Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

God, Evidence and the Will

Thomas Nagel, an atheist philosopher at New York University said something very revealing in his book The Last Word:

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that (Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), 130-131.

Nagel seems to be speaking for many when he reveals what the root problem is—an unwillingness to acknowledge God’s lordship in his life. Note too how Nagel admits that a lot of smart people he knows are believers, which makes him very uncomfortable.

Let me mention another book that addresses the will in relationship to God and the available evidence. Christian philosopher Paul Moser’s book The Elusive God (Cambridge University Press), or from his 2008 EPS plenary paper, directs us to the need to consider the role of the will and “perfectly authoritative purposively available evidence” from God. Moser, with whom I have had the pleasure of co-editing The Rationality of Theism (Routledge) has been writing for some time on the dangers of cognitive idolatry and mere “spectator evidence” for God that fails to engage the will. We can easily treat discussions about God with non-believers as mere armchair theorizing rather than a topic of potentially life-altering significance. Notice the priority of the will in Jesus’ words in John 7:17: “Whoever chooses to do his will shall know whether my teaching is from God or whether I speak on my own.”

Sometime ago I spoke at an open forum at the University of South Carolina on “God’s Existence and Why It Matters.” Below is a list of questions I raised at the beginning of my talk. I spoke of evidence, but I also addressed the topic of human need for outside assistance (“grace”) and that God has taken initiative in the person of Jesus to identify with us in our broken human condition and to bring us into a filial relationship with God. In my talk, I pointed out the deep interconnection of God, the will, and evidence. Here are some of the questions I raised to start the conversation:

  • Could it be that I am looking at the evidence for God in the wrong way—like the duck-rabbit scenario? Perhaps God seems hidden from humans because we aren’t paying attention or because we don’t want God’s authority “interfering” with our lives or because we’ve determined the height of the bar over which God must “jump”?
  • If a good God exists, what would God’s goals be? If God exists, what does God have to do with me?
  • If a good, perfectly authoritative God exists, am I willing to acknowledge my unworthiness to receive this God’s grace? Do I make demands of God (“if God exists, then he ought to put on a display of divine pyrotechnics”) rather than ask, “What demands does God have on me?
  • Do I have a right to demand evidence of God if I am unwilling to go undergo personal transformation?
  • Am I open to evidence for God in whatever form it comes—or do I insist that evidence must be a certain way?
  • Does my will have anything to do with my actually benefiting from evidence?
  • If God exists, how would this impact my life? Is it possible to intellectually believe God exists but my life to remain unchanged by knowing this intellectual fact? What’s the point if my life remains unchanged and self-centered rather than God-centered? What’s the point of evidence if I’m not willing to be transformed by the reality of God?
  • Does God want more than just an acknowledgment of his existence? What if God wants an I-you relationship with individual humans?
  • What kind of an attitude does truth-seeking require? Does the fact that people want to disprove evidence for God actually reveal an attitude of non-truth-seeking?
  • Is it possible that some people might hate God all the more as one piece of evidence for God is stacked on another? Is it possible for me to believe God exists and still hate God (James 2:19)?
  • Can my will interfere with God’s goals for me—to relate to me and to change me from being self-centered to being God-centered and other-person-centered? Are we willing to do what a loving God wants for me so that I might find out what life really is?
  • Must God leave us unavoidable evidence before I believe—or might he leave me avoidable evidence that reveals whether I am genuinely truth-seeking?
  • Wouldn’t it be a strange God who made no demands on us or who didn’t care if we had our way over against God’s?

What if accessing relationship-producing evidence is like that of tuning a radio dial to seek out universally—but not necessarily immediately available dismissible armchair evidence?
God isn’t interested in just changing our beliefs. He’s interested in changing *us*! A loving, authoritative God made us to relate to us. Are we willing to receive evidence on God’s terms?

These are some of the themes in Moser’s thought-provoking book. Whatever one thinks of Moser’s views on, say, natural theology, he is surely right to direct us to the centrality of the will and to the very goal of God’s self-revelation—namely, to reveal God personally to human beings so that we might experience intimate, personal knowledge of God through his Spirit, by whom we cry out, “Abba! Father!”

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Interview with Paul K. Moser: Kerygmatic Philosophy

In November, Paul K. Moser presented a plenary paper at the annual EPS meeting, titled, "Kerygmatic Philosophy." We interviewed Moser about his paper in light of one of his most recent books from Cambridge University Press: The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology.

What is “Kerygmatic Philosophy”?

Kerygmatic philosophy is philosophy anchored in and motivated by the Good News of God’s personal redemptive intervention in human lives, particularly through God’s authoritative call to humans as represented paradigmatically in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The key term “kerygma,” as used here, means “proclaimed Good News.” Christian philosophy, according to the metaphilosophical position developed in The Elusive God (Cambridge University Press, 2008), is inherently kerygmatic in virtue of stemming from God’s Good News call as personified (in human form) in Jesus.

What does kerygmatic philosophy uniquely offer compared to other Christian approaches to philosophy?

It preserves a unique role for God’s personal redemptive call to humans, and it encompasses an epistemology that is pneumatic and incarnational. The accompanying epistemology is pneumatic owing to a distinctive cognitive role for personal divine Spirit (who cannot be reduced to Calvin’s sensus divinitatis), and this epistemology is therefore foreign to secular epistemology and even to much philosophy of religion that claims to be Christian. It is also an incarnational epistemology, given its distinctive cognitive role for God’s Spirit dwelling in humans, in such a way that they become a temple of God’s Spirit (see 1 Cor. 6:19). We may think of incarnational epistemology as requiring that human inquirers themselves become salient evidence of God’s reality in virtue of becoming God’s temple. According to this approach, characteristic evidence of God’s reality is increasingly available to me as I myself am increasingly willing to become such evidence, that is, living and personified evidence of God’s reality. Philosophy in general and epistemology in particular thus take on an irredeemably existential significance and thereby exclude any merely spectator, armchair, or ivory tower approach.

