Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Being, Consciousness, Bliss [Review]

Astonishingly, given the somewhat deceptive (or perhaps inept) marketing of the book, this was David Bentley Hart's best book to date, which is saying something monumental. What neither the title, nor the jacket cover, nor even the blurb reviews reveal is that the book is primarily a relentless, blistering attack on the superstitions and credulous fideisms of materialism. Over and against this decrepit and impoverished philosophy of reality, and in response to its inept attempts to demystify the world, Hart turns to the common deposit of theistic metaphysical tradition for the arresting and compelling antidote. 

In the mystery of being, in the mystery of consciousness, and in the manner that they blissfully coinhere as a surfeit of physical reality, the Supernatural, the Absolute, the Good, Beauty -- in a word -- God is immediately present to us in every moment. Yet we dull and numb ourselves to this reality in innumerable ways, but especially through the barbarisms of the 'mechanical philosophy' that we have inherited from 'the Enlightenment'. 

As for the attempts of naturalism to sweep away such an obvious reality, Hart is insistent all such attempts are pitifully incoherent and suffer massive -- almost certainly insuperable -- explanatory deficiencies. While the traditional metaphysical arguments for God -- arguing from contingency to a necessary and absolute ground of being, for example -- are comparatively sublime with scarcely any of the objections lodged against them being worth serious consideration.

According to Hart, most materialistic attempts to deal with the question of being either try to dismiss the central question -- namely "why is there something rather than nothing?" -- as a fallacy of grammar or as ultimately unintelligible (it clearly is not), or to posit that the sum total of contingent, physical reality might somehow (magically and irrationally) add up to the source of its own being, and not itself be contingent. And that's when they're not being really sloppy, confusing cosmology for metaphysics and making simplistic category errors such as mistaking a quantum vaccuum for 'nothing.'

Similarly impotent are the physicalist accounts of consciousness, which Hart sees as an undeniably immaterial datum, and the most primordial one of them all, present to each of us in every moment and upon which all other realities that we perceive are dependent. Hart claims there is an infinite qualitative abyss between the neurochemical events which consciousness is dependent upon and consciousness as experienced, such that no number of purely quantitative mechanical steps could ever give rise to this peculiar and fortuitous subjective interiority, which each of us owes all our knowledge, experience, and awareness to. Hart writes:
Most attempts to provide an answer [to the question of consciousness] without straying beyond the boundaries of materialist orthodoxy are ultimately little more than vague appeals to the power of cumulative complexity: somehow, the argument goes, a sufficient number of neurological systems and subsystems operating in connection with one another will at some point naturally produce unified, self-reflective, and intentional consciousness, or at least (as strange as this may sound) the illusion of such consciousness. This is probably just another version of the pleonastic fallacy, another hopeless attempt to overcome a qualitative difference by way of an indeterminably large number of gradual quantitative steps. Even if it is not, it remains a supposition almost cruelly resistant to scientific investigation or demonstration, simply because consciousness as an actual phenomenon is entirely confined to the experience of a particular mind, a particular subject.
With this being the case, materialist accounts of consciousness reek of magical thinking. Even if we grant that one day neurobiology will exhaustively map every aspect of the brain, science will have not come a step closer to puncturing through the veil and entering into the content and interiority of the purely subjective conscious mind. One can only deny that such an immaterial, or supernatural, reality exists -- if one can at all -- by sacrificing reason itself on the alter of materialism in a self-immolating act. A high price to pay, indeed, if one is to prize 'reason' and 'empiricism' above all else, as so many scientistic materialists putatively do. 

Just as impossible to account for on materialistic terms is the innate human longing for the Good and the concomitant abhorrence of evil, which materialists must deny as being in any sense 'real' in favor of them being illusions in a deterministic universe (though few of them seem willing to fully come to terms with this logical inevitability). If you can't but do what you are bound by the laws of physics to do -- as you are no more than matter in motion -- no materialistic morality can ever amount to anything more than nonsense. As Hart puts it:
A naturalist morality is a manifest absurdity, something rather on the order of a square circle, and it requires almost heroic contortions of logic to make the notion seem credible. Fortunately, the human will to believe is indefatigable.
Attempts to ground morality in evolutionary incentives (once materialism has cleared the hurdle of being and consciousness, which it necessarily can not do) are ultimately tragically resistant to empirical verification, and must always remain just-so fables. This doesn't mean that it's completely false that certain evolutionarily advantageous 'moral' traits are preserved and passed along via natural selection acting on genetic material, but this hardly is an account of the actual nature of human morality as it exists. From a materialist perspective what would be called 'moral' can't be other than that which is evolutionarily advantageous, and our genetic so-called 'self-interest' (wherever it comes from, and whatever it is exactly), is tied to the interest of, for example, our tribe. Hence a degree of selflessness and cooperation (at least within the tribe, though usually not between tribes) is more likely to ensure the passing on of our genetic material. This hardly explains the origin of the moral impulse, however, rather only its transmission within the species. And even then, only to an incomplete degree, when we consider the many ways that the moral impulse far exceeds, and often contradicts, the dictates of evolutionary incentives. The evolutionary explanations of this phenomenon are quite clearly ludicrous attempts to force the data into a conceptual scheme which has no room for it. 

