“What is in your mind?”~ C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
On some ancient and melancholy eve in Athens, as the pomegranate sun began its ritual descent into the briny old sea of Mediterranean myth, a frail but strong wiry figure, bearing deep fault-lines upon his leathered forehead, climbed the steps of the Areios Pagus, Ares Rock. Here, in that tangerine ambience so peculiar to our star’s golden hour—that brief portent before twilight—he walked among altars to manifold gods when, with subtle pause and twinkling glance, his eye descried an altar engraved: “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” At the time no soul upon that lonely hill, the same hill Phryne’s beauty once outshone the world’s judgement, recognized the figure’s face. He was a mere shadow of a man, a shadow of things yet to come. Hence, initially, he made very little sense to his confused conversants. In hindsight, however, his unusually oracular words upon the rock of war have proven perhaps the most brilliant and influential articulation on the difference between God and the gods in all of history. The man was St. Paul.
Notice that Paul (see Acts 17) calls this unknown God of the philosophers neither idolatrous nor false. In fact, it is only the “known”gods, the purely immanent and finite deities, that Paul claims idolatrous to worship. The unknown God is true in the sense that it cannot be conceived merely as another finite god among gods; it cannot, in other words, be parsed out among the taxonomy of merely finite things nor circumscribed before the gaze of consciousness as either a subjective or objective reality. Rather the unknown God is the pure actuality of reality itself, neither a subjective nor objective phenomena but the very condition of their distinction.
Thus there is no “knowledge,” in the very narrow and modern sense of the word, of the unknown God. And neither does this God have existence in either the ideal or empirical sense of modern philosophy; that is, God is neither a regulatory hypothesis nor an empirical fact, a thing among things. Instead, this God is knowledge and existence itself, that which all finite knowledge and becoming lives and moves and has its being in. As Augustine put it in the Confessions: God is nearer and more intimate to myself than I am to myself while also infinitely beyond and qualitatively other than me. Hence the unknown God is unknown not only because God is qualitatively and absolutely transcendent of all finitude, but unknown precisely because God is so very near and intimately known in our every act of being and our consciousness of it—preventing us from bracketing it out of our experience, since it is the very possibility for experience and knowledge. It is too known to be known.
Indeed, the unknown God that Paul proclaims is known so well that we have all forgotten his most penetrating activity in all our experience. This characteristic—God’s infinite, unknowable mystery, and his infinite nearness to our each and every breath—accounts for both the feeling of his utter absence in one moment and his ever-present nearness in another. It is this double experience of God-forsakeness and presence that, according to Paul, opens the interval of creaturely freedom and divine providence so that we may freely seek the Lord, feel after him, and find him. Whether in dereliction or despair, or in the ecstasy and presence of his love—in either our atheism or in our faith—we inevitably, necessarily, experience the unknown God.
Philosophical introduction aside, Paul knew that any future articulation of Christ to the world would ultimately prove futile if first he did not speak of the unknown God. For Christ is the image and logic of the perfect harmony between infinite transcendence and infinite nearness, so unknown as to be fully God and so deeply known as to be the very face of our neighbor, the poor, the prostituted. Christ awakens the slumbering, unknown divine presence and spirit that sleeps in each man, each woman—as Terrence Malick so beautifully put it in To the Wonder. Christ, in other words, is the concrete experience of God in each and every act of humanity’s being, consciousness, and bliss. As Christian Wiman’s beautiful Into the Instant’s Bliss goes (a loose translation of a portion of Dante’s Paradiso):
Into the instant’s bliss never came one soul
Whose soul was not possessed by Christ,
Even in the eons Christ was not.
And still: some who cry the name of Christ
Live more remote from love
Than some who cry to the void they cannot name.
While David Bentley Hart’s newest book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, is not to be taken as an explicit work of Christology, it is a robust and stylistically scintillating footnote to St. Paul on the Areopagus; a paean to “the void they cannot name”, the experience of God that is—to borrow from Hopkin’s As Kingfishers Catch Fire—“Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.” Hart writes,
“Evidence for or against God, if it is there, saturates every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us.