The epistemology offered in kerygmatic philosophy is grace-based, in that firsthand knowledge of God’s reality is a direct gift of God’s grace. The cognitive grace in question supplies a cognitive gift that replaces any demand for intellectual earning, controlling, or dominating with a freely given presence of God’s inviting and transforming Spirit who seeks morally transformative fellowship with humans. This cognitive, irreducibly personal gift must be appropriated by humans in Gethsemane struggles (of submitting one’s will to God’s non-coercive will), given the human condition of sin, but it is not shrouded in philosophical sophistication of the sort accompanying contemporary natural theology. This gift is directly challenging toward natural human ways that resist God, including toward human cognitive idolatry (that exalts cognitive standards inimical to God’s character), but it does not get bogged down in its own intellectual complications. The EPS paper on kerygmatic philosophy shows how natural theology fails in areas where incarnational epistemology makes a needed contribution.

How does the thesis of this paper reflect your recent CUP book, The Elusive God.

The EPS paper develops the volitional epistemology of The Elusive God in a way that bears directly on natural theology. The motivation is to challenge some harmful effects of natural theology, including its neglect of (a) divine elusiveness, (b) the cognitively crucial role of God’s call to humans, and (c) the cognitive importance of human repentance before God. More specifically, natural theology obscures the desperate human needs for (i) the cognitive grace of God’s call to humans and (ii) human turning, in repentance, to receive and obey that life-giving transformative call to fellowship. This obscuring arises from the focus of natural theology on merely de dicto arguments rather than on an experienced divine call de re to humans. In effect, the history of natural theology has been the history of trying to secure knowledge of God’s reality without acknowledging evidence of God’s authoritative personal call to humans.

If Christian philosophers are to take seriously kerygmatic philosophy as both an approach to and the content of philosophical work, what would kerygmatic philosophy work look like?

I offer The Elusive God as an attempt to instantiate kerygmatic philosophy with special attention to epistemological issues, including issues of skepticism. Its metaphilosophy makes a case for the central role of God’s personal redemptive call in Christian philosophy. Given its argument for kerygmatic philosophy, people are well-advised to look carefully for a divine call in their lives. In particular, they should be attentive to experiences that convey a divine call to fellowship with God. Philosophy can and should help with this life-giving project. It can make such contributions as (a) an elucidating phenomenology of a divine call to humans, (b) a clarification of the human conditions for noticing and receiving a divine call, and (c) an account of how evidence of a divine call can be conclusive and thus resistant to skeptical challenges. It is, however, very rare to find such contributions in the philosophy of religion. In neglecting the potential divine call to humans, philosophy of religion has neglected the vital cognitive role of the Good News that God has reached out to confront humans directly in their distressed and dying condition, for the sake of divine–human fellowship. Kerygmatic philosophy can revitalize and redirect philosophy in ways that make it vital and urgent for human life and relationships. This kind of provision is long overdue in philosophy, which has become a fractured discipline without a unifying guide. See chapter 4 of The Elusive God for some details of kerygmatic philosophy and its contrasts with some other philosophical approaches.

Who are some thinkers that have influenced your reflection and development of kerygmatic philosophy and its significance?

My perspective on philosophy and epistemology is based on various New Testament writers, particularly Paul and John. I read the Gospel of John as an inherently epistemological gospel, offering the basics of an epistemology of human knowledge of God. I read some sections of Paul’s letters as similarly epistemological, for instance, 1 Cor. 1-2, Rom. 5, 8. It’s noteworthy that the New Testament writers show no need of arguments of natural theology. They do, however, make important cognitive use of the human experience of God’s call, and they acknowledge the importance of the human will in apprehending evidence of divine reality (see, e.g., Jn. 7:17; 1 Jn. 4:8). For some Pauline remarks on God’s call, see, for instance, 1 Cor. 1:9; cf. 1 Cor. 1:2, 26, 7:17–24, Rom. 1:6–7, Eph. 1:18-19. For 20th-century efforts to preserve the central role of God’s call in philosophy and theology, see Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, and the works of two evangelical Quaker Christians, Rufus Jones and Thomas R. Kelly (especially the latter’s Testament of Devotion).

If you were to communicate and relate pastorally to Christians that are laboring in philosophical work, how would you encourage them about their life and vocation, their priorities and aspirations, their relationship to both the church, to the academy and to their communities?

I would note that God tries to meet us in our daily lives even when we are unaware of God’s presence. Usually we are looking for the wrong kind of thing. God does not favor the circus settings of the contemporary revivalists or the rarified arguments of academic philosophers. Matt. 25:31-46 tells us where we should expect to find God’s presence. The cognitive problem is squarely with us humans, not with God or with the evidence characteristic of God. We tend to want the wrong kind of evidence, the kind we can use take self-credit or otherwise to puff up ourselves. God offers the kind of evidence that promotes unselfish love and fellowship. So, we need eyes to see the crucial evidence, and we need to ask God for the needed clear vision. Perhaps prayer, then, is central to epistemology done right. Philosophers do well to redirect their attention, and their lives, to that neglected but vital area. The need for transformation is not easy, but it is, in the end, the only road to life without end.

Paul K. Moser is a professor of philosophy and the chairperson of the department of philosophy at Loyola University (Chicago). He is also working on an ongoing philosophical and theological project that discusses the nature and significance of idolatry and its various forms. More info can be found at his faculty website.

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