God as a Gaseous Vertebrate?

A while ago, Jerry Coyne finished reading “The Experience of God” by David Bentley Hart, and made some comments on it that revealed that, yes, he didn’t really understand what a Ground of All Being actually was. I meant to respond to that as a summary, since he didn’t really post a solid review/summary, but anyone who’s been following this blog knows that I get lazy and then don’t reply. Maybe I’ll get back to it one of these days. However, , and after spending a little time listening to Christian radio compares God — either the folk God or the theological God or, well, it isn’t quite clear what — to what H.L. Mencken called “a vertebrate without substance”, which when you unpack it and unpack Coyne’s post seems to mean a God that has human traits but isn’t human, a common criticism that Coyne makes of “sophisticated theology”.

(As an aside, Coyne compliments Mencken as “…a true strident atheist, as good with mockery as was his successor Hitchens”. This leads me to ask “When did mockery become a good argument to convince rational people of your position?”)

Coyne gives this as his main example:

One show, for children, was about a girl who wanted to become a personal trainer, but had shown little talent for the job, and was frustrated because she didn’t know what to do with her life. “I want to be somebody,” she wailed. Her father, who tried to soothe her, had his own problem: he was overweight and was on a diet. Eventually he told her that God would show her the way, but it would take a while, just like the long while he’d have to wait to shed his extra pounds. Then a voice-over came on and gave the lesson: God has plans for all of us, and listens to our needs, but he will effect his plans for us in his own time. We must wait. But we should be reassured that he knows what is good for us, loves us, and will, in time, show us the way.

This God, of course, was humanoid: the emotions he evinced were love, understanding, empathy, and the desire to interfere in our lives so we could be fulfilled. And, of course, he was touted as actually listening to prayer, for the child was told to consider her options “prayerfully”.

He then compares this to Hart’s position:

Those gaseous theologians like David Bentley Hart and Karen Armstrong, of course, decry the concept of such a humanlike God. That’s not the real God, says Hart, and those atheists who argue against it are wasting their time. The real god is ineffable (though somehow Hart knows that He/She/Hir/It loves us); it is a Ground of Being.

Why? Because they think that God can love? Because they think that God can plan, or have emotions, or act in the world? The Ground of Being — as I explained in my review of Hart’s book — is not some completely amorphous, blob without properties. For the Thomists, the Ground of All Being is, indeed the Ground of All Being. It is not only the case that every being exists because it participates in the Ground of All Being, but every positive property only exists because the Ground of All Being has that property. So if we can be said to be capable of love, then the Ground of All Being must be capable of love. If we can plan, so can the Ground of All Being. If we can act in the world, then so can the Ground of All Being.

Now, getting this from Hart’s book would be tough; only by combining it with Feser’s posts and book was I able to get that. But Coyne should have been able to get the answer to this question from it:

What I want to know is this. If Hart and his ilk think that 99% of Christians have the wrong concept of God, why aren’t they trying to correct it? Why are they writing books aimed at fellow scholars instead of, say, the average Christian, or the average Christian child? Why are they wasting time bashing atheists instead of telling their coreligionists—or all religionists—the truth about God?

Now, here’s a quote where Coyne does seem to get the problem that Hart is trying to address:

I listened to two stations, and both of them constantly promoted the idea of God as a gaseous vertebrate—just like us, but more powerful.

Now, Hart was clear in his book that this was indeed the wrong way to look at God, and he in fact called out other theologians, including Plantinga and the modal logic attempts to prove the existence of God, as well as the Ontological Argument. So no one can validly complain that they aren’t trying to correct the misconception. So the only complaints would be that they may write more scholarly works than popular works, and that they take aim at atheists too much. For the former, it’s hardly a valid criticism that they’ve decided to work in intellectual circles instead of aiming at the rank and file, any more than it would be a valid criticism of, say, those studying global warming if they write more academic papers and books aimed at disagreeing scientists and don’t spend a lot of time talking to the mainstream press. For the latter, since Feser and Hart were taking on the New Atheists, who aimed at and still aim at the average person, aiming at them means aiming at a popular or average view as well, and in effect aims at two birds with one stone: taking out the rather weak counter-arguments against God — from their perspective — while clearly pointing out to religious people what the common view of God really is or really implies. Maybe Coyne’s right and they should promote the underlying theory more … but maybe the folk view isn’t as far off of their view as Coyne thinks it is.

