Monday, December 16, 2013

Defining God Down, So He Can Be Denied

Revised, with apologies, December 17th, 2013.

The Experience of God by Eastern Orthodox theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart is a critique of both the faulty logic of modern atheists and of the easy targets provided them by simplistic understandings and explanations of God by people of faith. 

To whet your appetite for Hart’s books, he, in speaking of those on both sides of the God-No God debate, argues that, “none of them is talking about God in any coherent sense at all.”  He goes on to write, “…my chief purpose is not to advise atheists on what I think they should believe; I want merely to make sure that they have a clear concept of what it is they claim not to believe.”

Hart bemoans the rise of ideological extremism, fundamentalism, not only in religion but in politics, economics, etc., and argues that "the new atheism is often just the confessional rote of materialist fundamentalism..."  He identifies "...young earth creationists who believe that the two contradictory cosmogonic myths of the early chapters of Genesis are actually a single documentary account of an event that occurred a little over six millennia ago...' as "opponents against which (the new atheism) is well matched."  Hart identifies such Biblical fundamentalism as a phenomenon of the last century or so and makes the case that it is in no way a return to the faith of the early church.

I suppose we are easily tempted by the first Genesis creation story (Genesis 1) in which God says, “Let us make man in our image,”  to imagine the inverse, God in our image, a sort of super human who creates just by speaking and who would act and rule and judge just as we would if we were perfect and had all that power.  The Genesis writers seem to have done that in the second Genesis creation story (Genesis 2), saying that God created man by taking something available, some dust from the ground, and making something else, a man, out of it, or taking a rib from a man and making a woman from it. That would be crafting or manufacturing, not creating. 

This is not to marginalize the beautiful inspired Genesis creation stories that teach essential spiritual truths, primarily that God created and that what He created was good.  Thanks to the divine gifts of self awareness, curiosity, intelligence and technology, we know a lot more than the writers of Genesis about the incredibly complex and ongoing creation processes God put in place.  We can even replicate some of those processes.  We have some evidence about how species change over time and some theories about the origin of species, but we still don’t have a clue about where all this matter and energy and life and reason come from, about how God created out of nothing.  As Hart writes, "The world is unable to provide any account of its own actuality, and yet there it is all the same."     

Hart never mentions Jesus or the incarnation.  Writing about the God that can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other major mono-theistic faiths he says, “I want to distinguish…between, on the one hand, metaphysical or philosophical descriptions of God, and, on the other, dogmatic or confessional descriptions, and then to confine myself to the former.”  Of course he is a confessing Christian, but writes, “It may be that one faith is truer than any other, or contains that ultimate truth to which all faiths aspire in their various ways; but that still would hardly reduce all other religions to mere falsehood.”  Hart explains up front that his book “forthrightly and unhesitatingly describes a God who is the infinite fullness of being, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, from who all things come and upon whom all things depend for every moment of their existence, without whom nothing at all could exist.”  It sounds like St Luke, writing more concisely in Acts 17:28 – “For in him we live, and move, and have our being;”

And this from Hart on atheism:  “I acknowledge up front that I do not regard true philosophical atheism as an intellectually valid or even cogent position.”  He sees it as a “fundamentally irrational view of reality, which can be sustained only by a tragic absence of curiosity or a fervently resolute will to believe the absurd,” that, “must be regarded as a superstition, often nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations.”  Could we believers sometimes be guilty of that same wish?

I’m not going to spoil the reading with any more quotes.  Hopefully this has whetted some appetites for a challenging read.  You can get it on your Kindle for $11.99.  And, meanwhile Christians, as Christmas approaches, can give thanks for Immanuel, God with us.


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