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To battle, armed with Thomism

13 June 2014

David Brown reads a book that reminds him of Eric Mascall

The Experience of God: Being, consciousness, bliss
David Bentley Hart
Yale £18.99
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WHEN I began reading this book, for some reason the name of Eric Mascall came to mind; not at all what one might expect, given that his main books have been out of print since the 1970s. Yet, although there is no reference to him in Hart's main text, Mascall is in fact warmly commended in the list of recommended reading at the end of the book.

Like Mascall, Hart is determinedly Thomistic in his approach, and Aquinas is criticised only once (for his account of beauty). As also with Mascall, there is no shortage of dogmatic assertions: for example, the assertion that "one cannot meaningfully reject belief in the God of classical theism" (Hart's italics). But, unlike Mascall, Hart is consistently dismissive of analytic philosophy. Frege, the movement's founder, is caricatured as "one of the great gray patriarchs of the analytic tribe"; and all revisions, within this tradition, of the classical philosophical account of God, however modest, are declared to be no better than polytheism.

The reason for Hart's ire is that, for him, all such revisions undermine the logic of the one particular form of experience which he believes constitutes all true religion, the sense of the radical contingency of human existence, sheer wonder that anything exists at all, the questioning that can be put to rest only by postulating an unchanging, timeless reality that grounds this world of never-ending change.

Equally, nature remains inexplicable unless we presuppose that both our actions and the world as a whole are rooted in a consciousness and mental activity that transcend nature. Finally, the structure of human longing and desire is such as to suggest that it is only in the joy of communion with such a transcendent source of all reality that these aspirations will reach their proper fulfilment.

There is much in what Hart writes from which all might learn, not least the impressive range of arguments which he utilises to undermine any attempt to reduce mind or soul to the mere functioning of the brain. But for me the book was spoilt by bad temper and sleight of hand. Thus, although he talks of proof and certainty, it is hard to see how this can be so. Of course, the questioning to which he alludes does open up the possibility of an answer, but the analytic philosopher of religion Stephen Evans seems to me wiser in talking of "signs of transcendence" that we might choose to pursue or not (in a work from 2010, Natural Signs and Knowledge of God).

Equally, it might make sense to follow Aquinas and talk of all the divine attributes as coalescing in "simplicity", but the matter is hardly as self-evident as Hart maintains. Nor will it do to speak of a perennial philosophy shared by all the great religions which can be encapsulated in three Hindu terms: being, consciousness, and bliss. Numerous other ways of dividing up divine reality are to be found, and not even personal awareness is always agreed to be an ultimate divine attribute. Thus the third-century philosopher Plotinus spoke of a higher reality than the divine mind, in which even the division between subject and object is transcended; and this finds parallels in some Eastern thought.

Hart has the laudable aim of replying to modern advocates of God as delusion. He insists that their God bears no relation to the God of classical theism. That may well be true, but in so arguing he seems prepared to demote or even abandon much of conventional religion: "my approach . . . does not require the supplement of any particular theology or specific creed." Here, at least, neither Aquinas nor Mascall would have followed him.

The Revd Dr David Brown is Wardlaw Professor of Theology, Aesthetics and Culture at the University of St Andrews.


THOMISM is one of the subjects in Faith­ful Reading: New essays in theo­logy in honour of Fergus Kerr, OP, edited by Simon Oliver, Karen Kilby, and Tom O'Loughlin: papers by Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, Janet Soskice, and Graham Ward, among others (T. & T. Clark, £65(£58.50); 978-0-567-64403-9).

By Faith and Reason: The es­­sential Keith Ward is a reader in this theologian's work, edited by Wm Curtis Holtzen and Roberto Sirvent, and including a new essay (Darton, Longman & Todd, £25.99(£23.40); 978-0-232-52898-5).


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