At any rate, there is, in general, no gaseous vertebrate here, at least not from the perspective of Thomist theology. There’s nothing really wrong with what those stations said, other than the analogy risks anthropomorphizing God if taken too far and too literally. Which is a risk of any analogy. The contradiction that Coyne so relies on simply doesn’t exist.

17 Responses to “God as a Gaseous Vertebrate?”

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel Says:

    Coyne’s lastest article has to be one of the silliest he has written. I don’t get it. One would think that someone who is seeking to intellectually discredit Christianity would address Christian theology at its best and most serious; but he seems content to simply attack fundamentalist caricatures. No one in his own field would allow him to get away with that (peer review and all that); but when it comes to attacking Christianity, there’s no stick he won’t pick up. Sigh.

  2. Karl Miller Says:

    Well, I’m an atheist, but not a particularly angry one. I’ve read Hart’s book and can find nothing but a war of synonyms. If calling “the Infinite Ground of Being” “God” instead of, say, “cosmos” adds something besides a cultural bias, I don’t know what it is.

    Hart protests that he’s not anthropomorphizing “Him” … but … he can’t really help himself throughout the book. He also says in his introduction that he’s affirming a “perfect circle” of logic with his Platonism … but then proceeds to bash those of us who use a different word for the same phenomenon (“nature,” “universe,” “cosmos”) as … circular in OUR reasoning. Well. Seriously, what are we to make of this piffle? It’s not only a “perfect circle” he’s weaved around his brain, but a perfect hypocrisy thereafter. And a demonstrable contradiction. He announces it proudly at the outset. But he gives me nothing substantial to consider and certainly no reason to switch from atheism to his “classical theism.”

    Hart’s a sharp guy and his 2010 piece in First Things was an important critique of the New Atheists, but his book about God is a Platonic shell game, I’m afraid, and I’d be surprised if he read Eric Havelock’s “Preface to Plato,” which lays bare the glaring blind spots in Hart’s merry-go-round. If I could recommend one title to all sides of this debate, it would be that.

    Please remember, atheism is the default position here. It is not incumbent on us to explain existence; it is incumbent upon theists to explain God. Synching those two as definitions of each other is lovely, but not a *reason* to abandon atheism.

    In brief, you’ll note there is no “ism” in Hart’s classic theism. Only a word, God, stretched to an inconsequential generality. If this really is what God is … then Hart must perforce be busy dismantling the whole rococo apparatus of his own Eastern Orthodox Church, I assume. Anything short of a muted Buddhism would be blasphemy, by his standard.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Well, I think the issue here is over what the argument of the classical theists is. It’s this:

      1) We need an explanation for existence (this is mostly the Aristotlean influence).

      2) For various reasons, we need to have a Ground of All Being to explain the existence of existence itself.

      3) That Ground of All Being must have certain properties or else it won’t work as an explanation of existence itself (for example, it must be simple in the sense that it cannot be composed of parts or else we’d have to explain the existence of the separate parts and how they came to be joined, which means that that couldn’t be the Ground of All Being).

      4) We also have to explain (this is my interpretation and so might be wrong or misleading) the existence of specific positive properties in the world: why do we have certain things like consciousness, intentionality, etc?

      5) The Ground of All Being can solve this problem by saying that the properties that exist in the world are properties that the Ground of All Being has, and has maximally. This holds for any positive property. Any negative property is explained by the other beings — I’m including things like rocks in “beings” here — lacking the positive properties to their maximal level.

      6) So the Ground of All Being is maximally simple, maximally conscious, maximally potent (able to act in the world), maximally knowledgeable, maximally moral, etc, etc. and is directly responsible for the world being the way it is.

      7) That looks an awful lot like God.

      Your objections seem to be under the assumption that they start with God the creator, use the causal argument to show that everything needs to have a cause and so there must be a creator, and then when asked why God doesn’t need a cause simply assert it. While I won’t say that some don’t end up doing that unconsciously, philosophically the argument is precisely the other way around. So you can’t simply plunk “cosmos” into the picture unless you want to make that have all of those properties, and then again the question would be “Why isn’t that God?”.

