The New Republic has just published Professor Jerry Coyne’s critical review of David Bentley Hart’s latest work, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, despite the fact that Coyne openly admits to not having read Hart’s book, although he says he intends to. For a literary magazine like The New Republic, I have to say that this marks a new low. Let me declare up-front that I haven’t read Hart’s book, either. I am, however, familiar with much of Hart’s thinking, because I’ve made the effort to understand him on his own terms. Jerry Coyne’s review, titled, The ‘Best Arguments for God’s Existence’ Are Actually Terrible, rests on a complete misunderstanding of what Hart is saying in his book, and why he believes it to be true. I have written this post in an effort to set the record straight. For the sake of brevity and accessibility, I’ve written it in Q & A form.
Q. What is the main argument of Hart’s book?
A. The best summary I’ve found is one written by Steve Webb, a critic of Hart’s who has nevertheless read his book, and who recently reviewed it over at First Things – a review he claims Hart partially censored. Be that as it may, in a subsequent blog article, Webb pithily (and fairly) summarizes the main thesis of Hart’s book:
Hart defends three basic points: First, there was a consensus among ancient philosophers and theologians regarding the simplicity of God. Divine simplicity can be stated in many ways, but it basically means that God has no parts. Or you could just say that God is immaterial (since anything material can be divided). Second, this consensus was shared by nearly all the world’s oldest religions. Third, this consensus is crucial for the Christian faith. It is, in fact, the only way to make sense of God, and thus it is fundamental for everything that Christians believe and say about the divine.
Hart explicates those points with exceptional mastery, but he shows no patience for anyone who might disagree with him.
Q. Was there actually a theological consensus regarding God’s simplicity, as Hart claims?
A. Webb, in his blog article, questions whether there was really a consensus among ancient philosophers and theologians regarding the simplicity of God, but the evidence is pretty strong. To quote the Thomist philosopher Edward Feser:
As I have indicated in earlier posts, the doctrine of divine simplicity is absolutely central to classical theism. To say that God is simple is to say that He is in no way composed of parts – neither material parts, nor metaphysical parts like form and matter, substance and accidents, or essence and existence. Divine simplicity is affirmed by such Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers as Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, Avicenna, and Averroes. It is central to the theology of pagan thinkers like Plotinus. It is the de fide teaching of the Catholic Church, affirmed at the fourth Lateran council and the first Vatican council, and the denial of which amounts to heresy. (Classical theism, September 30, 2010.)
It should be noted that not only Christians, but Jews and Muslims, have traditionally affirmed the doctrine of God’s simplicity. According to the article on Divine Simplicity in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “the roots of [the doctrine of God’s] simplicity go back to the Ancient Greeks, well before its formal defense by representative thinkers of the three great monotheistic religions— Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” It adds:
…representative thinkers of all three great monotheistic traditions recognize the doctrine of divine simplicity to be central to any credible account of a creator God’s ontological situation. Avicenna (980–1037), Averroes (1126–98), Anselm of Canterbury, Philo of Alexandria, and Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) all go out of their way to affirm the doctrine’s indispensability and systematic potential.
I might add that the doctrine of Divine simplicity isn’t an invention of medieval theologians. It actually predates Christianity:
Christianity is in its infancy when the Jewish theologian Philo of Alexandria (c. 30 B.C.E.– 50 C.E.) observes that it is already commonly accepted to think of God as Being itself and utterly simple. Philo is drawing on philosophical accounts of a supreme unity in describing God as uncomposite and eternal.
Q. Can you explain why the doctrine of Divine simplicity is so important?
In a nutshell: if God weren’t simple, then God couldn’t be God. Philosopher Edward Feser explains why the doctrine of Divine simplicity is fundamental to classical theism, in a post titled, Why Is There Anything At All? It’s Simple (October 4, 2013):
…[W]hy is it so central?
