David Hart’s defense of God turns religion into philosophy

David Hart’s defense of God turns religion into philosophy.

David Bentley Hart has written a book that proves that God exists.  However, by the time I finished reading it I no longer cared, for the God he writes about has nothing to do with any God I would bother  worshiping.  For Hart, God becomes a Platonic form (eidos, είδος).

Hart writes that “it is impossible to say how, in the terms naturalism allows, nature could exist at all.” (p 18)  By “naturalism” Hart means materialism, and the scientific method by which we study matter.  I think what he is trying to say is that science can’t answer a basic question that puzzles a lot of philosophers, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  The universe didn’t have to exist; why does it?  An answer like “the universe was brought into existence by the big bang” doesn’t answer the question, because the big bang is part of the story of existence.  One might as well ask “why did the big bang exist?”  I’m sure there are scientists puzzling over this question right now, but no answer they come up with could satisfy Hart.

It’s kind of like the question about “what does the earth rest on?”  The shoulders of Atlas, ancient Greeks replied.  And what does Atlas stand on, one might respond?  A giant turtle?  And what does the giant turtle rest on?  Another giant turtle.  And what does the second giant turtle rest on?  “Hey, man, it’s just turtles all the way down.”

To some people this answer, or rather its philosophical version, is deeply upsetting.  It is to Hart.

An honest and self-aware atheism, therefore, should proudly recognize itself as the quintessential expression of heroic irrationalism: a purely and ecstatically absurd venture of faith, a triumphant trust in the absurdity of all things.  But most of us already know this anyway. If there is no God, then of course the universe is ultimately absurd, in the very precise sense that it is irreducible to any more comprehensive “equation.” It is glorious, terrible, beautiful, horrifying — all of that — but in the end it is also quite, quite meaningless. (p 19)

            What’s so bad about that?  The universe is absurd, in the sense that it has no meaning other than that given to it by humans.  God didn’t write the Bible; humans did.  Even belief in God is absurd, in the sense that we give meaning to life by positing God.  (Which doesn’t say anything about whether God actually exists.  Perhaps God put this posit in us.)  Albert Camus, the foremost absurdist, has shown us how to live meaningfully in an absurd universe, one that does not respond to my demand for recognition.  Humans create a meaningful world by giving it meaning, beginning with human basics such as love and attachment, and then trying to overcome what we experience as the hostility of nature, “fighting against creation as he found it,” as Dr. Rieux says in Camus’ The Plague, a tale for our times.

Hart’s God

“To speak of God properly,” says Hart, “is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.” (p 30)

Hart’s God is not outside the universe, nor is he the universe itself.  He does not exist in the way that the objects of the world exist, from stars to babies to diapers.

Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom . . . all things live and move and have their being. (p 30)

God is the inexhaustible source of all being, the unity and simplicity that sustains and organizes the diversity of finite beings.  God “donates” being to all things, and he does so continuously.  God is not one; he is “oneness as such.” (p 31)  Without God, nothing would exist.

I really don’t understand what Hart is talking about.  But would it help if I did?

I really don’t understand what Hart is talking about.  What does it mean to “donate” being?  Is it anything like donating blood?  But even if I understood, I don’t think it would help much because Hart isn’t talking about God as I understand him.  Mostly I understand God in terms of what he isn’t: he isn’t corporeal.  God doesn’t exist in time or space.  God isn’t inside me or outside me; he is everywhere.  Hart covers pretty much the same territory.

What Hart doesn’t say is that God is good, and that God has taught us how to live and die.  For Christians, God has a human face.  Jesus Christ suffers as humans suffer in order to lead us to God.  Belief in the existence of God has comforted billions of people over two millennia.  And belief that God might send us to Hell has terrified billions more.

Most God-talk, atheist and theist alike, assumes that God is a demiurge, a second-tier God who makes things.  The most famous demiurge is Plato’s in the Timaeus.  There the demiurge looks to the ideal universe, and then fashions everyday reality as close to ideal reality as he can, given the resistance of matter (28a6).  The demiurge causes things to happen.  God, on the other hand, allows and sustains reality.  Without God, things would fall apart, or they would never come together in the first place.  This is what the statement God is one means, almost as though he is the force that persuades atoms to give reality its form.*  “God is the infinite ocean of being that gives existence to all reality ex nihilo.”  (p 35; cf. 93)

By the way, Hart’s account is not strictly Biblical.  When Genesis (1:2) says the earth was “formless and void,” it is translating the Hebrew tohu wa-bohu, which means chaos, not nothingness.  God, contrary to most interpretations, does not create matter ex nihilo, but only forms it, creatio ex materia.