      Which God isn’t answered, but Hart, at least, was explicit that that wasn’t his goal in that book.

    • Fr Aidan Kimel Says:

      Karl, I had questions in my own mind about Hart’s comprehensive “theism,” embracing as it does not only the great monotheisms but also, so Hart asserts, the God of Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism and Sikhism; but given my ignorance of Oriental religion.

      But I do not know what you mean when you say that “God” as defined in the book is indistinguishable from the cosmos. If that were so, Hart could not meaningfully about God creating the world or God as the source of Being, which he does. Perhaps you could explain further.

  3. Karl Miller Says:

    Hey, VB and Aidan! Apologies for the long reply but these are huge subjects and I shall try to be as clear as possible. Thank you for walking through it with me. I think this is precisely where the contemporary atheism-vs-theism debate should be centered and as critical as I am on Hart, he’s done a great service by directing our attentions here.

    1) Hart’s is not an “explanation for existence” — it is a redefinition of Existence as God Himself. An explanation FOR existence would imply precisely the casual chain you describe (and which I definitely did not use in my first post).

    2) Again, call it The Ground of All Being if you like. But by being “All Being” … there is either a) no Ground or b) *only* Ground. It begs the question and answers nothing so long as we already have another word for it.

    3) The Ground of All Being has *no* properties because it is Property Itself and Qualia Itself and … Everything Itself. We cannot prevail on this ultimate synthetic category and then proceed to *define* it for that would *limit* what we just called *infinite*.

    4) Consciousness is not a problem of theism versus atheism. It is a problem of language and perception. This is a huge subject and I’m afraid Hart hasn’t explored it nearly as much as he explores Being. He’s determined from the outset that it is pointless to look to science, linguistics or history for an explanation and, unsurprisingly, he adopts an equivocating tone in this section, quite different from the blithe condescension of his first section. He is aided in this, I must admit, by an equally dextrous shell game in the pop-neuroscience market right now.

    Consciousness is not a thing that can be pinned down in a precise location in the brain or in a precise word like “God”. It is a process or operation, it is always a verb. Properly speaking, there is no “being” apart from “doing.” Every time we refer to “my consciousness” we are referring to a memory, not the Thing Itself. But written language lets us persist in the illusion of Me Myself or Consciousness Itself because that’s what the timeless-spaceless realm of the static page confers on all concepts we put into it. Your soul is a literary device, a metaphor. A most potent and capacious one, but a metaphor all the same.

    The philosopher Ned Block called Consciousness a “mongrel concept” because it bundles together so many things at once — perception, intention, reflection, experience, existence, wakefulness, the self, the ego, the soul, etc, etc, etc. The shell game comes when we swap one of these synonyms for another and then ask what happened to the one we just discarded. Religion and science both have a stake in sustaining that shell game, because both would like to continue publishing books on the subject, but I believe the “problem of consciousness” is best answered by Havelock and one Julian Jaynes. Here’s a brief walk through for your consideration:

    I take it you can imagine how natural selection and evolution could generate creatures that were *responsive* and *perceptive* and had some rudimentary *experience* … without yet being *conscious* in the vaunted sense of human consciousness, yes? What then accounts for this final qualitative experience, this inner-loop of my voice and memory that I call me? The answer according to Jaynes and Havelock … is the invention of written language. This is a very recent phenomenon, but you have to appreciate what an exponential leap in cognition it makes possible. And you have to further appreciate how apt we are to forget that fact since we can frequently re-translate the written to the oral and back again. But consider: there is only so much mathematics you could perform with just your short-term memory and your ten fingers. Only when you have a stable space and a symbol system that you can range over with your eyes and hands … can you then begin even basic operations like multiplication and division, to say nothing of geometry, trig and calculus. Well, if you follow me, you can appreciate how a written language just as radically changes what you can think and experience when it, too, moves from the oral, temporally-bound, short-term memory … to the stable, timeless, spaceless written page.

