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Hart’s Notion of Contemplative Prayer Concerning External Truths and the Nature of Desire

I take issue with David Bentley Hart’s claim in his book, The Experience of God, that contemplative prayer “require[s] one to enter into the depths of the self, into one’s own ‘heart,’ and here the final state that one seeks is nothing less than a union in love and knowledge with God.”[1] I do not believe that we can find God by sinking deeper into ourselves. It seems especially clear to me as well that contemplative prayer is a way of inwardly dwelling on truth that is external to our own minds. Essentially, I reject the notion that we must be willing to venture deep into ourselves to find God.. Hart’s overall project seeks to explain the experience of God in a trinitarian structure of being, consciousness, and bliss. After addressing these three concepts in regards to what it means for how we relate to and unity ourselves with God, he argues that prayer is the way we can empirically experience God.  Further, a concept that runs through a good deal of David Hart’s chapter on “Illusion and Reality” is – to borrow Karl Barth’s language -that we must search for God where he claims he can be found. Hart makes the claim that “one cannot meaningfully consider, much less investigate, the reality of God except in a manner appropriate to the kind of reality God has traditionally been understood to be.”[2] Believing contemplation to be a kind of “empirical” way of investigating the nature of the divine, Hart posits that until one has faithfully attempted the practice of contemplative prayer, one does not have sufficient grounds  to coherently deny the existence of a deity.  Contemplative prayer ought not to be used as an “‘empirical’ demonstration”[3] to argue in favor of classical theism “if one is left unsatisfied by the logical arguments for belief in God.”[4] So, essentially, this paper will seek to enumerate why God is to be found outside of ourselves and why contemplative prayer is properly understood to be a gift and not to be used as a means.

Before addressing the idea that we can venture into ourselves to find the truth about God, I must address a personal confusion with the text. Hart references the idea that the self becomes transparent before God and calls it one of the “necessary phases in the refinement of one’s experience of reality into a habitual transparency of the mind and will before the ‘rational light’ that fills all things.”[5] I am increasingly dissatisfied with the idea of transparency of the self in relation to God. We do not understand anything by its being transparent. We understand things by their opacity, by its having a form that is other than the self.  Many of the mystics describe their spiritual experiences as being flooded with light and warmth. Some have taken this to mean that the self literally dissolved, or perhaps was subsumed, into the Godhead, so that the self truly no longer existed—little ‘b’ being becoming one with big “B” Being. He goes on to say that one must leave the realm of normal consciousness and be “transcended if one is to achieve the immeasurably fuller and more permanent delight of mystical union with God.”[6] Certain kinds of understanding are products of grace—for instance, it takes something like Kierkegaard’s notion of the condition for us to be able to rest in the tension of certain paradoxes; this means that without the grace of God, we will not be able to have the disposition necessary to understand certain things (i.e. all knowledge is a gift)—but, the idea that the self must lose all opacity in order for God to enter in is something deeply misguided. The Gospels tell us to cast off our wicked desires (the old self) but not to actually stop being ourselves; we are meant to be perfected in ourselves, not lost in transparency or absorption into something like the Godhead. And, beyond this personal misgiving, I am unsure as to how one can delve deep into a self that is no longer distinct in front of God. This seems impossible, actually. If God is to be found “nowhere but where he resides in you”[7]

Hart appears offers his reader a clearer picture when he says “the journey toward him [God] must also ultimately be a journey toward the deepest source of the self.”[8]Hart claims, towards the beginning of The Experience of God, that it is only through God that we find and have our being. However, this does not mean that the self must be absorbed in order to enter into a kind of fullness of being. We do not need to lose our ‘selves’ in order to be united to God or find our being in Him.

Perhaps the temptation to make this leap comes from Hart’s emphasis on consciousness. If consciousness and being are the primary ways in which one  see God, then it is reasonable that in order to be unified with him in prayer, one might actually need to become a part of the one consciousness that is God, which notably is largely disembodied. But, if we claim that God is primarily love, then an object of the love is needed. The trinity exists in constant relation of love loving love—so for us to enter into that unity, it might look different than losing the self inside of some greater form of consciousness. Hart writes, “As the source, ground, and end of being and consciousness, God can be known as God only insofar as the mind rises from beings to being, and withdraws from the objects of consciousness toward the wellsprings of consciousness itself, and learns to see nature not as a closed system of material forces but in light of those ultimate ends that open the mind and being each to the other.”[9] If the mind is our primary mode of being, then surely we would relate to him most sufficiently in an intellectual capacity, and transparency would even be a virtue. The primary mode would become disembodied consciousness, essentially.

But, if love, not being or consciousness, were the highest attainable goal in unity with God, as opposed to a by-product of unity of consciousness, then maybe the goal would look more like a personal relationship. This is primarily why I am skeptical of a mystical experience, or form of contemplation, that seeks to delve into the self to find God.. This is not how we get to know other people. Other people are outside us. If you want to get to know your co-worker, you should talk to her. You ought not look inside yourself to know her better.

