Saturday, 24 June 2017

David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart is an intellectual Christian and so, to many in our secular culture, must seem like a mythical beast. Western culture has its roots in Christianity and through reading Hart I have become more aware of these roots. It is like being able to see a new richness in what was already there. I grew up learning almost nothing of Christianity from school, family or friends and thats the norm now. The irony is that secularity grew out of Christian culture, it is a further development of Protestant reform. So much of contemporary Christianity presents itself or is presented to us as a caricature,  in beliefs of fundamentalism and predestined eternal torment etc. Atheists are overjoyed that these Christians meet their expectations and can be written off so glibly.

The catalyst for this blog was watching a symposium on youtube organised by Hart entitled Mind Soul World: Consciousness in Nature.

Watching this gave me the weird feeling that youtube is actually a good thing and I could spend my time watching material that expands my interests. The entire symposium is well worth watching, but I admit that a number of the papers were entirely beyond me, particularly the lectures on "Intentionality and the Transcendent Ends of Consciousness". One of the reasons I write this blog is to clarify my own thinking, but also I think endevours like this help diseminate ideas and hopefully help them to enter into broader social discourse. 

I recommend watch this symposium as i am unlikely to do it justice, what I will say is just a little on the ideas that it has reinforced for me, I am not claiming this is any sort of accurate summary of the materials. Secularity assumes that the onus is on the Theistic to prove the existence of God, however  Theism has the upper hand in being able to account for the primary experience we have of mind/intentionality/rationality. Whereas the secular gravitates to the materialist which sees an outer nature in many ways dead, certainly in terms of meaning, that is, it is seen as essentially mindless, random and meaningless, so where our own rationality intentions and goals come from is at least problematic and the most logically cogent approaches tend towards arguments that eplain consciousness away as some kind of illusion. An approach that isn't generally satisfying for common joe and jane, and may be one of the reasons why there aren't large numbers of militant atheists. Christians however who say in the beginning was the Logos (Word/Rationality) have the advantage of being able to place our rationality and intentionality easily within this divine framework. 

Also obvious from watching this symposium is the wealth and depth of intellectual tradition that these speakers were familiar with and large intellectual landscapes that play little part in popular culture. Canonical authors Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Gegory of Nyssa, Thomas Aquinas, Berkely, Descarte, Kant, Goethe are familiar territory for these intellectuals and should be a key element in our education. Across the talks a criticism of modernity emerged,a sense of something having gone wrong with our philosophy/metaphysics at the start of modernity 15/16th C.  John Milbank even suggested that perhaps there is an alternative supressed occult hermetic tradition that we would be better connecting to, represented in thinkers like Robert Fludd. He didn't mention any other names but this caused me some excitement as I had been quite inspired by Franes Yates books on the Hermetic tradition which to me also suggested another road not taken where the external world maintained its sense of holiness. Instead science diverged from alchemy/occult theory, driven perhaps more from a desire to avoid heresy than sustained rational argument and possibly through a failure of Christian metaphysics at the time. Milbank has elsewhere argued that secularity rather than being a neutral space is infact a metaphysical invention. 

That the world presents itself to intelligably to us increasingly strikes me as a wonder.

I'm riding my own hobby horse here and I'm not giving a good idea of what Hart so here so to right the balance I'll quote the opening paragraph from Hart's introductory essay:

The occasion of this colloquium is a book project on the nature of consciousness and the metaphysics of the soul; ... as one of many subventions for research on “the place of mind within nature.” As far as that designation goes, however, one of my aims is to invert its terms and argue that the mystery of consciousness is better approached by an inquiry into the place of nature within mind. The conclusion toward which I am working is, quite frankly, one of “theistic idealism” (using that phrase in as generously compendious a way as possible). My overarching argument is that consistently physicalist emergentist accounts of the origins of consciousness invariably fail; that scrupulous reflection on the nature of consciousness yields a picture to which certain classical understandings of the soul (Western and Eastern) are far better suited than is any kind of materialist reductionism; that these understandings of the soul inevitably entail a concept of the soul as having its ground and end in infinite divine mind, and as indeed being essentially an instance of restricted participation in the unrestricted consciousness of God; that the irreducibly transcendental orientation of intentional consciousness becomes intelligible only when seen in light of this transcendent reality; and that ultimately, perhaps, it is necessary to conclude that consciousness and being are inseparable, because in God they perfectly coincide. That, at least, is the grand design; but the discrete steps by which it will unfold will be fairly modest to begin with, and I hope sufficiently rigorous throughout. 

Well I'm looking forward to the book and I hope that it is aimed sufficiently at a popular audience for me to be able to appreciate it. I have read 3 Bentley Hart books in the last few years, one of which was an introductory History of the Church which I appreciated, but the other two had a greater impact upon me. I'll give a very pithy account of them. They were:

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies

The main title of this book is actually the publishers and it takes a shot at and hopes to draw on the popularity of Richard Dawkins book "the God Delusion". But while the book takes a few introductory shots against the New Atheists: Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett & Christopher Hitchens who all take a stridently antagonistic approach to Christianity, instead it is more a historical essay that is better expressed by the sub title which was the author's original title. The historical essay really seeks to show us that the all too common claims made against Christianity of having a violent past and suppressing Reason, Science and Progress, by giving the examples of the Crusades, the Inquisition the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and the trial of Galileo. Hart gives a nuanced look at history and while seeing plenty to be appalled by, yet shows that the picture is over simplified to the point of being deceptive. It is well worth a read, I will say that the reader new to Hart is likely to be struck by his invective, for instance this on Sam Harris' book "The End of Faith":"little more than a concatenation of shrill, petulant assertions, a few of which are true, but none of which betrays any great degree of philosophical or historical sophistication"

The other book of Hart's I have read is called
"The Experience of God: Being Consciousness Bliss"

This book Hart describes as simply an effort to define the term God "in obedience to the classical definitions of the divine found in the theological and philosophical schools of most of the major religious traditions". Hart is undertaking this because in contemporary debates "the contending parties are not even talking about the same thing." He goes onto to define how the concept of God is not another thing amongst things but the basis of being, not the caricatured Zeus like figure amongst the clouds. It is a good sized book and I will not do it justice but I do recommend it.

Hart is a figure who I would love to see regarded as one of the premier cultural critics but who instead is unfortunately rather marginal. He is highly intelligent, culturally rich and deeply Christian thinker and writer. I am not sure that he is a great innovator but he is I think an astute commentator on modernity and well worth exploring.