    This is where Hart’s Platonism blinds him. As a Platonist, he believes that for every thing you can imagine or name or write … there must be an ideal perfect form of that thing in some timeless spaceless realm. But as you can see, this is really the retina-burn cast off by the magnificent power of written language. If you’re looking for an endowment that separates us from the animals, it is this: we are the only creatures with a generative grammar and we are the only creatures who can store information outside of ourselves.

    The feedback loop of consciousness — the interval of reflection that lets us make more adequate choices and more elaborate descriptions of our experience — issues all from written language. It is not some space or thing inside our heads, but this externalized interaction with a symbol system. Our “mind space” is a metaphor — there is no actual space for it. except the space between the perceiving organism … and the symbol system it uses to communicate with other organisms. Consciousness is *intersubjective* experience; it is not Subjectivity Itself — another Platonic illusion of pure form.

    You may call it “positive” if you like, but it is also the source of our deepest melancholy and tragedy, no? No one celebrates like a human … but surely no one suffers like us either. So consciousness is not an unalloyed positive thing.

    It’s no surprise that both religion and totalitarianism have tried to suppress the written word and shackle literacy. Give a person a more powerful language and … who knows what they’ll think? But give a person a sacred Word that must be enforced at all costs and … you’ll get both ignorance and slavery.

    5) The Ground of All Being’s only “maximal” quality derives from it’s being … Everything. This would by definition include what it transcends. Not just positive qualia, but All Qualia.

    6) Repeat of 1-5.

    7) At this point … God is no different from, what I consider the less culturally-fraught word Cosmos. For this, I am called incurious, absurd, irrational, abject and plenty other things by Hart. But Carl Sagan did just as well with that word and no one could accuse him of failing to appreciate and revere the mystery of the Cosmos.


    Let me repeat in all sincerity, as one member of this motley human family to another, my brothers: we can call all that God if it means we’re talking about that same huge generalization Everything. I have no quarrel with that. We may as well argue whether Stephen should be spelled “Steven”. It matters not so long as he knows he’s being addressed. But I’m afraid Hart’s grand “He” does not exist just because … we do.

    Aidan (if you’re still reading this long crazy reply!): you are right to notice the similarities with Buddhism here. That remains another strange part of the book for me. If Hart believes his foregoing analysis, he should be a Buddhist, not an Eastern Orthodox Christian.

    And hey, I get why church is nice. Gathering with neighbors, discussing mortality, helping people, cooking, celebrating, marking the seasons and years and having some communal meditative space … that’s all fantastic. I begrudge no one any of that. I find much the same in my neighborhood block parties, my theater community, my yoga class and my morning transcendental meditation. To each their own and … may Gravity Bless You. We only seem to get into trouble when we trade insults for preferred words, as Hart and some of the New Atheists do. Or when we proceed from God to an “ism” that tells us how He wants us to behave. From thence … all the ignorance, slavery and horrors of totalitarianism flow …

    • Fr Aidan Kimel Says:

      Please define “cosmos” for me. Thanks.

      • Karl Miller Says:

        I’ll just borrow Sagan’s opening to the 1980 PBS series of the same name:

      • Fr Aidan Kimel Says:

        Gotta love that clip, but Sagan’s “cosmos” is not the same as Hart’s “God.” All one needs to do is substitute “God” for “cosmos” in Sagan’s monologue and ask, Could Hart recite this?

      • Karl Miller Says:

        I was wondering the same thing, Aidan! Maybe the difference between the two men lies entirely in what follows …

        With “cosmos” we get a journey outward across the stars and deep into our own history. With “God” we get … the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, I suppose?

    • verbosestoic Says:

      1) Hart’s is not an “explanation for existence” — it is a redefinition of Existence as God Himself. An explanation FOR existence would imply precisely the casual chain you describe (and which I definitely did not use in my first post).

      Well, the big push was the first step: you seemed to argue that they started from “God is the creator”, demonstrated that by arguing that everything needed a creator, but then when challenged on what created God simply defined God as a thing that doesn’t need a creator — or, perhaps, as Existence as you say here — to end the loop. They don’t. And they don’t define God as Existence either, at least not directly, but instead ask what “Existence”, in your parlance, would have to be and what it would have to do, and then point out that that’s the Creator, omnipotent, omniscient, all-good, etc, etc, and thus looks like God. You might be able to argue that “Existence” doesn’t have to be a being or, in fact, doesn’t have to be an existent thing at all, and that might have some traction, but that’s not quite the same argument as saying that they redefine Existence to be God.

