The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart.
A good joke
A joke which many atheists think clever goes like this: (speaking to a theist) “You reject Zeus, Aphrodite, Ra, and many others gods; we just reject one god more.”
Ain’t that rattling? The “one more” being by implication is the Christian God. I mean capital-B Being. As in the ground of all existence, the necessary Being, He who which if He didn’t exist, nothing would exist, He who which if He didn’t exist, nothing would happen.
Say what? Never mind, for now. Let that stew in the recesses while we tackle another interpretation of the joke, which in a sense does not go far enough. Because it turns out that the god modern-day atheists have in mind, what Hart calls the Demiurge, is a god Christians also reject. The Demiurge is a kind of “superior being”, a being like any other only more so, and it is this small-g god that the man-in-the-street atheist, and certainly those well known celebrity authors, find implausible or ridiculous. And so does the theologian.
Of the God, the necessary Being, the new atheist knows little to nothing. Well, maybe the Christian-, Muslim-, or Hindu-in-the-street knows little of Him either, in the sense of being unable to write down a philosophically consistent definition of just who and what God is. The theologian, however, can, and this is Hart’s task. To definite, delimit, demarcate just what it is the great religious traditions say about God. Hart’s isn’t a work of apologetics nor a list of proofs of God’s existence. It is an in-depth examination that spells out precisely who God is. Something very necessary for those who say they don’t believe in God: just what is it you don’t believe?
Let’s get one popular fallacy out of the way. This is the most-people-believe-what’s-false-therefore-it’s-false fallacy, or the Coyne fallacy, named after its most frequent user, Jerry Coyne. This fallacy is used to reject a proposition because most people misunderstand or hold false beliefs about that proposition. So that if the average church or temple goer has a definition of God that suffers certain inconsistencies, therefore God doesn’t exist. If you accept that then you’d have to believe that since the average citizen has mistaken ideas about evolution (holding to Intelligent Design, say), therefore evolution is false. Truth is not a vote.
Hart thinks atheistic philosophy is “a fundamentally irrational view of reality, which can be sustained only by a tragic absence of curiosity or a fervently resolute will to believe the absurd…that true philosophical atheism must be regarded as a superstition, often nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptional limitations.”
These philosophies always boil down to some kind of materialism or “naturalism”, “the doctrine that there is nothing apart from the physical order”, which Hart says (and proves) is “ultimately indistinguishable from pure magical thinking.” Why?
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.
Evolution is no savior of naturalism, which “is necessarily false as a philosophical precept; for no one’s belief in the truth of naturalism could correspond to reality except through a shocking coincidence (or, better, a miracle).” And anyway, naturalism does not explain existence.
For existence is more definitely not a natural phenomenon; it is logically prior to any physical cause whatsoever; and anyone who imagines that it is susceptible of a natural explanation simply has no grasp of what the question of existence really is. In fact, it is impossible to say how, in the terms naturalism allows, nature could exist at all.
Atheists aren’t the only folks who bought into fallacy that answers to all philosophical questions must be scientific answers. A good many religious have, too. And from this scientism was born the wearying and highly distracting creationist-Intelligent-design wars.
Idealistic atheists (with the fervor of young Lenins) insist everybody swear that evolution is true because science says so. But this scientific fact, like any scientific fact, is of no interest by itself. After all, you don’t see atheists screeching that everybody should swear that the Higgs boson has mass, another consequential scientific fact. Trouble arises because the atheist goes farther and fallaciously argues that if evolution is true that therefore God cannot exist. And even this wouldn’t be more than a minor curiosity except that a whole set of (mainly Western protesting) Christians bought the second argument. Boy, howdy, did they. And since they did, to “save” God they bend all their energies toward proving evolution faulty, but as everybody knows this war has been one long retreat.
The defensive actions of the religious have provoked their enemies’ bloodlust, and up “has sprung a whole generation of confident, even strident atheist proselytizers who appear to know almost nothing about the religious beliefs they abominate, apart from a few vague and gauzily impressionistic daubs or aquarelle washes, and who seem to have no real sense of what the experience of faith is like or of what its rationales might be.” And so to those beliefs and experiences.
We must be careful of the “absolute differentiation between the one transcendent Godhead from whom all being flows and the various ‘divine’ beings who indwell and govern the heavens and the earth.” All major theistic traditions speak of a transcendent God.
To speak of “God” properly, then—to use the word in a sense consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Bahá’í, a great deal of antique paganism, and so forth—is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and or that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.
The transcendent God can be “‘investigated’ only, on the one hand, by acts of logical deduction and induction and conjecture or, on the other, by contemplative or sacramental or spiritual experiences.” The demiurge, the god of the atheists, who can be known scientifically, the “technician or artisan” “immensely wise and powerful” deity who may have himself evolved and who tinkers with physics, sets things in motion, and then retires to well deserved anonymity, making the occasional positively last appearance like an opera singer, is not transcendent.
The transcendental God can wield the “ontological cause”, which is the power to make, “to create from nothing.” “Nothing” does not mean, incidentally, a quantum field, nor any other vanishingly small something. Nothing means nothing. This is why it makes no sense to ask what or who caused the transcendental God. He is a necessary being.
We tend to presume that if one can discover the temporally prior physical causes of some object—the world, an organism, a behavior, a religion, a mental event, an experience, or anything else—one has thereby eliminated all other possible causal explanations of that object. But this is a principle that is true only in materialism [naturalism] is true, and materialism is true only if this principle is true, and logical circles should not set rules for our thinking.
Asking whether nature has a purpose or meaning is not one that can be answered empirically. And there is plenty we can’t know empirically. Like the principle “that everything can be known empirically”, which is self-refuting and therefore false based on logic, and matters of logic are not empirical. We can also know that “a transcendental certainty of the impossibility of transcendental truth [which] requires an act of pure credence logically immune to any verification (after all, if there is a God he can presumably reveal himself to seeking minds, but if there is not then there be no ‘natural’ confirmation of the fact).”
Next time: we start the definition with being itself, the first of the three “attributes” of God.