Metaphysics and the Experience of God: The Meditations of David Bentley Hart

 
 

The embrace of a materialist and mechanistic view of the world, taking its inspiration from the rise of modern science, results in a loss of the sense of transcendence. But God is not simply some finite object in a universe of other objects—he is reason, being, and order itself.

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One can imagine the emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) sitting at night in his tent, pitched on one of the far-flung frontiers of the Roman Empire, making yet another entry in what would become his famous Meditations. A quintessential Stoic, the emperor believed that the universe was governed by an all-pervading Reason and that, accordingly, whatever happened in the external world must be good. The appropriate goal for every human being was to attain a proper interior attitude toward the world: to live in such a way as not to be troubled by the ebb and flow of events.

In the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius would remind himself that, when he was tempted to react in anger or sorrow to what he experienced, he should: “Consider the alternatives afresh, namely ‘Providence or atoms,’ and how many proofs there are that the universe is like a city community.” For Aurelius, “atoms” meant randomness, chance collocations. Order or chaos; purpose or chance; these are mutually exclusive (and exhaustive) possibilities for our world, and for a Stoic like Aurelius it was clear that, as soon as one reflects on such a dichotomy, one realizes that there really can be no alternative to Providence.

In his new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss, David Bentley Hart, although not a Stoic, offers what he himself calls a series of “meditations on the meaning of the word ‘God.’” Hart’s meditations occur in the midst of considerable cultural confusion about what “God” means: a confusion that is itself part of a broader, and often unexamined, commitment to a mechanistic and materialistic understanding of the world. In a way, the intellectual world of contemporary materialism is much like the ancient variety Marcus Aurelius encountered. Like the Stoic emperor, Hart seeks to console himself and his readers with the strong medicine of philosophical reflection.

Hart’s central claim is that the God made manifest in the classical theism of Christianity and, indeed, in all the great religious traditions, is “the unconditioned and transcendent reality who sustains all things in being, the one in whom all that nature cannot contain but upon which nature depends has its simple and infinite actuality.” He notes that

any argument for or against the reality of God not so understood—any debate over an intelligent designer, or a supreme being within time and space who merely supervises history and legislates morals, or a demiurge whose operations could possibly be rivals of the physical causes describable by scientific cosmology—may prove a diverting amble along certain byways of seventeenth-century deism or eighteenth-century “natural history,” but it most definitely has nothing to do with the God worshiped in the great theistic religions or described in their philosophical traditions, or reasoned toward by their deepest logical reflections upon the contingency of the world.

This passage is a good example of Hart’s elaborate prose. Through it, the reader ambles along the byways of contemporary discourse about God, nature, and human nature.

Hart concentrates on the fundamental error of conceiving of God as some finite object in a universe of other objects: more powerful, yes, but falling within the same metaphysical order of being. As he says, the God of classical theism “is not merely one, in the way a finite object might be merely singular or unique, but is oneness as such, the one act of being and unity by which any finite thing exists and by which all things exist together.” In speaking about God, Hart uses the themes of being, consciousness, and bliss. But before turning to these topics, he points to the need to examine critically the “picture of the world,” the prevailing axiomatic cultural and intellectual assumptions, from which or through which much current discourse about God occurs.

The embrace of a materialist and mechanistic view of the world, taking its inspiration in many ways from the rise of modern science, results in a loss of the sense of transcendence, of a reality beyond, or perhaps better, fundamentally other than, the world of sense experience. As Hart observes, “in the age of the mechanical philosophy, in which all of nature could be viewed as a boundless collection of brute events, God soon came to be seen as merely the largest brute event of all.”

A philosophy of nature that sees the world in mechanistic terms supports a materialist metaphysics (similar to the atomism that Marcus Aurelius rejected) “not because the sciences somehow corroborate its tenets, but simply because it determines in advance which problems of interpretation we can all safely avoid confronting.” Hart argues that one result of this picture of the world is that we tend no longer to inquire about what it means for things to be. Nor do we search for an ultimate, transcendent explanation of why things exist at all. The prevailing picture that Hart calls into question is often termed “metaphysical naturalism.” This is, as Hart observes,

a picture of the whole of reality that cannot, according to its own intrinsic premises, address the being of the whole; it is a metaphysics of the rejection of metaphysics, a transcendental certainty of the impossibility of transcendental truth, and so requires an act of pure credence logically immune to verification.

It is this mechanical and materialist view of reality that, Hart says, “forecloses, arbitrarily and peremptorily, a great number of questions that a truly rational culture should leave open.”

The ascendancy of mechanism was reinforced by the ways in which Darwinian and Neo-Darwinian evolutionary thought has been deployed in its service. In the midst of a mechanist picture of the world, it was (and is) easy is to see that natural selection among living things must mean that it is not God but only mindless forces that are the source of the great variety and bounty of life.

Thomas Nagel, in Mind and Cosmos: Why Neo-Darwinian Materialism Is Almost Certainly False, offers a trenchant critique of the materialist metaphysics associated with contemporary evolutionary theory and argues for a renewed appropriation of some form of teleology in nature. For Nagel, however, it is a teleology without God. But the God who has no role in Nagel’s picture is the deistic demiurge which, as Hart observes, is not the God of classical theism. Hart agrees with Nagel’s criticism of materialism, but broadens his analysis to much wider metaphysical, epistemological, and aesthetic realms.

