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
Yogi 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.
- Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, I:4:76. [↩]
- My continuing attempts to examine these questions appear at this blog under the “anismism” heading. [↩]
- 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.” [↩]