Hiddenness, eds. D. Howard-Snyder & P.K. Moser (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2002)
COGNITIVE IDOLATRY AND DIVINE HIDING
Loyola University of Chicago
Is there such a thing as Jewish-Christian philosophy? Probably. Or, at least, why not? Species of philosophy are pretty much a dime a dozen these days, and sometimes even that price is too high. Is there, however, a distinctively Jewish-Christian epistemology, or theory of knowledge? Now, that’s a question whose answer does not come cheap. It concerns how, from a cognitive viewpoint, we properly relate to God, the Original Knower. The implications of this topic, we shall see, are profound indeed.
Questions about knowledge of God always hinge on questions about what kind of God we have in mind. The kind of God pertinent to a theistic epistemology makes all the difference in the world. Are we talking about the tenuous, domesticated God of deism, philosophical theism, or liberal Christianity? Or are we talking about the convicting, righteously loving God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus? The latter is the gracious but elusive personal God who is a consuming fire against evil. This is also the God whose love for all requires divine suffering for us, even in the cross of God’s Son, in order to remake us thoroughly in the divine image of holiness and self-giving love. In shying away from the latter robust conception of God, for the sake of a mere theism, philosophers and theologians neglect the distinctive epistemological resources of Jewish-Christian theism. They thereby miss the real point of knowledge of God. The result is an epistemology of theism that fails to challenge knowers in the way most needed: namely, in connection with human idolatry. (The pervasive retreat from a robust conception of God since the time of Descartes and the Enlightenment has contributed much, I suspect, to the demise of Jewish-Christian theism in the academy, but I cannot digress to that topic.)
Our topic becomes the world’s oldest and largest profession and hobby: idolatry. We are all leading experts at idolatry. We excel at it, like nothing else, and (sad to say) we often enjoy it. Although ancient and Old Testamentish, like Sodom and Gomorrah, idolatry is nonetheless current and popular. In fact, it is all too popular. Ever before our eyes, idolatry is easily overlooked and conveniently ignored. Let’s try to bring it to center stage in an area where it is seldom, if ever, mentioned: epistemology, particularly regarding knowledge of God.
Sooner or later, philosophers face the question whether God exists. In doing so, they join the rest of humanity in considering an issue of first importance. Always beware, however, of philosophers bearing theological gifts, as such gifts often come with a high price. The price influences one's mindset, in particular one's expectations, regarding God in ways that may be unexamined or unsustainable. It's important to ask, then: what are our expectations regarding God? These expectations largely determine our commitments regarding God, and they may say more about us, including our own values, than about God. In addition, these expectations may prevent us from having the needed eyes to see and ears to hear genuine revelation from God.
Do we expect certain things of God (if God exists) such that those things evidently fail to obtain, thereby calling God’s existence or authority into question? Do we, for instance, expect God to entertain us cognitively, with signs and wonders or with dreams and ecstatic experiences? At any rate, what, if anything, grounds our expectations regarding God? Perhaps our expectations clash with God's own aim to bring us freely to acknowledge and gratefully to trust God (rather than false gods) as the ultimate source of our flourishing. We shall see how the nature of the Jewish-Christian God has special implications for familiar questions about God's existence and hiding and for cognitive idolatry.
1. Rationality and God
For philosophers, among others, the innocent-looking ontological question whether God exists moves quickly to the thorny epistemological question whether it is rational for us to believe that God exists. The latter question, although common, demands immediate attention to its slippery terms "rational" and "God."
The term "rational" encompasses such things as prudential rationality (concerning what is prudent in belief or action), moral rationality (concerning what is morally good, right, or praiseworthy in belief or action), and epistemic rationality (concerning the kind of warrant appropriate to knowledge that a belief is true). Still other species of rationality compete for our attention, but we shall attend to epistemic rationality, the kind suitable for knowledge (on which see Moser 1989, chap. 5; 1993, chap. 4). Let's also acknowledge that epistemic rationality does not require the kind of deductively valid proof characteristic of logic and mathematics. Otherwise, there would not be much rationality or knowledge at all in the sciences or in ordinary empirical decision-making.
In many cases, epistemic rationality and thus knowledge depend not on deductive proof but rather on an inference to a best available explanation of our whole range of evidence found in experience and reflection. Likewise, epistemically rational belief that God exists may depend on whether the thesis that God exists plays an indispensable role in a best available explanation of our whole range of experience and reflection. Aiming for the cognitively best in inquiry, we often pursue true beliefs contributing to a best available explanation of the world, including the whole range of experience.
The term "God" has been used to signify everyone from the mythical Zeus of Greece to the ravenous Thor of Scandinavia to the wretched Jim Jones of Guyana to the righteously gracious Yahweh of Israel. So the term desperately needs refinement. In keeping with a familiar theistic tradition, let's use the term "God" as a supreme title. It requires of its holder: (a) worthiness of worship and full life-commitment and thus (b) moral perfection and (c) an all-loving character. This does not settle the issue whether God actually exists, as the title might be satisfied by no one at all. The term might connote while failing to denote. Since God must be worthy of worship and full trust, God must be altogether morally good, a God of unflagging righteousness. A morally corrupt all-powerful being might merit fear from us but would not be worthy of our worship and full trust. So not just any unstoppable bully can satisfy the job description for "God." Even an all-powerful being who is altogether just, or fair, but nonetheless unloving would not fit the bill.
A being worthy of worship and full trust must be all-compassionate; otherwise, a moral failing would interfere. So God must have all-inclusive compassion and thus must be willing to suffer for the moral good of all those needing help. This holds true regardless of whether all or even most people will accept God's help. (On the theme of God’s suffering and its relation to divine love, see Fiddes 1988 and Fretheim 1984, chap. 9.) Do we have any evidence of such compassion-in-action, past or present? Scanning world history with due care and openness, we find that a plausible candidate for the job of all-compassionate God is Yahweh, the God of Jewish-Christian theism and the avowed Father of that disturbing Jewish outcast, Jesus of Nazareth. We can acknowledge, nonetheless, that some nominal followers of Yahweh have attributed vicious commands and actions to Yahweh for their own self-serving ends. (For ample evidence for the latter, see Paul Hanson 1986.) So we may grant that the history of nominal Judaism and Christianity fails to portray Yahweh uniformly as all-compassionate. Bad counterfeits, however, do not destroy the genuine article.
2. God, Explanation, and Moral Excellence
Turning to warrant for acknowledging the Jewish-Christian God, we should consider that God’s existence may play a crucial role in a best available explanation of the world, including our own origin and status in the world. God’s existing may remove what Bertrand Russell (1903) has called "the inexhaustible mystery of existence" of the world. The first explanation-seeking question is: why is there a material world rather than no such world at all? The next such question is: why is there the present law-governed material world, hospitable to some extent to the emergence of such moral agents as human persons, rather than a world markedly different? There might have been a world of just chaotic events, like defective fireworks, and nothing else. Evidently, the material world need not have been hospitable to the emergence of human persons.
The existence of goal-directed intentions of the Jewish-Christian God can supply plausible answers to relevant explanation-seeking questions, thereby removing Russell's supposedly unexplainable mystery of the world's existence. The existence of God as creator and sustainer of the world can figure crucially in a best available explanation of (a) why there is a material world rather than no such world at all and (b) why there is the present law-governed material world, hospitable to some extent to the emergence of human persons, rather than a significantly different world. (For discussion of the theistic relevance of (b), see Forrest 1996, chap. 2; cf. Miller 1999, chaps. 7-8.) As an all-powerful creative agent, God has goal-directed causal powers that can figure in the needed explanation and thereby remove Russell's mystery.
Even though God's existence may remove the mystery of the world's existence, it will not remove all mystery about existence. Doggedly, mystery chases theism all the way up the tree of explanation. If, for example, we can imagine that God does not exist (and it seems we can), then we are left with the mystery of God's existence, and God evidently is too. We can ask why reality is such that God exists rather than being such that God does not exist. If God is not the explanation of this feature of reality, mystery ensues —perhaps even for God. (A principle of sufficient reason may thereby be threatened, but God's omniscience is not, because it does not follow that there are truths not known by God. Furthermore, the question at hand does not presume that God had a beginning.) On this approach, theists exchange the mystery of the world's existence for the mystery of God's existence (not to be confused with an ill-formed issue about the origin of God’s existence).
