From: For Faith and Clarity, ed. J. Beilby (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006)
COGNITIVE GRACE, FILIAL KNOWLEDGE, AND GETHSEMANE STRUGGLE
Paul K. Moser
University of Chicago
What if the God and Father of Jesus the Jewish outcast really is God, the true God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth? What if, in particular, the true God really is cognitively subtle, morally challenging, and perfectly loving toward us humans? In that case, we may have to rethink our lazy preconceptions regarding appropriate evidence of God’s reality. We may then have to recast our standards for evidence of God’s reality to fit God’s sometimes unsettling but nonetheless loving ways. This would call for a kind of cognitive modesty rare among philosophers and people in general.
“What if?” questions loom large in philosophy, past and present. They figure prominently in philosophical efforts to formulate best available explanations of relevant data. For instance, in metaphysics, some philosophers look at how we ascribe truth and ask: what if truth bearers are abstract propositions rather than sentences? In epistemology, some philosophers look at how justification accrues to empirical beliefs and ask: what if perceptual experiences, rather than beliefs, are the ultimate justifiers of empirical beliefs? The general explanatory strategy is straightforward and is captured by this question: what if reality is actually this way? Does the assumption that reality is this way shed explanatory light otherwise unavailable? Does it make sense of relevant data needing illumination? Such explanation-seeking questions underlie the familiar pattern of inference to a best available explanation in philosophy, in the sciences, and in everyday life.1
What about human knowledge of the reality of God? Do “What if?” questions figure in the assessment of that matter? If so, how? This essay pursues these issues. It contends that the reality of the true God is cognitively accessible in a way that depends on human openness to cognitive grace, filial knowledge, and the moral struggle exemplified by Jesus in Gethsemane.
1. Attunement and Agape Transformation
Let’s use the term ‘God’ as a title connoting a being who is worthy of worship and is thus morally impeccable. (Use of such a title leaves it open, of course, whether a title-holder actually exists.) Let’s suppose, then, that a divine title-holder must be a God of corrective love who seeks to save people from their unloving ways. In being loving, God must refrain from coercing or intimidating people into accepting divine commands. God thus must allow people to reject the divine invitation to be saved from unloving ways. In addition, God must not be arbitrary in loving people. God must love all people at all times with full love. God must be, in this respect, all-loving. The true God, in being all-loving, would seek to encourage and to teach all people how to become loving toward God and other people as God is loving. God would seek to accomplish this by means of our acquiring and sustaining a loving relationship with Him. We may call this a filial relationship, whereby God becomes our loving Father and we become loving children of God. This filial relationship would personalize the process of our learning how to love others. It would teach us to be loving via communion and fellowship with a perfect personal lover who is our Father. The process would thus go beyond moral injunction to personal acquaintance, interaction, and challenge in relationship with God as our Father.
Let’s develop an analogy for illustration. I own a Uniden Police-Band and Aircraft Scanner. This is a scanning radio that searches for active frequencies between 29 and 956 MHz. This range includes communications by police and fire departments, aircraft, national weather services, ambulances, railroads, buses, taxis, some TV stations, and even ham radio operators. My scanner also picks up older cell phones and mobile phones in the area; so, if you care for your privacy, it’s a good idea to replace such phones with newer ones. My scanner enables me to listen in on pretty much every radio communication going on in my part of the world. Of course, we cannot see, touch, taste, or smell the various frequencies, but they are nonetheless real and valuable. Indeed, many of the frequencies are crucial to the communication system underlying a stable society. Without police radio communication, for instance, we are all in big trouble indeed.
My scanner has a telescoping antenna that can be pointed in different directions for improved reception. If I adjust the antenna in a certain way, I can block the reception of some frequencies. My scanner also enables me to skip undesired frequencies, for instance, the banter of ham radio operators. What’s more, my scanner comes with “Search Delay.” I can delay at will the search for new frequencies. So I have remarkable control over the frequencies received by my scanner. I am, we might say, the lord of my scanner.
The most excitement by far occurs on the police frequencies. These frequencies offer exciting car chases, foot chases, and other police cases that are the stuff of TV detective shows. I can select which Chicago police district to monitor, and I can switch between districts with ease. Moreover, with the turn of a dial or the push of a button I can silence the police department dispatcher. I am indeed the lord of my scanner’s reception. I am able and often willing to tune in or to tune out the frequencies I choose.
The reality of the frequencies activating my scanner does not depend on my tuning in to them. The frequencies are real even if I’m asleep at my scanner. We are bombarded with radio waves at all hours, even if we are unaware of them. Similarly, the available evidence of the reality of the radio waves is independent of my tuning in to them. (My not actually having evidence does not mean that it is not available to me.) My failure to turn on my scanner or to adjust its antenna properly may leave me with no evidence of the reality of, say, the ham radio transmissions in my neighborhood. Even so, the distinctive evidence of ham radio activity can be acquired by all who seek it properly. To acquire the evidence, one need only turn on a suitable scanner, raise its antenna, and adjust the scanner to receive the appropriate frequency. In other words, one must tune in to the desired frequency, and this requires some careful decision-making, focusing, and maneuvering. People who do not tune in will lack a certain kind of evidence that is nonetheless readily available to them. Radio waves can carry good news, but if we are not attuned (tuned in), we’ll miss out on the good news. The good news can be available to us but, nonetheless, not actually received by us.