Hart offers mostly dialectical arguments to show the incoherence of the positions he rejects. We recognize the radical contingency of the world we experience, a recognition that is not the result of a demonstrative argument but a kind of intellectual intuition based on the immediacy of our experience. This insight into the “absolute contingency” of the world eludes those who embrace a materialistic metaphysics. It is also the basis for a reflection that leads to God as the absolutely necessary being. Hart sets out this path in terms of what he calls a logical inevitability. This is an appeal to a conclusion that something must be so because of the incoherence (the logical inconsistency) of opposing claims. It is the apprehension of the “utter gratuity” of the world that leads us to recognize that it is created.

When Hart turns to discuss consciousness, he offers excellent criticisms of materialist and dualist philosophies of mind. Again, his arguments here are dialectical, pointing to inconsistencies and contradictions in the different positions he examines. Materialist accounts of the mind are unable to offer coherent explanations of qualitative experiences, abstract concepts, or rationality itself. Thinking that we must choose between either an exclusively materialist view that identifies the mind with the brain or a view that makes mind one thing and the body another thing is the result of examining consciousness within the framework of a materialist and mechanistic philosophy.

It is not clear, however, what other option Hart would embrace. He finds Aristotelian-Thomistic hylemorphism “ultimately inadequate.” By criticizing the coherence of prevailing materialist concepts of the mind and consciousness, he wants to open up possibilities that are based on a recognition of “an irreducible spiritual dimension” to the mind. He finds current attempts to use theories of emergence, epiphenomenalism, and the like to account for consciousness to be dead ends.

A strength of his analysis lies in showing that the inadequacies of materialist explanations of consciousness have their source in a mechanistic picture of nature, which “is self-evidently false, nothing more than an intellectual adherence to a limited empirical method that has been ineptly mistaken for a complete metaphysical description of reality.” Discussions of God in this metaphysical context do not concern the God of classical theism, who is not

some rational agent, external to the order of the physical universe, who imposes some kind of design upon an otherwise inert and mindless material order. He is not some discrete being somewhere out there, floating in the great beyond, who fashions nature in accordance with rational laws upon which he is dependent. Rather, he is himself the logical order of all reality, the ground both of the subjective rationality of mind and the objective reality of being, the transcendent and indwelling Reason of Wisdom by which mind and matter are both informed and in which both participate.

Hart ties together the finitude or contingency of existence, which points ultimately to a source of being, with the intentionality and abstractive activity of consciousness, which points to an ultimate ground of rationality and consciousness. “If I am wrong about all these things,” Hart says, the only alternative is the abandonment “of firm belief in any kind of reasoning at all.”

Finally, Hart turns to desire and its fulfillment in a transcendent bliss or beauty that is God. It is the God described by classical theism, which “is the one act of being, consciousness, and bliss in whom everything lives and moves and has its being.”

Hart’s own commitment is to what he sometimes calls the “metaphysics of the transcendental.” His position is heavily indebted to the thought of Plato and the Neo-Platonists, for whom there is a kind of existential priority to a world of transcendent truths. At the very end of his book, he invokes Plato’s famous “allegory of the cave.” This, in a way, is the dominant motif of the entire book. Freed from the shadow world projected on the walls of the cave, we can find a vision of reality consistent with the extraordinary extent of the real. Again, Hart:

We stand before the gratuity of being and the luminosity of consciousness and the transcendent splendor that seems to shine in and though all things, before indurated habits of thought and will can distance us from the radiant simplicity of that experience.

Hart’s meditations are an invitation to overcome those “indurated habits” that chain us to the world of shadows.

For one following in the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, metaphysical judgments about God require an adequate foundation in the philosophy of nature. We need to distinguish between a philosophy of nature and metaphysics in order to see how the two relate to each other. The former is a more general science of nature, which examines, for example, what time, change, matter, and form are. An understanding of change in the physical world comes before we can conclude that God is a transcendent, immutable reality. Recognizing contingency is part, but only a part, of understanding change. It is true, as Hart tells us, that we have lost a proper sense of transcendence, but this loss has its source in a loss of a sense of nature: nature as an active, intrinsic principle of characteristic behavior.

The emphasis Hart places on moving from the experience of contingent things to the absolute necessary reality, which is God, would be stronger were he to concentrate more on the distinction between existence (that a thing is) and essence (what a thing is). This distinction leads one ultimately to see that God is what it means “to be.” In him, essence and existence are identical. The need for a cause of existence, as distinct from reasoning from contingency to necessity, as Hart does, is, I think, a surer philosophical approach to God.

As we have seen, Hart’s approach to the traditional concept of God is thoroughly philosophical. For some believers, this emphasis on philosophy over revelation may be troublesome. But Hart recognizes, as did Thomas Aquinas, that theological reflection presupposes and includes sound philosophy. Although philosophy cannot tell us that the God recognized as the transcendent, absolutely necessary being found through metaphysics is the same as the God revealed in scripture, theologians can.

William Carroll is the Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science at Blackfriars Hall and a member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion of the University of Oxford.

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