“The Experience of God” (Part 2)

Underlying The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart is the conviction that the structure of personal experience witnesses to the reality of God. God is not a stranger to us. If he seems to be so, this is only because we have squelched the immediate knowledge of his presence. “God is not only the ultimate reality that the intellect and the will seek,” explains Hart, “but is also the primordial reality with which all of us are always engaged in every moment of existence and consciousness, apart from which we have no experience of anything whatsoever” (p. 10).

Hart describes his epistemological perspective as vaguely Platonic, not perhaps in the sense that the knowledge of God is innate but rather because it enjoys an immediacy experienced by all. We know more than we can tell:

I start from the conviction that many of the most important things we know are things we know before we can speak them; indeed, we know them—though with very little in the way of concepts to make them intelligible to us—even as children, and see them with the greatest immediacy when we look at them with the eyes of innocence. But, as they are hard to say, and as they are often so immediate to us that we cannot stand back from them objectively, we tend to put them out of mind as we grow older, and make ourselves oblivious to them, and try to silence the voice of knowledge that speaks within our own experiences of the world. Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience; it is the ability to translate some of that vision into words, however inadequate. There is a point, that is to say, where reason and revelation are one and the same. (pp. 9-10).

I am reminded of Gerald Janzen’s words: “We experience more than we know; and we know more than we can think; and we think more than we can say; and language therefore lags behind the intuitions of immediate experience.”

That humanity enjoys a tacit, though perhaps repressed, knowledge of the divine informs Hart’s exploration of the meaning of “God”—hence his refusal to divorce the God of faith and the God of philosophy.

If God does in fact communicate himself to us at the fundamental level of lives, how then do we explain the atheism of the modern age? Might it just be as simple as people failing to notice the obvious? Perhaps. There might be many reasons why this might occur. A given culture might lack the imaginative resources to understand what it is experiencing, while another culture might possess both the language and skills necessary to name and interpret its experience. Whatever the reasons, Hart is convinced that atheism 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” (p. 16).

(Go to Part 3)

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19 Responses to “The Experience of God” (Part 2)

  1. Thank you for “non-reviewing this book.” It is helpful as I am considering adding it to my reading list, which I just did. Now I just need to get through everything else on my list 🙂

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  2. Nicole says:

    I feel atheism can also be a response of bitterness toward a God they claim they don’t believe in. I can see this in my brother.

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  3. brian says:

    Father Aidan,

    I am so pleased to have discovered your site.

    With regards to the modern age, I would like to share a few words from the modern Sufi thinker Rodney Blackhirst. These are from his remarkable book: Primordial Alechemy and Modern Religion:

    Modern Western man . . . treats countless centuries of human wisdom with contempt in a glib phrase about how science has proven the world is round, not flat as the Church maintained and so on. That the world is round when viewed from the “outside” only widens the fact that it is rectilinear when viewed from the “inside.” But in a very real sense modern man has lost the “inside” view.

    The most conspicuous and obvious and immediate difference between a traditional social order and a capitalist one is in the organization and understanding of labor. And the difference is precisely that all vertical (qualitative and spiritual) aspects of labor are obliterated in the capitalist order and labor becomes a mere quantity, a “commodity.” Needless to say, under such a regime the contemplative life has no place whatsoever.

    The modern is the death of analogy. Specifically, there is no analogy between Earth and Heaven, no analogy between Man and kosmos.

    A field of wildflowers reflects the starry sky. The wildflower is star shaped . . . in modern empiricism, so-called, we cannot make analogies . . . The analogies and parallels in the kosmos scream out to be noticed. Industrial science isn’t really a science of observation. It refuses to see harmonies and proportions. They are everywhere to be seen, but it refuses.

    We are not remote from this Creation but rather sustained by it at every instant and always have access to it because it is ever-present; it is, at least, implicit in the world as we find it . . . its not surprising that modern people have never heard of it. Modern people think ancient people were stupid. This is a way of not having to think about it.