Let’s extend the analogy a bit. All of us are on a sinking desert island, alone with our personal scanners. Our food and water supplies are dangerously low. Our relationships with one another are frayed and have resulted in selfish factions and fights. We’re even willing to sacrifice the well being of others for our own selfish good. Genuine community has broken down, and, in the absence of a rescuer, we’ll all soon perish. Our island is sinking, and we are too. Successful scanning for a rescuer is our only hope. Will we connect with a rescuer? Will we survive?
Turning to our actual shared predicament, we are all on a planetary island facing moral breakdown and final death. Any daily newspaper will confirm this human predicament, with war stories and obituaries. Our access to the reality of God is analogous to our access to frequencies on my scanner. We need somehow to “tune in” to the reality and the available evidence of God. God is, after all, an invisible Spirit with definite character traits and purposes. We need, accordingly, to point our scanner’s antenna in the right direction. The “right” direction, relative to an all-loving God, does not automatically match the direction of our own lives. God, in being all-loving, has a character and purposes significantly different from our own. His direction thus differs from our own.
The desert islanders should not expect themselves to have control or authority over which frequency a rescuer uses. If they stubbornly insist on such authority, they may very well overlook the frequency actually occupied by a rescuer. They should at least ask: Who is entitled to choose the rescuer’s frequency for communication? The islanders or the rescuer? Once we ask such questions, we see that the islanders have no authority to demand how the rescuer is revealed. Their expectations of the rescuer should be conformed to the character and purposes of the rescuer, and not vice versa. Likewise, we shouldn’t expect God to appear on the evening TV news or even a Sunday talk show if this would be at odds with God’s all-loving character and purposes.
Our starting question, then, is not so much whether God exists but rather what the character and purposes of an all-loving God would be. In addition, we should ask at the start: what kind of human knowledge of God would an all-loving God seek? The most direct answer is that God would seek the kind of knowledge that advances God’s kind of love among human knowers. In particular, an all-loving God would seek filial knowledge of God whereby humans become loving children of God and thus know God, in sacred relationship, as their loving Father. This is the lesson of the Jewish scriptures and the Christian scriptures (see, e.g., Isaiah 63:16, 64:8-9; Jeremiah 31:9; Romans 8:15-16; John 1:12), although the Christian scriptures, under the influence of Jesus, stress this lesson more than the Jewish scriptures do.2
Suppose that I tune in to just self-indulgent frequencies, devoting my life exclusively to what advances my own selfish purposes. I might be the kind of islander who cares only about my own rescue, on my own selfish terms, even at the expense of other islanders. In that case, I would be nowhere near the available evidence of the reality of an all-loving God. I would then have my antenna pointed in the wrong direction for purposes of receiving evidence of God’s reality. An all-loving God would communicate on a frequency available to all people who are open to divine rescue on God’s terms. God’s frequency is not the exclusive possession of the educated, the physically strong, the wealthy, or any other group that automatically excludes others. An all-loving God would seek all-inclusive community under the umbrella of God’s genuine love. Such a God would desire that everyone be rescued from destruction, even the most pathetic and repulsive among us and even all of our enemies, including God’s enemies. This is not, of course, a typical human desire, but it would be integral to an all-loving God. God’s ways differ from our selfish ways.
Failure to apprehend evidence of God can result from my looking for God under a misguided conception of God. I might portray God as grudging, vindictive, excessively restrictive, or harmful to my identity. In that case, my scanning for God might find a frequency reflecting me, but I will not find an all-loving God who is worthy of worship. Alternatively, I might conceive of God as offering only pampering, pandering love that does not challenge us to be morally good as God is. In that case, my scanning for God would yield mere noise, not an intelligible frequency. I would then fail to tune in to the true God worthy of worship. I would then be looking in the wrong direction. My attention would be directed toward a convenient idol of my own making.
We sometimes try to avoid God out of self-protective fear. We fear that God will rob us of something good for us or at least something we rightfully want. As a result, we refuse to take seriously the available evidence of God’s reality. We might even completely shut down some frequency ranges on our scanner, thereby trying to suppress the issue whether there is available evidence of God’s reality. Many people do just this. Our self-protective fear sometimes yields even antipathy toward God. Candidly, Thomas Nagel reports his fearful hope that God does not exist. He avowedly wants a universe without God. Nagel has a “cosmic authority problem” with God.3 A highly educated atheist acquaintance of mine has a similar attitude toward God. When asked how he would respond if after death he met God directly, he replied that he would immediately kill himself. These are sad cases of our self-protective fears banishing God from human lives. All humans may suffer from this problem to some degree. It is the problem of ultimate authority for our lives. We typically want to be, or at least to appoint, the ultimate authority for our lives, as if we had a right to this. We thereby deceive ourselves, blinding ourselves from the supreme reality and authority over our lives. We end up looking in the wrong direction, in a place where God is not allowed to be God.
