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Why We Need David Bentley Hart

Brad East has a very fine piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books in which he discusses the lack of obvious relevance of theology to contemporary American life [1], and posits the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart as someone we all really, really should be paying attention to. Excerpts:

Given this love of culture and the high calling of theology, the hinge of Hart’s criticism, and thus the chief object of his withering disfavor, is those selfsame “senile cultures,” that is, Western modernity and its offspring. Hart sees the progressive secularization of Western culture as a single sustained dehumanization of society — begun in the Church, ironically — and just so one long march toward the receding horizon of nihilism. Indeed, nihilism and secularism, capitalism and individualism, consumerism and voluntarism, scientism and materialism are all of a piece, “a seamless garment” that simultaneously signifies and effects the triumph of the will in all human affairs without exception. As Hart writes:

The history of capitalism and the history of secularism are not two accidentally contemporaneous tales, after all; they are the same story told from different vantages. […] [A] late capitalist culture, being intrinsically a consumerist economy, of necessitypromotes a voluntarist understanding of individual freedom and a purely negative understanding of social and political liberty. […] It is […] a system inevitably corrosive of as many prohibitions of desire and inhibitions of the will as possible, and therefore of all those customs and institutions — religious, cultural, social — that tend to restrain or even forbid so many acquisitive longings and individual choices. […] The secular world — our world, our age — is one from which as many mediating and subsidiary powers have been purged as possible, precisely to make room for the adventures of the will. […] Secularization is simply developed capitalism in its ineluctable cultural manifestation.

The very same moral, political, and theological vision underlies Hart’s decade-long polemic against the “New Atheists” (making for an unlikely public-facing pair with Marilynne Robinson, a hyperbolic snort to her erudite eye-roll). He does not protest their lack of faith, which he deeply admires in truly formidable unbelievers like Nietzsche. He protests their lack of moral courage, theological ignorance, philosophical crudity, unwarranted arrogance, and mechanistic reductivism. Their books are, after all, “nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men.” They are worth responding to inasmuch as their errors should be exposed and the record set straight. Hart’s experience in doing so has not been encouraging, however. In his reply to New Yorker essay by Adam Gopnik [2], for example, Hart’s conclusion is as harsh as it is despairing of further dialogue:

It does not matter. Nothing is happening here. The conversation has never begun. The current vogue in atheism is probably reducible to three rather sordidly ordinary realities: the mechanistic metaphysics inherited from the seventeenth century, the banal voluntarism that is the inevitable concomitant of late capitalist consumerism, and the quiet fascism of Western cultural supremacism (that is, the assumption that all cultures that do not consent to the late modern Western vision of reality are merely retrograde, unenlightened, and in need of intellectual correction and many more Blu-ray players). Everything else is idle chatter […] What I find so dismal about Gopnik’s article is the thought that it represents not the worst of popular secularist thinking, but the best. Principled unbelief was once a philosophical passion and moral adventure, with which it was worthwhile to contend. Now, perhaps, it is only so much bad intellectual journalism, which is to say, gossip, fashion, theatrics, trifling prejudice. Perhaps this really is the way the argument ends — not with a bang but a whimper.

More:

Given popular understanding of the meaning and cultural power of Christianity in America, it may seem at best counterintuitive and at worse obscene to assert the social and political impotence of religion in the United States. But that is precisely the point. There is both more and less to the Christian faith than its empty public ciphers would suggest. The freak show of power’s religious courtiers being played out before our eyes is a distraction and misleading in the extreme. What force it appears to have is spent: mere thrashing in the death throes of an exhausted, protracted collapse. And politics aside, what remains incontestable is the expulsion of Christian thought from serious public intellectual consideration and the concomitant lack of interest on the part of either those who pull the cultural levers or those who would wreck the machine altogether.

If David Bentley Hart represents anything, it is that there is more to Christianity in public than debauched power politics, more to theology than the caricatures of the unknowing. It is a rich, demanding tradition that hates injustice, loves the truth, privileges the downtrodden, adores the beautiful, and refuses to give even one inch to the atomizing, reductive forces of a technocracy rushing to impose the future on us all. It knows, but what it knows is mystery. It is not what you wish it were, and it will not affirm what you already believe. But then, who would want that? “Our longing for transcendence is inextinguishable in us,” and though our age obscures it, “we are nevertheless still open to the same summons issued in every age to every soul.” Come and see.

 

Read the whole thing.  [1] I recommend Hart’s book The Experience Of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss [3] as the best introduction to his thought for us non-professional theologians. I recall reading it and thinking that if an unbeliever who thought religion was foolish gave himself over to this book, he might not come out of it a believer, but he would surely emerge with his convictions shaken. And for that matter, this is also true of believers. It’s not a Christian book, per se, but a book about theism, one that, in a stroke, makes the reader realize that what he thought he knew about theism is either untrue or radically inadequate to the subject. That is to say, a non-believer may put down this book thinking, “Belief in God makes more sense than I thought,” and a believer may do so thinking, “Belief in God is so much broader and deeper than I realized.”