    Goethe said, very truly, “the microscope will make us blind.” This is true. We have extended our view inwards with the microscope and outwards with the telescope. But at the same time we have lost all sense of a human-scale universe. The secrets of the kosmos aren’t to be found in a telescope or a microscope. We seem to think that if we could just build bigger ones at greater magnifications all would become clear to us — but instead the truth, the God-given truth, is right there to the naked eye. On a human scale. At a human proportion. Phenomenologically.

    The main interest is really to engage with life, foremost. Deeply and not superficially. And that means being philosophical and religious because you run into those things — philosophy and religion — when you engage with life . . . and escape from abstractions. Life prompts us to real questions. It is important to avoid compartmentalizing philosophy and religion as this very abstracted, very pretentious activity in which various experts engage. In fact, life itself will make you philosophical or religious or spiritual in a genuine sense. Many people don’t engage much with life. It never makes them wonder. Whereas philosophy must begin in wonder, as Plato said. . . . Wonderment comes from engagement with life. Not wallowing in life but rather seeing the signals, the signs, and following the threads — having eyes to see.

    Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Herakleitos. “Ears and eyes are bad witnesses for those with barbarian souls.”

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  4. whitefrozen says:

    Sounds like he’s riffing off of Polyani’s tacit knowledge.

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  5. Orthodox Ruminations says:

    so glad youposted these, Father. I needed to read this. I have a friend who just asked me prayer and how to pray with the saints and icons. but then he also said he just can’t wrap his mind around the idea of a “cosmic sky dad” and what not. he is formerly a Christian Church christian, but is pretty much unaffliated and slighly agnostic now. he is into all religions. very pluarlistic. but willing to entertain Orthodoxy to a small degree. we graduated together and are close pals. so he asks me stuff from time to time. this morning he sent me a message and in it asked, ” if I don’t use terms like Cosmic Sky Dad and such what would you call the centrality of God? (The need to be worshiped? Jesus, etc.?) don’t know if that is clear but oh well.”

    i think all 3 pieces with Hart’s writings here are great sources. i’m gonna take from them to answer on my own, but how would you answer his question of “what would you call the centrality of God.”

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      So many ways you might respond to your friend.

      What immediately comes to mind is the famous prayer of St Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

      You might exploit the sky dad image to differentiate a mythological understanding of deity (whether belief in Zeus or belief in the divine watchmaker of Deism) from the authentically Christian understanding. To do this one begins with the creatio ex nihilo: if the world has been created from out of nothing, then God is radically different. It is the radical difference that turns all the spatial metaphors (God in the sky) upside down.

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      • Orthodox Ruminations says:

        Certainly wise to do that. This is how I responded:

        theology is the study of God. that is what the greek root words mean. theology, in general, but christianity in specificity, just doesn’t answer a question about a religion. a religion is a set of beliefs about metaphysics, anthropology, teleology, eschatology, and so much more. i think if you are seeing it as most americans are, not saying you are, than you are having a secular view of it that states “religion deals with the big man in the sky per theology” but this is flawed especially in regards to the deeply incarnational theology of Christianity in general, but Orthodoxy especially.

        “if I don’t use terms like Cosmic Sky Dad and such what would you call the centrality of God? (The need to be worshiped? Jesus, etc.?)”

        this is where some deep engagement, deep like how youhave engaged all these other religions, but not Orthodoxy, so yeah, deep engagement with Orthodoxy in the form of study and participation would deeply do you well. not to convert you but to expose you to deep, true theology, which for the most part, as a former Protestant myself along with you, neither of us have had much of lol.

        the Church Fathers speak of God as “PERSON”. not person how we are person, but person in his nature and being. of course he is the supreme being. he is what he is. on our icons of CHrist you will see hebrew letters or sometimes greek, one on the left, top of his head, and on the right. than mean, “I am” essentially. He is. that is God in CHristianity. he is Reality itself. that which is Real. the Numinous, the Mystery.