On the contrary, we must open ourselves up to the truth of the Gospel that is living outside of us, which can penetrate our depths and begin to form us into better versions of ourselves. But, it is imperative that we see the truth outside of ourselves first. Then, and only then, can we dwell on it. When we see truth primarily as something external Hart’s notion of communion makes sense: “One is seeking an ever deeper communion with a reality that at once exceeds and underlies all other experiences…one is placed in the presence of God in every moment, and can find him even in the depths of the mind’s own act of seeking.”[10] Yes, we are seeking communion with a deeper reality—but one that is not dwelling inside of us! It is once one recognizes this that the self can exist before God, again a Kierkegaardian notion, and the truth penetrates our own minds. But, it starts outside the self.

Further, contemplative prayer is not a tool to be used to combat atheism. Granted, Hart’s point was that before someone rejects theism completely, she ought to seriously engage in spiritual practices that offer deeper insight into the divine. But, the way he talks about it as a kind of empirical study of the mysteries of the divine is rhetorically concerning. I am simply not sure that one can truly contemplate something one does not love. Further, if contemplative prayer allows you to see reality in a new, clearer light, then surely it is because of the nature of the things you are contemplating. But, what if the one praying has no understanding of the thing in which he is contemplating? Is he simply meant to sit and consider the nature of being? Truly, I am not sure what this even means. Perhaps my reading is uncharitable, and Hart means that one ought to develop a careful attentiveness to what is real around you. Surely, he says that contemplative prayer does not have to take the form of intense spiritual experience, but “consists in little more than cultivating certain habits of thought, certain ways of seeing reality, certain acts of openness to a grace that one cannot presume but that has already been granted, in some very substantial measure, in the mere givenness of existence.”[11] So, the contemplator needs only open himself up to the realities that are given before him, and, Hart believes, the nature of the divine will become apparent to him. For, he writes, “atheism may really be only a failure to see something very obvious.”[12]However, it is unclear how this process would work if one did not already love the nature of things.

It seems to me that a certain amount of desire to know or desire to unite oneself with that which is being contemplated needs to be accounted for when dealing with spiritual experience. It is unclear why Hart seems to think that one who denounced the existence of the divine would be open to recognizing the givenness of things by just entering into the practice of contemplative prayer. It seems that that would be included in the denunciation of the telos of things given by a creator. Contemplative prayer is a practice that ought to come after the recognition that there is something beautiful worth contemplating, that is animated by a kind of desire driven by love. So, quite practically speaking, I do not understand what it would mean for a person who denies the existence of the divine to seriously contemplate the nature of things. On this point, I have two concerns.

First, Hart’s picture of contemplative prayer does not sufficiently include love. I mentioned this earlier, but I would like to be more specific. This kind of prayer is not a ‘cure-all’ that should be used to find clarity when it is lacking, though surely that might happen. When something is beautiful we desire to unite ourselves to it in every way possible. I find it almost impossible to look at certain paintings without longing to touch and embrace the scene. This is the picture I find most helpful when considering something like contemplative prayer. We focus our attention on what we find most beautiful, because we love it, and want to unite ourselves to it. Again, I take issue with Hart’s emphasis on consciousness—I do not want to love the great consciousness, or really even form of being for that matter. I want to love a person. This is why Julian of Norwich emphasizes so strongly the sovereignty of love over being in her visionary texts.

Second, for most of us, contemplative prayer is not something that should be done in a vacuum. We do not find God by ourselves. Now, I do not mean this to say that God does enter into our loneliness, but the way in which we encounter God most fully is not by searching ourselves, but by being with other people—something oddly not divorced from the act of contemplative prayer. I am reminded of Murdoch’s notion of paying attention that Gregory Fruehwirth writes about in reference to contemplative prayer in his book Words for Silence, “Love is at the center of this process of becoming aware and letting go…None of us makes the journey to God alone. We all need a community to support us in our growth toward awareness and in our practice of ever-deepening surrender and discovery of our true selves in God.”[13] Even Julian, a practicer of contemplative prayer and an anchoress, did not practice this alone. She spoke to others and engaged in discursive reasoning–this had to have had an impact on her theological beliefs. THis is especially considering the fact that Julian was so often praying for her fellow Christians. For her, the Christian road of understanding and love is never one that is walked alone.

We ought not look inside to find what is true about God. No one gets to know anyone by doing that. We find the truth external to us, and then we can absorb it and contemplate it inwardly. Further, contemplative prayer is not our weapon to help us combat atheism. It is a practice that springs forth from an already existing love and desire of what is beautiful and good.  God can work through all things, and I do not mean to deny that, but our aim in using contemplative prayer must not be to prescribe a way of fixing what is so “obviously” wrong with the atheistic framework.



[3] IBID, 327.
[4] IBID.
[5] IBID, 322.
[6] IBID, 323.
[7] IBID, 324.
[8] IBID.
[9] IBID, 321.
[10] IBID, 320-321.
[11] IBID, 321-322.
[12] IBID, 328.