The reason is that for the classical theist, whatever else we mean by “God,” we certainly mean by that label to name the ultimate source, cause, or explanation of things. Properly to understand classical theism, the hostile atheist reader might even find it useful to put the word “God” out of his mind for the moment — given all the irrelevant associations the word might lead him to read into the present discussion — and just think instead of “the ultimate source of things.” The classical theist maintains that whatever is in any way composed of parts cannot be the ultimate source of things. For wherever we have a composite thing, a thing made up of parts, we have something that requires a cause of its own, a cause which accounts for how the parts get together.
Q. In his review of Hart’s book, Professor Jerry Coyne asks how Hart can possibly know that God is simple. He makes a great point of contrasting science, which tests its claims by conducting experiments, with religion, which doesn’t test anything in this way. Coyne also asks what would falsify Hart’s account of God.
Professor Coyne is wrong on two counts here. First, what he fails to grasp is that for Hart, the fact that God (supposing that He is real) is simple, is not an empirical truth but an analytical truth: anyone who understands what the term “God” refers to will see at once that it must be true. As Steve Webb puts it in his blog article:
Let me take the reader through Hart’s position one more time. For Hart, “the argument for the reality of God from the contingency of all composite and mutable things seems unarguably true, with an almost analytic obviousness” because the religious experience he describes throughout his book is one of stepping back from the “ontological impoverishment” of the physical world…
The world’s “ontological impoverishment” of the physical world refers to the fact that it is incapable of explaining its own existence. For what is undeniably true of the physical world, at whatever level (macro or micro) that we endeavor to explain it, is that it is composite: it is made up of parts. And for Hart, something made up of parts cannot in principle be self-explanatory, since: (a) it is always legitimate to ask what holds those parts together; and (b) parts are, by definition, prior to the whole that they comprise, in an explanatory sense, so it would be absurd to suppose that a composite entity such as the cosmos – whether you call it the universe or multiverse doesn’t matter here – could possibly serve as the metaphysical bedrock of reality. Only a simple entity could possibly be self-explanatory, requiring no further explanation. Hence God as Ultimate Explanation must be simple. As Steve Webb puts it in his post:
Disagreeing with the principle of divine simplicity, for Hart, is like disagreeing with the doctrine of non-contradiction. Just as a philosopher would rightly refuse to argue with someone who does not play by the rules of non-contradiction, Hart finds it loathsome to discuss theology with someone who does not accept divine simplicity.
In an article titled, Believe It or Not (First Things, April 2010), Hart goes on to explain that the traditional arguments for God’s existence start “from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself.” He adds that if we look past all this contingency for an ultimate explanation, “one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, … the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.”
That, in a nutshell, is how Hart reasons his way to belief in God.
Professor Coyne’s second error is to suppose (naively) that science tests all of its assumptions. On the contrary: science rests on one ultimate assumption, or fundamental postulate – that Nature is and always will be regular and intelligible to our minds – which is ultimately unverifiable (although it could be falsified if the world were to suddenly turn into “one great blooming, buzzing confusion”) and also unprovable: in fact, we can’t even show this belief to be probable, let alone true.
In a recent post on Uncommon Descent, I argued that that there can be no scientific knowledge if there is no God, and that there is no way of justifying inductive inference on a systematic basis, in the absence of God. That does not mean that you have to believe in God in order to do science; many fine scientists have been atheists. Rather, what it means is that if you want to justify scientists’ confidence in induction, you have to posit the existence of a God Who wishes His existence to be known through the rules (a.k.a. scientific laws) which define the very warp and woof of cosmos, and which define the being of the different kinds of things we find in the world. The universe, to quote Sir James Jeans, is “nearer to a great thought than to a great machine.” But a great thought requires a Great Thinker.
In my post, I contend that arguments made by Professors Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, which attempt to justify the scientific method by appealing to the past success of science, are question-begging, and miss the point. I also critique other, more sophisticated attempts to justify scientific induction (including Donald Williams and D. C. Stove’s attempted solution, revived in recent years by Professor Tim McGrew), arguing that they too fail. For those readers who are interested, in two follow-up posts (see here and here), I defended other arguments for the existence of God, including the fine-tuning argument and the cosmological argument. I address the problem of evil in a final post.