        just this morning i discovered some blogs by a priest friend that he had just written. they are reviewing David Hart’s (Orthodox philosopher) book “The Experience of God”. in it Hart says, “God is not only the ultimate reality that the intellect and the will seek, but is also the primordial reality with which all of us are always engaged in every moment of existence and consciousness, apart from which we have no experience of anything whatsoever” (p. 10).

        this is an excerpt from Fr. Al’s writing, but he is quoting Hart’s book here:

        God is “the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things” (p. 30). He is not an inhabitant of the material world or any spiritual dimension. He is not posed over against the universe, nor is he the universe itself. He may be described as beyond being, if by “being” we understand the totality of all created beings. He may be described as being, if by “being” we wish to signify God as “the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation” (p. 30).

        The true and living God must therefore be clearly distinguished from the various gods with whom humanity has always dealt throughout history. The gods, if any exist, do not transcend nature; they belong to nature. “They exist in space and time,” explains Hart, “each of them is a distinct being rather than ‘being itself,’ and it is they who are dependent upon the universe for their existence rather than the reverse. Of such gods there may be an endless diversity, while of God there can be only one. Or, better, God is not merely one, in a way that a finite object might be merely singular or unique, but is oneness as such, the one act of being and unity by which any finite things exists and by which all things exist together. He is one in the sense that being itself is one, the infinite is one, the source of everything is one” (p. 31).

        and here is the link to that blog piece if you like it: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/the-experience-of-god-part-3/

        so i hope that is at least a beginners look at personhood. Christianity created the concept of personhood. God is person. again, this is where 3 things need to occur 1) engagement with Orthodox theology per study, 2) engagment with Orthodox worship per participation, and 3) engagement with an Orthodox priest. i am not qualified to answer many of these questions and can only do so limited by my own ignorance. I’d wish better for you than my wimpy little answers and regurgitation of others smartness. I’d really like to help you best i can though, so i hope this does.

        i’d recommend also checking out Father Stephen’s blog on this matter:

        http://glory2godforallthings.com/2013/12/04/i-really-cant-say/

        peace out friend. off to work. hope this helps.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        “the Church Fathers speak of God as “PERSON”. not person how we are person, but person in his nature and being.”

        John, why bring “person” even into the conversation? I ask this because “person” is very popular in contemporary Orthodox theology, thanks in no small measure to Zizioulas; but the more I read the 4th century Greek Fathers, the less reliable Zizioulas appears to me. As far as I can tell hypostasis has little or nothing to do with “person,” as we employ the word today. I do not say this dogmatically—I’m happy to be dissuaded.

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  6. tgbelt says:

    Thanks Fr Aidan. I’m glad I’ve got somebody to talk to who has read Hart’s book. You and one other friend are the only two I have to chat with about this stuff.

    Two things you said that are confusing me:

    First: “Underlying ‘The Experience of God’ by David Bentley Hart is the conviction that the structure of personal experience witnesses to the reality of God.”

    I totally get this. But then, secondly: “The Church Fathers speak of God as ‘PERSON’, not person how we are person, but person in his nature and being.”

    Can you guess my confusion? If it’s the case that the structure of [our] personal experience (ours is the only structure we have to speak of) witnesses to the reality of God, how is it also the case that ‘person’ when used of God is not like our experience of being persons (i.e., the structure of [our] personal experience)? Theistic personalists would totally agree with your and Hart’s first point. Their entire program depends upon it. So it would seem your ‘denial’ of this (the denial in your second statement) has to be a very special sort of denial, and denial that constrains and limits the execesses of theistic personalism without emptying Hart’s point of all content.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Tom, perhaps part of your confusion is that I didn’t write the second statement (“The Church Fathers speak of God as ‘PERSON’, not person how we are person, but person in his nature and being”). 😛

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  7. tgbelt says:

    How’d that second statement move out of your post over into someone else’s? Ha! Sorry. Could have sworn otherwise!

