Is God a "Person"? - David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart

David Bentley Hart is an American Orthodox Christian philosophical theologian, cultural commentator and polemicist.

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David Bentley
Hart

Philosophical Theologian, University of Notre Dame

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

David, you talk about what you call monopolytheism, which others have talked about as a theistic personalism in a pejorative manner – friendly, perhaps, but pejorative – and criticizing those, particularly some very distinguished philosophers of religion who claim that God is a person and that to understand God as a person is really to understand the nature of reality. And that is not a trivial attribute of God, but a very fundamental one. You fundamentally disagree with that?

David Bentley Hart:

I don't disagree that God is personal. I disagree with this tradition of thinking about what persons are in classical traditions that say that God is the fullness of all reality, and that everything that exists in the world we experience exists more fully and it's more actual in its truer reality in the essence of God would include personality in that. That God is in fact infinitely personal. More personal than we are, if anything. We're fragmented and isolated instances of personal relation which are never complete. At least in this life. My objection is to those who think of God as a large psychological subjectivity who think that God has to be thought of as somebody who goes through changes of temperament or makes choices or experiences pathos in order to be a person.

But none of the theistic traditions deny the personal nature of God in the most vital sense, which is that God really knows and loves and is related to us. And if you think about it, if you think of personhood as the capacity for relation, well, in us then, personhood is rather imperfectly expressed. Merely being psychological subjects, we also withhold from one another. We can't know one another. We cannot fully give ourselves to one another as we ought, ideally. Ego, psychological, empirical ego is quite often the enemy of personal existence, not its ground. The people who are called theistic personalists by a very distinguished Christian philosopher, Brian Davies, and as you say, I call monopolytheists, have reduced the idea of personality to psychology. To the empirical ego. And I think that's an inadequate notion, not only of God, but of personhood as such.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Here's the fundamental distinguishing fact between the two, the nature of time, because you believe that God is outside of time. That is, timeless. That God sees in this one moment everything from all times, cannot change, therefore. Is that then the fundamental distinguishing aspect between the two kinds of personhood? Because you're saying God is a person, but in this enlarged sense of personhood. I have a sense that the nature of time is the critical distinguishing factor.

David Bentley Hart:

Well, time is one of them, yes. I mean, if God were a temporal being who underwent changes, you could actually say at one moment, one thing in; one moment wont another, then he would be a psychological subject. It's true. And then he would more closely resemble what some of the philosophers you've mentioned think of as a person. Yes. So, time is very – again though, if God is temporal, he's a contingent being, he's a conditioned being, he's not God.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

You're making that very quick relationship, and that's not clear. If God is in time in some sense, God does not have to be contingent. God can be everlasting, God could be –

David Bentley Hart:

But that would not be necessary. I'm sorry. Again, everlastingness as such would be a kind of factual necessity, perhaps. It would just happen to adhere in the nature of this being, that this being doesn't pass away. But I reject that as an adequate notion of necessity for the Divine. That's what Aristotelian – Aristotelian, Thomistic tradition, Imnoceno [ph] would call necessity by way of another thing.

David Bentley Hart:

Which is not really necessity.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Right. What I would call happenstantial necessity, not logical necessity. And I do believe that logical necessity is intrinsic to any proper definition of the Divine. But that said –

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, what's the most –

David Bentley Hart:

You're right. I mean, time is one of the issues.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

What else?

David Bentley Hart:

Passability. The notion that in order – when we react with one another, in order to love one another, we have to be passable. That is, for us, it's as much a passive as an active thing. Quite often, in order to feel sympathy for someone else, you have to feel pain. According to the picture of God that I believe is more coherent, God doesn't require a pathos. His love is the very infinite act of who He is. He loves without the need of the negative, without the need for limitation. We participate in that reality in a finite way, so, it's going to be modally entirely different, or very, very different. And what else? Well, many in the – many of these more recent theistic philosophers you mention believe that God must learn things about us, you know, in order to be properly personal. I don't see how that follows at all. I don't see why His omniscience somehow compromises His personal nature. And so, a lot of these arguments are simply a rather naïve psychologistic picture of what a person is applied on a much larger scale to God. And I don't think – I simply don't think they hold logical water.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, you talk about this absolute being of God being perfect love. Is that a deductive logical necessity, that that be? Why is it that? Why isn't it just some neutrality?

David Bentley Hart:

Well, if you confine yourself to ontology, probably so. But there are other dimensions of experience, of consciousness, bliss, that is a delight in the good, which have also, in all these traditions, been taken vindications of the nature of the absolute. What are the absolute orientations of consciousness? What is it that they crave on a most fundamental level? What is the transcendental logic of human desire and motivation? And when you reduce these to the ends that seem to be common to all acts of will, when you get away from their local motions, so to speak, such as goodness, these tend to be seen as indicative also of the nature of the absolute. And then of course, all these religions claim revelation, too. It would be a lie to say that all of these are simply deductions of reason. Obviously, every theistic tradition believes that God generously reveals.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

It's a whole other category, for sure.

David Bentley Hart:

But in the actual lived experience of these religions, they're not separable. There is the ascent of reason to God and the descent of grace to nature.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Sure. And that makes sense. It's just that that's very difficult to evaluate on a third-person basis. If you feel it, I can't argue with that.

David Bentley Hart:

Right, yeah. Although even dogmatic traditions will make arguments not just from personal feeling but also from certain kinds of historical claim, which then have to be verified in some sense per experience.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

But they all contradict, so I don't want to get involved in that.

David Bentley Hart:

Many contradict, but many don't. But no, it is true. However, again, the definition of God as absolute, remember, isn't confined just to the realm of ontology. There are – it is asserted in all these traditions that there are moral experiences, epistemological experiences, which reveal more about the nature of God, but you don't discuss those under the category of ontology.