Book Review: The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart

Though it has never, by its very nature, possessed the ability to thrive and create new systems of thought, atheism was once a radical and fascinating philosophical position with some interesting potential as a portal to exploration of the innate human tendencies to doubt and despair. This 18th century project took on its most energetic and interesting forms near the close of the 19th century as thinkers like Nietzsche sought to envision a world that was truly devoid of God, a world that Shakespeare already imagined in the 17th century in his tragedy of King Lear but which Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky brought into even finer detail when such a world really seemed, if only for a brief moment, intellectually feasible.

Alas, the golden age of atheism did not last long. Perhaps it was fated so by the nature of atheism itself. When doubt becomes the new certainty it takes on all the staleness of the old and ostensibly outworn orthodoxies. When something as radical as atheism trickles down and is taken up by those who don’t understand it and, whether through ignorance or cowardice or, more likely, a pitiful combination of both, don’t wish to live out their supposed intellectual convictions in any meaningful way, the inevitable result is the vapid and utterly unconvincing — not to mention uninteresting — wasteland of atheism at the dawn of the 21st century.

While atheism was certainly never a viable philosophy, logically speaking, it was a worthy exercise in absurdity that could have, had it been able to maintain its vigor, plumbed the depths of doubt. It could have been an opportunity to delve into the abyss, even if for just a brief moment. It could have been a worthy project. But, it seems, the gods fated for it to become another bourgeois puritanism under the auspices of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et al. — a cabal not even good enough to be evil.

What David Bentley Hart provides in this book is a final beautifully ornate, hand-sculpted nail in the coffin of a philosophical position that committed suicide with an overdose of tranquilizers quite some time ago. Hart takes up an argument that, in just over 300 pages, comes down to this: Plato already demolished atheism — didn’t you hear?

Now, I must immediately add: that last statement is not to say that this book is not worth reading. On the contrary, it is essential reading for anyone interested in the question of the viability of authentic doubt in the modern age as well as anyone so insipid that he can’t conjure the modesty to avert his gaze from the horrible collision of clown cars we call atheism. I hope, for your sake, that you are over the former sort, though it must be admitted that almost all of us are of one of those two sorts — or, perhaps, both at once.

What makes this book an essential contribution to the discussion of God are two aspects of it especially. First, there is Hart’s delightful ability to uncover the great similarities at the heart of the world’s spiritual traditions, to discover beneath the dross of accumulated cultural artifacts the shared human experience which underlies the search for the Divine by anyone in any culture. As the title of the book has it, he is writing about the experience of God — not just in the great visions of mystics and saints but in the everyday experiences of goodness, truth, and beauty — which are (or, should I say, which is) God. Second, and as important, is Hart’s ability to make the ancient relevant. We have developed the unfortunate belief that old and irrelevant are synonymous. Hart’s look at ancient ideas through contemporary experiences is a precious reminder that they are not.

