesus Christ necessary for necessity?” or “Why is God who sent his angel to Mohammed necessary for necessity?”

      • Of course – I was just getting the ball rolling.

        So we might consider my questions at least succeeding at crossing the threshold for starting a discussion. Perhaps not the best, or most elegant, but at least adequate.

        And if our putative partner in patter is Mr Hart, I think it’s reasonable, necessary even, for him to give his account of necessity, because he also attributes choice to God. He attributes it, but does not in the article Lee M linked to, even try to resolve the tension between divine necessity and choice.

        And I think we should understand “choice” here as “free will”. That is God merely choosing between alternatives doesn’t really make sense. The choices of this God must necessarily be radically free willings.

        So this God is both eternal and temporal. Hart admirably presents this as a bare concept without an “analogical interval”. So, “what occurs in Jesus of Nazareth is in some sense the story of God becoming the God”.

        Now I’m fine with appeals to faith in these matters. But again, Scott’s question is how Hart and an atheist might discuss these things. Faith pretty much obviates discussion.

        Attributing both a bare necessity and a bare free will to God needs, outside of faith, some better explanation for discussion to continue.

        • (Am struggling to compose a reply to you, bob, and also to Lee M, possibly a combined response, that moves the conversation forward. Seems it would take time and focused energy, of types in somewhat short supply for me right now, to say what I would like to say in a way that might be both understandable and yet also worth saying – another interval that sometimes difficult to close – possibly even the same or at least a connected or overlapping interval…)

        • I don’t know that Hart has or can close the interval or describe the threshold. There seems to be a disconnect between the Hart of The Experience 2014 and the Hart of dissenting admiration for Jenson of 2007, though whether that’s a development or deterioration in Hart’s faith or whether the disconnect has always been there or whether Hart bridges the gap somewhere else, I don’t know. As I was suggesting above, he seems to be comfortable celebrating the inexplicable as such, but for the skeptic it’s an unanswered contradiction, or an insistent refusal to think further, a blue pill, as a substitute for persuasion in relation to a graspable truth.

          Maybe Lee M – I mean this comment also as a further reply to his comment above – can point to parallels in Christian theology, and also in respect to “divine free will.” At this point the problem for uniting the Principle-God and the Principal-God is that the latter always seems to violate the perfections or infinitudes that align with the former’s pure abstraction. That God “redescribe[d]… in more historical, dynamic, and relational terms” seems always necessarily to result in imperfect and less then all-encompassing gods, or a pluriform mono-deity that verges on or simply is polytheism under a different name, or an imperfect because contradictory deity in an imperfect or incomprehensible universe.

          The rationalist will find little difficulty and rarely show much restraint seizing upon whatever paralogic or paraconsistency and driving the whole atheist convoy right through the gap between logic and paralogic. According to the further indictments by Jewish, Islamic, and other monists, the Trinitarian divine economy and all of that ratiocination about the Father and the Son in love and their human companions suggests a rather desperate effort to pretend “this isn’t what it looks like!” Vastly learned, capable, and clever individuals like Jenson, Hart, and their esteemed predecessors can develop wondrous ways of diverting our attention from the simple logical and moral quandaries that necessarily follow from wanting to have your classical theist absolute baker producing new contingent cakes in history… and this also demonstrates how theological discussion takes on the shape of other philosophical discussion, since the problem of the perfect but also imperfect God is a way of re-framing the problem of the free will and determinism antinomy for moral judgment.

          Best I can do here today is offer a summary of the Rosenzweig alternative as I understand it. Though it’s written explicitly contra Hegel, I think it re-unites with Hegel, but we can set that aside, since we don’t really care whether at the end Hegel looks better or worse, we’re just trying to understand.

          In the first two chapters of The Star of Redemption, for me the two most difficult chapters of the book, Rosenzweig offers a conceptual structure that is probably easier to follow in Hermann Cohen (his mentor) or maybe Buber, Levinas or even Derrida (R’s “neo-Judaic” successors). Over the course of the book and especially at the end R develops as clearly as anyone I know of, especially regarding the crossing of the threshold, a philosophical justification of the positive faith of the believer, and of multiple positive faiths, even or especially in their primitive (or primal or primordial) anthropomorphisms and mutual exclusivity.