I’ll talk about what would falsify Hart’s belief in God at the end of this post.
Q. In his review, Coyne takes exception to Hart’s claim that “God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all,” dismissing it as unintelligible (“Reread … the last line, and then see if you can explain it to one of your friends”). What on earth does Hart mean?
Happy to oblige. To quote from a 2011 post by Professor Edward Feser:
Just as the author of a story is not one character among others but transcends the story altogether as its source, so too the God of classical theism is not “a being” among others but Being Itself. (As Ralph McInerny put it in the title of one of his books, we are like “characters in search of their Author.”)
Feser cautions against pushing the author-book analogy too far, but there is one thing it illustrates perfectly: God and His creatures (that includes us) do not exist on the same plane of reality. To say that they did would be like interviewing the author J.K. Rowling in a room containing her complete set of Harry Potter books, with their 300 or so characters, and telling her that she and her characters made up a total set of 301 characters. Obviously that’s a category mistake: J.K. Rowling as an author cannot be lumped together with her characters; and neither can God, as the Intelligent Author of Nature, be lumped in together with His creatures. This isn’t Sophisticated Theology, either: the Bible itself speaks of God “sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3, New International Version), and it adds that “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28, New International Version).
Q. But doesn’t Hart go further, and say that God is not a being?He even writes, “one can’t even say that God ‘exists’ in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist.” Isn’t this picture of God totally at variance with the God that ordinary believers believe in?
Not really. It’s true that many traditional believers would be shocked if you told them that according to the teaching of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God is not a being. However, Fr. Robert Barron, in his masterful review of Hart’s book for RealClearReligion, explains what Hart means here:
To a person, the new atheists hold that God is some being in the world, the maximum instance, if you want, of the category of “being.” But this is precisely what Aquinas and serious thinkers in all of the great theistic traditions hold that God is not. Thomas explicitly states that God is not in any genus, including that most generic genus of all, namely being. He is not one thing or individual — however supreme — among many. Rather, God is, in Aquinas’s pithy Latin phrase, esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.
It might be helpful here to distinguish God from the gods… They were impressive denizens of the natural world, but they were not, strictly speaking, supernatural. But God is not a supreme item within the universe or alongside of it; rather, God is the sheer ocean of being from whose fullness the universe in its entirety exists.
For those readers who are floundering in the poetic language here, it might be helpful to recall the author:book analogy invoked by Feser.
Fr. Barron clarifies things further when he adds:
…[T]he physical sciences, no matter how advanced they might become, can never eliminate God, for God is not a being within the natural order. Instead, he is the reason why there is that nexus of conditioned causes that we call nature — at all. (Italics mine – VJT.)
While most religious believers would indeed be shocked if you told them that “God is not a being,” they would not be at all shocked if you qualified this remark by saying: “God is not a being within the natural order,” as Fr. Barron does.
Hart himself says the same in an article titled, Believe It or Not (First Things, April 2010):
…[A]ll things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.
The same goes for Hart’s claim that God does not exist. What he actually says is that God does not exist “in the sense that my car or Mount Everest or electrons exist.” If you put it like that to a traditional religious believer, they would readily agree with you. The Bible itself says as much, in Psalm 113:5-6:
“Who is like the Lord our God,
the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
on the heavens and the earth?” (New International Version).
And in Exodus 9:14, God Himself declares that “there is no one like me in all the earth” (New International Version).
Coyne may still want to object to Hart’s claim (following Aquinas) that God is “esse ipsum subsistens, the sheer act of being itself.” He might ask whether ordinary believers have even heard of this doctrine.