Central to Hart's argument is the claim that most of the contemporary debates surrounding God do not have as their subject the God of traditional theistic metaphysics, but rather some particularly potent cosmic demiurge, or watchmaker god, or an especially large and benevolent gentleman who is perhaps the first of a long series of causes, but not Being as such which gratuitously donates being to beings. Not the God who is utterly transcendent and fully imminent, filling all things, yet beyond all things. Not the fullness of actuality, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. etc. Once such a confusion is eliminated, and the content of the concept of God is understood as it has widely and traditionally understood by the venerable contemplative theistic traditions, most of the contemporary debates melt away into utter irrelevance.

Hart covers a great deal more than I've hinted at here: teleology and intentionality in consciousness as necessary elements of reality, and without which we can't begin to reason; the self-defeating and demonstrably false assertion of scientific empiricism having an exclusive claim to genuine knowledge; qualia as a datum inexplicable by naturalism; the materialist failure to dispel with free will; the manner in which being, consciousness, and bliss interrelate and are not only metaphysical explanations of God, but also phenomenological explanations of the human encounter with God; the absolute poverty of materialistic aesthetic accounts; mystical experience visa vis contemplative prayer and asceticism as the only 'empirical' means for investigating 'the God claim'. Just to name a few. 

Rising above the nature of the current debate on such issues -- both sides of which usually share covertly atheistic presuppositions -- Hart's lucid argumentation, acerbic wit, and stellar prose masterfully combine to produce one of the most stunning, potent, holistic, and engaging arguments for belief in God and against materialism that I've ever read.


P.S. In one of the blurb reviews advertising the book, Hart was said to have been advocating an 'ecumenical theism'. Happily, that's not exactly accurate. To an Orthodox -- or any religious particularist, really, but especially to Orthodox -- such language can sound like syncrenistic sloppiness, if not heresy. Hart makes clear in the introduction that in attempting to define 'God' as precisely as possible, and in accordance with the overlapping metaphysical wisdom of all the venerable theistic traditions, he isn't advocating a milquetoast relativism or against particularism, and certainly not denying the truth of the full revelation of God in Christ. Rather, he is only attempting to provide clarity to an essentially philosophical debate that is desperately in need of it. He is quick to note that, such philosophical knowledge about God, is not the same as union with God or knowledge of God, in accordance with Orthodox teaching.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Žižek, Tony Jones, and 'Christian Atheism'

A little over a week ago, Tony Jones hosted a piece that was meant to service as an introduction to Slavoj Žižek, particularly his 'Christian' or 'theological' thought. I took issue with the piece, primarily with the notion that it's acceptable for Christians to get their theology from atheists, or for atheists to do Christian theology in any legitimate sense. Such an idea is, of course, absurd. And this seemed to me like a fairly elementary and obvious point to make, eminently supported by scripture and orthodox Christian tradition. But I also know that one of the dogmas of this particular brand of progressive, postmodern, heretical Christianity is a kind of infinite openness to ideas and 'dialogue', regardless of the provenance of said ideas (blatantly ignoring scriptural warnings against such absolute openness i.e. Romans 12:2, 2 Cor. 6:14-18, Gal 5:1, 1 Tim. 4, 2 Tim. 2:16-17, 2 Tim 4:3-4, etc.). Wanting to disabuse anyone who might listen of such a dangerous openness in theology -- especially with regard to atheists, worldly speculators and conjecturalists -- I happily obliged when Tony offered to host a response by me.

To Tony's immense credit, and contrary to the actions of one of his brother's in arms, he published my response which he disagreed with, and in which I even take a pot-shot at him. This demonstrates a true openness to dialogue and opinions from all quarters, even the traditionalist-conservative quarter, and so consistency with his principles (although it also reveals a bit of a masochistic streak).