      As for properties, my (admittedly vague) understanding of it is that they argue that we get the properties we have by “participating” or “sharing” in the properties of God, and so for any property we can be said to actually have we can only have it because God has it, in its maximal form. Or, to put it better, any property that can be said to exist only exists because God has it maximally as part of Himself (since God is the GoAB). That’s what I mean by “positive” property; not “good” but “exists independently and not as a lack of a property”. So, for example, it’s hard to make a case that being moral is simply lacking immorality, but easy to argue that being immoral is simply lacking morality. Thus, God would be maximally moral, but not maximally immoral; God possesses morality to its maximal level, and never lacks morality, and so is all moral but not all immoral.

      I take it you can imagine how natural selection and evolution could generate creatures that were *responsive* and *perceptive* and had some rudimentary *experience* … without yet being *conscious* in the vaunted sense of human consciousness, yes?

      Well, there are more posts on how I think about consciousness on this blog (even on the side as pages) but the short answer is: I’m a qualia freak, so likely not if you are going to talk about “experience” in a way that means that they have qualia. Also, on the overall theory, the short version is that since inner speech is one of the paradigmatically conscious experiences, and since that and speech seem to be related, and since speech came before writing, making writing that important to consciousness doesn’t seem to be all that workable. Also note that the main argument for it is that writing allows us to preserve consciousness outside of memory, but in general I just “know” I’m conscious without having to remember and examine memories of consciousness. I’d align with Kant here and indeed argue that introspecting on consciousness is treating it a bit like something that it isn’t, and that we don’t generally rely on memory to know what consciousness is.

      • Karl Miller Says:

        “… but that’s not quite the same argument as saying that they redefine Existence to be God.”

        No, Hart says God is “Being Itself.” Being is existence. Things be. They exist. I still don’t see what we’ve gained besides a clubhouse word. Again, he says at the beginning that he’s making a “perfect circle” of logic, in obedience to his Platonism … but then berates the same circular reasoning when it lands on the same definition of a different word like “universe”, etc. If I use the word “universe” to mean the same thing as Infinite Ground of All Being … which I, Sagan, and most atheists do … Hart will say we’re look at existence and saying it’s “just there” … he slams this “just there-ness” implicit in secular words. Well, I’m sorry, but with the definitions in place his God is … “just there.”

        I gently submit to you that the preference here is not for some enlightening *denotation* … but rather a *connotation* — that of character and personality. Hart’s god is a He with emotions and reasons and rules, no matter how often he denies it, he cannot help himself talking about God this way and *not* as an Infinite Ground of All Being. Because to leave the issue there leaves us a God as impersonal and implacable and mysterious as … well, the whole Cosmos. You must understand why that makes it hard to take Hart’s definition seriously. Yes, it comes to us in the process of an argument, but it lands on a completely uncontroversial point and changes nothing but the word.

        “… we can be said to actually have we can only have it because God has it, in its maximal form.”

        This is Plato, my friend. Again, Havelock’s point was that we shouldn’t be surprised to see this world of ideal forms sprout just as human culture was settling into a literate mode. The forms we make on pages confer a false sense of permanence (and timelessness and spacelessness) within which Plato’s soul and Hart’s God can seem real. But you’ll note Hart’s “classic theism” has nothing to say about the tens of thousands of years that humans roamed about with no God whatsoever. Nor does he have anything to say about philosophy *before* Plato … or religion after the Middle Ages.

        “… God possesses morality to its maximal level, and never lacks morality, and so is all moral but not all immoral.”

        Yeah, I’m afraid you don’t get to divorce them so long as God is Everything that Ever Was, Will Be, or Is. Either the infinite ground of all being causes all things good and bad or … it ain’t infinite. Actions (or whatever) wouldn’t just be immoral in your logic … they wouldn’t exist at all.