    Oh well. I guess the question is, given the truth of Hart’s conviction that the structure of our personal experience tells us something about God, how do we ‘read’ our experience as revelatory of God without making the idolatrous mistake of reducing divine being to the expanded perfections of our own selves? I mean, consider comments Denys Turner makes (in describing Pseudo-Denys): “The fact of their having been caused by God is what permits the names of all things to be used of God. But what makes it not just permissible, but a requirement of theological adequacy that we should use all names of God, is the fact that since God is the cause of the whole created order, God possesses in his own being and in an uncreated manner all the perfections which he causes.” This is basically Hart’s conviction. So I’m just wondering whether the mistake ‘theological personalists’ make isn’t in what the affirm (since they seem essentially to just be following Hart’s conviction), but in the qualified apophatic denials they refuse to concede.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I’m not confident enough about all of this to have anything more than an opinion (as I mentioned in one of my prior articles, I’ve been a working theistic personalistic most of my priesthood). It may well be that the difference between theistic personalists and classical theists is just a matter of starting points, and that after making all necessary qualifications, they ultimately get to the same God. The former begins with the biblical portrayal of the divine One who promises and commands; the latter with the One who creates the world ex nihilo. As a result, the personalist begins with God’s similarity with human beings; the classicist begins with God’s radical dissimilarity.

      As far as I can tell, the personalist does not appear to believe that the language of personhood is in any way inadequate to the reality of God. All that is needed is appropriate qualifications. Many modern Orthodox theologians appear to speak the same way, though I suspect they are much more aware than their Protestant counterparts of the apophatic reinterpretation that is needed. I certainly in no way want to suggest that we should not speak of God as person. As Denys Turner observes, “How else than in and through the vocabulary of personhood is the language of knowledge and love to get any purchase on God, which the scriptures of all three Abrahamic traditions not merely warrant but require?”

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    • Paige Watson says:

      The issue with “theistic personalism” isn’t that its proponents speak of God as “Person,” but that they conceive of him as a finite psychological subject, made up of parts and subject to time. Basically, they think of a God more like the God of Mormonism than of classical Christianity.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Paige, that makes sense. Could you elaborate further please on the “finite psychological subject” of theistic personalism.

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  8. Orthodox Ruminations says:

    Reblogged this on Orthodox Ruminations.

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  9. Vasco Gama says:

    I would agree with Hart when he says that “atheism is “a fundamentally irrational view of reality”, as the modern source of atheism (coincident with the “enlightenment) is fundamentally related with the recent progress of science and technology. In fact the science introduced a variety of knowledge that provided a new and consistent understanding of matters that relate to cosmology, biological evolution, anthropology, sociology, psychology and neuroscience, that allowed us to have a better insight of reality, and to attain a rational account, even if partial, that tries to account how we come to be what we and universe are what they are. All these scientific accounts are precious and quite insightful, but in spite of the level of explanation they are able to give, they do not address any explanation of what we really are or anything else related with meaning, value or purpose. Science per se is unable to address those issues, and any of the mysteries of human existence. One problem that misleads atheists is a poor understanding about religion and the what people expect from the religious experience, and they tend to address and criticise religion on basis of the absence of a scientific account from religion, but that is totally absurd, as that is not the aim of religion (even if historically their claim could have some meaning). So they tend to see a contradiction between science and religion that is absurd, and reveals their preposterous perspective of what religion really is.

    Modern atheism is committed to philosophical naturalism, and this view directs atheists to irrationality, which is clearly seen in their most coherent and extreme views, such as in the denial of human rationality (that is a common perspective from reductionists), or even further when they try to purpose that humans don’t possess free will or that our thoughts and intentionality, or human rationality are in reality mere illusions (that follows from eliminativism). Even if they all seem to hold that we have the sense that free will and human rationality exist, they claim that these are mere ilusions, and as a consequence in reality the human rationality doesn’t exist.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      In his book Hart advances a powerful and sustained polemic against naturalism/materialism. I have not touched on this in my non-review series, only because Hart’s critique is so wide-ranging. But he is convinced that naturalism is philosophically untenable and ultimately absurd.

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