Saturday, November 7, 2009
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!”