        In any case, discerning the moral from all this is exactly where we get into trouble … and where I think we’ve finally abandoned all talk of God as Being and surrendered to God as Judge. And atheists simply refuse to submit to that judgement because we’ve found a human justice far more reasonable and fair. Now you can then call Justice Itself God and … we’d be right back at the pointless name-calling.

        “…. since inner speech is one of the paradigmatically conscious experiences, and since that and speech seem to be related, and since speech came before writing, making writing that important to consciousness doesn’t seem to be all that workable.”

        Jaynes’s whole theory — and the findings he makes from our available literary and ethno-historical record — is that inner-speech didn’t exist before writing. People heard voices inside their head, but only as the command hallucinations of, yes, a God persona that told them what to do, and whom they obeyed without any inner-conflict. This God persona was modeled on the God-Kings who organized the first civilizations. These voices dissipated once they could be transcribed and analyzed in written form … and not coincidentally the *story* of God changed around this time, too. God and god(s) used to be peers with humans. Now they were vanished creatures we must appease. Now, via Hart, God is synonym for many another common thing.

        My summary is likely to confuse or put off, of course, but I highly recommend the Jaynes book. He gives a workable natural history of both God and consciousness.

        “… in general I just “know” I’m conscious without having to remember and examine memories of consciousness.”

        I would say you know you are *awake* … but even that is not assured because you may be dreaming. 😉 In both cases, you would have to test yourself, or be told to test yourself. The rest of the time, you’re swept up in the stimulus and response of your environment. In any case, consciousness is not just sensing and responding to the world … you would grant as much to your cat, your plant, your bacteria and even to billiard balls. Consciousness is an introspect-able mind-space, modeled on what we call the real world. Within this mind-space, we have an “analog-I” (thank you, Kant) that can suspend time to make more adequate decisions. Now, we may yet be *awake* but not engaged in that kind of thinking. In fact, most of our working day is “awake” but not conscious – but we habitually *attribute* consciousness to waking memory *after the fact.*

        Jaynes and Havelock simply say we did not have this fantastic executive suite of metaphoric self-organization until, yes, we could start to operate on our thoughts in written form. The available literary record — those works that were translated from a long oral tradition, like the Illiad and some books of the Bible — align with this theory. Before consciousness, humans spoke to each other, solved problems, and had a God-voice telling them what to do (none of which requires consciousness as described above) … but no one in these stories *struggles* to obey their god and no one pauses to introspect or reflect. There is no guilt or shame, no inner-conflict whatsoever … because there is no *subject.* No one ever refers to a mind or a will or even a body — because all were conjoined with the same word, the name of the person.

        There’s a reason Hart’s book is organized to repeat and repeat the same point … because the rest of the time that we AREN’T musing about the fact that we exist or the fact that we are conscious … we are subsumed in one or another action. We recall those actions later in consciousness, but that does not mean we are conscious in the subjective sense while we were caught up in the original performance of the action.

      • Fr Aidan Kimel Says:

        Karl, it’s not clear to me what you think Hart’s identification of God as Being means, given that Hart also says that God is beyond Being. What you seem to be missing here is the distinction between Creator and creature, which is also present in Hart’s discussion of God. That’s precisely why “God” ≠ cosmos (or nature or universe).

        Your posts forced me this evening to take a look again at chapter 3 (only a brief look) to see if Hart defines “being.” Of course he doesn’t, as “being” is a primitive concept that cannot be explained in terms of anything else. I suppose it’s okay to say that being = existence = reality, as long as we maintain a distinction between divine Being and creaturely being, which Hart does.

        All I can do is to encourage you to re-read chapter 3.

        Note that at the beginning of the chapter Hart begins with wonder–the wonder why anything exists instead of nothing. That, I suggest, is where you should begin to understand what Hart, and classical theists, means by “God.” Take a look at this interview with Denys Turner: http://goo.gl/BNXXPn.

      • Karl Miller Says:

        Aidan, I share every ounce of the same awe with regard to existence — that something should exist instead of nothing. Yes, I get it. It never ceases to amaze me. My problem is, I find that my amazement DOES cease with the word “God” and that same amazement is expanded with the word “Cosmos” or “universe” or even just “nature.” Hart says the cosmos is “just there” which, to me, is a sneer in place of an argument for his “God” … who is “just there” too. What of it?

