What we talk about when we talk about God


The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, David Bentley Hart, Yale

The God Confusion, Gary Cox, Bloomsbury

Had enough of the new atheism debates? One might like to make an exception for David Bentley Hart’s new book. Though Christian, Hart is here arguing in philosophical fashion for the legitimacy of traditional understandings across the religions of what we are talking about when we talk about God.

He uses three words (being, consciousness, bliss) to explore how the often difficult yet inspiring concept of God is an explanation for the mysterious fact that we exist, our awareness of that existence and the continuity of that awareness in that inexplicable entity, the mind, and the fulfilment we get from knowing truth, goodness and beauty. This is against the circular arguments of the new atheists who rule out non-material explanations of things because they hold the belief that we should rule out non-material explanations of things. They also think that the hypothesis of God is simply a rival to the theories of natural selection or the Big Bang, and make it clear in their writings that they are entirely ignorant of what the word “God” means.

It is not just atheists who cop it. Intelligent Design theory (a modern creationist incarnation) is, for Hart, an imaginatively impoverished view that merely gives ground to the atheists who reduce God to a “god-of-the-gaps”, and which dangerously views complexity in nature as evidence that God needs to tweak the universe every now and then. Hart argues that the Enlightenment has been so successful in creating our modern outlook that even Christians can only think of God in terms of the designer and operator of a mechanistic universe. Rather than assuming we are better informed, we moderns would do well to recover older and more metaphysically richer ways of thinking, which tended to see God as more than just an answer to how things got started.

A word of warning: Hart’s verbosity and philosophical galloping will not be for everyone. He might induce rapture or headache. But it is hard to think of a contemporary theologian who could better cover such vast terrain in not only competency but flair.

Gary Cox, on the other hand, offers in calm and unadorned prose some initially helpful material on the way the debate over God’s existence has usually been framed. He agrees with Hart that atheism is a dogmatic rather than evidence-based stance, but his book none-the-less displays the usual fallacies – that faith is believing what you have no evidence for, that metaphysics is akin to superstition, that knowledge has to be scientific, that scientific advances gradually replace God, and so forth. In doing so, he writes from the modern prejudiced position, so strongly influenced by Cox’s hero David Hume, of which Hart is so critical.

Hart implicitly makes a challenge: it is not up to Christians to simply respond on modern atheism’s own terms. We need to question entirely the (often atheistic) basis of our modern society that values nothing higher than power and wealth, in order to stimulate (ironically) less ideologically conformist and more rational discussion about God.

(Reviewed for The Lutheran magazine)


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