David Bentley Hart on Beauty as Knowledge of God

David Bentley Hart on Consciousness and Knowledge

‘Consciousness does not merely passively reflect the reality of the world; it is necessarily a dynamic movement of reason and will toward reality. If nothing else is to be concluded from the previous chapter, this much is absolutely certain: subjective consciousness becomes actual only directed through intentionality, and intentionality is a kind of agency, directed toward an end. We could never know the world from a purely receptive position. To know anything, the mind must actively be disposed towards things outside itselff, always at work interpreting experience through concepts that oly the mind itself can apply. The world is intelligible to us because we reach out to it, or reach beyond it, comng to know the endless diversity of particular things within the embrace of a more general and abstract yearning for a knowledge of truth as such, and by way of an aboriginal inclination of the mind towards reality as a comprehensible whole. In every moment of awareness, the mind at once receives and composes the world, discerning meaning in the objects of experience precisely in conferring meaning upon them; thus consciousness lies open to – and ventures into intimate communion with – the forms of things. Every venture of reason toward an endm moreoever, is prompted by a desire of the mind, a “rational appetite.” Knowledge is born out of a predisposition and predilection of the will toward beings, a longing for the ideal comprehensibility of things, and a natural orientation of the mind toward that infinite horizon that is being itself.'(David Bentley Hart, ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, pp. 238-239)

Reading Notes 10/15/13

David Bentley Hart’s ‘The Experience of God’ has so far been the best experience of reading I’ve head in a long, long time (Plantinga’s ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’, was like this for me, only way more analytic). Definitely one of the best philosophy/metaphysics/philosophy of science/religion books recently published. That guy is way too smart. I’ll probably post some review-ish stuff after I’ve read it more, but suffice it to say that he brilliantly dismantles materialism on three fronts: that of being, of consciousness, and bliss. The best section so far? Very hard to say. I’ll go with consciousness and bliss for the moment – his exposition of various problems in philosophy of mind (qualia, intentionality, abstract concepts) is, quite simply, superb. Bliss? Absolutely fantastic exploration of desire, the will, the good, beauty, etc. Being is outstanding as well (it’s pure fun watching him analyze Platninga’s modal ontological argument), but so far consciousness and bliss are the best for me. If you haven’t read it, read it. It’s cheap on Amazon. One last note: his use of Eastern (primarily Hindu) and Islamic metaphysics in the section on being is pretty dang cool.

Finally getting around to reading N.T. Wright’s big books – unfortunately the library only had ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, so I’m starting there. Very readable and easy to understand – it is dense in parts but that’s purely due to the content and not the style. I forget sometimes how powerful of a thinker Wright is, and this book is definitely re-proving it. So far of his I have and have read ‘Paul’, ‘Justification’, ‘Scripture and the Authority of God’, ‘Surprised by Hope,’ (which lives up to the hype) ‘Evil and the Justice of God’, and his popular commentary on Paul’s prison letters (and most of his available online articles and essays). N.T. Wright is the man.

Plowing through Wolterstorff’s ‘Divine Discourse’. Yikes. Dense and analytic. Well written, but even great style can’t un-densify such a topic. Great exposition of the famous Augustine passage, ‘take and read’, (or something like that), and a superb analysis and discussion of speech-acts. Great stuff for the philosopher of language in me. His seperation of divine speech and divine revelation is pretty interesting, and I’m looking forward to his discussion of inerrancy.

Also just got Torrance’s ‘Incarnation: the Person and Work of Christ’. Not as good as ‘Atonement’, unfortunately. It has a much less polished feel (these are, however, lectures – but ‘Atonement’ didn’t have this same feel). Great content – Torrance really doesn’t need a introduction in terms of his brilliant thought and command of primary sources. But again, just not as ‘wow’, feeling as ‘Atonement’. Great discussions on the meaning of ‘nature’, though, as well as things like election, hypostatic union, etc.

Sort of continuing to read through Russell’s ‘Knowledge of the External World’, and every time I pick it up, wow. What a brilliant mind – clear, precise writing, even on such a heavy topic. His linguistic approach to the problems of external-world knowledge is pretty cool, but his sense-data thing is a little out of date. But on the whole, a great philosophical read.

I just ordered Tim Maudlin’s ‘The Metaphysics Within Physics’. I’ve read/watched some of his stuff and I like him a lot. Hopefully this volume will give me a bit better understanding of modern metaphysics in current cosmology.