Here’s an excerpt from Damon Linker’s 2014 review of the book: [4]

For those who have led the charge against the forces of faith — Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Grayling, and numerous other wannabes — this change is a welcome sign that the American people have at long last begun to dispel their atavistic ignorance and reconcile themselves to the scientific account of the universe, which is utterly incompatible with any form of theism.

One of the many virtues of theologian David Bentley Hart’s stunning new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, is that it demolishes this facile, self-satisfied position, exposing how completely it relies on a straw man account of God for its cogency. Atheism may well be true; a society of secularists might get along just fine without any form of piety. But until those unbelievers confront the strongest cases for God, they will have failed truly and honestly to rout their infamous enemy.

Without meaning to downplay the very real differences among and within the world’s religions, Hart nonetheless maintains that underlying those differences is a commonly shared cluster of claims about God that can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, and various forms of ancient paganism. (He also finds continuities with a number of Buddhist concepts, though he doesn’t press the case.)

The first of these shared claims is that God transcends the universe. Without exception, our clamorous and combative atheists treat God as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe (a Flying Spaghetti Monster, perhaps). Then they use the findings of science to show that there is no evidence for such an immensely powerful object or thing. And ipso facto, there is no God.

But, of course, the major world religions don’t view God in this way at all. They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world. And that is an enormous — actually, an infinite — difference.

Hart has a way of talking about God that makes the subject seem fresh and alluring. That might come across as trite praise, but it’s not. It is no small thing, in the 21st century, and in a post-Christian culture, to make the discussion of God urgent and illuminating both to theists and atheists alike. If you don’t know Hart’s work, do yourself a favor and give it a try. (But don’t start with his book on theology and aesthetics [5]; it is extremely dense and profound, but inaccessible to most readers.) We may never again be the kind of culture that pays theologians much mind, but in the case of David Bentley Hart, the tragedy would be ours.

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50 Comments To "Why We Need David Bentley Hart"

#1 Comment By Jonathan On October 12, 2017 @ 8:58 am

Hart indeed is a great thinker and writer. But he has one titanic flaw as a writer: he is vituperative and pompous to an extraordinary degree. Consequently, for all his brilliance, the only people who tend to appreciate him are people who already agree with his basic stance, if not with all of his points and arguments (e.g. about universalism). He also exhibits poor choice in the targets of his polemic. He has railed against the New Atheists embarrassingly much, tilting at windmills. In general, he doesn’t seem to realize that the people with whom he grapples care nothing for his — admittedly generally superior — arguments. Or he does realize this but fails or refuses to alter his style so as to speak to the people whom he thinks of himself as addressing. The result is that one suspects his writing is ultimately in he service of demonstrating how cultured and right David Bentley Hart is, and that is a sad kind of writing, a waste. I wish an intellect like his could be put in service of a different literary project. I have been reading him for years, and as time goes by I find him more of a snob, see him more as a yet another victim of the plague of our times, competitive righteousness. It is a plague from which no writer these days seems able to escape unscarred.

#2 Comment By Grumpy realist On October 12, 2017 @ 10:14 am

There seems to be no more reason that atheists have to “prove” the non-existence of God than Christians have to “prove” the non-existence of Zeus or Allah. After all, atheists simply believe in the non-existence of one more deity than you monotheists do.

#3 Comment By inviaadpatriam On October 12, 2017 @ 10:54 am

“…he is vituperative and pompous to an extraordinary degree.”

For me, a key insight for Hart’s style came from listening to his recent Fordham address. I had not realized (or remembered) that Hart did part of his training in England until he mentioned it during this talk. But then it dawned on me when he mentioned this: Paul Griffiths, in the wake of his incident at Duke, released a statement in which he spoke about English training and its rhetorical… well, shall we say, intensity, and the reasons why it is such. I wonder if perhaps the same thing that causes many Americans to take Hart’s tone is snobbish is the same as what helped to contribute to Griffith’s situation at Duke.

#4 Comment By JN On October 12, 2017 @ 11:09 am

That quote from Hart in the Linker piece, “that to seek the good is already to believe in God, whether one wishes to do so or not,” is such an unexpected clarification of my own instincts these past few years as I’ve slowly turned from atheism to agnosticism and, maybe in the future, to some form of theism. Thanks for the introduction to Hart. I look forward to reading his work.

#5 Comment By Oss Ickle On October 12, 2017 @ 11:11 am

Atheist thinkers have provided plenty of pushback against the idea the DBH says anything particularly important, e.g.,:

[6]

#6 Comment By Harvey On October 12, 2017 @ 11:35 am

Re The transcendent source:

Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.

Hart’s problem — as is everyone who lectures us atheists / agnostics / non-believers about the weakness of our arguments — is that he presumes his conclusion. He just dresses up his lack of actual argument in a lot of fancy words.

LaPlace was right — we have no need of that hypothesis. No God, and certainly not the Christian God, is needed to explain the world and universe around us. Many people have some kind of faith that their chosen god exists anyway, but many of us simply don’t.