          The former especially suggests a departure both from Cohen and from Judaic philosophy, as well as from classical theism. Whether R’s departure is an unacceptable departure may depend in part on whether and to the extent you accept his preparatory work on the notion of “form” itself: what it could possibly mean for God and man to exist as likenesses of each other. Addressing Hegel and by implication the entire Western philosophical tradition (in theory completed in Hegel and also typified in Spinoza), Rosenzweig sets himself against monisms that lead to and depend on identity of reason and being or of the divine and nature (with God as principle or truth principle), and that point to highest conceptual abstractions that need to be rendered as fable to be understood by the multitude or to be useful in governing it, and are simultaneously hostile to or dangerous for philosophy.

          Instead, R describes each of his three main figures – god, man, world – as possessing its own essence within itself: Each is differently: Each has its own mode of being. The “is” takes on the properties of an active verb (as we’ve discussed before at this blog, “to be” and its cognates eventually have to be understood as transitive in relation to the divine: https://ckmacleod.com/2013/12/02/amended-comment-at-thinking_reeds-blog-on-theistic-personalism-v-classical-theism/comment-page-1/#comment-78058 and following, under a post regarding a previous Lee M-inspired discussion). So, whatever or however God is, in order to be God, God cannot be thought simply or statically All or simply or statically UGOB, etc. Rosenzweig then proceeds with an “origin of the divine” philosophical narrative, a phenomenological re-statement of Genesis or a proto-Genesis. His approach is somewhat similar to that of his mentor Cohen. Since it rejects the identity of reason and being or of any type of “existence” with “Being,” his God cannot be the God of the philosophers or principle or synonym for All, but that doesn’t make Him a being like other beings either. He retains an infinite and unique creative relation to the All entirely within Himself: That’s what it means or must mean to be as God is or Is, for Rosenzweig.

          As per my earlier comment, it may be necessary to understand this God first as god concept within a theological system, in other words as definitional and provisional, not or not yet subject to a simple declaration of true or false or accurate or inaccurate.

          This God that/who is certainly not simply synonymous with a principle or the All operates according to a type of freedom specific to His nature (or essence). He can affirm, say “Yes,” as well as say “No,” and each is essential to “divine freedom.” We can suppose that such a God might be capable of filling the role assigned to Him in Jenson’s account – in the sense that the notion of his unmet desires or needs, or his own apparent thrownness or temporality, doesn’t present the same kind of contradictions. He both would be more and, only in a certain sense (a false sense), would be less than the God of Hart’s Spinozist account or than the Spirit of an Hegelian idealization (seen one-sidedely or statically). This God might be in theory, but only in theory, capable also of filling the role sometimes assigned to him in Martin Luther’s account or in the nominalist account that is said to have terrified Luther: Utterly beyond human beings, and therefore completely unknowable and unpredictable, as though at any moment, being all-powerful, he could erase all existent beings, or reverse any other divine ordnance, and ordain that annihilation good. Some Islamic theologies also move in this direction, of a truly all-powerful God with “creates rock he can’t pick up” problems that cannot be taken by a true believer to be problems: This God can fully determine and re-determine his own nature and all nature, but that view takes us immediately into contradiction, including over the question of contradiction: Is God subject to logical necessity or law of non-contradiction or not?

          I’m going to resist the temptation here to rehearse the paradoxes here, even though they’re some of my favorite things. In sum, Rosenzweig’s answer is somewhat Kierkegaardian: If God could be absurd, then all would be absurd, so therefore God is not absurd, and the Christian as well as authentically Jewish, but for R not Islamic and not Hindu or Confucian or Buddhist or pagan or atheist, insistence on a consistent, non-contradictory, and positive one God will be true for us always: In the Irenaian formula, it provides for a god to become. It doesn’t suit contemporary multi-cultural and pluralist presumptions to compare religions this way, but it may be more honest to admit that the comparisons are always implicitly being made unless the choice of one confession over another is a trivial choice or not authentically a choice at all.

          This has been a long answer to a simple request for a next step in discussion. It’s purpose has been to suggest that any move however seemingly small can pre-determine and distort the entire discussion if it puts in place, however subtly, an ontology or concept of ontology that we may not need or want.

  3. Man is not the be all and end all, he just isn’t, there is another realm out there, we understood this as recently as 100 years ago,
    yes Nietsche said ‘Gott is Tott’ but that is clearly wrong,

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