Finally, starting to make progress in Timothy Zahn’s ‘Vision of the Future’, which is part 2 of the ‘Hand of Thrawn’ two-book series (duology?). Yes, I am a Star Wars geek.  Zahn is an amazing sci-fi writer (read ‘Outbound Flight’, or ‘Heir to the Empire’ for further proof) and this story, while not his best work is pretty darn entertaining if a little long-winded. Over 700 pages, I think. Great writer, good writing, and a good yarn. Highly, highly recommend any of Zahn’s work, but the two cited above are absolute standouts and some of my favourite overall fiction.

And that’s what I’m reading. I hope to soon go through the two Tillich volume I have, ‘The Courage to Be’, and ‘The Essential Tillich’, in a more systematic way. I’d like to continue ‘The Russian Experiment in Art’, and explore art/aesthetics in more detail overall. John Haldane and Roger Scruton have both written in this area and I’d like to read them as well. I’ll probably start re-reading the McCarthy books I have – ‘The Road’, ‘Suttree’, ‘No Country for Old Men’, ‘Outer Dark’, and ‘All the Pretty Horses’, – come winter. Maybe go back through Redwall again. I also need to go through the to C.S. Lewis books I have on literary criticism/literature, ‘A Study in Words’, and ‘The Discarded Image,’ which means I’ll inevitably go through ‘The Monsters and the Critics’, by Tolkien.

Anyways, enough rambling. Hopefully I did nothing more than show a love for a good book – there is almost nothing I love more tan talking at length about books.

Note on Freedom

‘To be free is to be able to flourish as the kind of being one is, and so to attain the ontological good toward which one’s nature is oriented; freedom is the unhindered realization of a complex nature in its proper end (natural and supernatural), and this is consummate liberty and happiness.’ (‘David Bentley Hart, ‘The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?’ p. 70-71)

So conceived, freedom is both a lot more and a lot less than simple volition – the term ‘free-will’ seems to not be of much help. Freedom isn’t just one more thing that you have – and I think that’s why so much of the debate about freedom goes in circles. It simply can’t be defined as one more quality among others that a person possesses.

It’s more of an anthropological (broadly) question, I guess – and it’s also teleological. Obviously, if one doesn’t think that there is a human nature that is oriented to some good, then freedom can only be volition (which, as seen in the previous post, is more limiting than freeing), if there can be any concept of freedom at all. It seems to me that if one takes a materialistic line which denies human nature in the metaphysical sense, then one is pretty much left with no account of freedom, at least as far as I can tell.

Maximos the Confessor developed some pretty interesting thoughts on freedom and the will – he made a distinction between the gnomic and the natural aspects of the will in human nature. The natural is basically the creature living in accordance with the principle of its nature, working towards the fulfillment of its being – which the Christian tradition says is unity with God. Again, teleological. Gnomic willing is basically what most people would describe as ‘free will’. It’s simply deliberating over a course of action. What Hart noted in the previous post, however, is that the gnomic willing really only imprisons us – if I choose X, my choosing X comes at the expense of choosing Y later on. Our ‘free choice’ results only in fewer options to choose from later. Our natural nature, natural will, is aligned to God – after the Fall, our knowledge of God is lost and replaced by knowledge of good and evil (Bonhoeffer develops this theme a lot in ‘Creation and Fall/Temptation: Two Biblical Studies’), and as such, our gnomic will,  our deliberation, has to decide from among options what to do, because our natural (pre-fall) knowledge of God is lost. This, as stated above, simply leads to imprisonment by choosing X at the expense of Y:

‘All possible choices are external to the will that chooses; they shape it from without, defining it before it has even chosen. Moreover these possibilities are exclusive of one another: one makes a possible course of action real by rendering other courses of action impossible. And, as we all know, one can choose foolishly, or maliciously, or with a divided will. Freedom, so understood, would consist in no more than a certain kind of largely vacuous and limited potentiality dependent on other limited and limiting potentialities.’ (ibid)

In a nutshell: human freedom, apart from knowledge of God, leads only to imprisonment. The more one aligns themselves with God, the more free they become, but Christian freedom is of a different flavour than most – Christian freedom is freedom for obedience, to quote Donald Bloesch.


Some More on Impassibility

Here’s a fantastic essay in favor of the impassibility of God by Thomas G. Weinandy:


‘I would acknowledge that the above arguments are, even in the brief summary form that I have presented them, intellectually and emotionally powerful, though often the emotional sentiment appears to far outweigh reasoned argument. Nonetheless, I believe that the entire project on behalf of a passible and so suffering God is utterly misconceived, philosophically and theologically. It wreaks total havoc upon the authentic Christian gospel.’

This is a concise and clearly written take on the idea that’s well worth reading.