Do ordinary religious people believe that God is Being itself? Sure they do. They’re quite familiar with Exodus 3:14, where God declares, “I am Who I am,” and Acts 17:28, which says that “In Him we live and move and have our being.” Religious folk also believe that God is Truth, God is Goodness, and (most importantly of all) God is Love (1 John 4:16).
Orthodox priest Fr. Alvin Kimel (a convert from Anglicanism), writes in a blog post titled, Being, Beyond Being, or Oz the Great and Terrible?:
Right off the top of my head, I can think of three Christian theologians of antiquity who identified divinity and Being — St Gregory of Nazianzus, St Augustine of Hippo, and St Thomas Aquinas. I can also think of three Christian theologians who preferred to speak of God as “beyond Being” — Dionysius, St Maximus the Confessor, and St Gregory Palamas. And not one had a problem identifying their God with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Italics mine – VJT.)
Of course, there are some medieval theologians who occasionally speak of God as “a Being,” too: Anselm and Duns Scotus are two that immediately come to mind.
Fr. Alvin Kimel’s entire series of short posts on Hart’s book is well worth reading, and I would recommend it to Professor Coyne as well:
The Christian Distinction: God + World ≠ 2
Do you believe in God or god?
God is not Odin, God is not Zeus, God is not Marduk
The Mystery of One
Being, Beyond Being, or Oz the Great and Terrible?
How Anthropomorphic is your G-O-D?
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not denying that some conflicts exist between traditional believers and sophisticated theologians. I should add that not all religious believers accept the philosophical claims of classical theism: for instance, the claim that God is immutable or impassible. Many of them would like to believe that God is somehow “moved” by their prayers – although as Hart would point out, God could still respond to His creatures’ needs from a timeless standpoint, in which He apprehends past, present and future. Most believers also think of God as being (at least timelessly) affected by His creatures: thus God is commonly said to “see everything you do” – a formulation that most many theologians would reject, even as a metaphor, as it renders God cognitively passive. But the identification of God with Being itself is relatively unproblematic – although I should also add that some Christians, such as John Wesley, have spoken of Love as God’s primary attribute.
Q. But doesn’t Coyne have a valid point when he asks Hart, “How do you know that your Ground-of-Being god embodies truth, goodness, and beauty rather than lies, evil, and ugliness?”
Hart has already answered that question online. In fact, he answered it several years ago. In an interview for the Christian Century (January 10, 2006, pp. 26-29), Hart was asked about the problem of evil, and he begins by pointing out that evil as such is a privation, and not a thing:
It’s often said that three claims of the Christian tradition — “God is omnipotent,” “God is love” and “Evil exists” — present a logical contradiction. One of the claims has to be revised. Do you agree?
If by “evil exists” you mean that evil possesses a real substance of its own, and that it therefore exists in the way goodness exists (or, for that matter, a tree, a rabbit, an idea or a dream exists), in point of fact Christian tradition has usually denied this quite forcibly. Patristic and medieval thought (drawing, admittedly, on Platonic precedent) defined evil as a privation of the good: a purely parasitic and shadowy reality, a contamination or disease or absence, but not a real thing in itself. This, incidentally, is a logically necessary claim if one understands goodness and being as flowing alike from the very nature of God and coinciding in him as one infinite life.
That said, there surely is no contradiction between God’s omnipotent goodness and the reality of evil. It may seem somewhat trite to invoke the freedom of creation as part of the works and ends of divine love, or to argue that the highest good of the creature — divinizing union with God in love — requires a realm of “secondary causality” in which the rational wills of God’s creatures are at liberty; nonetheless, whether the traditional explanations of how sin and death have been set loose in the world satisfy one or not, they certainly render the claim that an omnipotent and good God would never allow unjust suffering simply vacuous. By what criterion could one render such a judgment?
Thus God could never embody “lies, evil, and ugliness,” any more than He could embody a hole or a flaw. Since God is Infinite and Unlimited Being itself, God contains no flaws, and no privations. As for embodying a lie: how does one embody a false statement? Does that even make sense?