#7 Comment By sketches by boze On October 12, 2017 @ 11:43 am

I got chills reading his essay from 2011 in which he argued that if the devil took physical form, he would look a lot like Donald Trump. It’s slightly alarming that the man one of our most discerning theologians once described as being like the devil incarnate is now, somehow and against all odds, in charge of our country.

#8 Comment By Franklin Evans On October 12, 2017 @ 12:02 pm

As abstract entities, Science and Religion would be to isolated icons in a Venn diagram. That changes when the abstracts are “translated” into human terms, or, as I prefer, embodied by humans.

In short, the intersecting subset of the two sets is not an abstract. It’s people.

“Soylent Green is… PEOPLE!!!!

Ahem.

I’m not making light of this so much as employing sarcasm for a purpose. My purpose is to point out that no abstract is immune to being corrupted by people.

Case in point: In the abstract, Science says exactly nothing about Religion. The components and boundaries of the abstract construct Science are self-limiting in this. Religion, per se, fails every requirement of Science as an object that can be scientifically examined. The only valid statement Science can make about Religion is “no comment”.

There is an overlap — I don’t call it a subset, because it fails that definition — where Religion declares statements about the physical world. Science then steps in with its statement, and either corroborates Religion or debunks it. It’s not saying that Religion is either right or wrong. It simply shows that Science makes a finding about something about which Religion has spoken.

People come along, and with their people filters, their agendas and goals, and latch onto that dynamic. They declare (atheists) that Science Rules!! They declare (believers, theologians, etc.) that Religion Is the One Truth!! Neither is relevant outside of the context in which the declarations are made, and the prevailing context of our modern times has been labeled The Culture War.

My take on this, all previous evidence of my biases aside, is that Science and Religion are worthy of our trust, but that worthiness plummets when People declare themselves the gatekeepers and guardians of either or both.

“God gave us a beautiful sunset tonight.”

“Refraction of light, particles in the atmosphere, and the present angle of the Earth’s tilt combine for an astonishingly beautiful display tonight.”

I wonder if we will ever find it possible to get past arguing about the cause, and just sit together and bask in such beauty.

#9 Comment By MikeS On October 12, 2017 @ 12:07 pm

“our clamorous and combative atheists treat God as if he were the biggest, most powerful object or thing in, or perhaps alongside, the universe”

Well, with all respect to the thoughtful philosophers and theologians who favor a ‘ground of our being’ conception … doesn’t the quote above accurately reflect the view of God in Christianity _as it is actually practiced_? Walk into your local Pentecostal megachurch and I doubt you will find many people pondering the Ground of Being. No, they will rightly be praying and expecting the most powerful being in the Universe to heal them, save their kids or their marriages, their jobs, or themselves, etc. The atheists may be simplistic in many ways but they have some accuracy on the character of contemporary popular religion.

#10 Comment By charles cosimano On October 12, 2017 @ 12:19 pm

“the high calling of theology”

The what?

The only way theology would ever be a high calling would be if the theologian were on drugs and they don’t even have that excuse. Theology is merely an excuse to spout nonsense and get paid for it. That is what Hart does, in the tradition of all theologians before him–spout nonsense.

The fatal mistake Hart makes is that his arguments are based on something his targets do not even believe exists. It reminds me of one time someone was trying explain their interpretation of the workings of karma, in which I am an absolute non-believer, to me in the hope of bringing to the True Faith. I said, “Why would I care about the mechanics of something that does not exist?”

“Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

#11 Comment By The Wet One On October 12, 2017 @ 12:24 pm

Hmm…

This seemed all deep and philosophical and all that as a post.

And then I realized, I believed in the Force from the time I watched Star Wars a long time ago.

In short, I’m not sure there’s very much there other than the basic acknowledgment of something readily known (like the sky being blue).

However, to go from the sky being blue to the whole edifice of the Catholic Church, for example, or the Ummah, or whatever other huge religious abstraction you care to point at seems a bit much.

Anyways…

#12 Comment By Addy D On October 12, 2017 @ 1:04 pm

David Bentley Hart is staggeringly brilliant and almost impossibly erudite. He’s not always convincing but he is always edifying and entertaining. I can’t wait to read his translation of the New Testament.

#13 Comment By Jon On October 12, 2017 @ 1:26 pm

Some tread this earth scratching and sniffing and determining what is real by it dismissing the confabulations of minds with a fecund imagination. Still others proclaim their faith in a figure whose existence resides under a dark cloud which has obscured the lines of history. They seek in him protection an assurance that their core essentialist selves are made, with the pass of a magic wand (his gaze), indestructible.

But there are others, though few, who have observed their own minds seeking to penetrate the deep pondering without words their significance in a vast world which gnaws at this very special sensibility. They find no answers but wrestle with one question which dissolves in the heat of their inquiry only to behold what in short has been referred to as that which is ineffable. They are left with awe and the task of premising their lives upon it. They surmise “looking within, what do you find? It is nothing and yet everything.”

#14 Comment By Turmarion On October 12, 2017 @ 1:30 pm

I like Hart–he’s a good theologian and a good writer. It’s not directly germane to the point here, but I’d like to draw attention to the fact that he is also a universalist and makes some pretty strong arguments for that perspective.