One might plausibly wonder what theists really gain here. Even if theological mystery seems more palatable than cosmological mystery, it is mystery still and it trims the explanatory sails of theism. A similar lesson follows from the familiar view that God exists necessarily. On that view, too, we reach a point where explanation runs out, where ontology outstrips available explanation. Even necessitarians about God must grant that some parts of theistic ontology do not enjoy explanation. Mystery does indeed dog theism. Still, not all explanation is lost.
Some relevant explanation-seeking questions focus on us as morally responsible agents. For example, why are there such self-determining beings as human persons with the remarkable feature of conscious free agency? We often act, for better or worse, on intentions to achieve our ends, and thereby distinguish ourselves, decisively, from the unconscious material world. (On the constituents of intentional action, see Mele and Moser 1994.) The difference is not just that we can think; it also includes our being able to act intentionally, with an end in view. We are purposive agents who often act in a goal-directed manner. Witness your undertaking the reading of this essay —no fluke of nature, I hope. Our lives thus manifest self-determining actions, and not just happenings. This is an astonishing fact about us, a fact that calls for careful explanation.
Why, then, are there such remarkable beings as free, self-determining human agents at all? This question concerns why such beings arrived on the scene in the first place, not why they have persisted. In addition, it primarily concerns psychological rather than biological make-up of such beings. Perhaps their arrival on the scene was just an astonishing accident of nature, without any intelligent guidance. Acknowledgment of the Jewish-Christian God, in contrast, enables us to answer this otherwise mysterious question in a way that is at least coherent. According to Jewish-Christian theism, God created, perhaps indirectly, beings in God's own image of conscious free agency to enable those beings to sustain properly loving relationships with God and with each other. Such theism affirms that we are thus under-creators created in the image of the original creator.
Of course, as noted, we might be a fluke of blind, uncaring nature, but then again we might be dreaming all of our lives, too. Seeking refuge in random chance, or accident, such nontheists as Russell show their willingness to make a significant faith-commitment to the world-making efficacy of chance, thereby avoiding acknowledgment of God. So popular opinion about theism notwithstanding, the leap of faith may actually be on the other foot, on the foot of theorists invoking chance as world-making. (For an overview of some relevant empirical evidence and pertinent references, see Schroeder 1997, chap. 2.)
The true God, being morally impeccable, would always seek what is morally best for us, thereby giving us an opportunity to achieve, without coercion, God's kind of moral goodness. God, in other words, would be a redeemer enabling us, through knowledge of God, to be rescued without coercion from our moral deficiencies and thereby to become morally like God. In this regard, we would be able to share in God's moral nature. This opportunity, being inherently moral, would be volitional and not just intellectual. It would enable us to have our wills transformed, not just our intellects (that is, our thoughts and beliefs). So the kind of knowledge of God valued by the true God would be volitionally transformative rather than merely intellectual. It would concern a change of will, of volitional orientation, that exceeds belief formation, contemplation, insight, enlightenment, and sensory experience.
Knowledge of God would be important in the relevant moral transformation. It would suitably relate, personally as well as psychologically, those being transformed to their personal transformer. The apostle Paul, accordingly, grounds Christian knowledge of God in new reconciliation with God (see 2 Corinthians 5:16-19). He also contrasts such knowledge with "knowledge after the flesh," knowledge independent of suitable moral transformation. (On the New Testament theme of reconciliation with God, see Martin 1981, Stuhlmacher 1986, and Farmer 1998, 1935, chaps. 11-13.).
Moral excellence in relationships among agents requires self-giving compassion and interpersonal trust for the sake of the moral goodness of all involved. So any being worthy of the preeminent title "God" must consistently promote such compassion and trust. The true God, accordingly, must aim to transform such typically self-promoting agents as humans into morally new people, renewed after the unselfish character of God. In keeping with that aim, we humans must become agents of God’s purportedly all-inclusive kingdom rather than agents of our own exclusive kingdoms.
As morally impeccable, the true God must work in human history to encourage free human agents to seek God's kind of moral excellence via knowing God and God's goodness. More specifically, the true God must seek an all-inclusive community of people guided by knowing God and God's goodness. Our knowing God (at God’s appointed time) is central to God's moral project, because such knowing enables the kind of personal guidance and transformation crucial to our renewal toward God's moral character. In the absence of risky and potentially painful redemptive work, God could still be morally just in challenging human agents who have rejected God's goodness. God would not then be gracious, however, owing to the absence of God’s merciful and forgiving compassion toward wayward humans.
The history of ancient Israel, particularly its prophetic tradition (on which see Heschel 1962 and von Rad 1965), exhibits patterns of human behavior and instruction that are morally extraordinary. These patterns are arguably best explained by the Hebraic view (suggested, for example, in Genesis 12:3, 22:15-18, 28:13-14) that a morally serious loving God has indeed chosen a certain group of people in order to transform, morally and spiritually, all the nations of the world. (Here and throughout, I use “morally serious” to connote genuine unselfish caring for the moral good of others.) In ancient Israel we find historical evidence, however fallible, of a redeeming God who seeks to liberate a lowly tribal community from its self-destructive ways and to encourage this community to lead outsiders to turn to God for redemption (on which see Herberg 1951, chaps. 17-19, and Paul Hanson 1986).
3. Theism: Thin and Robust
Perhaps Jewish-Christian theism plays a crucial role in a best explanation of the world, including ourselves, and thereby gains epistemic warrant. That view is plausible, and I support it. Even so, that view would yield at most cognitively thin theism: the view that it is epistemically rational, at least for some people, to believe that God exists. Such theism is thin indeed, as even avowed enemies of God can rationally believe that God exists and even endorse cognitively thin theism. One can believe that God exists but hate God. Even the demons believe and shudder, according to the epistle of James (2:19).
The chief human deficiency regarding God is not in our explanatory or intellectual abilities but is rather in our moral orientation regarding authority, or lordship, over our lives. So, desiring genuine reconciliation, the true God would not settle for thin theism but would promote cognitively robust theism: the view that we epistemically should lovingly believe in, or trust, God as the Lord of our lives. Cognitively robust theism entails cognitively thin theism but requires a life-commitment to a personal Lord, beyond rational belief that God exists. This Lord is not the conclusion of an argument but is rather the personal enabler of any person offering an argument.
Our knowing God as personal Lord reconciles us to God by requiring us gratefully to trust in God as the supreme moral authority for our lives. In such knowing we acknowledge our moral accountability to God and even rely on God as our ultimate moral guide. Such knowing is not a matter of mere warranted assent. It entails knowing God as Lord in the second-person, as morally supreme "You," rather than as an undemanding object of human knowledge. Divine lordship entails supreme moral leadership, and moral leadership entails a call to moral accountability and direction. This is a call to moral redirection and transformation in the case of selfish human recipients. Knowing God as Lord requires our sincerely committing ourselves to God as follows: “Not my will be done, but Your will be done,” “Not my kingdom come, but Your kingdom come.” Such knowing follows a path through Gethsemane to the cross, as it depends on our volitional sensitivity and submission to the will of God. We come truly to know God not in our own cognitive strength but rather in our thoroughgoing weakness relative to the priority of God’s will. (On the important theme of volitional weakness in Jewish-Christian theism, see Savage 1996 and Dales 1994.)
Cognitively robust theism acknowledges that the true God calls us to moral transformation away from our self-centeredness toward the unselfish, loving character of God. Perhaps this call comes through personal conscience, and perhaps it sometimes relies on a message brought by other people. Do we, however, have a right to know God? In particular, are we entitled to know that God exists without knowing God as Lord, as the morally supreme agent over our lives, including our intellectual lives? Some people uncritically assume so, but this is unconvincing.
Who is entitled to decide how one may know God —humans or God? Given our complete inferiority relative to God, can we reasonably make demands on God in favor of our preferred ways of knowing God? Many people proceed as if we have a right to know God on our preferred terms. This is, however, nothing more than a self-serving assumption. Nothing requires that God supply knowledge of God on our preferred terms. God evidently owes us no such thing at all, despite common expectations to the contrary.