Reading Job as a mystical text

The modern world has developed an obsession with comfort coupled with a nearly equally obsessive antipathy to suffering of any sort. The natural aversion to suffering and death have been transformed into a compulsion to avoid any sort of suffering and to avoid even the mention of death. This modern view contrasts sharply with the more traditional and healthy view of suffering which is seen in Scripture.
The words of Bernard Berenson in his book The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance present an example of the common modern view. In his book, Berenson judges Michelangelo’s paintings of the Last Judgment and the Crucifixion of Peter to be artistic failures. He explains that they are failures because “art can only be life-communicating and life-enhancing. If it treats of pain and death, these must always appear as manifestations and as results only of living resolutely and energetically.” In the final sentence of the same paragraph, Berenson finally goes terribly wrong, as he asks, “what chance is there … for this, artistically the only possible treatment, in the representation of a man crucified head downwards?”
It is, from the perspective of Scripture, precisely and perhaps solely in “a man crucified with his head downwards” that we can find anything “of living resolutely and energetically.” Paradoxical though it may be, God, the source of all life and energy, is found in weakness and in suffering. It is at moments of the most profound weakness and pain that we experience our own humanity most profoundly and, in experiencing our own humanity, we open ourselves to the experience of God, by whom and in whose image our humanity has been formed. It is only one who has forgotten the importance of his own mortality and weakness who can possibly describe Michelangelo’s representation of the Last Judgment as a failure.
The Book of Job perhaps more than any other single book of the Bible presents the Scriptural view of suffering and death as ultimately necessary and even positively redemptive. This is especially true if the book is read as a mystical text rather than a tract of philosophy or academic theology. From the first verse of the book, the reader is presented with a man who is “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1, ESV). Because of this righteousness, he has been blessed by God with an abundance of wealth. He possesses so much wealth, in fact, that the book identifies him as “the greatest of all the people of the east” (1:3). All of this, however, is taken from him as God allows Satan to test his faith by stripping him of his wealth, killing his children, and finally causing “loathsome sores” to cover Job “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (2:7).
This suffering plunges Job into despair and existential angst. He contemplates the shortness and fragility of human life, declaring “man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble” (14:1). He wonders at the apparent absence of God, observing “behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him” (23:8). He even flatly declares “I loathe my life” (10:1). Even in the midst of this great suffering, however, Job maintains his hope that “yet in my flesh I shall see God” (19:26).
This is precisely what happens as the book draws to a close. After all the suffering of Job, God finally appears to him and addresses him directly. Rather than offering an answer to his questions about the meaning and nature of human life, however, God instead reveals his own immensity to Job in an extended discourse on his own power and the wonders of his creation, beginning with the question “where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (38:4) and progressing through descriptions of the the physical features of the planet and the various animals that live on it. God’s monologue concludes with a section in which the tremendous and terrifying Leviathan of Ancient Near Eastern mythology is reduced to a mere plaything of the Almighty (41:5).
Job is left nearly mute by this display and responds simply, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6). Job’s self-loathing caused by his own suffering has been transformed into absolute humility in the presence of God. The book ends as God restores Job’s prosperity, giving to him double the amount of possessions he previously held.
The commentary of St. Augustine on Psalm 111:10 (“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”) in his On Christian Doctrine (Book II, Chapter 7) is of special help in interpreting the Book of Job. Augustine explains Psalmist’s verse by laying out a seven step process leading from the fear of God to wisdom, which latter term he identifies with the direct experience of God. According to Augustine, one begins with fear of God, which he identifies especially with fear of God’s judgment and wrath, a quality attributed to Job from the first verse of the Book of Job. The second step on the mystical path, inspired by fear, says Augustine, is piety, which is certainly demonstrated by Job’s fastidiousness in “continually” offering sacrifices on behalf of his children because, according to Job, “it may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts” (1:5).
This fear and piety combine, according to Augustine, to lead one to the third step, knowledge. According to Augustine, this knowledge is the recognition “that God is to be loved for His own sake” and that one, “through being entangled in the love of this world — i.e., of temporal things – -has been drawn far away from such a love for God … as Scripture enjoins.” This is, of course, what Job experienced when all of his worldly possessions and even his own health were taken away from him. And his reaction is precisely as Augustine describes: “the knowledge of a good hope makes a man not boastful, but sorrowful. And in this frame of mind he implores with unremitting prayers the comfort of the Divine help that he may not be overwhelmed in despair.” It is through this existential crisis, says Augustine, that “he gradually comes to the fourth step, — that is, strength and resolution.” This strength and resolution are exhibited by Job in his expressed faith that God would redeem him and that he would finally be vindicated. The fifth step, says Augustine, is compassion, a recognition that the condition he himself is experiencing is common to all men and, given this truth, that he should be a source of comfort to others, a theme which arises at several points in Job’s words throughout the book and which is especially emphasized in his final monologue in chapter 31. From this, one continues into the sixth step, in which, says Augustine, “that holy man will be so single and so pure in heart, that he will not step aside from the truth, either for the sake of pleasing men or with a view to avoid any of the annoyances which beset this life.” That Job discontinues his argumentations with his friends and does not respond to Elihu’s extended rebuke (chapters 32-37) exhibits Job’s entrance into this step. Finally, God reveals himself and Job enters into the seventh step, wisdom, the direct apprehension of God.
This comparison of the Book of Job with Augustine’s description of the mystical path highlights the contrast between the Book of Job and the modern view of suffering. For moderns, suffering is an evil to be avoided at all costs and which represents the cessation of a life fully and truly lived. For a Christian, however, informed by the Scriptures, there is a kind of suffering, the most painful kind, that lays, and in fact is, the path to redemption and salvation. This suffering is, in truth, the only way to God, the fountain of a life that is eternal and infinite.

Atheism, Christianity, and Facing Facts

One common charge leveled against Christianity by its detractors is the accusation that Christianity is a flight of fancy which allows the believer to cushion himself against the cold, hard truths of the human condition, including especially the inevitability of death and the cessation of individual existence which accompanies it. My own experience, however, has been quite different. My own movement from atheism to Christianity instead allowed me to look upon and understand the reality of man with continually clearer sight. This insight, in turn, further goaded me toward faith.

As a nonbeliever, I found that my own experience and my understanding of the experience of others had always to have certain restrictions placed upon it in order to fit soundly within the interpretative framework of my worldview. There was simply no room there for such things as feeling overwhelmed by the experience of the sublime, a mystical experience of the divine, the innate desire of man for eternity and infinity, or even something as commonplace as true love. All such things had to be reduced to the merely biological and explained away as entirely psychological. None of it could be accepted at face value or, really, at any value. I was forced by my own metaphysical assumptions to assert again and again, and contrary to all evidence, that the one who understood his experience least was the one who was having the experience.

