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.
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