God owes us nothing beyond fidelity to a loving character and to the promises stemming from such a character. On sincere reflection we see that we are in no position to make evidential demands of God beyond such fidelity. Nothing requires that God allow for (i) our propositional knowledge that God exists apart from (ii) our filial knowledge of God as Lord and Father of our lives. Ideally the two emerge together, although philosophers have a bad habit of neglecting the key role of filial knowledge of God. God can be all-loving in supplying evidence of God’s existence in a manner sensitive to human receptivity to filial knowledge of God. We have no right to demand evidence of God’s reality that fails to challenge us to undergo volitional transformation toward God’s character. So God’s hiding from a casual, or indifferent, inquirer does not count against the reality of God’s existence.
God's ways of imparting vital knowledge of God do not meet our natural expectations. This is in keeping with God’s surprising offer of redemption by grace rather than by earning. Divine grace has loomed large in Jewish-Christian accounts of redemption, but it has rarely emerged as significant in treatments of knowledge of God. This needs correction. God's dispensing of vital knowledge of God is truly gracious, a genuine gift calling for grateful reception. How we may know God depends on what God lovingly wants for us and from us. Primarily God wants us to become, in relationship with God, humbly loving as God is. As a result, we truly come to know God only if we acknowledge our unworthiness of knowing God. It is thus illuminating to ask about the attitudes of people inquiring about God. What are our intentions in having knowledge of God? What do we aim to do with such knowledge? Do we aim to use it for our own honor and self-promotion, treating it as self-credit rather than as an unearned gift? Do we have a bias against cognitively robust theism, in particular against filial knowing of God as a personal Lord who lovingly holds us morally accountable and expects grateful obedience from us? I suspect that we typically do.
The epistemology of Jewish-Christian theism disallows God's being trivialized as an undemanding object of knowledge for our convenient examination or speculation. It calls for filial knowledge of God as the Lord who is the supreme personal guide and gift-giver for human life. (On the important cognitive and moral implications of God as personal, see Farmer 1935, 1942, and Oman 1917.) This God is the lovingly commanding agent to whom we are ultimately responsible and the final personal authority over all creation, including over human knowers. In filial knowledge of God, we have knowledge of a supreme personal subject, not of a mere object for casual reflection. This is not knowledge of a vague "first cause," "ultimate power," "ground of being," or even a "best explanation." It rather is convicting knowledge of a personal, communicating Lord who expects grateful commitment by way of our appropriating God’s gracious redemption. Such convicting knowledge includes our being judged and found unworthy by the standard of God’s morally supreme love. God’s will thereby meets, convicts, and redirects our will. Both sides of this relationship are thus personal.
Filial knowledge of God is reconciling personal knowledge whereby we enter into an appropriate child-parent relationship with God. Such knowledge is personally transforming, not impersonally abstract or morally impotent. It is communicated by God's personal Spirit in a way that demands full life-commitment. Knowledge of a robustly personal God requires personal evidence (such as evidence of a will), not mere nonpersonal reasons. So this knowledge is not just a true conclusion endorsed on the basis of warranted inference. Sound argument, however warranted, does not itself offer the kind of personal power central to Jewish-Christian theism: namely, God’s personal power of self-giving love as our liberator, motivator, and transformer. Filial knowledge of God entails our commitment to participate gratefully in God's purposes with all that we are and have. It is thus purposeful knowledge as loving and obedient discipleship toward a personal agent, not mere intellectual assent. It is inherently person-relational.
The personal Lord who loves, commands, and reconciles is not the silent God of much natural theology. As a result, the Jewish-Christian scriptures are uniformly devoid of what philosophers call “natural theology.” A God who is Lord must lead and thus must call us in certain directions at the appropriate time. So God must command, and this results in our being convicted and judged at least for our failure to be suitably grateful or otherwise obedient toward God previously.
We cannot have filial knowledge of God if we are seriously dishonest about our moral standing relative to God. Genuine reconciliation calls for awareness of the need for reconciliation. So God must begin by trying to convict us of this need by prompting our awareness of falling short of grateful filial relationship with God. For the sake of human good, God as Reconciler must seek to function at the core of our lives, not just at the periphery. So God must seek to be found by us, and to find us, at a level of considerable depth in our lives, rather than at the surface of who we are. The self-reflective honesty and unselfish love sought by God work at the core of a life or not at all. We thus can see the inadequacy of “signs and wonders,” dreams and ecstatic experiences, and abstract philosophical arguments as the main avenues to God. God must bring us to a level of moral depth, or seriousness, by some means or other, perhaps even through our facing impending death. God leads us to such depth by convicting us of our casual ingratitude, moral dullness, selfish indifference, unwarranted pride, and self-defensive fear. In filial knowledge, God as Reconciler offers to change us by convicting us of the stark contrast between (a) what we are on our own and (b) what we can be as willing participants in God's program of filial reconciliation to God.
Left to our own devices, we are all soon dead and buried, however we may try to obscure this by directing attention elsewhere. (Pascal’s Pensées identifies many of our typical diversionary tactics on this front.) So our own resources, cognitive and otherwise, bring us finally to nought, leaving us with no genuine hope for our own future. In this respect, time is only on God's side. Our impending death serves as God's firm wake-up call to us. It prompts a focal question: what, at bottom, are we living for, and is it worthwhile, even on our own considered values? Given the dismal fate of our own devices, we need a redemptive word from God, not just the kind of evidence of God's existence suitable to thin theism. (For Jewish and Christian endorsement of the latter point, see, for instance, Deuteronomy 30:11-14 and Romans 10:6-8.) As a result, we must be willing to listen for the needed word and to obey it when it comes to us.
We naturally resist going to self-reflective moral depth in our lives, because doing so is painful, self-effacing, and humbling. It may also entail exclusion by our peers if the results are socially challenging or awkward. In addition, we typically want to be accountable ultimately only to ourselves and to our own preferred moral and epistemological standards. As Thomas Nagel (1997, p. 131) notes, the existence of God poses a serious “cosmic authority problem” for us (so much so that Nagel hopes that God does not exist). We may say that we would be accountable to God if only the proper evidence were at hand, but then we conveniently set the terms (such as extreme empiricist or rationalist terms) for proper evidence so as to control the outcome. God as Reconciler must therefore play the role of a benevolent reconstructive surgeon, using an uncomfortable procedure of conviction of moral shortcoming to begin a process of filial reconciliation. We must be brought low indeed. God thereby brings us from ungrateful moral shallowness to grateful moral depth, toward personal reconciliation with God.
God must work as an internal, convicting Authority and Assurer who makes people qualitatively new, in a way that makes Cartesian certainty look sterile and weak. (On the role of God as convicting authority and assurer, see Forsyth 1913 and Camfield 1934.) God’s Spirit must witness with our spirits that we are indeed children of God, that God is indeed our gracious Father. As Reconciler, God must offer a unique kind of personal assurance, as a gift and not as a tool for abusive human control. God, after all, has no need of a cognitive sledgehammer. This fits well with robust theism as well as God’s personal character of humble love.
Thin theism, focusing on theoretical knowledge that God exists, can obscure the importance of knowing God as the personal Lord who calls us to a change of lordship, mindset, and moral direction. Oversimplifications of God (for example, as merely sentimental, friendly, harsh, or distant) can be similarly obscuring, in a way that enables us to make a self-controllable idol of “God” (where “God” is not the true God). So even devout theism can be idolatrous. For our own good, we cannot master God as just another undemanding object of human knowledge, as a manipulable possession, or as a meritorious reward. As we should expect, God is not ours to control; similarly for proper knowledge and evidence of God. God as known reveals God’s knowledge of us and thereby seeks to transform us in love, with respect for our freedom. Our knowledge about God and our quest for it threaten to become idols if divorced from reconciling, filial knowledge of God as Lord. Robust theism offers a safeguard against this threat.
Idolatry, at bottom, is our not letting the true God be Lord in our lives. It is commitment to something other than the true God as our ultimate authority and source of flourishing. It is inherently a rejection of God's authority and a quest for self-definition, self-importance, and self-fulfillment on our own terms. Idolatry flouts the serious challenge we have from the true God to be free of self-defensive fear, self-exaltation, and self-centeredness in general. It exchanges the supremacy of God over one’s life for the supremacy of something inferior to God. (See Johnson 1990, chap. 4; cf. Mackay 1969, and Halbertal and Margalit 1992 on the ways of idolatry.)