Hart’s strategy: God is not a demiurge

Even if some of the details are obscure, one can see Hart’s strategy.  Atheists criticize a view of God that says he is the master maker; that is, God is a demiurge.  Science has shown us that the natural world is explicable in terms of natural processes.  But if God is defined in Platonic terms, so that for example, “beautiful things are caused by [God’s] . . . transcendent beauty,” and reality (as opposed to nothingness) is caused by God’s creation of something out of nothing (ex nihilo), then this is really an argument about which atheists have nothing to say (p. 83).  If God becomes a Platonic form, in particular the Form of the Good (Republic, 508e), then there is no plausible argument against the existence of God.  None except “that doesn’t fit my modern worldview,” which is Hart’s point in the first place.

All the implausible stories in the Bible, from the Great Flood, to Jesus Christ as the son of God, are irrelevant to Hart’s argument.  Sure, they’re just stories, Hart replies, but the God he’s talking about isn’t a story, he is “the infinity of being and consciousness in which all things necessarily subsist.” (p 302)

What do people want from God?

Hart defines away everything about God that is interesting by making him so abstract.  Hart defines God as the one who donates being, which I take to mean allows things to exist and to continue to exist by bringing substance, order, and form to this world.  But is this really what we want, a definition of God?  Is this really what we want from God?

People choose to believe in God, and tell stories about him, because they find it makes their world richer and more meaningful.  With more or less self-consciousness, this is what people have done for over 2,000 years.  Today we have lost our mythic imagination, as it has been taken over by entertainment, commercialism, and scientific materialism.  We have lost much, but the answer isn’t necessarily an irrefutable proposition, such as “God is oneness as such.”  The answer is to tell better stories about God, ones that speak to contemporary existence.  That, and to remind ourselves that science has nothing to say about the existence of God, one way or another.  It is a different language, a different discourse about a different world.  About this Hart is correct, though he is hardly the first person to say so.


* Alfred North Whitehead is the author most closely associated with the view that God does not compel, but persuades.  See Oomen, pp. 281-283.


David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God.  Yale University Press, 2013.  (all page numbers refer to this book unless otherwise noted)

Palmyre M.F. Oomen, “God’s Power and Almightiness in Whitehead’s Thought.”  Open Theology, 2015 (1): 277-292, pp. 281-283.  DOI: 10.1515/opth-2015-0013

Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality.  Free Press, 1978.

9 thoughts on “David Hart’s defense of God turns religion into philosophy”

    1. I suspect most people now don’t think about it especially with the pandenic.Let’s hope we don’t have the seven plagues of Egypt.
      I think it is more of a mystery than just a worthless tale told by an idiot

  1. This is one book I shall not be reading not just because of what you have written..We only have limited time here and there are many more interesting books such as “Seven types of atheism”by John Gray, who rapidly throws out Richard Dawkin’s ideas about religion.

    1. One thing is certainly true. Most atheists don’t seem to understand the subtlety and complexity of many of us with religious beliefs. Fred

      1. I think maybe they are not true atheists looking for other ways of
        developing meaning in their lives.They are A-theists
        i think it is easier to attack the beliefs of other people than to develop some worthwhile beliefs of one’s own.
        Indeed, apart from criticising Fundamentalists, why try to destroy
        what other people believe? Darwinism did not mean there is no God.It meant we had to keep re-evaluating what God is
        A Jewish friend told me that they believe the Torah has to be re-interpreted for every generation.It is not rigid.I do wonder in what way the Holocaust could have been interpreted.I am not worthy of such a task.It reminds me slightly of the book of Job but really a Christian should not even try to answer this

  2. I hope you still care about your writing.We know ordinary language can’t prove God exists.Because language was only developed long after the world came into existence.And you can’t do scientific experiments on some Being we can’t even measure let alone compare,contrast and conclude.
    Science is not applicable to much of live.Can you prove Love exists?
    I suppose it depends on what you consider a proof to be.And we are often mistaken.We tell someone we love them and then attack them if they don’t share our vJews on everything.Is there such a thing as Love?
    Are we all selfish?
    I shall steer clear of books like this.Fiddling with words is not very good
    Experience, perception, truthfulness to ourselves are better I think
    Our fishing nets may catch something but not everything
    Still, who am I to judge?

  3. I just looked up John Gray on Amazon.He suffers the misfortune of having the same name as the man who wrote “Men are from Mars,women are from Venus”
    I read some of the beginnings.He places atheists like Richard Dawkins
    in a similar category to Christian Fundamentalists.He thinks humankind has always had a religious instinct and always will
    It is embarrassing to be a Christian when many people think that means you will shoot doctors who carry out abortions as all life is sacred.But until recently millions of women died have illegal abortions.Did the Fundamentalists care about that?
    I have got a book called Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson.John Gray is very well read compared to Dawkins as he must have read this book, which is about poetry.I must read it now having been reminded.
    John Gray thinks we should just enjoy life.What is joy for humans?
    I doubt if it can be easily put into words and only relatively well off people are free from the fear of poverty and illness in their own family.
    Yet some poor people do feel joy at times.

  4. I suspect most people now don’t think about it especially with the pandenic.Let’s hope we don’t have the seven plagues of Egypt.
    I think it is more of a mystery than just a worthless tale told by an idiot
    signifying nothing

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