Hart goes on to say that although God’s decision to create is a free one, God’s love for the creatures that He has made is an overflowing (or necessary consequence) of His love for Himself:
God does not create like an omnipotent consumer choosing one world out of an infinity of possibilities that somehow stand outside of and apart from his own nature…
God creates the world of Jesus, the world conformed to his infinite love for his Son in the joy and light of the Spirit; he thereby also wills his goodness in all his creatures infinitely, which is to say he wills this world for eternal union with him in love, and he wills that we should become partakers of the divine nature.
There is no other world that God might have created, not because he is bound by necessity, but because he is infinitely free, and so nothing can hinder him from expressing his essential and infinite goodness perfectly, in and through the freedom of creatures created to be the fellows of his eternal Son.
That may seem obscurely phrased — it is, I know — but if one thinks through what it means to understand God as the transcendent source of all being, one must abandon the notion that God chooses to create in the way that I choose to buy blue drapes rather than red. God creates a realm of rational freedom that allows for a union between Creator and creature that is properly analogous to the Trinity’s eternal union of love; or, stated otherwise, God creates his own image in his creatures, with all that that may entail.
Q. What about deism? Isn’t that a viable option too? How does Hart know that God isn’t indifferent to suffering?
In his article, Professor Jerry Coyne faults Hart for overlooking the Deist picture of God:
I can make up yet another God with just as much supporting evidence as Hart’s: assume that God is a deistic God who has always been there but has done nothing. He didn’t even create the universe: he let that happen according to the laws of physics, from which universes can arise via fluctuations in a quantum vacuum. My God is just sitting there, watching over us all, but only for his amusement. He’s undetectable, ineffable, indolent, and easily bored.
Actually, Hart explicitly rejected this conception of God in an article he wrote several years ago for the Wall Street Journal, titled, Tremors of Doubt (October 31, 2004):
The God of Voltaire’s poem is a particular kind of “deist” God, who has shaped and ordered the world just as it now is, in accord with his exact intentions, and who presides over all its eventualities austerely attentive to a precise equilibrium between felicity and morality. Not that reckless Christians have not occasionally spoken in such terms; but this is not the Christian God.
The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all.
In other words, Hart rejects Deism because of what it says about natural evil: that it somehow “makes sense” in the grand scheme of things. Hart thinks that view is fundamentally wrong; suffering doesn’t make sense. Hence, any God who wasn’t deficient (and remember, Hart’s God, being perfect, cannot be deficient), must ultimately thwart evil. Hart movingly expresses his hope for future deliverance at the end of days, in his oft-cited article, Tsunami and Theodicy (First Things, March 2005; reprinted January 2010):
We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Q. But doesn’t that still leave unanswered the question of why God allows suffering?
In his interview, Hart made it clear that he regards the answer as being intimately bound up with the freedom of His rational creatures:
It may seem somewhat trite to invoke the freedom of creation as part of the works and ends of divine love, or to argue that the highest good of the creature — divinizing union with God in love — requires a realm of “secondary causality” in which the rational wills of God’s creatures are at liberty…
The gospel of the ancient church was always one of rebellion against those principalities and powers — death chief among them — that enslave and torment creation; nowhere does the New Testament rationalize evil or accord it necessity or treat it as part of the necessary fabric of God’s world. All that Christian scripture asserts is that evil cannot defeat God’s purposes or thwart the coming of his kingdom. Divine providence, of course, will always bring about God’s good ends despite — and in a sense through — the evils of this world; but that is not the same thing as saying that evil has a necessary part to play in God’s plans, and that God required evil to bring about the kingdom. As the empty tomb of Christ above all reveals, the verdict of God that rescues and redeems creation also overturns the order of the fallen world, and shatters the powers of historical and natural necessity that the fallen world comprises.
