Our neighbor James Croft at Temple of the Future is doing us all a great service. He’s doing a chapter-by-chapter review of David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.
Hart is entering the atheist-Christian debate in a very Liberal Christian way. Judging from other reviews, it seems like Hart is attempting to argue that non-theism – a belief in a non-personal God – is the real form of religion that atheists should be grappling with.
I think of this as capital “L” Liberal Christianity. As opposed to people like Rachel Held Evans or Fred Clark, who are Christians who happen to be liberal. This is what I tried to wrap my head around during the years I was a big fan of John Shelby Spong.
Croft has already found a problem that I frequently have with Liberal Christians:
[Hart] is rather disingenuous in his claim, in the book and in radio interviews, that if you speak with the average believer in God they will likely give a definition very similar to what he terms “God”: transcendent, fount of all being, etc. While this may be true, if you probe such believers a little further (as many polls do), you find that in addition to defining God as transcendent they also will speak of God as immanent – as a part of everyday reality, changing things, doing things, etc. In other words I think it fair to say that many believers probably have some hybrid conception of “God” which combines elements of what Hart terms “God” and “gods” – and this, strictly speaking, is totally incoherent if you take Hart’s argument seriously.
Similarly, reading the works of popular apologists (including theologically well-read ones like William Lane Craig), it is not clear at all that they share Hart’s definition of “God”. Craig, for instance, frequently writes as if God is a part of the universe, speaking with people, “sending” people to different places, casting judgments – doing all sorts of “gods-like” things (his famous defense of the slaughter of the Canaanites is a good example)! Reading much popular apologetics is like reading a defense of what Hart calls a “demiurge”, mixed in with philosophical ruminations more akin to Hart’s preferred method of getting at “God”.
Liberal Christianity is an elite religion, as opposed to a folk religion. These are terms we usually use to describe pre-modern religion, but I think they apply here as well. As Croft point out, the Liberal view of God as the “ground of all being” is conceptually challenging. Most people who delve into this tradition need to have a solid grounding in philosophy and theology. They also have the time and resources to read and contemplate the various Liberal Christians who are trying to explain this new theology.
It’s not surprising that most of the prominent Liberal Christians are either priests (Spong), academics of religion (Hart) or someone else who works in the field of religion (ex-nun turned religion journalist Karen Armstrong). Most people do not have the education necessary to enter into the theology, nor the time and resources to gain that somewhat impractical education. This creates a gap between the Liberal Christians and the mainstream Christians.
This isn’t a criticism. But it does make it frustrating when folks like Hart seem to want to focus on the New Atheists while ignoring the majority of Americans who profess belief in miracles, angels, eternal hell and other manifestations of the theistic Christian God.
And as Croft points out, there’s frequently a feeling of disingenuous-ness that comes off of Liberals who want to pose as part of the majority while undercutting majority beliefs.