[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0300166842″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/31WLbe1J19L._SL160_.jpg” width=”107″]Page 3: David Bentley Hart – Interview
TE: You have written in the past about the work of Terence Malick, who directed the film The Tree of Life. When I watch that film, along with Malick’s other works, I sense that he is trying to express through that medium something like what you describe in The Experience of God. I’d like to hear some of your thoughts on how film and other cultural expressions might participate in the conversation about that experience, which you describe using the Sanskrit term satchidananda?
DBH: Well, my fundamental conviction is that the arts stand far higher than any other sphere of collective human activity as ways of approaching the fullness of reality. That is a large and potentially vacuous claim, I suppose; but I really do believe that great art is the single most important of cultural accomplishments, if not always necessarily the greatest of personal accomplishments, because it is there that the mysterious boundary between transcendental truth and the particularities of finite material form is at once fruitfully preserved and fruitfully transgressed. Among human labors, great art is the royal path to ever deeper encounters with the mysteries of existence and consciousness and bliss. The modern sciences, for all their marvelous fecundity, still only allow us a limited and—if left to itself—utterly trivial perspective upon physical processes and forces, and we should not confuse the power they accord us over material reality for some sort of comprehensive wisdom regarding reality as such. Philosophy is a noble but ultimately incomplete and inconclusive discipline; it is only when it flowers into a visionary wisdom that, in good Platonic fashion, sees more than it can express that it is rescued from sterile uselessness; when it fails to become a spiritual and aesthetic labor, surrendering its prerogatives to the arts and to spiritual contemplation, it can become something as degradingly barren as Anglo-American analytic philosophy, a silly game with poorly formulated rules, which serves as an excellent tool for avoiding thinking deeply about anything irreducible to crude propositions. Theology accomplishes nothing except when it is written as an act of thoughtful prayer; that, I suppose, is why patristic theology interests me and most modern theology does not. And so on. So, really, the question for me is not how the arts might participate in the conversation about satchidananda, but how other forms of discourse might serve to elucidate the dimension of reality to which the greatest works of art already have a privileged access.
TE: You mention early on in The Experience of God that atheists aren’t alone in their misunderstandings of God; a number of Christians are also profoundly confused about the God they claim to worship. Later, you talk about the significance of contemplative prayer as the most important way in which one can experience the mystery and the power of God. Is this the primary area in which churches could do better at helping their members toward a deeper and richer understanding of what they believe? What other practices or perspectives should the churches attend to?
DBH: I do think that the contemplative dimension is too often neglected by churches and by theologians, yes. But, then again, so are many other things. The truth is that all of us in the West, believers and unbelievers alike, are the heirs of a seventeenth century revision in our general understanding of the nature of creation and therefore of the relation between God and creation. My dislike of the Intelligent Design movement, for instance, is not simply a verdict on the science involved; in fact, some of those involved in the movement may raise very real questions about the adequacy of the neo-Darwinian synthesis as an explanation of evolution, and those who claim that it is all just pseudoscience are often being intellectually dishonest. My real problem with the movement is the disastrously silly picture of the universe and God that one finds lurking between the lines or in the last chapters of their books. ID theorists merely repeat the mechanistic narrative about physical reality and then reinsert an intelligent designer—a deist God—into the picture, one whose role is little more than that of a discrete causal agency among others, making periodic interventions in a reality outside himself. But such a God could be removed from the picture again just as easily, by the rise of another scientific paradigm, and (more to the point) such a God is not the fullness of being that classical theism sees as the logically necessary source and ground and end of all finite things. What we need is the radical recovery of the classical intellectual tradition, with its richer (and I think much more coherent) understanding of physical reality, and with its far more intelligent understanding of divine transcendence. Whether such a recovery is a cultural possibility at the moment is very much an open question.
TE: Finally, I’ll close with a rather conventional question: what are you currently working on?
DBH: A complete translation of the New Testament for Yale University Press, a few other books, and some assorted works of fiction. No apologetics, though. I really think that most debates on “ultimate things” are fruitless, and that there are better things to do with the time we have.
Todd Edmondson is the Senior Pastor at First Christian Church, Erwin, Tennessee, and an adjunct professor at Milligan College in Johnson City, Tennessee. He lives with his wife and three children in Erwin, a great small town surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest. Todd reviewed David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God in our Fall 2013 print issue.