Back in December, I spent a month really exploring atheism. I read a book by Richard Dawkins, began listening through a cool atheist podcast, and listened to a few lectures on influential skeptical thinkers, from Hume to Marx. Although I have believed in God for as long as I can remember, I emerged from my Month of Skepticism with a clearer sense of my own doubts. I concluded that there were, in fact, many good reasons to not believe in God. I couldn’t help but notice that my idea of God was strikingly unnecessary and counter-intuitive.
But recently, that story has begun to change.
I just finished reading The Experience of God, written by David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox philosopher. According to Hart, most “developed” religions (including Christianity, Islam, Vedantic Hinduism, late paganism, and a handful of others) all agree, more or less, on the correct philosophical definition of God. They may produce different sculptures of God, so to speak, but they all start with the same metaphysical clay.
To my surprise, as I read through Hart’s description of this very ancient view of God, I began to realize that it was my particular mental sculpture more than the clay itself that I was having trouble believing in. Popular atheists today spend great effort showing how popular explanations of God’s action in the world end up bordering on nonsense, but little (if any) attention is given to the traditional metaphysical concept of God. To my surprise, the popular view of God described by Hart, called classical theism, is actually pretty intuitive.
So what is this philosophical clay that many religions play with, and how did David Bentley Hart’s book convince me to take it seriously?
Hart’s book takes a few building blocks of everyday human experience and shows how they are also the building blocks of classical theism. It’s a surprisingly effective strategy.
Think about Beauty for a minute. According to Hart, when we notice beauty, we appreciate how wonderfully unnecessary something is. Even though beauty isn’t some physical object that we could put under a microscope or measure with a yardstick, we go looking for beauty as if it is something real, something that exists “out there” for us to find. Beauty is something beyond any finite thing, a unity worth more than the sum of its parts.
Classical theism embraces this intuition and claims that the search for Beauty is the search for God. God is the underlying Ground of Being that unites everything by being its metaphysical source; God is the single necessary cause in our entirely, wonderfully unnecessary existence. Our hunger for limitless Beauty, never quite satisfied with any finite thing, is in fact the hunger for God, who is limitless and perfect. Beauty, despite being immaterial, seems to exist independently from any human because it does!
Morality is another good example. Moral impulses (like “slavery is wrong” or “all people are created equal”) are tricky things. Try as we might, it is virtually impossible to not treat your morality as something real, something beyond personal preference. If you don’t believe me, try considering the Holocaust as something other than inherently wrong. Further, we tend to suppose that morality is not subject to the demands of what is useful and practical in any given situation; a moral person is someone who does what is right regardless of their practical concerns.
But if physical reality is both inherently meaningless and all there really is, as many of today’s popular atheists claim, then what in the world is morality? Morality must be the sum of physical arrangements and meaningless particles that somehow add up to the appearance of transcendental value. This may be true, but it is certainly contrary to our basic intuitions.
Classical theists, by contrast, are happy to accept our intuition about morality without a fuss. To them, morality seems to be a real transcendental reality because it is. God, who is limitless perfection itself, is the source of both morality and physical reality, giving legitimate being to both. Classical theists affirm that morality is as real as we assume it be in our day to day lives.
Or take consciousness. We talk as if we are each a single person who has a body in addition to a self, or mind. We act is if we are a single, centralized perspective who experiences the world around us through our senses on a moment-by-moment basis.
But for many popular atheist thinkers, such as Daniel Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained, consciousness is essentially a complicated illusion, a kind of metaphorical simplification of what is really going on. You are really a bunch of neurological events happening throughout your brain, never really coming together in a single time or place. Once again, if physical reality is both inherently meaningless and all there is, then there can be no separate “mental” layer to reality; what seems to happen must be some sort of chemically induced illusion.
Once again, classical theists have no issue believing in a mental, immaterial layer of reality. God, in fact, is perfect consciousness, a limitless act of Being and Knowing. Similarly, you seem to be part of a conscious, unified, non-physical reality because you are.
I think Hart is correct. Commonsense assumptions and intuitions do seem to get along better with classical theism than with popular atheism. No wonder so many thinkers, separated by centuries and religions and continents, came to the same basic notion of the divine. No wonder belief in God has been taken for granted by so many generations.
Of course, this all goes without saying that our intuitions about things are not necessarily correct. Personally, I can never be satisfied with unquestioningly accepting what seems, at first glance, to be the case. For me, many important questions about God remain: How can immaterial mind interfere with physical objects and events? If God is good, why do bad things happen? If there is a single Ground of both Beauty and Morality, then why do smart, well-meaning people reach such contrasting conclusions about what is beautiful and what is right? This abstract God who grounds Being is kind of cool, but how could this God influence or alter certain events or relate to specific people? How well does the clay of classical theism suit a particularly Christian sculpture of God?
Over the next few months, I will be diving further into these kinds of questions. I will read books by John Cobb, Paul Tillich, and Karl Barth in that order, and I will continue to share my journey here. Each of those thinkers represents a very unique understanding of God, each straying to some degree from classical theism. Who knows what I will end up believing? (I sure don’t.)
But before I step out onto this next leg of my God project, I can’t help but notice how much has changed between today and one month ago. David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God hasn’t solved the question of the existence of God once and for all, but it has given me the suspicion that believing in God, despite all the great points raised by atheists, might actually make some kind of sense in the end.