#15 Comment By Bob Loblaw On October 12, 2017 @ 1:34 pm

MikeS says: “Walk into your local Pentecostal megachurch and I doubt you will find many people pondering the Ground of Being. No, they will rightly be praying and expecting the most powerful being in the Universe to heal them, save their kids or their marriages, their jobs, or themselves, etc. The atheists may be simplistic in many ways but they have some accuracy on the character of contemporary popular religion.”

Well you just repeated the typical atheist straw man, shallow and simplistic reading of religion, so I’m not sure how you can claim any accuracy.

#16 Comment By Christopher Jones On October 12, 2017 @ 1:39 pm

@The Wet One

to go from the sky being blue to the whole edifice of the Catholic Church[or of orthodox Christianity in general] … seems a bit much

Well, of course. There is a big difference between simple theism as “something readily known” and the full Christian Gospel. There is a lot more to the Christian faith than the fact of the existence of God.

In the New Testament, St Paul notes the existence of God as “something readily known”:

For what can be known about God is plain to them[that is, to sinful human beings], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. (Romans 1:19-20)

But he immediately goes on to say that the mere existence of God is not sufficient to address man’s moral and spiritual problem:

So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened … they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!

No, the existence of God is not at the heart of the Christian faith, and the distance from the acknowledgement of His existence to the full embrace of the Christian faith is indeed “a bit much.” To travel that distance is to hear, and trust, the testimony of the Apostles, those first followers of Jesus, when they proclaimed that He had risen from the dead. That fact, rather than the mere existence of God, is at the heart of the Christian faith. As St Paul writes:

if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. … And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins … If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

#17 Comment By Rand On October 12, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

Hart is top-tier. He’s hilarious. He’s humble. He’s brilliant. He’s unyielding but gracious.

I highly recommend his New Testament translation (commissioned by Yale U Press) which should be hitting shelves very soon if it hasn’t already.

As to the New Atheist targets being unimpressed by Hart: the problem is that their understanding of (and so their arguments pertaining to) philosophy as a discipline is less than rudimentary. That one of them is a professor of philosophy is even more depressing. It is not that they understand the arguments and are impressed; they do not understand that they do not understand.

I’ve encountered a distaste for Hart among evangelicals due to his advocacy for the idea of apokatastasis (which they call universalism; I’m not sure the term fits, but it does underscore the difference between views of salvation among the East and West, with the East viewing it as a process while the West views it as a status).

Kallistos Ware wrote a short piece called Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All? Hart would answer, “Yes.” Though I wonder if a one syllable response might cause him to have a stroke.

I recommend all of his books and all of his talks as highly as I can. He is in a class of his own (or, well, perhaps with Robert Jenson and one or two others).

#18 Comment By TheDudeDiogenes On October 12, 2017 @ 3:16 pm

I double-majored in Philosophy and Theology at a Catholic uni (attended Catholic school K-uni, actually), and I have no idea what a “ground of being” is or what it means to “transcend the universe”. To me, they are literally meaningless phrases. “Sound and fury” indeed.

[NFR: They are meaningless phrases to you. That does not mean that they are meaningless phrases. — RD]

#19 Comment By Chien du Lac On October 12, 2017 @ 3:35 pm

By the way, David is a joy to converse with, and his wife’s company is equally delightful. He has a sharp and ready wit. He appreciates wordplay and loves to be surprised.

When I have heard people express irritation at his manner, the conversation that follows often makes it clear that they had compared their own verbal skills and ranges of reference with his and found themselves wanting. Well, well. Join the club.

Now I haven’t known David for more than a year or two, but I can say with complete confidence that I have never seen him condescending toward anyone in the room who asked a genuine question or whose heart artlessly exulted in something good.

What he cannot visibly stand is cant, peacocking, and shameless ignorance. Who can blame him?

#20 Comment By RickW On October 12, 2017 @ 3:59 pm

He protests their lack of moral courage, theological ignorance, philosophical crudity, unwarranted arrogance, and mechanistic reductivism… “nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men.”

Well put. There are people within the Christian community who fit that description. In the last few years I have seen more “friendly fire” against historic, orthodox Christianity than I experienced “hostile fire” during nine years at an well known and very secular university.

If I had to choose between the spears and arrows of the massed Greek armies and one “gift horse” within our ranks… I know which the Trojans would pick.

#21 Comment By Jonathan Scinto On October 12, 2017 @ 4:31 pm

I thought Gopnik’s takedown of Hart was rather robust, which just goes to show that atheists and theists are speaking different languages and building from different first principles.

#22 Comment By David Gray On October 12, 2017 @ 4:39 pm

Hart doesn’t actually require knowledge of a subject in order to pontificate on it. That strikes me as a weakness.

[7]

#23 Comment By MikeS On October 12, 2017 @ 9:13 pm

Mr Loblaw: I don’t think it’s a straw man. There is a whole industry (predominantly confessional Reformational protestants) devoted to critiquing what they see as shallow, simplistic popular religion. References: Modern Reformation magazine, Michael Horton and his books, David Wells and “No Place for Truth”, etc. The atheists may make this point too, but they are in the company of some conservative Christians.