Throughout the book Hart weaves in and out of the concepts of God articulated in the major religions of the world, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. All of these traditions, Hart maintains, have an altar to the unknown God. Unfortunately, at least if one pays attention to the modern debates among fundamentalists of various stripes (including the new atheists), the traditional concept of God has been nearly forgotten. The result has been a circus of seemingly willful misunderstandings by all parties. All the while the really significant question of God is completely evaded by puerile caricatures of a subject that ought to demand our deepest reflections.
Much of the reason moderns can no longer take the question of God seriously is that we can no longer take the question of ourselves seriously.
Much of the reason moderns can no longer take the question of God seriously is that we can no longer take the question of ourselves seriously. Materialism’s arbitrary mantra of “just matter” blinds us to those strange epiphanies felt at the simple glimpse of our reflection in a mirror. Those moments when we realize that fairies and gods and monsters are no more difficult to believe in than the imaginations and consciousnesses that have invented them; the same imaginations, by the way, that have invented the mythology and criteria of what we consider to be “just matter.” Perhaps at times we even create these fabulously imaginary creatures—such as Materialists or Atheists—to evade the mystery of the most fabulous and imaginary creatures of all: ourselves. Or perhaps the greater truth is that we create, and are created by, mysterious mythologies as ways to remember the most splendorous mystery of all: the drama of human experience. The mirroring of being to consciousness and consciousness to being, the pas de deux of all human experience, is no longer intimately aware of its own abiding unities, abysses and mysteries. It is the contemporary oubliettes of being and consciousness, both guarded and imprisoned by the watchful dragons of a banal materialism, that Hart seeks to lead us beyond.
In those moments when we are most attuned and awake to the world, we become (as Wittgenstein liked to say) like the child who scribbles on a page with a pencil and turns to an adult and asks: What does this mean? The child intuitively presupposes the unity of being and consciousness. The child understands that all acts of consciousness are acts of intention in an infinite ocean of both actual and potential meaning. The scribbles and words are certainly not the same, but the child rightly sees the world as having a meaning to disclose; that even if aspects of the world may seem unintelligible, such a verdict can be reached only by assuming a more primordial backdrop of intelligibility manifest in the native ligature of being and consciousness.
The world, in its being perceived as a coherent world at all, is always and already intelligible and pregnant with a telos—even if that telos escapes one’s determinate knowledge of it.
The world, in its being perceived as a coherent world at all, is always and already intelligible and pregnant with a telos—even if that telos escapes one’s determinate knowledge of it. And so the child, when she looks at the world, assumes that she also sees with a world. Hart asks us: What is the nature of the world we see with? And does this world dance upon the threshold of time and eternity, opening upon horizons unfathomably infinite and blossoming within labyrinths of our everyday experience? The modern adult, intoxicated with the alchemy of turning signs into blind objects for manipulation, has forsaken the child’s ontology of art and replaced it with the banal egoisms of epistemological constructivism, relativism, and materialism. Thus Hart writes:
“I start from the conviction that many of the most important things we know are things we know before we can speak them; indeed, we know them—though with very little in the way of concepts to make them intelligible to us—even as children, and see them with the greatest immediacy when we look at them with the eyes of innocence.”
There are, Hart seems to say, harmonious penetralia structuring our conscious experience, myriad thresholds where familiar forms of both the material and psychical relations of our world cease to hold (as George MacDonald’s Lilith put it), forms shifting and turning inside-out our normal criteria of inside and out, giving glimpses into the infinite penumbra that is neither strictly material nor psychical but the conditional interval making possible consciousness’s distinction between the two at all. These conditions, however, cannot be known in and by themselves, they are like a face that never looks into a mirror, is never able to gain the distance detached observation requires. Regardless of how hard one tries to create that distance through self-conscious reflection, one is always departing from that same unknown abyss—the window of experience that can only look out but never in. And so we are tempted to disbelieve the face exists because we can never rip out our eyes and look upon it as a scientific object; or maybe we are simply frightened that behind the veiled abyss our consciousness departs from rests a Face not wholly our own. A Face untamable.
