I recently worked through David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale University Press, 2013). Hart is a prominent theologian and philosopher in the Eastern Orthodoxy tradition, who after years of frustration over the lack of an agreed upon definition of “God” in public conversations, took it upon himself to offer such a definition in this tour de force work. His purpose in this book is not apologetics, but to make sure that atheists know exactly what it is that they are rejecting. In doing so, he exposes the deep-seated ignorance of many atheist public intellectuals.
He pulls no punches and is honest about his sentiments towards New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawkin, Christopher Hitchens et al. Hart’s style is eloquent and a pleasure to read, but he is incisive and merciless in his critiques, which some may consider to be smug.
The Experience of God is for anyone seriously interested in philosophy or apologetics. His chief target is the New Atheist who repeatedly sets up a straw man, indolently and dishonestly attacking a demiurge god instead of the God of the great theistic traditions, in which he includes Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. His other book, Atheist Delusions, specifically refutes the ideas of (New) Atheism, whereas the purpose of The Experience of God is more narrowly to show that recent attacks on religion, particularly Christianity, fundamentally misunderstand religious claims.
He offers his definition of God on p. 7: “the infinite fullness of being, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, from whom all things come and upon whom things depend for every moment of their existence, without whom nothing at all could exist.”
The book is divided into three parts. He works through a proper definition of God in Part 1, defends classical theism against competing views of reality in Part 2, and finally, in Part 3, wraps up his arguments with insightful cultural commentary and a prescription to venture into the depths of theism, including but not limited to contemplative practices. Readers will find a trove of critiques of atheism and its oft accompanying materialism, particularly in Part 2. In this section, some may appreciate parallels to C. S. Lewis’s apologetic arguments in Miracles.
Anyone familiar with Eastern Orthodoxy or the more mystical traditions of Christianity will recognize this influence throughout the work. Philosophically, his approach broadly falls within the Platonic tradition, which, granted, some modern theologians reject as a framework for Christian faith. He is nonetheless consistent in his presentation, and sells his perspective as convincingly as possible.
Readers may quibble that he undersells trinitarianism, but then again, his approach would not be so ecumenical if he did not resist the urge to make it exclusively a Christian work. The book is for anyone open to candidly assess their rejection of God, or for the Christian peer who is willing to take the long and arduous journey of accompanying skeptical friends through their intellectual doubt. It is worth the price even if for the last part, which provides stirring connections between consumerism, “incipient capitalism,” and atheism.
“In a sense, the triviality of [atheism] is its chief virtue. It is a diverting alternative to thinking deeply. It is a narcotic. In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys.”