#24 Comment By March_Hare On October 12, 2017 @ 11:29 pm

“But, of course, the major world religions don’t view God in this way at all. They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world. And that is an enormous — actually, an infinite — difference.”

But Linker’s statement here is not a true depiction of how major religions’ believers view God, and it’s not really true of the theologians, either. The Abrahamic religions make specific truth claims about what this God of theirs has done in the past, and what he is doing today. The claims about the past are simply, factually wrong.

You can tell me how ignorant I am of complex theology all you want (and in most cases I will concede the point) but you are selling a creation story that isn’t merely “poetic”, it’s flat out wrong in both its details and in its general implications. We no more poofed into existence at the Garden of Eden than we emerged from primordial muck on the back of a turtle. There are compelling, testable, multiple converging lines of evidence that point to our gradual transformation from proto apes to whatever it is we are today.

In conflicts between Biblical theology and the observable, testable world, theologians are on a 500 year long losing streak. With each new discovery, the theological crayfish backs out of the rock he’s been defending, retreats to a new one, and pretends the last conflict never took place.

It is true that the existence of an awesomely awesome, beyond-human-comprehension God cannot be disproven. Most scientists I’ve known readily concede that. But we have no evidence at all of this God intervening in the physical world we occupy. And we have centuries of history in which highly complex, thoughtful theology has been shown a few decades later to be utter nonsense. So who cares if he exists at that infinite plane?

Your God’s claim to authority over me is that he created me. Sorry, no. Next.

If you wonder why so many formerly religious people have adopted MTD theology, maybe it’s because it’s the only Abrahamic theology that passes the laugh test.

And if you want to know why it is that scientifically literate people often DO give Buddhism a second look, consider that the Buddha himself considered creation mythology to be unimportant to the point of irrelevance.

#25 Comment By TheDudeDiogenes On October 13, 2017 @ 12:36 am

Sure they’re meaningless phrases to me; but what else do I have to judge by but my own faculties?

Incidentally, it was studying Theology (far moreso than Philosophy) that lead to my rejection of the Catholic beliefs with which I was raised. The more I studied church history and, e.g., the endless Christological and soteriological debates over the centuries, the more it all seemed splitting invisible and unimaginably petty hairs.

It made no sense to me in itself, and, in a broader view, I certainly didn’t detect any divine hand behind it all. It all seemed like, to borrow from Homer Simpson, “just a bunch of stuff that happened.”

With the sexual abuse and coverup scandal, the Iraq war and subsequent chaos across many countries, just to pick two examples, I sure haven’t seen any reason to change my mind with regards to my lack of belief in the divine-directedness of human events.

I even tried to believe again, after dropping out of a Phil MA program due, in large part, to depression, which I wondered if was, at least partly, spiritual.

I managed to build and keep what seven months later I realized was a facade, as it disintegrated. Daily Mass, Rosaries, Liturgy of the Hours, and spiritual reading (e.g. Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Pope Benedict, St. Augustine), weekly Adoration and Confession, living with my pious family (my Sister later joined the Dominicans) and praying before meals (and just about everything) – none of it was enough, in the end. All that practice, and having lived by far the vast majority of my life up to that point as a Catholic, and I felt nothing. Simply nothing.

The older I get, the less sense it makes.

#26 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On October 13, 2017 @ 1:12 am

Harvey

LaPlace was right — we have no need of that hypothesis. No God, and certainly not the Christian God, is needed to explain the world and universe around us

I’ll listen to a non-transcendentalist when he will provide me an explanation for the color red. (hint: QM + neurophysiology aren’t an explanation)

#27 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On October 13, 2017 @ 1:20 am

TheDudeDiogenes

I have no idea what a “ground of being” is or what it means to “transcend the universe”.

Don’t they teach Aquinas anymore?

#28 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On October 13, 2017 @ 1:30 am

Oss Ickle

Atheist thinkers

Talking about oxymorons.

(Jokes apart, there are atheist thinkers excelling in many fields. None in the field of theology. The most honest and intelligent atheists I known are those admitting that they can’t force themselves into believing in God)

#29 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On October 13, 2017 @ 1:33 am

Franklin Evans

“Refraction of light, particles in the atmosphere, and the present angle of the Earth’s tilt combine for an astonishingly beautiful display tonight.”

Point is, this is a religious statement.

#30 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On October 13, 2017 @ 1:38 am

Christopher Jones

No, the existence of God is not at the heart of the Christian faith, and the distance from the acknowledgement of His existence to the full embrace of the Christian faith is indeed “a bit much.”

Well said. Being a Christian is to follow a Person, not a philosophy.

#31 Comment By Stefan On October 13, 2017 @ 2:29 am

@ TheDudeDiogenes

I am sorry to inform you that having formal academic qualifications do not mean you have mastered all the knowledge there is to master in a field.