It may seem as if I’m painting Hart as what has traditionally been termed a philosophical idealist. But this would be far too easy and naive a label. For example, Jane Smiley, in her review of Hart’s book in Harper’s, seems to interpret Hart as pitting matter against consciousness, accusing Hart of playing the God-of-the-gaps card in light of neuroscience’s current inability to explain consciousness:
“He [Hart] seems to believe consciousness is his ace in the hole—unexplainable by neuroscience. Subjectivity, he states, ‘cannot be denied without a swift descent into nonsense.’ I was reminded repeatedly of Werner Loewenstein’s Physics of the Mind, a persuasive model of how consciousness might have evolved in the quantum universe and a powerful argument against Hart’s assertion that ‘materialists’ cannot explain what he calls ‘subjective awareness.’
Dishearteningly, this isn’t the only hackneyed misapprehension Smiley peddles; nearly the entire review is an experiment in missing the point, a smorgasbord of confused concepts and inattention to subtleties and distinctions. The problem arises from the apparent fact that Smiley is a member of a certain community where doctrinal commitment to only one modality of causality—namely material—is a central and inflexible dogmatic article of faith; and therefore she can only conceive of one kind of explanation: the material. Once this article of faith has been accepted as the only criteria needed for explanation, and once material explanation has been presumed to be the only explanation required to fulfill the concept of explanation, well then, one has essentially a materialism-of-the-gaps: all evidence—subjective or objective—will be cleverly formed to fit within the structure of the reigning ideology.
Over a period of time this way of seeing things solidifies into an obstinate fossil and one becomes incapable of imagining the world otherwise. Its effect is akin to the fate of the concept of color should ever some calamitous biological mutation occur which entirely wiped out the human specie’s visual capabilities to recognize color, becoming capable of seeing only in black and white from here on out. As the generations waned, fierce debate would spawn about the legitimacy of those naive and mystical and irrational ancients who invented colors like they invented fairy tales and the supernatural.
Perhaps it’s even fair to say that Richard Dawkins would heroically step to the fore in such a world and write The Blue Delusion in response to William Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Enquiry. And the “blue” in Shakespeare’s “The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight. Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh…” would be interpreted as some kind of outdated and unscientific and supernatural imputation on light. And whenever some poor irrational soul hinted at an experience of what he or she calls “blue,” or any other mysterious name for “color,” society would hiss and howl with charges of insanity. And then, in the twilight of a rational world, belief in color would be deemed culturally malign—a virus of the mind—a dangerous and inarticulate idea. Perusals of ancient literature would divulge myriad combinations of “red” with “bloody” and “blue” with “melancholy”, which would lead the a-colorists to the belief that “red” and “blue” cause violence and oppressive sadness. The analogy I’m trying to make, however imperfect, is that other modes of causality—such as Aristotle’s—have by no means been disproven by modern science, rather they’ve simply been forgotten, and, therefore, lost and foreign to our current conceptual grammar of experience.
Hart’s arguments and aperçu throughout his book are very much akin to Wittgenstein’s comment in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that “even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.”
Hart’s arguments and aperçu throughout his book are very much akin to Wittgenstein’s comment in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that“even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.” That is, just because some phenomena, such as subjective awareness, can be shown to be causally dependent in one mode and conception of causality—namely material—doesn’t logically entail that it is dependent in all other possible modes of causality as well. Unless one merely assumes, contrary to all experience, that there is only one mode of causality in the world. For example, Bach’s Goldberg Variations are certainly dependent upon the physics of sound and space and so on…but explaining the physics explains absolutely nothing about the intentionality—the subjective awareness itself—that actually created this masterpiece. And this is not because intentionality is any less real than the decidedly material, but perhaps because it is the very fulcrum our experience rests upon. This is why the age old skeptical question, “Can our minds know reality?,” is a kind of bewitchment. The question always and already assumes the affirmative. We simply assume that we would know what reality should and would look like if we so happened to stumble upon it, if we didn’t assume intentionality’s natural comportment to reality the question would be utterly meaningless.
The category and criteria of the real must be just as real as that which is said to fall within the criteria’s domain; and the seat of these criteria—its origin in our experience of existence—is in intentionality, the directedness of subjective awareness. Our subjective awareness itself can never merely be an object open for scientific investigation, rather it is the condition for our being able to investigate anything at all, scientific or otherwise. Let me purloin from Wittgenstein (if only to show that Hart is in a long line of great thinkers) again to illuminate the nature of intentional consciousness that Hart explores.
