Some years ago I made my way (slowly) through David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Inifinite. In the now legendary words of one of our Honours students, "This is a hard book". The student received the not too unsympathetic and the now equally legendary reply by the lecturer, "This is an Honours course!". That exchange still echoes year on year, in the collaborative and interactive conversations that take place as the preferred form of learning and teaching in our College.
The Beauty of the Infinite ranks with several other theological books I read through with an experience similar to a middle aged man starting on a fitness regime and not liking the hard work of the gym circuit, liking even less getting up early to keep the discipline of the daily jog and fighting against his badly educated neurotransmitters to lose the taste for junk food and chocolate! The benefits are not immediate, but they are life enhancing, intellectually renewing, they make for a healthier mind, and they open up horizons which previously could only be viewed from afar, or puffed towards, with a stitch in the side, and no guaranteee I'd ever get there.
Other hard books have a similar weight, importance and carry the same intellectual health benefits. Eberhard Jungel's God and the Mystery of the World; Kevin Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine and Is There a Meaning in the Text; Von Balthasar's Mysterium Paschale; Barth's Church Dogmatics Vol II.1 and 2; Pannenberg's Systematic Theology, each of the three volumes a whole year's training circuit!
But then there are other kinds of 'hard books', not because they are intellectually demanding, loaded with complex concepts, rooted in disciplined philosophical and theological traditions, but because they demand the full attention of intellect, affection, conscience and personal responsiveness. These are not better than intellectually demanding books, they are different in the demands they make, but the aim is the same. They seek a similar response of self-giving to the task of faith seeking understanding, and mind and heart learning and living towards a deeper, clearer, more humble vision of the love of God.
My conversations with such books have included Moltmann's The Trinity and the Kingdom of God; Vanstone's Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense; The Rule of St Benedict; Julian of Norwich's Revelations; George Herbert's The Temple; Belden Lane's The Solace of Fierce Landscapes; the Poetry of R S Thomas, Denise Levertov, Mary Oliver and Seamus Heaney; Catherine Lacugna's God for Us; Walter Brueggemann's Old Testament Theology; the novels of Chaim Potok; Merton's No Man is an Island and Seeds of Contemplation.
All of which brings me back to David Bentley Hart, and his latest book. The Experience of God. Being, Consciousness, Bliss, (Yale University Press, 2013). Along with Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith and Revolution, Hart's new volume is one of the most telling and serious riposte's to the intellectual deficits (by the way I miss-typed that word as deificits - is that a neologism for such rationally deficient atheism?) - anyway, Hart's riposte to the intellectual deficits and atheological naivete of the new atheist polemics against God, religion and faith as a way of knowing.
Hart's aim is quite simple, and quite ambitious - he offers an exploration of the concept "God" as the word and concept function within the great theistic faiths of the world. In doing this it becomes clear that what the new atheists so passionately hate, dismiss, deconstruct, fear and fight, is a concept of God unrecognisable by the people and traditions which can be named in any meaningful way as theistic. So this book is an attempt at explicating the conception of God in Christian and other theistic faith traditions, but articulated by a Christian who neither dismisses the authentic traditions of theistic faith, nor cedes to the new atheists the freedom to define the word "God" in terms that suit conclusions, presuppositions and prejudices already in place in such writers' world view.
Starting from next Monday I'll do a series of posts on Hart's chapters (there are 6 of them). .