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



Hart has set the stage for his discussion of being, consciousness, and bliss, and now we start with being; by which he means the astonishing fact of existence of anything.  All serious thought, Hart says, begins in a moment of “unsettling or delighted surprise.”  Hart describes it as a “primordial agitation of the mind.”

That sense of breath-abated wonder is lost in us as we become inured to our physical surroundings.  To illustrate this, Hart re-tells a story he attributes to philosopher Richard Taylor.  A man walks into the woods and finds a large, translucent sphere.  He wonders how it came to be there. It’s strange. It’s out of place.  How could it be?  And yet, Taylor and now Hart point out, why would he not think the same thing of the trees and soil and rocks around him in the forest? There is no difference in the strangeness of being, as between those things and the sphere. The man is merely inured to the existence of one, and not of the other.

It is the strangeness of being itself that ought to have our attention, rather than a novel instance of conditional reality.  The existence of any finite, conditional reality ought to inspire awe.

The Immediacy of the Supernatural

Hart asserts that we encounter the supernatural prior to experiencing the natural, because before we can know of any physical thing, we must know of the existence of the thing. We are able to ask what something is only upon knowing that it is. Thus, “we can approach nature only across the interval of the supernatural.”

Something from Nothing

The fundamental flaw in the arguments of physicists who argue for materialism, (Hart cites Victor Stenger, as an example), is that they talk about the formation of our universe as though it were a transition from one physical state to another. They skirt the problem of there being a spontaneous arising of existence from nonexistence, mainly by emphasizing the unfolding of conditional reality after it exists. Or perhaps they bend the word “nothing” to mean, essentially, “something.”

That physical reality exists in the first place is a problem, for materialists.  It cannot actually come from nothing, because that is logically impossible.

Contingency and Infinite Regress

All things that do not possess the cause of their existence in themselves must be brought into existence by something outside themselves.  Contingency means the condition of depending upon anything external or prior, in order to exist and to persist in being.  All that we touch, feel, and see fits this description, as well as our own bodies.  They are “contingent” because they depend on something prior (and prior to that, and so on) for their existence.  We can say that all created or caused things are contingent, and their existence is contingent being.

It is in this context that many materialists (Richard Dawkins springs to mind) get hung up on the fact that they can’t explain the provenance of God.  They can’t get past the fact that God is not a contingent being – indeed, that is an attribute of God; why He is sometimes referred to as the uncaused cause. His being is not contingent.

Many (again, like Dawkins) who attempt to refute the existence of God say things like: “if God created everything, what created God?” It is a silly question, because to be coherent, it would have to make God into something not-God; another contingent being.

Even aside from that convenient re-sizing of God, it is puzzling that materialists make an argument against the existence of God from this infinite regress.  From a physics perspective, wouldn’t that leave the physicist with an insoluble conundrum?  What did create the first thing?  Hart points out that an endless regress of causes would mean that there is no actual beginning.  An infinite regress is therefore equivalent to nonexistence.

God as non-contingent Being

Hart writes that

All finite things are always, in the present, being sustained in existence by conditions that they cannot have supplied for themselves, and that together compose a universe that, as a physical reality, lacks the obviously supernatural power necessary to exist on its own.

None of this dependent, conditional reality is reducible to infinite regress of contingent causes, or to a first contingent cause.  There must be an unconditioned reality upon which all else depends.  That unconditioned reality is, by the definition of “unconditioned,” not finite in any spatial or temporal sense.  Philosophers and theologians have called this unconditioned reality God.

In this context, Hart explains Anselm’s ontological proof for the existence of God, showing that it is not so easily discarded as atheist writers attempt to do. Anselm’s formulation is “That than which it is not possible to conceive anything greater.” Hart points out that that entity

is not a being among other beings, not even the greatest possible of beings, but is instead the fullness of Being itself, the absolute plenitude of reality upon which all else depends; and manifestly it would be meaningless to say that Being lacks being or that Reality is not real.

By analogy:  “It makes perfect sense to ask what illuminates an object, but none to ask what illuminates light.” In the same way: “It makes perfect sense to wonder why a contingent being exists, but none to wonder why Absolute Being ‘exists.’”

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