“Why can’t you be certain that someone is not pretending? — ‘because one cannot look into him.’— But if you could, what would you see there? —‘his secret thoughts.’ — But if he only utters them in Chinese — where do you look then? — ‘But I cannot be certain that he is uttering them truthfully!’ — But where do you have to look to find out whether he is uttering them truthfully? Even if I were now to hear everything that he is saying to himself, I would know as little what his words were referring to as if I read one sentence in the middle of a story. Even if I knew everything now going on within him, I still wouldn’t know, for example, to whom the names and images in his thought related…It’s only in particular cases that the inner is hidden from me, and in those cases it is not hidden because it is inner.”
Smiley seems to think that what Hart means by consciousness—his “ace in the hole”—is merely “inner”, and therefore hidden, in the sense of being tentatively resistant to scientific explanation because, like some mysterious subatomic particle, science has yet to gain access into its hidden and inner material depths. She doesn’t understand that consciousness’s intentionality is not hidden merely because it is inner in some spatio-temporal sense, but qualitatively different and hidden from anything science could ever possibly hope to explain.
The germination of our entire experience of existence arises from the soil of human intentionality, the soil wherein reality is primordially given, recollected and transformed. Hart is not far here from articulating what is meant in Soren Kierkegaaard’s metaphysics by “repetition”: “When ideality and reality touch each other, then repetition occurs.” Instead of the terms “ideality” and “reality” (which are somewhat misleading) Hart uses “consciousness” and “being.” Being is manifested through its repetition in consciousness, consciousness manifested through its repetition in being; the double movement of each into the other constitutes the event of their unity, the movement of intentionally.
Hart eloquently writes that,
“Being is transparent to mind; mind transparent to being; each is ‘fitted’ to the other, open to the other, at once containing and contained by the other. Each the mysterious glass in which the other shines, revealed not in itself but only in reflecting and being reflected by the other.”
All that Hart is saying is that when the major religions talk about the experience of God they mean something like the experience of the Real mentioned above, a necessary attunement to the very condition and possibility of any experience of existence at all. As the great Italian writer, Roberto Calasso, said in a Paris Review interview: “…we partake of something, which is the divine. The divine is that mysterious thing that you can totally ignore or that can more or less lead your life—what Plato called auto to theion. The gods come afterward.”
Years later, after stepping forth from the philosopher’s hill, Paul, with weary eyes and starved body, languishing in a Roman prison, wrote affectionately to his friends in Ephesus: “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” Prefacing each of the three parts of Hart’s book is the on-going story of a slumberer caught in the serpentine interims between sleeping and waking, illusion and reality. Its quality is Jorge Luis Borges meets St. Paul. At the moment, I’m at a loss for the right words to do it justice, so I’m going to pawn the task off to an old friend that Hart has written about elsewhere, Johann Georg Hamann (see Hart’s wonderful little essay The Laughter of the Philosophers):
“A man who lives in God stands, therefore, in the same relation to the ‘natural man’ as a waking man does to one who is snoring in a profound slumber—to a dreamer, a sleep walker…. A dreamer may have images more vivid than a man who is awake, may see more, hear and think more than he, may be conscious of himself, dream with more orderliness than a waking man thinks, may be the creator of new objects, of great events. Everything is true for him, and yet everything an illusion…. The question is whether it might in any way be possible for a waking man to convince a sleeper (so long as he sleeps) of the fact that he is asleep. No—even if God Himself would speak to him, He is obliged to dispatch in advance the authoritative word and bring it to pass: Awake, thou that sleepest!”
Between the sleeper and the awake, illusion and reality, — the interval that determines and differentiates one state of consciousness from another — lay the threshold of will and desire, the soul’s horizon: the place from which we chose the direction of our experience within experience, the route and root of our intentionality. Will we attend only to the oneiric objects of a fettered consciousness, the solitary prison of an illusory trick-of-the-light ego, the votary of the dreamy and dreary gods of materialism? Or should we attend to attending itself (with its infinite manifolds of act and potency), swim consciousness’s undercurrents, open and curious and honest to whatever may be discovered there, even if the nature of that discovery should happen to descry the surprise that in and beyond every act of our discovering we have always and already been discovered in the infinite, resounding song: “Awake, thou that sleepest”?
Featured image: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Phryne revealed before the Areopagus (1861)