A meeting cancellation last night left me with the delightful predicament of how to fill a few an unexpected few free hours. Option A was parking myself on the couch and watching a hockey game, but that space was, lamentably, already occupied by my wife and daughter who were engrossed in a movie. So, naturally, I decided to pick up a book by David Bentley Hart 🙂 (I’ve written before about the delights and challenges of reading Hart before here). The Experience of God is not quite the test of one’s vocabulary (and the blow to one’s pride) as some of Hart’s other works, but it’s still not exactly the shallow end of the pool.
The chapter I read last night was called “Pictures of the World.” In it, Hart traces the broad Western cultural trajectory from the assumption that the world was charged with the presence of an immanent and transcendent God to the more fashionable view today of a godless world that is nothing more than a collection and collision of physical stuff with no meaning or purpose or goal. Hart is equally critical of the atheistic myth (and a myth it certainly is) that science has explained God away (or that it ever could) and the often confused religious thinking that sees God as a kind of cosmic engineer within the system, rather than the transcendent reality upon which the whole system depends, moment by moment, for its very existence and intelligibility. For Hart, both errors represent significant departures from classical, more intellectually satisfying and defensible views of God.
At any rate, it was interesting to read this chapter alongside a revealing (and mildly depressing) article from the United Church Observer where two ministers—one orthodox and one atheist—are interviewed about, among other things, the state of the United Church in Canada, how much diversity can realistically be tolerated within a church that calls itself “Christian,” and whether or not there might be a problem or two with being a minister in a church and a professing, if somewhat confused and confusing atheist (I’ve written about ministers who are atheists before here, here, and here). As I read the atheist minister’s comments in the article, I kept thinking to myself, “you really need to read a bit of David Bentley Hart…”
I would love to quote entire pages from Hart’s book, but I suppose I shall confine myself to only a few passages.
First, on the limits of “naturalism”:
The only fully consistent alternative to belief in God, properly understood, is some version of “materialism” or “physicalism” or (to use the term preferred at present) “naturalism”; and naturalism—the doctrine that there is nothing apart from the physical order, and certainly nothing supernatural—is an incorrigibly incoherent concept, and one that is ultimately indistinguishable from pure magical thinking.
The very notion of nature as a closed system entirely sufficient to itself is plainly one that cannot be verified, deductively or empirically, from within the system of nature. It is a metaphysical (which is to say, “extranatural”) conclusion regarding the whole of reality, which neither reason nor experience ultimately warrants. It cannot even define itself within the boundaries of its own terms, because the total sufficiency of “natural” explanations is not an identifiable natural phenomenon but an arbitrary judgment. Naturalism, therefore, can never be anything more than a guiding prejudice, an established principle only in the sense that it must be indefensibly presumed for the sake of some larger view of reality; it functions as a purely formal rule that, like the restriction of the king in chess to moves of one square only, permits the game to be played one way rather than another.
On the impoverished debates between atheists and theists about the existence of a “designer God” rather than an immanent and transcendent God (which some of the comments in the interview above seem to assume—who could seriously believe in a big guy in the sky who made all this?! We know about evolution now, silly!!):
In the age of 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. Thus, in the modern period the argument between theism and atheism largely became no more than a tension between two different effectively atheist visions of existence. As a struggle between those who believed in this god of the machine and those who did not, it was a struggle waged for possession of an already godless universe.
On the faith it takes to believe that only what can be observed exists (and, well, just because it’s a fun paragraph):
And naturalism’s claim that, by confining itself to purely material explanations for all things, it adheres to the only sure path of verifiable knowledge is nothing but a feat of sublimely circular thinking: physics explains everything, which we know because anything physics cannot explain does not exist, which we know because whatever exists must be explicable by physics, which we know because physics explains everything. There is something here of the mystical.
Finally, this beautiful paragraph that closes the chapter. On being open to the immanent and transcendent God and the wondrous possibility that the whole earth—even the “ordinary” everyday stuff—is shot through and crammed full of the glory of God… And on the determined inattention it requires to avoid noticing this:
My chief desire is to show that what is most mysterious and most exalted is also that which, strangely enough, turns out to be most ordinary and nearest to hand, and that which is most glorious in its transcendence is also that which is humblest in its wonderful immediacy, and that we know far more than we are usually aware of knowing, in large part because we labor to forget what is laid out before us at every moment, and because we spend so much of our lives wandering in dreams, in a deep but fitful sleep.
What is most exalted is also nearest to hand. What is most glorious is that which is wonderfully immediate. Good words, as Advent approaches. Good words for a people adrift and unmoored in a deep but fitful sleep.