TE: You have written in the past about the work of Terence Malick, who directed the film The Tree of Life. When I watch that film, along with Malick’s other works, I sense that he is trying to express through that medium something like what you describe in The Experience of God. I’d like to hear some of your thoughts on how film and other cultural expressions might participate in the conversation about that experience, which you describe using the Sanskrit term satchidananda?
DBH: Well, my fundamental conviction is that the arts stand far higher than any other sphere of collective human activity as ways of approaching the fullness of reality. That is a large and potentially vacuous claim, I suppose; but I really do believe that great art is the single most important of cultural accomplishments, if not always necessarily the greatest of personal accomplishments, because it is there that the mysterious boundary between transcendental truth and the particularities of finite material form is at once fruitfully preserved and fruitfully transgressed. Among human labors, great art is the royal path to ever deeper encounters with the mysteries of existence and consciousness and bliss. The modern sciences, for all their marvelous fecundity, still only allow us a limited and—if left to itself—utterly trivial perspective upon physical processes and forces, and we should not confuse the power they accord us over material reality for some sort of comprehensive wisdom regarding reality as such. Philosophy is a noble but ultimately incomplete and inconclusive discipline; it is only when it flowers into a visionary wisdom that, in good Platonic fashion, sees more than it can express that it is rescued from sterile uselessness; when it fails to become a spiritual and aesthetic labor, surrendering its prerogatives to the arts and to spiritual contemplation, it can become something as degradingly barren as Anglo-American analytic philosophy, a silly game with poorly formulated rules, which serves as an excellent tool for avoiding thinking deeply about anything irreducible to crude propositions. Theology accomplishes nothing except when it is written as an act of thoughtful prayer; that, I suppose, is why patristic theology interests me and most modern theology does not. And so on. So, really, the question for me is not how the arts might participate in the conversation about satchidananda, but how other forms of discourse might serve to elucidate the dimension of reality to which the greatest works of art already have a privileged access.