*sad trombone*

(P.S.: I did a triple major with extra pedantry sauce)

#32 Comment By Stefan On October 13, 2017 @ 3:15 am

One thing I always sense in new atheists, and this is entirely consistent with the fact that it is a tendency especially pronounced within the gamer subculture, is a tremendous sense of aggrieved entitlement. One knows one is the smartest kid in class yet for some reason one is still forced to co-exist and sometimes even interact with all these mental defectives out there who can’t even be bothered to read the subreddit sidebar FAQ that contains all the eternally and universally valid rebuttals of every argument they could come up with. It’s like one’s imaginary internet points for some reason have little purchasing power in meatspace. There is no willingness to engage with anything too far outside one’s comfort zone, not even a willingness to suspend disbelief.

Liberality of mind and openness to new experience after all are weaknesses to be exploited by the devil. Everything, both for new atheists and their christian apologetics opponents, has to proceed according to argumentative scripts provided by the identity’s techno-structure through networks of becoming-resentful, be it internet forums/imageboards or hyperreal churches.

In that sense it’s functionally the same as the abortion rights debate: every possible argument has already been gamed out 10 steps ahead and those who risk straying from the argumentative script are barred from appearing in public fora. They are all excellent causes for normalizing lack of intelligence, the ability to interact with information in ways that are not predetermined because they are embedded in larger and smaller narratives suspended by narrative tension.

#33 Comment By Jefferson Smith On October 13, 2017 @ 4:08 am

@Franklin Evans:

I wonder if we will ever find it possible to get past arguing about the cause, and just sit together and bask in such beauty.

I wonder why you wonder that. Most people who see a beautiful sunset will just admire it, not argue about what’s causing it.

#34 Comment By MrsDK On October 13, 2017 @ 5:52 am

Hart is amazing — including his humor! I once read an article in First Things where he proposed a new title for the book Life Everlasting by Garrigou-Lagrange. Hart called it “Catholics in the Hands of a Psychotic God”.

#35 Comment By J May On October 13, 2017 @ 11:54 am

“Walk into your local Pentecostal megachurch and I doubt you will find many people pondering the Ground of Being. No, they will rightly be praying and expecting the most powerful being in the Universe to heal them, save their kids or their marriages, their jobs, or themselves, etc.”

MikeS, you’re right that many Christians have a small view of God in oractice – almost as if He was just a powerful wizard. You’re also right that you would have a better chance of finding that mode of thinking in a megachurch. But, to say God is outside the universe – as the ground of existence, for instance – is not to say that he doesn’t then also interact within it. Though, I’m not sure if you’re saying those things are mutually exclusive – like God is just too abstracted to be immenant or incarnate. Also, Pentacostal theology, for its part, has a pretty big existential view of God, even if some of your everyday laymen don’t fully grasp it.

One more thing, even if atheists point out some of the popular ways religion is practiced, can’t at least some of them try to take it on in its pure form? It’s like they’re saying their school’s basketball team is better than another school’s but their varsity team is only willing to play the other school’s benched players from the J.V. squad. I think that’s what Hart seemed to be getting at.

#36 Comment By Jefferson Smith On October 13, 2017 @ 1:53 pm

One more thing, even if atheists point out some of the popular ways religion is practiced, can’t at least some of them try to take it on in its pure form?

Well, haven’t they? Adam Gopnik, Jerry Coyne and presumably others read and responded to Hart’s book in some detail when it came out. Isn’t that “taking it on,” or would they be taking it on only if they announced they agreed with it?

Also, the book has been out for a few years. Does anyone know if it’s persuaded any atheists? It seemed to me at the time that it was bound to have a very limited audience. The passages I’ve read are densely written, the kind of thing that professional philosophers read, not ordinary laypeople. Most average folks aren’t going to be satisfied anyway with a religion whose God is a “ground of being,” something so abstract that it fits all theistic faiths — as opposed to an active presence in the world and in their lives, something they can imagine in more or less anthropomorphic terms.

Atheists and materialists, on the other hand, are likely to be unimpressed for a different reason. They’ll be reminded of the old joke, “It’s turtles all the way down.” The phrase “ground of being” is a metaphor: there’s no literal “ground” outside of or embracing the whole universe. Physicists and deep-space astronomers are happy studying what they can see or detect (or infer the existence of from other observations) without needing it to rest on any “ground.” They do look for the most fundamental level of phenomena — strings? quantum states? — but that’s not a departure from the material and the naturalistic. And if they did believe there was a “ground” — and were not just circularly defining it as the fact of existence itself — then that would just push the question back a step: so where did that ground come from, and what it’s supported by in turn? Another ground? Pretty soon it’s turtles all the way down.

There is a point at which we’re going to run out of explanations. “The universe began with the Big Bang.” OK, what caused the Big Bang? What was there before? If the word “there” implies a universe, then there was nothing before. But what does that mean, and how could something come from nothing? Is the universe infinite? If not, what lies beyond it? How could anything lie beyond it, if the “universe,” by definition, includes any and everything? We don’t know the answers to these questions, and maybe we never will. But to say the answer is “God” also doesn’t answer them, it just restates them in another way.

#37 Comment By Franklin Evans On October 13, 2017 @ 2:30 pm

Giuseppe, I would dearly love to sit with you, with no time limitations, to discuss aesthetics. Your point is well taken, but the nuances are fascinating to me. My desire, I should add, is based firmly on my reading of many of your comments on Rod’s blog. I’m a true admirer of your thinking.