Idolaters deny, in deed if not in word, their status as dependent knowers and creatures of the true God. They seek independence of God. In doing so, they opt for infidelity toward God and deny God’s supremacy over us. Idolaters are not satisfied with being secondary, dependent creators who honor God as the only independent creator. They thus aim to reassign God’s authority to something else. Typically idolaters reassign God’s authority to themselves; they thus seek to be ultimately self-governing and self-defining. This involves a kind of self-assertion that disregards the supremacy of God. Such self-assertion is as tenuous and ephemeral as the human self behind the assertion. It will soon perish along with that self while the true God endures. The ways of human self-assertion are short-lived indeed. They also obscure our available evidence of God’s reality and supremacy.
Cognitive idolatry denies God’s supremacy in recommending ways of knowing God. Just as God is properly supreme in the area of recommending ways of human action, so also God merits supremacy in prescribing ways of knowing. This is particularly true regarding ways of knowing God. Cognitive idolatry relies on a standard for knowledge that excludes the primacy of the morally self-transforming knowledge of God central to knowing God as Lord. It rests on an epistemological standard, whether empiricist, rationalist, or some hybrid, that does not let God be Lord. Such idolatry aims to protect one's lifestyle from serious challenge by the God who calls, convicts, and reconciles. It disallows knowledge of God as personal subject and Lord to whom we are morally and cognitively responsible. It allows at most for knowledge of God as an undemanding object of human knowledge. Cognitive idolatry exploits epistemological standards to refuse to let God be supreme in one's life. A cosmic authority problem lies behind much cognitive idolatry and, for that matter, idolatry in general.
A prominent kind of cognitive idolatry may be called the idolatry of neutral proof. Such idolatry includes our demanding decisive evidence of God’s existence regardless of the direction of our own will relative to God’s will. We thereby place ourselves in the position of judge over God’s reality without requiring ourselves to commit sincerely to God as Lord of our lives. This kind of idolatry is opposed vigorously in Isaiah 58, where Yahweh complains as follows about his people of Israel: “... they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.” Note the common desire for knowing God’s ways without submission to God’s will. Jewish-Christian theism thus calls for an epistemology of faithful obedience as an antidote to the common idolatry of neutral proof. The evidence of the true God’s reality comes with a personal call to trust and to obey this God. This is, after all, a personal God who calls people to repentance, fidelity, and obedience. This is a God who insists that people, for their own good, be humbly loving as God is.
Questions about our ultimate cognitive authority concern what we ultimately trust as our source of knowledge. Jewish-Christian theism identifies a central human choice between idolatry and respectful, grateful trust in God. Trust in God as our personal Lord, which extends in content beyond the present to our futures, is never fully determined by past or present evidence, even when adequately grounded in past and present evidence. It respects the openness of God to call people in ways going beyond historical precedent. (Witness the novel call to Jesus as Messiah to die on a criminal's Roman cross.) Such trust also esteems God as the only ultimate source of power to break our bondage to self-destructive idols, whatever they happen to be. Whether cognitive or noncognitive, our idols encroach on God’s rightful authority over us. God’s idol-breaking power, according to Jewish-Christian theism, stems from God’s self-giving, sustaining compassion toward us that frees us from our selfish and self-destructive fears.
We typically favor idols over the true God given our penchant for maintaining authority, or lordship, over our lives. Our typical attitude is thus: I will live my life my way, to get what I want, when I want it. We thereby exalt ourselves over the true God, and then lose our self-control to control by idols, from which we seek success, happiness, honor, and self-approval. We exchange God’s supreme reality for a false substitute. Accordingly, we naturally give primary, if not exclusive, value to controllable knowledge rather than to filial knowledge dependent on the gracious offer of an uncontrollable God. Indeed, the human obsession with self-control over one's circumstances runs afoul of God's calling us to moral transformation through gratefully trusting God as Lord of our lives. We tend to trivialize what we can control or what is conveniently available to us. Our controlling available evidence for God would be, in effect, to control God. For our own good, however, God will not be controlled or trivialized; nor are we in control of evidence for God. So we cannot preclude God’s hiding from us at times. Indeed, such hiding should be expected, given our self-destructive tendencies and resulting need of God’s corrective love.
5. Divine Hiding
We can now begin to ask about suitable evidence for the reality of God's call. Ideally, evidence and assurance regarding God's call come firsthand, from God’s direct communication rather than from just our own reasoning. Accordingly, God gives testimony to God's presence and thus existence in an inherently personal manner. Such testimony is not transferable or reproducible in a decisive way or manipulable by us for selfish, self-crediting ends. As God’s call is not coercive but is respectful of human freedom, recipients of God's call need to be sincerely open to God's transforming love. Bringing the Hebrew prophetic tradition to its unique climax, Jesus remarked that the pure in heart will see God. He also suggested, in keeping with the Hebrew scriptures, that God "hides" his ways from ungrateful holdouts and reveals himself to those humbly open to God's program of morally serious loving community (see Luke 10:21-22/Matthew 11:25-27). (On the recurring theme of divine hiding in the Hebrew scriptures, see Balentine 1983 and Terrien 1978.)
How can an all-loving God fail to be manifested so as to remove all serious doubt about God’s existence? The Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament present us with an all-loving God who sometimes hides from people, a God whose reality is sometimes less than transparent to people. Many people assume that an all-loving God’s existence, if real, would be obvious to all normal adult humans. God’s existence is not, however, obvious to all normal adult humans. So, according to many people, we may reasonably deny that God exists. Some normal humans, of course, do not believe that God exists. They claim not to have adequate evidence (for reasonable belief) that God exists. Would an all-loving God permit such doubt about God’s existence?
One important issue is whether the people in question are readily able to acquire evidence indicative of God. If they are thus able, divine hiding is not a basis for agnosticism or atheism (contrary to Schellenberg 1993). If the God who on occasion hides has left adequate available evidence of God’s existence, including signals of such evidence, for all people, then theism will be epistemically unscathed by divine hiding. Since people often look in the wrong places for such evidence, we shall take up the latter topic below. The important point now is that God’s hiding from some people, at least on occasion, does not automatically recommend agnosticism or atheism. At a minimum, the available evidence in favor of God’s existence merits equal consideration. God’s hiding from some people, in any case, does not entail either God’s hiding from all people always or everybody’s lacking adequate evidence for God’s existence or even anybody’s lacking available evidence for God’s existence.
Conceivably, God hides on occasion from some people for various reasons, including (a) to teach people to yearn for, and thus eventually to value, personal relationship with God, (b) to strengthen grateful trust in God even when times look altogether bleak, (c) to remove human complacency toward God and God’s purposes, and (d) to shatter prideful human self-reliance. A particularly troubling instance of God’s hiding underlies the distressing plea of Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46). Evidently, God hid from Jesus at the height of his excruciating suffering from Roman crucifixion. As a result of his suffering and God’s hiding, Jesus perhaps learned deeper trust in his often unpredictable but nonetheless redeeming Father. Not all of God’s hiding, at any rate, aims to judge human rebellion.
God's hiding on occasion from people can be constructively challenging from a moral viewpoint. One’s taking the presence of God for granted, as if it were ever at one’s personal disposal, entails a kind of presumed self-reliance incompatible with sincerely entrusting oneself to God. God's presence is not servile, or always at our beck and call. Similarly, God's love, unlike so-called romantic love, is not obsequious, doting, or fawning, but is morally transforming for human good, even if much of the transformation is gradual and subtle. In taking God for granted, people neglect the supreme value of filial, reconciling knowledge of God. As a result, God sometimes hides in ways that allow people to have doubts about God, even at times when they apparently need God’s presence (see, for example, Psalm 30:7). Part of God's redemptive plan is to remove, without coercion, human moral indifference toward God, which often stems from a presumption of self-reliance. God’s hiding for this purpose should not be confused with total abandonment. Temporary hiding can instill in humans proper recognition of the moral gravity of indifference toward God. God's temporary hiding can also build humility and faithful patience in humans, yielding skill in fulfilling the recurring biblical injunction, "Wait for the Lord!" (Psalm 27:14; Isaiah 30:18). God's love, as noted, is morally transforming, not servile, and God seeks humble servants, not self-confident elitists.