        I think part of the confusion may be the dual connotations of the word “being” — we use that word to mean “existence” but also to mean “creature.” A rock can have being in the sense that it exists. But “human being” connotes character, personhood, a soul, if you like … it connotes all those attributes that Hart says he’s *not* lending to God … but that he can’t help himself from lending.

        I think this is the creature/creator point you’re trying to make. Well, as I understand Hart … and as I’ve come to understand the cosmos … there is only one real Being and that is the infinite ground of All Being. Things be. We be. Everything be. Grand. Now what?

        You’ll note the “now what” never gets answered in Hart’s book. All he can do is circle back to the same point again and again … because all he’s affirmed is that existence exists and therefore … God. He has said his circle is perfect but mine is bad … for reasons that never materialize. Again, I frankly don’t care either way. My only point is that atheism remains perfectly sound. And attacking a brute materialism or a brute naturalism in order to attack atheism is rather like attacking Lutheranism to dismiss classic theism. Hart wouldn’t accept that standard so why should I?

        I respectfully submit that lurking underneath all this circular gainsaying about people’s favorite words for Existence … is a deep yearning not to be alone with one’s existence. And this is where Being-as-existence conveniently merges with being-as-creature/creator. The only problem is … we are never really beings in this sense because we are temporal and forever mortal. (Even if we could go to heaven, god would still have the power to destroy us.) Out of rebellion for this sadness, we turned the cosmos … into a person. We turn Being Itself into … a humanoid being we may talk to or appease. It’s a perfectly natural anthropomorphism and a perfectly sympathetic one, too. But that is all it is. It requires ritual to sustain … and Hart has built his book in a circular, ritual format to sustain it.

        And so we get the lovely section I in Chapter 3, which would make a most potent Buddhist meditation … but then we smash face-first into this from section II of Chapter 3:

        “He is known or imagined or hoped for as that reality that lies beyond the awful shadow of potential nothingness that falls across all finite things, the gods included …”

        Again, I don’t know where Infinite Being sprouted a penis, but Hart clearly sees one in the stars. Or how about this:

        “God, however, is beyond all mere finite beings, and is himself that ultimate ground upon which any foundations must rest.”

        But how does that square with this passage from a couple pages later?!

        “… the very notion of nature as a perfectly self-enclosed continuum is a figment of the imagination.”

        Well! I’m sorry, but the reasoning is identical. He wants the same self-enclosed continuum for Him, but not for nature. Why?

        Earlier in Chapter Three he says:

        “… one may be tempted to try to reduce the essential mystery of existence to something one can contain in a simple concept, like a mechanical or physical cause, or something else that one can easily grasp and thereafter ignore.”

        But he later ascribes “maximal simplicity” to his preferred concept “God.” How many times must I take up his terms only to have him violate them before I am permitted to say this is hypocritical nonsense that illuminates almost nothing?

      • Fr Aidan Kimel Says:

        I cannot recall whether Hart speaks of God as “person” or as “personal.” If he doesn’t, it’s no doubt for two reasons: (1) he has intentionally restricted himself to explicating the of “God” as shared not only by the three great monotheistic faiths but also by some of the Oriental religions. I do not know how comfortable these other religions are with the notion of divine personhood; (2) he may have avoided this language given his polemical attack upon the popular anthropomorphizing of divinity, both within and outside the Christian Church.

        But as an Eastern Orthodox believer, he most certainly does believe that God is personal. God after all, so Hart believes, freely created the world from out of nothing. And Hart also speaks of God as act of infinite consciousness.

        But he would no doubt remind us that our notions of personhood are inherently informed by our experience of corporeal human persons–hence the danger of projecting finite human consciousness upon infinite, transcendent Being.

  4. Fr Aidan Kimel Says:

    I came across this morning this very fine review of David Hart’s book: http://goo.gl/e4wBW4

  5. Fr Aidan Kimel Says:

    Perhaps this citation from an essay by Hart on St Augustine will help clarify his understanding of divinity.

