I recently finished David Bentley Hart’s new book The Experience of God. I enjoyed reading it very much and thought it worthwhile to throw out some brief thoughts on the text.
First, Hart is attempting to lay out in as clear a way as he can just what it is that we mean by “God”. Here he takes as his jumping-off point the broadly received classical theistic tradition, a tradition he nicely shows as overlapping a great variety of thinkers and even world religions. I can understand if some stop right there in indignation towards mixing religions (I have my reservations myself), but if Hart is accurate then he is accurate. Whether he is accurate is worth asking (and his lack of decent citation leaves one wanting more!). Nevertheless, I appreciate his biting wit in explicating the concept of “God” from the concept of “god”. This book is worth reading for that alone, which comes at the very beginning of the text.
Second, Hart really is saying nothing new in the book. Where Hart is best is in putting the received wisdom of the ages in a lucid, witty, biting, and at times verbose manner (I appreciate verbosity, as the average reader badly needs an improved vocabulary). In my opinion the best section of this book is the chapter on Being. Here Hart adequately lays out reasons for thinking there is a God and also, I think quite adequately, lays out reasons for finding various Naturalistic explanations wanting. This chapter could have been a stand-alone treatise, useful for overly enthusiastic college undergraduates. If I were to design an introductory course in Philosophy I would assign the book up to the end of the chapter on Being.
Third, the book takes a slight dive from there. The chapter on Consciousness accurately lays out much of the field of contemporary and even classical philosophy of mind, in the further attempt to explicate the concept of “God”. God has a mind and we need to understand what it means to be conscious beings. The only real criticism I have of this section (which is actually applicable to every chapter in the book), is that Hart does not cite his sources properly. There were numerous times I flipped to the back (something no academic book should require, footnotes were invented for a reason!) only to be sorely disappointed at the lack of citation. I know where he pulls most of his points from, but the average reader will be at a complete loss. Princeton Press can do much better!
Finally, the chapter on Bliss is both very interesting but also rather poorly written. It could have been half the length that it is. I agree with his thrust (that God is the source of all goodness, indeed is The Good, and is also the final end of all creation), but I would have appreciated less Eastern Mysticism and Sufism and more analytic explanation. Hart abhors analytic philosophy, and I understand his reasons why. I don’t share his abhorrence myself – brevity is the soul of wit. Rambling seems to be the soul of Hart.
The final summary chapter is excellent and brief, the way I like it. I do not recall finding anything in the book that I actually disagree with, and that surprises me. Part of this is due, no doubt, to the fact that the background Hart is pulling from is my own (we are also both Orthodox Christians).
My final takeaway: this is an excellent book that suffers from a lack of proper citation. There were too many instances where I knew who Hart was speaking of but he does not mention a name, or I knew the text he referred to but he does not tell the reader. There were too many quotations that went without references (I would like to read some of those texts he mentions, since some of them I have not come across before). I expect a higher level of scholarship from someone being published by Princeton and claiming to be a “scholar of religion and philosophy”, among other accomplishments.
You can find the book at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Experience-God-Being-Consciousness/dp/0300166842/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0