In addition, God's hiding at times prevents human profaning of what is holy and sacred, namely, the presence of God. Such hiding may agree with the blunt command of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, not to throw pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). Still, God's restraint in manifestation of power does leave room for people freely to mock and to reject God. God's redemptive love, in other words, allows people the freedom to make mistakes, even horribly cruel mistakes. (Witness the horrifying Roman crucifixion of Jesus.) Sometimes, nonetheless, God's hiding is often a serious judgment against rebellion (see Deuteronomy 31:16-19, 32:19-20; Isaiah 59:2), a judgment often designed to prompt repentance. Even so, it is sometimes a judgment that does not succeed in prompting repentance. Such lack of success can result from recalcitrant exercise of human free will.
We should avoid some influential approaches to divine hiding, including the following Freedom and Proper-Motivation Responses.
Proponents of the Freedom Response contend that God hides in order to enable people freely to love, trust, and obey God. In the interest of forming truly loving relationships with people, God does not coerce people to respond in a certain way. In fact, the coercion of love seems impossible; love that cannot be rejected is evidently not genuine love. So God, as loving, hides in order to avoid coercion. (For relevant discussion, see Murray 1993.)
The Freedom Response invites a simple question: could not God supply clear, or at least less obscure, self-revelation without abolishing our freedom in responding to that revelation? God could, it seems, be significantly less hidden while keeping our freedom intact, even our freedom to deny that God exists. Some revelations of God’s power would indeed overwhelm us in a way that stifles our freedom, but the removal of divine hiddenness seems not to require any such revelation. So we should question the exclusive disjunction: either God is hidden or human freedom in responding to God is lost. Proponents of the Freedom Response owe us a convincing case for that disjunction. Otherwise, the Freedom Response does not offer an adequate account of divine hiddenness.
Supporters of the Proper-Motivation Response hold that God hides in order to discourage a human response based on improper motives. For instance, God does not want people to respond to divine self-revelation out of selfish fear or arrogance. God wants people to develop a relationship with Him out of sound motives. God’s self-revelation without hiding, however, would prompt us to selfish fear or arrogance in our response. In the interest of discouraging such fear and arrogance, God hides. (For relevant discussion, see Pascal’s Pensées and Swinburne 1981, p. 156; 1992, p. 95.)
The Proper-Motivation Response is troubled by this issue: could not God supply a less obscure self-revelation without eliciting improper motives, such as selfish fear and arrogance, in our response to that revelation? It seems that God could be noticeably less hidden while not increasing the danger of our responding out of bad motives. Some revelations of God’s power would perhaps prompt many people to respond out of selfish fear rather than love, but the removal of divine hiddenness seems not to require any such revelation. So we should refrain from endorsing this exclusive disjunction: either God is hidden or humans will be (more) likely to respond to God out of improper motives. Supporters of the Proper-Motivation Response owe us a reasonable case for that disjunction. Otherwise, their response will not adequately explain divine hiddenness.
Perhaps the Proper-Motivation Response fares better if we consider some positive motivational virtues cultivated by divine hiddenness. For instance, one might propose that God hides in order to prompt sincerity in us about the wretchedness of life on our own, in the absence of God. Such sincerity may lead us to search for God contritely, humbly, and even passionately. If God’s self-revelation were very clear, however, then both (a) our sense of our wretchedness without God and (b) our sense of the genuine risk required for a truly passionate faith would be objectionably reduced. God hides, then, to elicit positive motivational virtues of the kind noted.
Trouble persists for the Proper-Motivation Response. Consider a world where God is less obscure. Must that world be less susceptible to human pursuit of God that is contrite, humble, and passionate? It seems not. The mere fact of less obscurity in God’s self-revelation does not seem to challenge contrite, humble, and passionate seeking after God. God could readily promote such seeking, with no added difficulty, in an environment of less obscure divine revelation. At least, supporters of the Proper-Motivation Response must explain why this is not so, if they are to account adequately for divine hiddenness.
Divine Purposes Reply
A sound approach to the problem of divine hiding includes the Divine Purposes Reply: God restrains divine manifestations, at least for a time, to at least some humans to enhance satisfaction of God’s own diverse morally serious and loving purposes regarding humans. The Divine Purposes Reply allows that the amount and kind of God's revelation can vary among people, even if there is a common minimal revelation available to all people. The variation is determined by God's purposes, or intentions. If these purposes are morally righteous and loving, then God can be morally righteous and loving in giving varied revelation. God hides for various purposes, not just one purpose, just as God apparently allows evil for various purposes. Still, the exact details of God’s purposes are sometimes unclear to us, as we should expect given God’s transcendent superiority. When we are unclear on such details, we may nonetheless know and trust the One who hides for a time, for this One has lovingly intervened elsewhere in our common human predicament. Our having evidence of God’s existence does not require our being able to explain all of God’s intentions and actions, including God’s hiding. The Divine Purposes Reply acknowledges that God hides on occasion for reasons other than to judge human rebellion. Throughout, God aims to motivate us, via love rather than via extraneous factors, to become loving as God is loving.
Some of God’s hiddenness may result from our own blindness, our own failure to be properly receptive to God. Consider this transliterated non-English linguistic token:
Tov vayashar adonai; tov layisrael elohim; tov vayashar hadavar.
Perhaps most readers do not apprehend the semantic significance of this token. In fact, most readers may not even be confident that this token actually has such significance, while some readers may have a vague and tentative glimpse of some of its significance. The problem, however, lies not in the linguistic token itself. It lies rather in the overall perspective of beliefs and other attitudes a person brings to this token. Call this perspective a receptive attitude. The problem of perceiving meaning lies in one’s lack of appropriate exposure and sensitivity to ancient Hebrew, particularly to the Sephardic rendition of ancient Hebrew. So the reception of significant evidence sometimes depends on the receptive attitude of people. Failure to receive some evidence comes from psychological and volitional facts about the intended recipients, rather than from flaws in the available evidence.
An analogy emerges: people whose receptive attitude is closed to God's program of all-inclusive renewal by grace may be blinded from available evidence for the reality of God. The evidence may be available, just as our transliterated Hebrew token is semantically significant. We need, however, appropriate, God-sensitive “ears to hear and eyes to see” the available evidence. We need a change of receptive attitude to apprehend the available transforming evidence in the right way. Such a change involves the direction of our lives, including our life-priorities, not just our intellectual assent. We must thereby attune ourselves to available evidence of God’s self-revelation.
The needed change includes acknowledgment that on our own we have failed dismally at exemplifying God’s all-loving character. This failure occurs in the presence of serious challenges to our existence (namely, death), to our well-being (for example, physical and mental decline), and to our moral standing (for example, our tendency to self-centeredness). We have no self-made or self-discovered solution to this universal human predicament. This humbling acknowledgment is significant relative to our knowing God. It requires that we change how we think of ourselves and of our relation to God. It also recommends a change in our intentions regarding our conduct, and such change is volitional, a matter of the will. One result is that we are displaced from the prideful center of moral importance in our supposed universe. We then become able to appreciate the explanatory profundity of Jewish-Christian theism regarding the human condition, in a way that would not otherwise be apprehended. So volitional transformation can contribute to our appreciation of explanatory and thus epistemic value, in giving us a new, epistemically improved perspective on our human predicament. Our appreciation of some evidence is thus sensitive to our volitional stance.
Lacking volitional transformation, we may be blinded from evidence of God’s reality by our own counterfeit "intelligence" and "wisdom." (This theme recurs throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures.) We may then lack the kind of sincere openness, humility, gratitude, and filial obedience appropriate to relating, cognitively and otherwise, to the God of the universe. We will then have assigned the authority of God to ourselves or to some other part of creation. In that case, we would be guilty of self-destructive idolatry, perhaps even a kind of cognitive idolatry where we demand a certain sort of knowledge or evidence of God inappropriate to a filial relationship with God. To the extent that we violate God's program of human volitional transformation, we are slaves to selfishness and we need to be set free.
The secular wisdom of philosophers, however sophisticated, does not offer the freedom humans need. It lacks the needed power to set us free from self-defensive fear, to transform us from the inside out toward God's character of all-inclusive love. Only the freeing power of God's transforming and sustaining love toward us by example and revelation can serve this purpose. Only it can prompt the kind of gratitude and freedom from fear central to redemptive transformation. We must sincerely apprehend our genuine need of God’s sustaining love to appreciate God properly, that is to say, gratefully, humbly, and obediently.