Jefferson: I wonder why you wonder that. Most people who see a beautiful sunset will just admire it, not argue about what’s causing it.

The metaphorical usages here seem to have escaped you. I suggest, respectfully, that my focus on religious vs. rational answers you.

#38 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On October 13, 2017 @ 3:39 pm

TheDudeDiogenes

First of all please forgive me for having been snarky: what happened to you is truly horrible. But still, as a theologically educated, you make assertions which puzzle me. E.g., the divine directedness of human events. Human history is the making of both human free will and Divine Providence.

#39 Comment By Jefferson Smith On October 13, 2017 @ 6:46 pm

The metaphorical usages here seem to have escaped you. I suggest, respectfully, that my focus on religious vs. rational answers you.

So, you were talking about metaphorical people arguing, not real people? Right, OK, I agree that metaphorical people should make a better effort to get along. 😉

#40 Comment By Jerry On October 13, 2017 @ 8:17 pm

The problem with the “God as ground of all being” position is that, as Wolfgang Pauli would say, “it is not even wrong.” It’s not falsifiable. A God this abstract has no implications that can be tested against evidence or logic. The universe would look exactly the same whether this God exists or not.

#41 Comment By Franklin Evans On October 13, 2017 @ 10:19 pm

Jefferson: are you being deliberately obtuse? Or are you really so much of a pragmatist that abstract arguments built around a mundane, hypothetical scenario are just not valid for you? Shrug.

#42 Comment By Peter On October 13, 2017 @ 11:06 pm

I find Hart to be a big bore. He makes no attempt at serious philosophical argument but relies on name-calling when responding to analytic philosophy, which happens to be the dominant school in the English-speaking world. His God is defined as all-present and all=knowing but not benevolent, which allows him to dodge the “problem of evil” but loses God’s most important attribute. The God of the Bible is a personal God who loves us and talks to us. This is even more true of the Christian God, who is one with Jesus, and whom Hart, as an Eastern Orthodox, presumably believes in. This is the God whose existence matters to us. The more abstract we make God, the less it matters whether there is such a being — indeed, the less clear the question of existence becomes. William Burroughs of all people came up with a nice way into the God question: he said the question is ultimately whether Mind runs the universe, which he thought was obviously so. This is not a question which can be settled scientifically. As Wittgenstein pointed out, one could have in hand the totality of scientific fact and still wonder why such a world exists. Some think this question nonsense, but others don’t.

#43 Comment By Jefferson Smith On October 14, 2017 @ 3:40 am

Jefferson: are you being deliberately obtuse?

Obtuse, perhaps, but not deliberately. Your hypothetical scenario — people arguing about what causes sunsets, instead of just basking in them — doesn’t correspond to anything that really happens, as far as I’m aware. Even people with Ph.D.s in atmospheric science are people, and people like sunsets. Knowing how they’re an instance of light refraction doesn’t stop them from thinking them beautiful. It doesn’t even stop them from thinking of them as God’s handiwork.

There is a larger “argument” between religion and science, although I don’t see it in the metaphor of sunsets because Christians know about light refraction too — in fact, discovered it. There is a point, I suppose, where the two sides stop seeing beauty the same way, but I would think it’s more likely to happen over something like evolution. Religious people might see evolution as an ugly, tawdry replacement for the poetic beauty of the Creation story, while the Stephen Jay Goulds among us admire it as the intricate working out of an elegantly few natural laws to produce the whole wondrous panoply of life on earth.

Maybe where you and I differ, then, is that I think it’s a better world where we have both those perspectives available, whether that creates an “argument” or not. I happen to like them both.

#44 Comment By l’autre J On October 14, 2017 @ 4:13 am

DBH is a unicorn, indeed. In the contemporary West. In India and the Middle East there have been many of his type and much pursuit of his project, obsessives who have tried to subjugate the world in its entirety to their minds and theologies via mountains and planetary systems of words. His work will be a verbal monument to trad religion for historians to appreciate and parse as they contemplate its passing.

The principal reason he doesn’t matter, and neither does theology, is that the project of the world at present- Modernity- is about achieving sanity and making false or corrupt claims of knowledge insustainable. The tools and conceptions of pre-Modernity are of no help of this and perhaps even require social normalization of forms of insanity. (This does not suggest a bright future for the Benedict Option.)

The other reason is an eternal one, the inherent error of the project. The claims of the mystics DBH is determined to keep outside the bounds of material claims testify against his definitioneering of God as transcendent Not Self by telling where their God tells them he resides in his times of apparent absence: in the human heart. (Example, Dionysius the Areopagite. There are others.) Where he also resides when present, and so does the Self. Neuroscientists and atheists who have long said the concept is in essence a complicated projection of the Self and proposed experiences of God a set of uncommon but similar neurological phenomena could not ask for a more favorable state of affairs.

Maybe a saving gap in which to slip God again can be concocted. Let’s see who rolls out the great Philosophical Gap Generator.

