“The Experience of God” (Part 5)

The Experience of God is an exceptionally rich and demanding book. I have only touched the surface of David Hart’s reflections. It is not a book for everyone. One at least needs to be curious about the nature of being and consciousness. I’m sure it would help immeasurably if one has read Augustine or Thomas Aquinas, as well as some recent work on the philosophy of mind; but it’s not absolutely necessary. As I mentioned in my first article, the book works on the reader on several levels. You may find yourself beginning to look at reality differently. You may even find yourself led to prayer.

In his final chapter Hart discusses the contemplative journey. If one is truly interested in finding out whether God exists, then one must be prepared to commit oneself to a contemplative journey:

If one is really to seek “proof” one way or the other regarding the reality of God, one must recall that what one is seeking is a particular experience, one wholly unlike an encounter with some mere finite object of cognition or some particular thing that might be found among other things. One is seeking an ever deeper communion with a reality that at once exceeds and underlies all other experiences. If one could sort through all the physical objects and events constituting the universe, one might come across any number of gods (you never know), but one will never find God. And yet one is placed in the presence of God in every moment, and can find him even in the depth of the mind’s own act of seeking. As the source, ground, and end of being and consciousness, God can be known as God only insofar as the mind rises from beings to being, and withdraws from the objects of consciousness toward the wellsprings of consciousness itself, and learns to see nature not as a closed system of material forces but in light of those ultimate ends that open the mind and being each to the other. All the great faiths recognize numerous vehicles of grace, various proper dispositions of the soul before God, differing degrees of spiritual advancement, and so forth; but all clearly teach that there is no approach to the knowledge of God that does not involve turning the mind and the will toward the perception of God in all things and of all things in God. This is the path of prayer—contemplative prayer, that is, as distinct from simple prayers of supplication and thanksgiving—which is a specific discipline of thought, desire, and action, one that frees the mind from habitual prejudices and appetites, and allows it to dwell in the gratuity and glory of all things. As an old monk on Mount Athos once told me, contemplative prayer is the art of seeing reality as it truly is; and, if one has not yet acquired the ability to see God in all things, one should not imagine that one will be able to see God in himself. (pp. 320-321)

One of the strengths of Hart’s approach to theology is his integration of reason and faith, intellect and prayer. He does not depreciate the role of philosophical reflection on the structures of human experience, yet he also acknowledges that personal experience of God requires ascetical purification and discipline. We cannot investigate “the reality of God except in a manner appropriate to the kind of reality God has traditionally been understood to be” (p. 324). It is precisely because God is “the unity of infinite being and infinite consciousness, and the reason for the reciprocal transparency of finite being and finite consciousness each to the other, and the ground of all existence and all knowledge” that the way of contemplation is appropriate and necessary (p. 324).

If we truly desire to know the truth of God, then we must pray “according to the disciplines of infused contemplation, with real constancy of will and a patient openness to grace, suffering states of both dereliction and ecstasy with the equanimity of faith, hoping but not presuming, so as to find whether the spiritual journey, when followed in earnest, can disclose its own truthfulness and conduct one into communion with a dimension of reality beyond the ontological indigence of the physical. No one is obliged to make such an effort; but, unless one does, any demands one might make for evidence of the reality of God can safely be dismissed as disingenuous, and any arguments against belief in God that one might have the temerity to make to others can safely be ignored as vacuous” (pp. 327-328).

Hart thus leaves us, both believers and nonbelievers, with a challenge—to make an intentional and sustained effort to liberate ourselves from ontological obtuseness and disordered desire and to seek the living God in whom we live and move and have our being.

(Return to Part 1)

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4 Responses to “The Experience of God” (Part 5)

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    This morning I just came across the late Fr Edward Oakes’s review of The Experience of God. It’s well worth reading: http://goo.gl/K5Z0dG.


  2. Pingback: The “true and reasonable” confrontables of the Christian faith – considering David Bentley Hart’s approach through Lutheran eyes | theology like a child

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