Long before making the decision to convert to Christianity I had examined the traditional logical arguments for the existence of God and found them altogether lacking. To this day, I find nearly all of them lacking and all of them ultimately unconvincing. Instead, I was persuaded to adopt the worldview of faith by my own inability to finally explain away a predilection toward belief in God and a yearning for closeness to this God. I was forced by my sincerity to myself to admit that there was a hunger within me and that hunger is proof of food.

I have found this admission extremely liberating. While I was an atheist, I had been forced to retreat into my shelter of rationalizing and psychologizing any time that ideas like eternity or divinity had been mentioned. Becoming a Christian, on the other hand, has allowed me to accept, understand, and appreciate the full scope and depth of the human experience. I am able, for example, to confirm the experiences of isolation, despair, and doubt that pervade the atheistic worldview. All of these are quite real and even indispensable aspects of the human experience. There is no need for the Christian to deny the legitimacy of the atheist’s assertions that his everyday experience indicates no existence of any divinity and that the suffering of the mass of humanity cries out in rebellion against cosmic mercy and justice. These, indeed, are experiences the Christian himself, as a student of the human condition, should enter into and readily acknowledge. As Leland Ryken points out, “to understand the universal human condition is something that Christians owe to themselves and to the human race, and it is an obligation imposed on them by the Christian faith itself.”

As a Christian, I can now also acknowledge the legitimacy and essentiality of the claims of a similarly broad swathe of people throughout history and today. Importantly, I can also acknowledge the truth of my own experiences. There is no longer any need to explain away the experience of transcendence, the thirst for eternity, and the conviction that there must be some sort of cosmic justice. Only the believer is allowed to accept the simultaneous reality and legitimacy of faith and doubt, despair and hope, and time and eternity. As I began the process of conversion, I found that in becoming a Christian I had not lost access to any aspect of what it means to be human but had instead gained the ability to be more fully human. I did not need to deny the dreadful pain of losing a loved one nor the fear of my own impending death in order to believe that there was eternal life beyond the grave.

In his book Christ and Apollo, Father William F. Lynch wisely observes that “it seems a solid mistake to feed a human being with long doses of tranquilizing pills when he is being asked by nature to confront the bereavement involved in the death of someone deeply loved.” The accusation of the atheist against the Christian is that his Christianity, with its hopes of a life after death and a loving God, is just such a tranquilizing pill. On the contrary, however, it is the atheist who has taken the tranquilizing pill and this pill has worked to numb him to and cut him off from the full experience of this death of a loved one and of his own humanity.

1 Leland Ryken, “Formalist and Archetypal Criticism,” in Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken, Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 19.

2 William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2004), 23

Science as an art

The discoveries of science, the works of art are explorations — more, are explosions, of a hidden likeness. The discoverer or the artist presents in them two aspects of nature and fuses them into one. This is the act of creation, in which an original thought is born, and it is the same act in original science and original art. But it is not therefore the monopoly of the man who wrote the poem or who made the discovery. On the contrary, I believe this view of the creative act to tbe right because it alone gives a meaning to the act of appreciation. The poem or the discovery exists in two moments of vision: the moment of appreciation as much as that of creation; for the appreciator must see the movement, wake to the echo which was started in the creation of the work. In the moment of appreciation we live again the moment when the creator saw and held the hidden likeness. When a simile takes us aback and persuades us together, when we find a juxtaposition in a picture both odd and intriguing, when a theory is at once fresh and convincing, we do not merely nod over someone else’s work. We re-enact the creative act, and we ourselves make the discovery again. At bottom, there is no unifying likeness there until we too have seized it, we too have made it for ourselves.

How slipshod by comparison is the notion that either art or science sets out to copy nature. If the task of the painter were to copy for men what they see, the critic could make only a single judgment: either that copy the copy is right or that it is wrong. And if science were a copy of fact, then every theory would be either right or wrong, and would be so for ever. There would be nothing left for us to say but this is so, or is not so. No one who has read a page by a good critic or a speculative scientist can ever again think that this barren choice of yes or no is all that the mind offers.

Reality is not an exhibit for man’s inspection, labelled ‘Do not touch.’ There are no appearances to be photographed, no experiences to be copied, in which we do not take part. Science, like art, is not a copy of nature but a re-creation of her. We re-make nature by the act of discovery, in the poem or in the theorem. And the great poem and the deep theorem are new to every reader, and yet are his own experiences, because he himself re-creates them. They are the marks of unity in variety; and in the instant when the mind seizes this for itself, in art or in science, the heart misses a beat.

Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values, pp. 19-20

"I have to find Zaabalawi"

Naguib Mahfouz’s short story “Zaabalawi” exhibits the qualities of both the traditional allegorical stories often told in the mystical traditions of many religions as well as the dreamlike tales of twentieth century existentialists such as Franz Kafka. In bringing together these two streams of thought, Mahfouz establishes himself directly in the line of religious existentialists such as Soren Kierkegaard and especially the storytellers of that tradition, the most remarkable of whom is probably Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Mahfouz also brings a unique element to this synthesis of mysticism and existentialism in drawing upon the contents of his Islamic heritage to present a story that is both universal in its meaning and yet unique Islamic in its content.

The character from whose perspective the story is told is never explicitly identified by name. As with other stories which stand in the existentialist strain, the identity of the main character as an individual person is unnecessary and perhaps evens a dangerous distraction. Rather, the story itself is a means by which the reader can enter into the subjectivity of another. The main character has no individual identity; the reader is expected to identify himself or herself with that character. In this story, the character is suffering from “that illness for which no one possesses a remedy.” Although ailment remains unexplained and undefined throughout the story, it is clear that the reader is expected to identify with it; it is the universal human condition identified by Kierkegaard as “the sickness unto death,” a state of despair at the meaninglessness and ennui that permeate human life.

The main character of the story, and the reader through him, sets out on a desperate search to find Zaabalawi, the only one who can heal his affliction. Although Zaabalawi is identified as a holy man and sheikh, it is clear from what is said about him that he stands as a symbol of God. The first sentences of the story, in which the character explains why he decided to search for Zaabalawi, make this connection clear. He explains that “the first time I had heard of his name had been in a song.” The connection with Islamic worship practices, in which prayers are generally recited in song and chant, makes the identification of Zaabalawi with God obvious.

The ensuing search for Zaabalawi consists of a number of short scenes in which the main character questions various characters concerning the nature and whereabouts of Zaabalawi. Each of these characters represents a group in Islamic society and their stereotyped reactions to and thoughts on God. A businessman, for instance, exhibits little interest in Zaabalawi and even seems to imply he may be dead, a parallel with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous exclamation on the death of God, that is, the irrelevance and unsustainability of the idea of God in the modern mind. Similarly, a theologian who is questioned about Zaabalawi responds to the main character by drawing a complex map the character is unable to understand, a scene which conjures the famous words of Thomas Aquinas, a Medieval monk who is one of Christianity’s most prolific and influential theologians. Late in his life, he experienced a mystical vision which caused him to state to his companions that “all that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me,” after which statement he never wrote again. In other words, the both Aquinas and Mahfouz reject the complicated conjecture and theory of the academic theologians in favor of a direct approach to God through mysticism. Interestingly, all of the characters who is featured in this series of scenes exhibit a felt absence of someone who is very important to their lives. Although not all of them are willing to acknowledge the importance of this person to their lives, each clearly feels that something is lacking because of this person’s absence.

After a series of such encounters, the main character finally has a direct mystical experience of Zaabalawi/God. In line with many mystical traditions from around the world, including the Sufi tradition of Islam, this experience is presented as a state of intoxication and a kind of stupor. The main character experiences a “deep contentedness” and “ecstatic serenity” as well as ontological unity with the cosmos. The disorientating imagery used by Mahfouz to describe the experience, including phrases such as “the world turned round about me and I forgot why I had gone there,” is reminiscent of the practice of whirling famously associated with certain groups of Sufis.

Following his experience, the main character is unaware that he has had a direct experience of Zaabalawi. He becomes more determined in his search. Mahfouz’s conclusion once again brings together the mystical and existential in his thought. The main character confides that he sometimes doubts Zaabalawi’s very existence and yet he asserts that he is unable to go on without him. His search for Zaabalawi, he concludes, must continue.

Augustine’s description of mystical experience

Imagine a man in whom the tumult of the flesh goes silent, in whom the images of earth, of water, of air and of the skies cease to resound. His soul turns quiet and, self-reflecting no longer, it transcends itself. Dreams and visions end. So too does all speech and every gesture, everything in fact which comes to be only to pass away. All these things cry out: “We did not make ourselves. It is the Eternal One who made.” And after they have said this, think of them falling silent, turning to listen to the One Who created them. And imagine Him speaking. Himself, and not through the medium of all those things. Speaking Himself. So that we could hear His word, not in the language of the flesh, not through the speech of an angel, not by way of a rattling cloud or a mysterious parable. Imagine we could hear Him without them. Reaching out with speeding thought we come to Him, to the Eternal Wisdom which outlasts everything. And imagine if sight of Him were kept available, while all lesser sights were taken away. Think of this encounter, seizing, absorbing, drawing the witness into the depths of joy. Eternal life would be of a kind with this moment of understanding.

St. Augustine, Confessions ix, 10, 25