    “The dogmatic definitions of the fourth century ultimately forced Christian thought, even if only tacitly, toward a recognition of the full mystery—the full transcendence—of Being within beings. All at once the hierarchy of hypostases mediating between the world and its ultimate or absolute principle had disappeared. Herein lies the great “discovery” of the Christian metaphysical tradition: the true nature of transcendence, transcendence understood not as mere dialectical supremacy, and not as ontic absence, but as the truly transcendent and therefore utterly immediate act of God, in his own infinity, giving being to beings. In affirming the consubstantiality and equality of the persons of the Trinity, Christian thought had also affirmed that it is the transcendent God alone who makes creation to be, not through a necessary diminishment of his own presence, and not by way of an economic reduction of his power in lesser principles, but as the infinite God. In this way, he is revealed as at once superior summo meo and interior intimo meo: not merely the supreme being set atop the summit of beings, but the one who is transcendently present in all beings, the ever more inward act within each finite act. This does not, of course, mean that there can be no metaphysical structure of reality, through whose agencies God acts; but it does mean that, whatever the structure might be, God is not located within it, but creates it, and does not require its mechanism to act upon lower things. At the immediate source of the being of the whole, he is nearer to every moment within the whole than it is to itself, and is at the same time infinitely beyond the reach of the whole, even in its most exalted principles. And it is precisely in learning that God is not situated within any kind of ontic continuum with creation, as some “other thing” mediated to the creature by his simultaneous absolute absence form and dialectical involvement in the totality of beings, that we discover him to be the ontological cause of creation. True divine transcendence, it turns out, transcends even the traditional metaphysical divisions between the transcendent and the immanent.”

    • Karl Miller Says:

      Aidan, I maintain that I already understand Hart’s divinity, I simply find it unremarkable on any consequential point.

      But maybe a more fruitful tack for us both would be for me to share one of Hart’s quotes that made me want to read his book in the first place. It’s from his marvelous 2010 essay in “First Things”, where he takes the New Atheists to task by reminding them of their more-courageous cousin, Nietzsche:

      “Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness. His famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God’s death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists—those who merely do not believe—to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.

      Because he understood the nature of what had happened when Christianity entered history with the annunciation of the death of God on the cross, and the elevation of a Jewish peasant above all gods, Nietzsche understood also that the passing of Christian faith permits no return to pagan naivete, and he knew that this monstrous inversion of values created within us a conscience that the older order could never have incubated. He understood also that the death of God beyond us is the death of the human as such within us. If we are, after all, nothing but the fortuitous effects of physical causes, then the will is bound to no rational measure but itself, and who can imagine what sort of world will spring up from so unprecedented and so vertiginously uncertain a vision of reality?

      For Nietzsche, therefore, the future that lies before us must be decided, and decided between only two possible paths: a final nihilism, which aspires to nothing beyond the momentary consolations of material contentment, or some great feat of creative will, inspired by a new and truly worldly mythos powerful enough to replace the old and discredited mythos of the Christian revolution (for him, of course, this meant the myth of the Übermensch).

      Perhaps; perhaps not. Where Nietzsche was almost certainly correct, however, was in recognizing that mere formal atheism was not yet the same thing as true unbelief. As he writes in The Gay Science, “Once the Buddha was dead, people displayed his shadow for centuries afterwards in a cave, an immense and dreadful shadow. God is dead: —but as the human race is constituted, there will perhaps be caves for millennia yet where people will display his shadow. And we—we have yet to overcome his shadow!” It may appear that Nietzsche is here referring to “persons of faith”—those poor souls who continue to make their placid, bovine trek to church every week to worship a God who passed away long ago—but that is not his meaning.

      He is referring principally to those who think they have eluded God simply by ceasing to believe in his existence. For Nietzsche, “scientism”—the belief that the modern scientific method is the only avenue of truth, one capable of providing moral truth or moral meaning—is the worst dogmatism yet, and the most pathetic of all metaphysical nostalgias. And it is, in his view, precisely men like the New Atheists, clinging as they do to those tenuous vestiges of Christian morality that they have absurdly denominated “humanism,” who shelter themselves in caves and venerate shadows. As they do not understand the past, or the nature of the spiritual revolution that has come and now gone for Western humanity, so they cannot begin to understand the peril of the future.”

      Would love to hear your thoughts …

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