Cognitive idolatry as characterized above can block us from the needed transformation toward freedom and unselfish love. It often rests on a principle of this form:
Unless God (if God exists) supplies evidence of kind K, God’s existence is too hidden to warrant reasonable acknowledgment.
The problem is not with a principle of this form but is rather with the specification of kind K. If we specify K in a way that disregards the personal character and redemptive intentions of the Jewish-Christian God, thereby isolating ourselves from the divine challenge of transformation, we exhibit cognitive idolatry. We then embrace a cognitive commitment designed to exclude God as Lord in our lives. This is the basis of cognitive idolatry. It stems from the human desire to be, or at least to appoint, the ultimate authority for our lives, as if we were entitled to this. We thereby isolate ourselves from important available evidence of God, blinding ourselves from the supreme reality and authority over us as dependent cognitive creatures. We thereby suppress the truth about God’s reality.
The extent to which we know God depends on the extent to which we are gratefully willing to acknowledge God’s authority and, as a result, to participate in God's program of all-inclusive redemption. So it becomes clear why humans have difficulty in knowing God. The difficulty originates in our resisting transformation toward God’s morally perfect all-loving character. It is altogether presumptuous, then, for us humans to approach the question whether God exists as if we were automatically in an appropriate moral and epistemic position to handle it reliably. Careful reflection on the character and purposes inherent to an all-compassionate God recommends an approach less cavalier than that typical of humans, including philosophers. We are, after all, inquiring about a very special kind of personal agent with distinctive purposes, and not just an ordinary household object or laboratory specimen. We humans cannot easily abide a gracious Being who evades our sophisticated self-approving cognitive nets.
As all-compassionate Reconciler, God is not after mere justified true belief that God exists. God cares about how we handle evidence of God's existence, in particular, whether we become more grateful and loving in handling it. Contrary to a typical philosophical attitude, then, knowledge of God is not a spectator sport. It is rather part of a process of God’s thorough make-over of a person. It is, from our side of the process, akin to an active commitment to a morally transforming personal relationship rather than to a mere subjective state. We come to know God only as God becomes our God, the Lord of our lives, rather than just an object of our contemplation or self-indulgence. God refuses, for our own good, to become a mere idol of our cognition, speculation, or entertainment. We exhibit self-destructive arrogance in assuming that we can have proper knowledge of God without undergoing deep, even painful, moral transformation.
Proper knowledge of the Jewish-Christian God is inherently ethical and practical rather than simply reflective. Sad to say, mere spectators complaining from remote regions may in fact remain out in those regions by their own self-isolating choice. Properly knowing God requires one’s apprehending a call —a real personal call— to come in from the remote regions and gratefully join God's all-inclusive plan of gracious redemption. This plan is no mere intellectual puzzle for philosophers. God is more serious than our mental gymnastics, for our own good. We do, after all, have lives to form and to live, not just thoughts to think or intellectual puzzles to solve.
In the Gospel of John (7:3-4), Jesus faces a version of the problem of hiding raised by his own brothers (who, according to verse 5, did not believe in him). His brothers tell him that nobody works in hiding while seeking to be known openly. Their challenge is straightforward: "Manifest (φανέρωσον) yourself to the world" (John 7:4; cf. John 10:24). Part of Jesus's reply is that the world hates him because he testifies that its works are evil. He thus suggests that the world has the wrong moral attitude toward him. John then portrays Jesus as teaching in the temple that if anyone wills (θέλῃ) to do the will of God, that person will know (γνώσεται) whether Jesus's teaching is from God (7:17). Note the importance of one's willing to do the will of God, in John’s epistemology.
One of Jesus's disciples asks why he will not manifest (ἐμφανίζειν) himself to the world (7:22). The disciple’s thinking is familiar: why hide from the world if you have miraculous powers? Jesus offers, as before, a reply that highlights the importance of human moral attitude. "If a person loves me, that person will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him" (7:23; cf. Jn 14:21). The reply assumes that the world does not love the things of God and that therefore God's manifestation would not have a result desired by God. In another context, Jesus remarks that "an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign" (Matthew 12:39). The key assumption is that God desires not mere acknowledgment or intellectual assent, but an attitude of gratitude, trust, and love.
The Jewish-Christian God is anything but epistemically “safe,” or controllable. We cannot control either God or God’s hiding on occasion. So we cannot remove God’s hiding with our self-made recipes. The Jewish-Christian God leaves us empty-handed when we insist on seeking with our self-made recipes, including familiar recipe-like religious practices. We therefore cannot “solve” the problem of divine hiding if a solution requires a self-made recipe to remove such hiding or even an adequate, comprehensive explanation of God’s intentions in hiding. We are, after all, neither God nor God’s advisers; at best, we are God’s obedient children. So we should not be surprised at all that we lack our own means to banish, or even to explain adequately, God’s occasional hiding. Even so, this lack does not preclude our having good evidence of God’s reality, including the reality of God’s self-giving love for us. Our having such evidence does not require our having a theodicy (or, for that matter, any kind of adequate explanation) for divine hiddenness, just as it does not require our having a theodicy for natural and moral evil. In general, one’s having evidence of the reality of a person, S, does not require one’s having a comprehensive explanation of the intentions of S.
God’s ways need not line up with our preferred ways of approaching God, epistemically, morally, or otherwise. This is one central message of the biblical writings, and it fits with God’s distinctive role in the human predicament, including our epistemological predicament. God is the supreme Gift-Giver who seeks us prior to our seeking God. This is what Hebraic covenant love (chesed) and Christian grace (charis) are all about. If we love God, it is because God first loved us and offered God’s love to us (as is rightly emphasized by Nygren 1953, Pt. II, chap. 6, and Morris 1981, chap. 7). The order here is crucial, epistemologically and morally. For our own good, God calls for our grateful surrender to the compassionate Gift-Giver, not for our anxiously casting about with our own self-crediting recipes for finding God. So the Jewish-Christian God is not the God of our own schemes, however well-intentioned they may be.
God reveals God on God’s gracious terms, as a gift, rather than on our self-crediting terms. Some widely favored epistemological conditions for God involve displays of miracle, power, and sophisticated wisdom. Such conditions amount to a triumphalist epistemology that readily promotes self-exaltation instead of God’s humble love. Rather than settle for grateful acceptance of God’s gift of (a) personal, filial knowledge of God and (b) God’s personal assurance of God’s presence, we often prefer to earn our knowledge of God, on our own terms. We prefer to have epistemological control here as elsewhere in our lives. The Jewish-Christian God, in contrast, favors an epistemology of humble, self-giving compassion, where God serves as the eager but humble epistemological Gift-Giver and we serve as grateful recipients. It is only out of our acknowledged weakness —our recognized need— that we have true gratitude toward God. We should let God be God, that is, be disarmingly and transformingly gracious, even in epistemology. Otherwise, frustration awaits us.
The Jewish-Christian God values knowing as unselfish loving, rather than knowing as merely contemplating or theorizing properly. Such knowing as loving is altogether fitting for members of God’s family, and it has obvious moral consequences. We grow in knowing God by sharing in God’s compassionate nature and thereby becoming genuinely compassionate. In other words, God’s children are conformed, willingly and gladly, to the character of the parent and thereby increase in knowledge of the parent. The relevant compassion is not a self-made or independent precondition for knowing God. Rather, it results, as God’s gift, from sincere openness to conformity to God. God’s transforming love is poured out in our hearts in a way that is epistemically as well as morally crucial for knowing the God of unmatched love. In the absence of such love, we are ever prey to a kind of self-defensive fear incompatible with genuine love and thus with properly knowing God.
Our habitual refusal to love as God loves blinds us from seeing the things of God. Our recurring attitude of ingratitude is particularly self-blinding with regard to God. Indeed, ingratitude is the poisonous root of resistance to God; it is a corrosive attitude that drives God into hiding. Via gratitude for gifts received, in contrast, we come to trust and even to love God, thereby growing in knowledge of God. (On the central role of gratitude toward God in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, see Guthrie 1981 and Hardy and Ford 1985.) We must welcome the gift of God’s presence for it to benefit us by transforming us. Proper seeking of God entails inviting and welcoming God with gratitude. Merely drawing inferences, however sound, will not fill this bill.
