In the British magazine Standpoint, James Mumford rhapsodizes about the American theologian David Bentley Hart, calling him “the thinker we’ve been waiting for.” Excerpt:

A theologian who can write. A profound scholar who is pithy. A leading academic who is a master of the English language. If those sound to you like a series of oxymorons you should read David Bentley Hart, the most exciting religious writer for a generation.

Here he is on Dawkins et al: “The books of ‘the new atheists’ [are] nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men.” He gives as good as he gets: Dawkins is “the zoologist and tireless tractarian” and Sam Harris’s The End of Faith is “extravagantly callow”. I’ll see your insult and raise you vehemence.

It’s not all rhetoric, either. Hart is clever, with the substance a lifetime of scholarship affords. This, for example, is what he has to say about the claim at the heart of philosophical naturalism, that truth is only found in material explanations of reality:

[It’s] a feat of sublimely circular thinking: physics explains everything, which we know because whatever exists must be explicable by physics, which we know because physics explains everything.

At long last we have a religious writer who can play with the big boys.

I did not realize until seeing this Standpoint piece that The Guardian — yes, the Guardian — called DBH’s latest book, The Experience of God, “the one theology book all atheists should really read.” More:

One reason that modern-day debates between atheists and religious believers are so bad-tempered, tedious and infuriating is that neither side invests much effort in figuring out what the other actually means when they use the word ‘God’. This is an embarrassing oversight, especially for the atheist side (on which my sympathies generally lie). After all, scientific rationalists are supposed to care deeply about evidence. So you might imagine they’d want to be sure that the God they’re denying is the one in which most believers really believe. No ‘case against God’, however watertight, means much if it’s directed at the wrong target.

Yet prominent atheists display an almost aggressive lack of curiosity when it comes to the facts about belief. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins expertly demolishes what he calls ‘the God hypothesis’, but devotes only a few sketchy anecdotes to establishing that this God hypothesis is the one that has defined religious belief through history, or defines it around the world today. AC Grayling insists that atheists are excused the bother of actually reading theology – where they might catch up on debates among believers about what they believe – because atheism “rejects the premise” of theology. And when The Atlantic ran a piece last year entitled Study theology, even if you don’t believe in God, Jerry Coyne, the atheist blogosphere’s Victor Meldrew, called it “the world’s worst advice.” And on and on it goes.

My modest New Year’s wish for 2014, then, is that atheists who care about honest argument – and about maybe actually getting somewhere in these otherwise mind-numbingly circular debates – might consider reading just one book by a theologian, David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God, published recently by Yale University Press. Not because I think they’ll be completely convinced by it. (I’m not, and I’m certainly not convinced by Hart’s other publicly expressed views, which tend towards the implacably socially conservative.) They should read it because Hart marshals powerful historical evidence and philosophical argument to suggest that atheists – if they want to attack the opposition’s strongest case – badly need to up their game.

You should read The Experience Of God, whether you are a theist, an agnostic, or an atheist. I’m a believer, and I learned far more about theology and metaphysics than I ever dreamed I would. Hart is such a lucid writer that he never lapses into abstraction. Whatever your theological views going in, The Experience of God is one of those books you simply cannot read without being changed in some way you won’t see coming. It made me realize more than I ever had before that my idea of God is far, far too small.

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