Review (Part Seven): The Experience of God – Being Consciousness Bliss, by David Bentley Hart

The dream and the reality

Right after his introduction, Hart took a couple of pages to tell the story of waking from a pleasant dream, but with a sense of foreboding.  Now, near the end of the book, he continues that story.  The dreamer is now awake.  He considers the ingenious  intricacy of the distortions by which his sleeping mind had transformed the world around him into another world altogether.

Here’s the point.  He likens the dream-world to the limited way of seeing that one has, when he disavows the reality that lies beyond the dream; that is, the waking world.  Inside the dream, the limits of that dream world seem impenetrable.  There is no reason that the sleeping, dreaming self would consider the possibility of a reality outside the dream.

But there is such a reality; in fact, there is a reality that is more real than the real-seeming dream world from which the sleeper awakens.   We are “asleep” if we have imagined a world without God behind it.  We construct a false reality from pieces half-remembered of the true reality that exists behind the natural world.

Reason, science, prejudice

Immediately following the analogy of the dream, Hart repeats a thesis of his book that “[W]e should not mistake our ways of seeing the world for the world as it truly is.”  Here Hart rather more explicitly cautions against taking as given the general consensus of a culture, nor the special consensus of a credentialed class, especially if that class (those who assume materialism in everything they say) “cannot justify itself except by reference to its own unexamined presuppositions.”  Much of what we consider to be reason and science is really prejudice formed by our intellectual and cultural history.

In this context Hart reiterates an argument from consciousness, saying in a different way his thesis that one encounters the natural world only across the interval of the supernatural.  To demonstrate that materialists rely upon “that strange abstraction, self-sufficient nature,” he points out that our knowledge of the material world is not really “direct.”  There is no logical connection between empirical experience of the material order, and the ideology of scientific naturalism. There is no correlation between our sensory impressions, on the one hand, and the abstract concept of a causally closed and autonomous order called nature, on the other.  Or, to say it more prosaically than Hart did:  from the fact that we have sensory perceptions of the material world, it does not follow that the material world is all there is.


Hart points out the silliness of attempting to find God through empirical evidence.  “No matter what one’s private beliefs may be, any attempt to confirm or disprove the reality of God can be meaningfully undertaken only in a way appropriate to what God is purported to be.”  He refers here to the straw-man arguments materialists make, against a demiurge of the atheists’ imagining, rather than the actual God as ontological Being:

We cannot encounter the world,  . . . except through our conscious and intentional orientation toward the absolute, in pursuit of a final bliss that beckons to us from within those transcendental desires that constitute the very structure of rational thought, and that open all of reality to us precisely by bearing us on toward ends that lie beyond the totality of physical things.  The whole of nature is something prepared for us, composed for us, given to us, delivered into our care by a “supernatural” dispensation.  All this being so, one might plausibly say that God – the infinite wellspring of being, consciousness, and bliss that is the source, order, and end of all reality – is evident everywhere, inescapably present to us, while autonomous “nature” is something that has never, even for a moment, come into view.

Opiate of unbelief

Materialism is “an opiate of unbelief,” based on what Carl Sagan described (of another kind of faith) as a “deep seated need to believe.”  It offers a refuge from so many perplexities.  Popular atheism is not a philosophy, but a therapy.  “[I]t should be classified with those religions of consolation whose purpose is not to engage the mind or will with the mysteries of being but merely to provide a palliative for existential grievances and private disappointments.”

As such a religion of consolation, Hart argues, materialism should carry a burden of moral proof.  It must show that the opiates it offers are at least as powerful as those it would replace:

To proclaim triumphally that there is no God, no eternal gaze that beholds our cruelties and betrayals, no final beatitude for the soul after death, may seem bold and admirable to a comfortable bourgeois academic who rarely if ever has to descend into the misery of those whose lives are at best a state of constant anxiety or at worst the indelible memory of the death of a child.  For a man safely sheltered from life’s harder edges, a gentle soporific may suffice to ease whatever fleeting moments of distress or resentment afflict him.  For those genuinely acquainted with grief, however—despair, poverty, calamity, disease, oppression, or bereavement—but who have no ivory tower to which to retreat, no material advantages to distract them from their suffering, and no hope for anything better in this world, something far stronger may be needed.  If there is no God, then the universe (astonishing accident that it is) is a brute event of boundless magnificence and abysmal anguish, which only illusion and myth have the power to make tolerable.  Only extraordinary callousness or fatuous sanctimony could make one insensible to this.

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