6. Evidence, Signs, and Love
Corresponding to thin and robust theism, we have noted two kinds of knowledge of God: (i) propositional knowledge that God exists, and (ii) reconciling, filial knowledge as one’s humbly, faithfully, and lovingly standing in a relationship to the Jewish-Christian God as righteously gracious Father. Filial knowledge of God requires propositional knowledge that God exists, but it obviously exceeds propositional knowledge. One can know that God exists but fail altogether to love God. Filial knowledge of God, in contrast, includes our being reconciled to God (at least to some degree) through a loving filial relationship with God. It requires our entrusting ourselves as obedient children to God in grateful love, thereby being transformed in who we are and in how we exist, not just in what we believe.
As compassionate, God is not satisfied by our merely knowing that God exists. Such mere propositional knowledge falls far short of what God values by way of redemption: namely, that all people freely choose to be transformed by God from self-serving to self-giving, loving servants of the God of morally serious love. (For Jewish and Christian suggestions of this ideal, see, for example, Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:12-13; Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:28-30). As all-loving, God aims that all people freely come to be morally perfect as God is morally perfect. Given this aim, God has no reason to offer undeniable, or insuppressible, evidence that would produce mere propositional knowledge that God exists, even if God has offered adequate available evidence for our coming to know that God exists. Love of God cannot be coerced but must be freely given. In respecting human freedom, God has offered evidence of God that allows for deniability of God’s existence. God does not value knowledge that God exists apart from filial knowledge of God, given God’s redemptive aim. God desires that we know God as God, specifically, as our gracious Father. God is epistemically sovereign and morally demanding in that God, rather than humans, sets the conditions for personally knowing God, and these conditions are sensitive to our receptive attitude toward God. We are, as suggested previously, in no position to demand that the God of the universe meet our favored evidential strictures.
The Jewish-Christian approach to filial knowledge of God gives primacy to revelation from God. It thus offers a top-down rather than a bottom-up approach to the source of filial knowledge of God. This explains the absence of esoteric philosophical reasoning about God in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Even if filial knowledge of God is available to all honest seekers, its realization comes via —and not in advance of— an attitude of sincere openness to our loving God with the kind of love characteristic of God. This fits with the Christian message that God is love, that is, inherently loving (see 1 John 4:8,16; cf. 2 Corinthians 13:11). In light of this message, our resisting God’s characteristic kind of love, in practice as well as in mindset, is to reject God.
Given God's redemptive aim to transform all persons morally via knowledge of God, each person must individually seek filial knowledge of God. You cannot give me your filial knowledge of God; nor can anyone else. In fact, only God can show you God in a way that constitutes reconciling, morally transforming knowledge of God. Other people cannot accomplish this on their own for you. Others can only help with some of the preconditions for knowing God. The needed turning away from selfishness, ingratitude, and self-righteousness —the core of resisting God— demands a kind of repentance, or turning of mindset, that is necessarily personal. It cannot be done by proxy. Personal repentance is not, however, evidentially arbitrary, as all mature human persons have evidence from moral conscience that their self-righteousness and selfishness toward others lack adequate support from the quality of their actual moral character. Our frequently presumed status of superior moral importance is but presumption and presumptuousness, and we can readily know this on due reflection. Our recurring moral pride is indeed a thin veneer.
Critics will object that God's presence is too ambiguous, at best, to merit reasonable acknowledgment. Surely, so the objection goes, God owes us more miraculous signs and wonders, whatever God’s redemptive aims. Why does not God entertain us, once and for all, with some decisive manifestations of God’s awesome power? After all, it would not cost God anything, and it may vanquish nagging doubts about God’s existence. Surely, a truly loving God would use miraculous powers to free us from our doubts. God's redemptive purposes, many will therefore object, do not exonerate God from the charge of excess restraint in manifestation. N.R. Hanson (1971, p. 322), for example, rejects theism given the absence of striking observable happenings that establish God’s existence. If God exists, God is blameworthy for inadequate self-revelation.
Many people have misguided expectations about what exactly miraculous signs will accomplish in a person. Miracles, like ordinary events, are interpretively flexible. They logically admit of various coherent (not to be confused with correct) interpretations, including naturalistic, nonmiraculous interpretations. Miraculous events do not impose their interpretations on us. For better or worse, we interpreters must decide on our interpretations of events, and various background beliefs and motives typically influence our interpretive decisions. We thus should not regard miraculous signs as proofs for all inquirers. A miraculous sign can prompt and build trust toward God in people genuinely open to God's intervention, but not in all people.
The best explanation of a striking event may be that it is miraculous, but if your background assumptions were thoroughly materialistic, such an explanation would not prevail for you, by your standards. You would then find an alternative treatment of the striking event, perhaps even withholding judgment on its interpretation. Even the best explanation of events can be freely and consistently rejected, given certain alterations in a system of beliefs. Accordingly, the conclusion of the New Testament story of the rich man and Lazarus is: "If [people] do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead" (Luke 16:31). The gospel of John concurs regarding the ineffectiveness of miraculous signs in producing faith: "After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them. Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him" (John 12:36-37).
What about people open to God's intervention but not yet believing in God? Would not they benefit from miraculous signs by coming to believe in God? Perhaps. Let's distinguish between people passively open to belief in God and people actively open to belief in God. People passively open to such belief do not put any serious effort into examining whether God has intervened, for example, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Such people are "open" to God with striking indifference. This indifference manifests itself in failure to act in ways that take seriously the availability of evidence for God. Passive openness is, accordingly, mere lip service to taking an interest in the availability of evidence for God. We do not appropriately value evidence for God if we do not take a morally serious interest in the availability of such evidence. Passive openness is thus an improper, insufficiently serious attitude toward available evidence for God. It trivializes a matter of the utmost importance.
People actively open to belief in God take a morally serious interest in the availability of evidence for God. Such an interest has potential morally transforming effects. These people are not morally indifferent about whether God has intervened, for example, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They take a morally serious interest in available evidence for God's intervention. (For some elaboration on the relation between God and moral seriousness, see Thielicke 1972, pp. 104-13). The aforementioned Jewish-Christian conception of filial knowledge of God implies that people suitable for such knowledge must be actively willing to be morally transformed toward the character of God. An important question regarding such people is whether their coming to believe in God —at least for some of them— requires their being directly presented with a miraculous sign from God. Are there, in other words, morally serious seekers who would believe in God if and only if they had firsthand a miraculous sign from God? Perhaps, but the question is perplexing owing to vagueness in the phrase "a miraculous sign from God."
Let's distinguish morally impotent and morally transforming miraculous signs. Morally impotent miraculous signs can entertain people but cannot transform their moral character. Morally transforming signs, in contrast, change one's moral character toward the moral character of God. People often seek mere entertainment from visible phenomena, whereas God seeks our moral transformation, from the inside out. As noted previously, Isaiah 58:2 portrays the Hebraic God as complaining about the Israelites that "day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God." The New Testament likewise discourages our seeking after morally impotent signs from God. It nonetheless promises a morally transforming sign to genuine seekers after God, seekers actively open to moral transformation toward God's moral character. Since this sign is a definitive sign from the God of morally serious love, we should expect it to manifest the character of God: God’s morally serious love. The New Testament confirms this expectation repeatedly. Paul, for example, states: “Hope in God does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts via the Holy Spirit given to us” (Romans 5:5; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:16-17; 1 John 4:12-13,16,19. On the role of the Spirit in Paul’s epistemology, see 1 Corinthians 2:4-16; see also Hays 1997, pp. 26-47.)
The presence of God's morally transforming love is the central epistemic, or evidential, foundation for filial knowledge of God. Such love is a foundational source of knowledge of God (cf. Colossians 2:2; 1 Corinthians 8:2-3.) It is real evidence of God’s reality and presence. This love is a matter of personal intervention by God and the basis of a personal relationship with God. It is the distinctive presence of a personal God. So the filial knowledge in question rests on morally transforming divine love that produces a loving character in genuine children of God, even if at times such people obstruct God's transformation. This transformation happens to one, in part, and thus is neither purely self-made nor simply the byproduct of a self-help strategy. (I say “in part” owing to the role of human freedom in seeking and responding to God.) This widely neglected supernatural sign is available (at God’s appointed time) to anyone who turns to God with moral seriousness. It transforms one's will (a) to have gratitude, trust, and love toward God and (b) to love others unselfishly. Accordingly, we know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.... Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love" (1 John 3:14, 4:8, NRSV). We need to learn, then, how to apprehend, and to be apprehended by, God’s love for all people. Such divine love is neither a proposition nor an argument.