But what about the natural evil in the world, which preceded the dawn of man by hundreds of millions of years? What about earthquakes, tsunamis, forest fires and floods? In a blog article at apologeticsreview.com titled, David Bentley Hart on the problem of evil,
Tim Kelleher Tim Kelleher quotes P. Murray’s explanation that in Hart’s view, Satan and his fallen angels (whom he coyly refers to as “powers” in this 6-minute video) are ultimately behind the terrible natural calamities that befall humans and other creatures, and that God has allowed them to run amok for a while:
He sees this world rather as a place where God has allowed Satan and his powers to run rampant and dominate us (for a time). Thus, there is no “grand purpose” behind suffering – no eternal scheme – and therefore looking for “reasons” and asking “Why?” are pointless. This world is under the control of an evil power and that’s that. Until Satan’s dominion is overthrown, this is what we are going to experience.
In an article for the Wall Street Journal titled, Tremors of Doubt (October 31, 2004), David Hart acknowledges that his Christian belief that much of the cosmos lies under the sway of Satan and his minions is apt to attract ridicule these days, but he defends it as part-and-parcel of the Christian worldview:
The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all. Perhaps no doctrine is more insufferably fabulous to non-Christians than the claim that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe, that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is the shadow of true time, and that the universe languishes in bondage to “powers” and “principalities”–spiritual and terrestrial–alien to God.
I should point out that David Hart himself is a committed evolutionist: indeed, he favorably reviewed Professor Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth several years ago, and (in the same review) ridiculed not only young-earth creationists but also the Intelligent Design movement. Evidently Hart sees no problem in believing in evolution and at the same time believing that natural evil is, to a large degree, the work of Satan and his fallen angels. Whether these two beliefs are consistent I’ll leave for readers to decide.
In a now-famous article titled, Tsunami and Theodicy (First Things, March 2005; reprinted in May 2008), Hart categorically rejects the view (espoused by John Hick) that suffering occurs for some higher purpose. He refers to “the Christian belief in an ancient alienation from God that has wounded creation in its uttermost depths, and reduced cosmic time to a shadowy remnant of the world God intends, and enslaved creation to spiritual and terrestrial powers hostile to God,” and he even praises the Gnostics who ascribed the suffering and death in Nature to an evil Deity rather than attribute it to God: “however ludicrous their beliefs, they at least, when they concluded that suffering and death were essential aspects of the creator’s design, had the good sense to yearn to know a higher God.”
Hart sees the world as a literal battlefield between the forces of good and evil, in which good will ultimately triumph:
I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.
And how, you might be asking, does Hart picture the Devil? In a short, humorous piece titled, A Person You Flee at Parties (First Things, May 2011), he tells us:
Cold, grasping, bleak, graceless, and dull; unctuous, sleek, pitiless, and crass; a pallid vulgarian floating through life on clouds of acrid cologne and trailed by a vanguard of fawning divorce lawyers, the devil is probably eerily similar to Donald Trump—though perhaps just a little nicer.
Q. Is that really a good excuse? Isn’t hart really saying that God is not to blame in allowing pain and suffering because it’s all temporary?
KeithS, in an article over at The Skeptical Zone, titled David B. Hart and the problem of evil (January 1, 2013), criticizes the ethics of Hart’s God:
So in Hart’s bizarre world, we have a God who supposedly hates evil and suffering, yet chooses to permit them — and somehow this is all okay because it’s only temporary. Good will triumph in the end…
What sort of omnipotent and loving God, having already “won the victory”, would fail to end evil and suffering immediately? It makes no sense, and neither does Hart’s argument.
This criticism is somewhat wide of the mark. God permits evil in the cosmos, not because it’s only temporary, but because the possibility of evil is a necessary consequence of making intelligent creatures who possess libertarian freedom.
