Have we given up on classical theism too easily?

Have we given up on classical theism too easily? image

Ok, I am going to have to admit that instead of a novel I took a theology book away with me on holidays.

But it was an extraordinary book; and having read it I have to say I am feeling more encouraged and confident in the faith.

The book is The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by the renown theologian and author David Bentley Hart. Hart’s book The Atheist Delusion was an extraordinary rejoinder to the New Atheism, exposing their pseudo-intellectualism and doing so with style.

The Experience of God is a more positive book, but in it Hart continues to pour a justified ridicule on the kind of pop atheism doing the rounds. His chief complaint is that they do not seek to understand what it is that they so readily dismiss.

At one level, he thinks this is partly because many religious believers have portrayed God as a kind of secondary level deity, who is as much part of the creation as any other object. The argument about ‘who made God?’ (if you can call it an argument) only works if you think God is himself exposed to causes, or in need of them to be. The atheist who sniggers something about the flying spaghetti monster, arguing that the existence of God is just as plausible as the existence of this airborne entanglement of Italian cuisine, simply fails to understand what God is: he is not interchangeable with some other being, since he is being itself. These arguments do dislodge many false Gods, but not the true one.

Hart also goes to great lengths to show that materialism is a self-contradictory philosophy, since it cannot confidently claim that reason knows anything at all. The atheist who is also an absurdist is the only consistent atheist.

I was challenged by his confidence: have I conceded too much to the atheist in my apologetics? The evangelical believer rightly wants to start with the gospel and the resurrection: to talk about the God who acts in history. To talk about ‘God’ as the ground of all being is too abstract, and may lead to the impression that the person who thinks about it enough will be able to encounter God himself.

There is only one ray of light through which God reveals himself: in the person of the Son.

But: Hart made me think of two important passages associated with the apostle Paul. The first is in Acts 17, when Paul cites the pagan poet who said ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ – a statement with which Paul completely agrees. This is a true theological statement, from a pagan theist, and gives Paul a framework on which to build the Christian story. If Paul seemed confident that the pagan had spoken truly (if not completely) about the divine, then is it not possible to make similar arguments based on the common ground of reason?

The other passage is similar: it is from Romans 1, where Paul talks about God’s ‘eternal qualities and divine nature’ that should have been visible to everyone. Now, the problem here is not that God’s qualities are concealed: it is that we are wilfully blind. We refuse to see. The Christian, of course, in the light of the gospel, can see more of the divine nature in the created order than before. But the divine nature of God is there to be seen by anyone who would care to look. Why don’t we point it out more often?

Bentley Hart certainly does. He is by turns delightful, vigorous and complex, as he shows why there has to be a God. If we are to ask what is good, true and beautiful in the world, and to try to explain our experiences of these, we are already in the business of inquiring about God. The theistic world view makes a good deal of sense of our experience of the world. Human consciousness, for example, is extremely mysterious in the enclosed world of materialist philosophy, but makes sense if God exists.

There is far more in the book than I have been able to say in this brief comment. In the end, Hart makes a case not simply from Christian theology but from the religious point of view called ‘classical theism’, a belief in the divine which he shows is common to a number of ancient and sophisticated religious traditions, whatever their (significant) differences. As a result, he puts more eggs in the basket of mysticism than I would.

Nevertheless, Hart shows that the noisy, self-congratulating and smug band of atheists are nothing to fear at intellectual level. They do not understand, and are not even interested in, the thing they are denying. (Hart does give a list of more intellectually credible atheists in his book, by the way, including J.L. Mackie). Conceding that there are no grounds outside the gospel for belief in a divine being is both unnecessary and unbiblical.



Feature photo: Sean MacEntee

Michael Jensen is rector of St Mark's Darling Point and is the author of the book My God, My God: Is it Possible to Believe Anymore? He's on twitter: @mpjensen

Comments (2)

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  • david a burke
    October 28, 13 - 6:29pm
    I like the corrective balance in this piece.

    For some time I have thought that the construction and presentation of the gospel in the Sydney scene has become too narrowly Christocentric (more Luther than Calvin if you like). To adapt the old terminology, if you start with largely second article theology you end up with second rate thinking.

    Sin and salavation through Christ are indeed the heart of the gospel, but they are not its only elements.
  • Robert Forsyth
    November 12, 13 - 10:33am
    Thank you for this review. I found The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss one of the best books I have read in years. It does leave me a little concerned about how one then moves to Christology. And yet it is a wonderful corrected to the "little god" not only of the atheists, but many Christians.