David Bentley Hart: Art, God and Reality

When asked in an interview about the work of Terence Malick (whose work he had previously written favourably about), and the ways in which it might be possible for film to open up new ways for people to experience and talk about God, David Bentley Hart responded with an answer that went beyond the question, addressing the wider issue of how it is that art in general facilitates ways of knowing and understanding the divine that philosophy, systematic theology and the empirical sciences cannot. Hart does not deny the effectiveness of these disciplines, but does point to their limitations.

Furthermore, he draws attention to the way in which the arts engage the whole person with the essential mystery that always underpins and characterises the search for the divine; a mystery which proceeds from the necessary interaction between the particular and the universal, the transcendent and the mundane, which that particular search involves. In doing so he raises some very important points about how it is we know, and which ways of knowing we have cut ourselves off from:

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 labours, 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 marvellous 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 labour, 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.

Source here.

Scientific knowledge is, though very useful, not only limited in scope, dealing with material processes under constrained conditions, but when removed from a context of ultimate meaning, provides us with information that has little significance. Philosophy touches more upon matters that concern us as people (as opposed to lumps of matter), but when disconnected from any commitment to the things that are of ultimate concern (i.e.; the True, the Good and the Beautiful) it becomes, as Hart puts it, ‘a silly game with poorly formulated rules’. Finally theology, to stop itself from suffering a similar fate, must always remain rooted in the experiential, contemplative search for God that sees Him as the living, loving ground of Being and goal of our true happiness.

The way in which the arts can recall us to these truths, and remind us of what the aforementioned disciplines are in essence, have become, can be again, and can never be, is by engaging those very spiritual/aesthetic faculties which the modern ways of knowing we have developed do not allow access to. Fundamentally, our epistemologies are all firmly planted in a worldview that is limited, materialistic, and thoroughly disengaged from the reality of life as it is actually experienced. We still very much intuit those aspects of living and knowing which point towards transcendence, but the worldview we have become accustomed to inhabit prevents us from paying these intuitions any attention – paradoxically, that which is experientially most real for us is ruled out from the start, and we have been habituated to reject them as not being what reality is ‘all about’.

Experience and enjoyment of the arts, in their higher forms, summon forth that part of ourselves which simply engages with the subject before us and the moment we are experiencing, and thus disallows any of the formal and sterile dissection of reality that contemporary philosophical disciplines would reduce life to, as well as garnering us with an instinctive impression that our lives cannot be reduced to the material. After watching a particularly enthralling film or listening to a rapturous piece of music, we may well go back to explaining those experiences in materialist terms – it was ‘just’ the firing of neurons, or the alteration of chemical equilibria in my brain. But during the experience itself we are, almost against our will, divested of these prejudices and know in that moment that we are interacting with something that goes beyond those categories.

Continual exposure to these kinds of experience can serve to render materialist and anti-objective commitments more and more unreal. This does not of course mean that more good art will cure us of our inborn cultural materialism, but it will certainly make it easier for others to make the case against it as the committed materialists amongst us find it harder and harder to reconcile theory with reality. Moreover – and this is Hart’s conclusion – a critical but creative engagement of philosophers and theologians with the arts really can provide access for those schools of thought to a wider scope of reality, and can thus serve to not only enrich their disciplines but give much wider cause for concern amongst those committed to the materialist or anti-objective project.

Given that the worldview that is so influential in our culture had its beginnings in the academy, its antidote can and probably will have its beginnings there as well. But the formulation of this antidote must come from philosophers and theologians engaging more closely with actual experience, particularly that of the enjoyment of the arts. Such a critical engagement will then be able to flow back into the world of the empirical sciences, whose method will not change but whose context will be altered – after all, there is nothing about science itself that is inherently atheistic, and it can continue to thrive within a more generous and capacious view of reality, whilst recognising its limitations and serving the ends of Truth and Goodness.

The reasons that philosophical materialism enjoys such popularity today are linked to a particular view of liberty – we revere a radical autonomy which does not tolerate restrictions or boundaries, and Truth and Goodness represent such restrictions. But this comes at a cost, which is that, apart from an increasing rejection of personal responsibility, we have become more and more disconnected from our actual lived experience. We have lost contact with reality, and are suffering a correspondent sense of dislocation – the feelings of homelessness and incompleteness that are already part of being human have become intensified and transformed into fear, bewilderment and despair. The kind of engagement with and reflection on the arts that David Bentley Hart suggests will not cure us of this overnight, but it is certainly a good place to start.



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