God’s self-revelation of transforming love will take us beyond mere historical and scientific probabilities to a firm foundation of personal acquaintance with God. As Paul remarks, in our sincerely crying out “Abba, Father” to God (note the Jesus-inspired filial content of this cry), God’s Spirit confirms to our spirit that we are indeed children of God (Romans 8:16). We thereby receive God’s personal assurance of our filial relationship with God. This assurance is more robust than any kind of theoretical certainty offered by philosophers or theologians. It liberates a person from dependence merely on the quagmire of speculation, hypothesis-formation, probabilistic inference, or guesswork about God. Such assurance yields a distinctive kind of grounded firm confidence in God unavailable elsewhere. God thus merits credit even for proper human confidence in God (cf. Ephesians 2:8).
The evidence of God's presence offered by character transformation in God's genuine (not just nominal) children deserves serious consideration. It goes much deeper than the comparatively superficial evidence found in entertaining signs, wonders, visions, ecstatic experiences, and philosophical arguments. We could consistently dismiss any such sign, wonder, vision, ecstatic experience, or argument as illusory or indecisive, given certain alterations in our beliefs. In contrast, genuine character transformation toward the Jewish-Christian God’s ideal of all-inclusive love does not admit of easy dismissal. It bears directly on who one really is, the kind of person one actually is. Such transformation cuts too deeply against our natural tendencies toward selfishness to qualify as a self-help gimmick. It thus offers a kind of firm evidence that resists quick dismissal.
God takes us too seriously to have us settle for entertaining signs and wonders rather than character transformation toward all-inclusive love. If ultimate value lies in filial knowledge of God, rather than in mere propositional knowledge that God exists, manifestational pyrotechnics will be optional and not mandatory for God. They are not suitably morally transforming in the way required by filial knowledge of God. In this regard, they are markedly inferior to the supernatural sign just identified: the transforming presence of God's morally serious love. An all-loving God would, by nature, make God’s presence available to humans at God’s appointed time. God’s presence, however, need not exceed the presence of God’s morally serious love or be available apart from morally serious inquiry and seeking. In particular, God’s presence need not include miracles irrelevant to moral transformation toward a character of morally serious love (although God could use such miracles to attract the attention of some humans). An all-loving God can properly make confident knowledge of God’s existence arise simultaneously with filial knowledge of God. Accordingly, God is exonerated from the charge of irresponsibly refraining from entertaining signs, so long as God reveals God’s presence to anyone suitably receptive. N.R. Hanson’s demand for striking entertaining signs from God trivializes God’s central aim: to bring unloving people to love God and others, even enemies. No aim is more difficult or more important.
As all-loving Reconciler, God does try (at God’s appointed time) to draw all people into the kingdom of God, through (for example) human conscience and the explanation-seeking why-questions noted previously. God, however, does not extinguish our free choice. Neither God nor anyone else can coerce genuine gratitude, trust, or love. Free choice is a prerequisite for loving relationships, and in keeping with full moral goodness, God seeks such personal relationships above all else. In general, God seeks the freely chosen grateful union of our wills with God's morally serious loving will; only then is genuine all-inclusive community possible. Given the signs of personal excellence left by God in ourselves and the rest of creation, we should seek after God and thereby come to know God. It does not follow, however, that all of us will accept the responsibility of seeking after God. The demands of discipleship are simply too inconvenient for many of us, given our chosen priorities. We thus refuse to be displaced from the center of our universe. Still, a gracious God challenges our self-destructive blinders that aim to shut out God's program of all-inclusive redemption. We cannot plausibly blame God, then, for the blinders we sometimes stubbornly choose to wear.
7. Hiding, Seeking, and Theodicy
The Divine Purposes Reply to the problem of God's hiding enables Jewish-Christian theism to assume the burden of support for its commitment to a God of morally serious love. It also enables us to acknowledge that Jewish-Christian theism not only is testable now in a morally serious manner, but also should be tested now by every person. Each person must test for himself or herself by seeking God with due humility and moral seriousness, as pride and frivolity will automatically blind one from seeing God and our genuine need of God. The appropriate test cannot be accomplished by "neutral" examination of evidence, whatever that might be; it requires one's willingness to forsake all diversions for the required moral transformation. Filial knowledge of God is by grace, not by earning, but the grace is available (at God’s appointed time) to all who call on God with sincere humility and due moral seriousness.
My position implies that we can “reconcile” divine hiddenness and a perfectly loving God at a personal evidential level but not at a comprehensive explanatory level. It rests on the following biblical promise: “When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord....” (Jeremiah 29:13-14; cf. Matthew 7:7-8). In addition, my position maintains a sharp distinction between: (a) When you search for God aright, you will find God, and (b) When you search for God aright, you will find an adequate, comprehensive explanation of why God hides at times. Promise (a) does not rely on promise (b) and thus does not underwrite a theodicy or any comprehensive explanation for divine hiddenness. Promise (a) is limited to the issue of one’s acquiring evidence of God’s reality.
Even though a theodicy for divine hiddenness is unavailable to us, promise (a) can hold good and be valuable to humans. Human seeking can contribute to a valuable learned appreciation of God’s revelation involving volitional conformity to God’s character. In demanding human seeking, God upholds the value of divine revelation, thereby saving it from becoming “cheap and easy” to humans. God’s aim is to have humans appreciate, treasure, and be transformed by, divine love, not just to think about it.
Human seeking, even when followed by one’s finding God, does not produce a theodicy for divine hiddenness, because it does not yield an adequate, comprehensive explanation of God’s hiddenness. The Jewish-Christian God not only is hidden at times but also actively hides at times (as is assumed by Jesus’s cry of dereliction on the cross). If God does indeed actively hide from people at times, then an adequate explanation of God’s hiddenness will have to appeal to God’s intentions in hiding, beyond any human cognitive restrictions owing to sin. Even when human seeking delivers evidence of God, one can be ignorant of the specific intentions motivating God’s hiding at times. In fact, we often are ignorant in that regard. This should be no surprise given the differences between God and humans. (This is one of the main lessons of the book of Job.) The important point, however, is that our lacking an adequate explanation of divine hiding does not challenge anyone’s having good evidence of God’s reality and love. Having such evidence is one thing; explaining God’s intentions in hiding is quite another.
It would be question begging to portray divine hiddenness as falsifying widespread religious experience of God’s reality. Divine hiddenness facing some people at some times, or even some people at all past and present times, does not underwrite divine hiddenness relative to all people at all times. So there is no clear defensible way to generalize on actual cases of divine hiddenness to encompass all people. A generalized argument for atheism or agnosticism, then, seems not to emerge from divine hiddenness. Any such argument would require specific premises independent of divine hiddenness. It is unclear, however, what such premises would be. Their absence suggests a special problem of hiddenness facing a generalized case for atheism or agnosticism from divine hiddenness.
The "proof" of God is, finally, in morally serious testing. Seek aright, then, and you will find incomparable knowledge and new life as well. What's more, the joyous firstfruits of the eventual redemption (where God will wipe away every tear and death and suffering shall be no more) are already apparent in our sadly broken world —if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. When our diagnosing God gives way to our thanking and even praising God, we shall know for sure that we have been made new. The Jewish-Christian God is, in the end, hidden only in God’s unique superhuman love for all.*
*I gladly thank Peter Bergeron, Tom Carson, Paul Copan, Stephen T. Davis, Garry DeWeese, Doug Geivett, Tim O’Connor, Alan Padgett, and Jonathan Westphal for helpful comments on ancestors of parts of this essay. I presented earlier versions at Biola University, Wheaton College, North Park University, Loyola University of Chicago, Hope College, George Fox University, and the 2000 Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. I thank the audiences on those occasions for helpful discussions and Daniel Howard-Snyder for arranging an excellent conference on divine hiddenness at George Fox University in Oregon.
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