As for why God doesn’t end suffering immediately, it’s not quite that simple, as I wrote in an online article a few months ago, titled, Why I am a Christian, in which I critiqued the argument from evil on several grounds:
…[T]he argument [from evil] assumes that the only morally significant beings who exist in the cosmos are God and ourselves – i.e. the sentient human and animal life-forms that we see all around us. But that’s a ridiculously narrow view. If there is a God, then He could have made rank upon rank of beings higher than ourselves, whom we know nothing about, because they’re invisible to us. Call them angels or advanced aliens, if you wish: I don’t care. The point I wish to make is that if there is a God, then it’s highly unlikely that we are the greatest beings in creation – which means that when deciding what God should and shouldn’t do, we also need to factor in God’s obligations vis-à-vis these higher intelligences. Why might that ameliorate the problem of evil? Perhaps God assigned certain responsibilities for looking after the lower orders of creation (including ourselves and other sentient animals) to these higher beings. (Think about it. It would be funny if they had absolutely nothing to oversee, wouldn’t it?) And now suppose that some of these intelligences turn out to be either too lazy to continually keep the world’s evils in check, or too inept to do the job properly, or positively evil characters. The world would soon become “unweeded garden” filled with “things rank and gross in nature”, as Hamlet put it. It might look utterly unlike the world God originally planned. So what’s God to do, when He sees the damage that these higher intelligences have wrought, and the suffering His lower creatures (animals and humans) have inherited as a result? Having delegated some responsibilities for overseeing creation to these higher beings, should God intervene at once and fix up the mess they’ve caused? Or should He wait a while?
I conclude that it is not at all obvious that an omnipotent God would have a moral obligation to annihilate evil at the earliest available opportunity. There might be a good reason after all why God allows suffering to continue for the present moment.
Q. What would convince Hart that the God he describes doesn’t exist?
In an article titled, Believe It or Not (First Things, April 2010), Hart hints at an answer, when savaging the New Atheists, whose books he has been reading:
The only points at which the New Atheists seem to invite any serious intellectual engagement are those at which they try to demonstrate that all the traditional metaphysical arguments for the reality of God fail. At least, this should be their most powerful line of critique, and no doubt would be if any of them could demonstrate a respectable understanding of those traditional metaphysical arguments, as well as an ability to refute them. Curiously enough, however, not even the trained philosophers among them seem able to do this. And this is, as far as I can tell, as much a result of indolence as of philosophical ineptitude.
From the foregoing remarks, I conclude that were someone to prove to Hart that his proofs for God’s existence were utterly devoid of merit, he might then be convinced that God doesn’t exist. In the same article, Hart concedes that these proofs are not absolutely watertight, intellectually compelling arguments:
Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such…
The words “may (and perhaps must)” seem to suggest that Hart does not view the proofs for God’s existence as intellectually irresistible, but rather, as the most eminently reasonable way of explaining the cosmos. But then again, very few religious believers have ever claimed that the arguments for God’s existence are as certain as (say) the theorems of logic, and the 1909 Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article on the existence of God, remarks that “[i]t is true of course — and no Theist denies it — that for the proper intellectual appreciation of theistic proofs moral dispositions are required.”
Courageously, Hart accepts the fact that were he to become an atheist, he would have to give up not only belief in God, but also belief in the rationality of the cosmos:
But a true skeptic is also someone who understands that an attitude of critical suspicion is quite different from the glib abandonment of one vision of absolute truth for another—say, fundamentalist Christianity for fundamentalist materialism or something vaguely and inaccurately called “humanism.” Hume, for instance, never traded one dogmatism for another, or one facile certitude for another. He understood how radical were the implications of the skepticism he recommended, and how they struck at the foundations not only of unthinking faith, but of proud rationality as well.
David Hart is thus a theologian who has “thought things through.” He has read the best of what the New Atheism has to offer and found it wanting, and he realizes that the ultimate choice is not between belief in God and belief in some rosy, “the-world-is-getting-better” rational humanism (whose central claim about the world progressing is factually wrong anyway), but between belief in God and nihilistic skepticism, which rejects the possibility of objective knowledge – in other words, no more science – as well as objective morality. It is a pity that Professor Coyne cannot bring himself to face this terrifying fact.