I really enjoyed reading David Bent Hart’s book Experiencing God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. A good friend turned me on to this writer wondering if I could make heads or tails of what he was trying to say. Hart makes two important moves in his argument for the existence of God as defined by ancient philosophical theologies.
The first move is the one of definition. Hart defines God much the same way as Plato. God is beyond nature and the progenitor of all the was, is, and will be. Beyond the Cosmos there is more than what Carl Sagan imagined. The difficult aspect of this definition for God in philosophical theology is that it is beyond argument. One cannot argue convincingly to a person who is used to logically having a firm definition that can be demonstrated. It feels like slight of hand is at work for that person. Daniel Dennett claims it is like playing tennis without a net for one’s opponent while having to play with one for yourself. I agree it is difficult to argue against a vague definition. It is paramount to saying, “I don’t believe in the Hindu position” when no such position exists. Some people are indeed Hindu. Yet, there is no truly defined Hinduism. That is a Western word developed by Christian thinkers. And so God as defined by Hart is beyond argument.
The second move he makes is that, while God is beyond argument, God is not beyond human experience. God becomes, as panentheists argue, both immanent and transcendent. Those of the great theistic religions who practice spiritual disciplines claim to experience God in some way. Hart uses teachings from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu mystics to demonstrate how spiritual discipline develops awe for the transcendence that gives God the supernatural side of “being-itself.”
Hart is not advocating religious syncretism. His main purpose is to oppose philosophical materialism. And yet, here is the major problem. A person who holds to the materialist position can experience transcendence. Hart claims that any time this experience comes to an individual or say that person desires to learn the good or the true then that person is experiencing or seeking God. His definition allows him to make that claim. God becomes an interesting being who both is and is not…like the famous non-existent cat.
Hart claims that any other definition of God is then something less than God. The divinity becomes a product of nature by being a dependent Intelligent Designer; or a fallible demiurge in the definitions that argue God is immoral in some actions described in sacred literature. Why not use the word Tao as something undefinable? Because Hart needs the supernatural God to be personal. The great theistic religions require not only a divine being but a divine person.
Divine personhood is the tricky part. A person acts. And therefore has both will and must be responsible for actions or refusals to act. This is territory Hart does not venture into. Why? Because no moral demands may be made on the ultimate Truth and the ultimate Good.
I have set this argument up as an agnostic or an atheist would for a simple reason. Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian. His purpose in developing an understanding of God is to look to thinkers and mystics of the ancient times for other answers as well. He appeals ultimately to Tradition. As an amateur historian I understand the pitfall of nostalgia. The commonly spoken phrase of “We need to get back to…” is at best a desire based on distorted vision. I loathe the Hindu caste system. I despise the traditions of Islam that allows for the modern practice of slavery. I shake my head when Christians appeal to the works of various denominational founders as starting over points. I do these things when those of secular disposition kneel before the idols of the eighteenth century. Time moves in a certain direction for human beings. We can only ever step forward. Many ideas about the human spirit should be discarded when we know that human life, being, and personhood do not fit those ideas.
Theologians of the philosophical bend should be prepared to give up old definitions and find those that give hope in life as we continue to discover what that is. And do not fear where that may lead if thought, experience, and experiment are rigorously tested to help further the human spirit as such. I cannot say I accept Hart’s definition of God as any more convincing to a skeptic. He is merely engaging in a form of Christian apologetics that has already failed.