The mystics that currently live- there are a handful identifiable in The West, who have given sufficient proofs to those who search and know the marks- treat the trad religions as sinking ships. Worth acknowledging as what they were raised in in less Modern times, not worth identifying with as adults, not worth advocating or reforming or worth investing effort to save. Nor do they found new religions or new orders or begin revivals with the current ones, as is within their power historically. The current set seem to prefer the liberal Modern West to the other conditions in the world, given how and where they live and in their refusal to side with religious conservatives’ causes. (Though they also desist from siding with Moderns in public, their help not being needed and taking a generally charitable and relatively tolerant (you know, liberal) attitude toward trads overall.) Their numbers seem to be growing though a well known elderly one died about a year ago.

I wonder whether the trads are hiding their mystics, though it seems a good question whether trads have any at all and the prospects of any more in the future seem quite limited. If there aren’t any, and the other side has some and is adding more, just what ends do the enterprise and desperate efforts at its survival and revival serve?

Curious, isn’t it, that the great organized religions have record numbers of adherents these days and will yet grow larger, but instead of record abundances of saints and mystics cropping up in them they seem to have record dearth of them. Maybe it’s due to all the cell phones.

#45 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On October 14, 2017 @ 9:54 am

Franklin,

The esteem is mutual. I really love your perspective on things. I seldom read your post without being somehow enriched, whether I agree or not.
And who knows, maybe a couple of chairs in a porch awaits us somewhere…

And who knows what awaits us in life.

#46 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On October 14, 2017 @ 9:58 am

March_hare

And we have centuries of history in which highly complex, thoughtful theology has been shown a few decades later to be utter nonsense.

Examples?

#47 Comment By Franklin Evans On October 14, 2017 @ 10:22 am

Jefferson:

Ah. That’s a bit clearer for me. I suggest, without ire, that your objecting to the particulars of my hypothetication (not a word, should be one 😀 ) is where we are getting stuck. It appears that you get my general point, though, so while gently complaining I’m wiling to put the picking of nits aside. 😉

In some seriousness, I could have chosen a more direct scenario that for me is very much not hypothetical: the efficacy and ethics of prayer. I wanted to stick with the religion-science dichotomy, and I also wanted to avoid looking like I was bashing a religion with which I have a long history of hostility. I’m a Pagan, openly, devout, and socio-politically active.

I mention that choice not to expand on it, but to offer you a comparison of metaphors. If people arguing over the cause of a beautiful sunset leaves you less than impressed, consider the argument that praying for someone — a foundational belief for Christians and other monotheists — is considered ethically questionable at best amongst modern Pagans, who take very seriously the concept that prayer is the sending (without the recipient’s consent, imposing) one’s personal soul energy to another person. We discount the Christian rebuttal that their prayers go to God.

It’s more a disagreement than an argument, I should concede. Shrug.

#48 Comment By brian On October 14, 2017 @ 12:07 pm

Hart grew up in Baltimore and admired the polemic of HL Mencken from a young age. One may dislike argument that displays that sort of bravado. I suggest that were one to combine Hart’s vast cultural erudition and astute philosophical theology apart from his pugnacious style, one would likely have a far smaller readership — something along the lines of the great Hans Urs von Balthasar.

For my part, I think Hart’s compassionate universalism belies the kind of harsh ad hominem attack that would reduce his ouevre to a species of indulgent invective. Though as is evident from the back and forth in this comments thread, the tendency to praise or dismiss remains largely tied to how suasive one finds classical theism and the Christian metaphysics that witnesses to a unique undestanding of person and the mysterious intimacy of time and eternity that makes up the eschaton.

#49 Comment By Jefferson Smith On October 14, 2017 @ 3:44 pm

@Franklin,

As I just said in a comment that may or may not have posted, that’s an interesting fact about Pagans and prayer that I did not know. Rather than duplicate the rest of the comment, I thought I would add that your sunset comparison reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Perhaps you’re familiar with his treatise Nature, the work that put him on the map. It includes this:

When we speak of nature in this manner, we have a distinct but most poetical sense in the mind. We mean the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects. It is this which distinguishes the stick of timber of the wood-cutter, from the tree of the poet. The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title.

To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.

Emerson also coined one of the better phrases critiquing scientism: “a plague of microscopes.” 🙂 For a guy who analyzed everything, he was an interesting critic of the urge to analyze everything.

#50 Comment By TheDudeDiogenes On October 16, 2017 @ 2:56 am

Giuseppe, philosphical issues with the concepts of Divine Providence and Free Will (and theodicy) aside, I was imprecise. What I was really thinking of was that I saw and see no evidence that the Roman Catholic Church, or Christianity in general, has been guided by the Holy Spirit through history.

I see human, all to human politics, power, profit motive and other base desires (anger and hatred, especially) driving church history (but also human history more generally).

(The viciousness of, e.g., Irenaeus towards “heretics” is but one example of such off-putting anger and hatred. I think if “they will know we are Christians by our love”, then I don’t know any Christians. I just don’t see that Christians, or any sub-group of them, are as a group any better – or worse! – than any other group, now or historically.)