There was a fairly large dust-up in response to my piece (on Twitter, primarily), as many of Tony's readers -- quite understandably, given their vantage point -- took issue with the piece and with Tony's decision to run it. Tony replied here in defense of running the piece, and I agree with his defense.

However, while defending his running of the piece he also briefly noted why he disagrees with it. He writes:
The bottom line is that Nathan thinks that, while interesting, Christians should never look to Žižek for theological insight. In fact, he thinks that Christians should never take any theological insight from an atheist.
Well, I think that’s hogwash. (Nathan defends this as a teaching of the Orthodox Church, but I have not been able to substantiate that.) Theological insight comes from all sorts of places, atheists included. Indeed, if we’re reliant solely upon the church for theological truth, then two things are true: 1) God is bound exclusively to one human institution (a laughable idea), and 2) we’re pretty much screwed (because the church is so clearly fallible).
Before defending the idea that Christians ought not turn to atheists for theological insight, (it feels a bit odd typing that) let me first clarify a few things that I'm not saying. I'm not saying that God doesn't reveal himself in a general way through creation. I'm also not saying that God doesn't act in the lives of unbelievers at all. I'm also not saying that non-Christian philosophy is completely useless. None of this, however, means that atheists are capable of anything (truly) good apart from regeneration in the waters of baptism and a subsequent life in Christ, much less are they able to add or somehow contribute to the full revelation of God in Christ through their blasphemous speculations which deny Christ.

To the extent that worldly philosophy has value, it's that, in its venerable formulations, one can see what St. Justin Martyr -- writing in the 2nd century as a convert from Greek paganism -- referred to as the spermatikos logos. This is the seed of divinity in each human person which can be dimly apprehended through Greek philosophy, for example, which in turn acts as a preparation for the full revelation of God in Christ and his Church.

But this is only the case where Greek philosophy dimly apprehended the truth of divinity, not where it raged directly against it in utter folly (Psalm 14:1), or where it continued to do so even when confronted with Christ and his Church. And this is the crucial distinction. In the latter case, the Church (and the Bible) unequivocally rejects the notion that there can be any parity or fellowship between the Church which confesses Christ come in the flesh and risen from the dead, and those who deny it. Hear 1 John 4:3 :
And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist.
Žižek confesseth not. Game over.

Of course, one could multiply at will references to the New Testament's stark and undeniable dichotomy between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of the 'god' of this world (2 Cor. 4:4) i.e. Satan. See: James 4:4, John 16:33, 1 John 2:17, Rev. 3:15-17, etc. And if 'the world' (in this sense) does not include the spirit of antichrist which denies Christ is God in the flesh, then there is no such thing as 'the world' in this sense, and the Bible is speaking nonsense. This seems a high price to pay in order to defend an illicit and wicked desire to marry truth with error, darkness with light. Speaking of which, we could also turn to the most clear and unequivocal scriptural rebuke of Jones and co.'s modus operandi in 2 Cor. 6:14-18.

As for whether my position is that of the Orthodox Church, I would want to tread carefully in claiming to speak for the Church. Though I would say that, in the Church's vindication of the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas in the 14th century over the heresy of Barlaam, the purity of heart obtained through the healing graces of the Church was defended as essential for genuine theology. The impotence of philosophy to lead to true illumination was also confirmed by the Church, in the course of this controversy. Which would all be relevant here, both as a rebuke of Žižek and his 'Christian' defenders.

One could go on to note that the actual content of Žižek's 'theological' speculations (if he truly held to them), and not just the method used to arrive at them, are formally rejected heresies. One of the earliest and most significant heresies in Church history, propagated in the 4th century by the bishop Arius, was that Christ was divine, yes, but a created and subsidiary divinity, and not consubstantial with the Father. At Nicaea, his view was anathematized by the Church as incompatible with the apostolic deposit of faith, at which point it became impossible for Arian speculation to count as true Christian theology. If Arius confessed Christ's divinity (albeit as a created demigod), and was and is anathema, as are any who follow him, how much more of those who deny that God even exists?

Granted, with this last move I've made an argument that appeals to a particular biblical, apostolic, orthodox ecclesiology. And therefore I might be talking past those who hold to the anti-ecclesiology of protestantism, especially in its progressive-postmodern-evangelical variant. C'est la vie. One can only hope they turn from this error as swiftly as they ought to turn and flee from the error of mixing God's truth with a lie.