The needed attunement with God’s self-revelation requires more than a good thought or even a good system of beliefs. This self-revelation, comprising God’s “frequency,” manifests God’s forgiving love of the kind demonstrated by the cross of Jesus (cf. Rom. 5:8). The needed attunement is, then, the proper reception of His love rather than just a new belief. Since this love announces forgiveness, it also pronounces judgment on us. Our being offered forgiveness presumes that we are in the wrong and thus in need of forgiveness. This means that my will is in the wrong and in need of correction by God’s will. The proper reception of God’s forgiving love requires that I subject my faulty, selfish will to God’s perfect, loving will. This reception is an ongoing struggle, and not just an intellectual commitment. It cuts to the core of my intentions and desires, the attitudes that motivate me. It is thus a power struggle between God and me.
Divine love comes to us, then, in the merciful judgment of forgiveness, and our receiving it involves a revolution in our wills relative to God’s will. It thus requires a new life-direction, motivated by the obedient resolve shown by Jesus in Gethsemane toward his Father: “Not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14: 36; cf. Matt. 26:39, Luke 22:42). This life-direction begins with acknowledgment of our inadequacy before God relative to God’s all-loving character. In this respect, we come under divine love’s judgment, owing to our failure to meet the expectations and commands of an all-loving God. We must struggle to welcome this judgment of love and to submit our wills to the loving will of the One eager to forgive us.
The extent to which we know God, in a filial manner, depends on the extent to which we are gratefully willing to acknowledge God’s noncoercive authority for us and, as a result, to participate in God's life of redemptive love. It thus becomes obvious why we humans (not just atheists and agnostics) have difficulty in knowing God. The difficulty comes from our resisting God’s authority for us. The heart of this resistance is our resisting God’s desired agape transformation of us: that is, our change in the direction of God’s morally perfect all-loving character. We contradict Gethsemane, in saying or in acting as if we are saying: “Not what You will, God, but what I will.” We thus supplant God’s will, and thereby steal the place of God. We do this, in effect, whenever we yield to selfishness.
The needed Gethsemane struggle is against our own selfishness that opposes divine love. This is a fight against the enemy within, the enemy of self-giving love. Given such resistance of ours to an all-loving God, it is simply presumptuous for us humans to approach the question whether God exists as if we were automatically in an appropriate moral and cognitive position to handle it reliably. God is, after all, a very special kind of agent with distinctive purposes, and not a household object or laboratory specimen. God is, in being all-loving, significantly different from us and even foreign to us. We do not readily line up with God’s all-loving character and purposes. Our habitual selfishness shows this beyond any doubt. We are thus in no position to presume our acceptability before God on our terms. We do well, instead, to welcome God’s merciful corrective judgment upon us.
Filial knowledge of God requires one’s welcoming and embracing a child-parent, or filial, relationship to God as one’s righteously gracious Father. It includes filial trust in God as one’s rescuer from all that is bad, including moral failure and death. Its heart of obedience emerges, as just suggested, in Gethsemane: “Not what I will, but what You will.” Such filial knowledge rarely, if ever, emerges in philosophy of religion or even in Jewish-Christian approaches to knowledge of God. The result is widespread misunderstanding of suitable knowledge of an all-loving God.
Consider Jesus of Nazareth. His awareness of being God's beloved son was no matter of mere intellectual assent. It was rather a profound experiential relationship calling for talk of God as Father (or, Abba), in keeping with the Hebrew scriptures (e.g., Isaiah 63:16). Jesus was embraced, even overwhelmed, by his Father's merciful love and its morally transforming effects.4 His experience of being God’s son is clearly expressed in his prayers (including the Lord’s Prayer and the conflicted prayer in Gethsemane). Indeed, Jesus seems to have regarded filial prayer toward God, in response to God’s amazing love, as an ideal avenue to filial knowledge of God. Such prayer is primarily a matter of asking and hearing what God as our loving Father wants from us rather than what we want from God. This kind of humble prayer figures importantly in the issue of what kind of available evidence of God we should expect and pursue.
Filial knowledge of the true God is irreducibly person-relational. We come to know other human persons by actively relating to them in personal interaction with them. Likewise, we come to know God through personal interaction whereby we become personally accountable to God as our loving Father. Through moral conscience, for example, we can be personally convicted on moral grounds by the personal will of God. One could not responsibly apprehend the reality of a parent’s or a spouse’s love for one apart from a genuine personal relationship with that parent or spouse. An analogous point holds for one’s responsibly apprehending the reality of God’s love. Given that the true God is inherently loving, we know of this God’s reality only through our apprehending the reality of God’s merciful love. So filial knowledge of God is irreducible to knowledge that a particular object in the universe exists. It is irreducible also to knowledge that the premises of an argument are true.
The required filial knowledge, in keeping with God’s preeminent personal character, requires that we know God not as a mere object but as the supreme personal subject who is Lord of all, including our own lives. Knowledge of this kind results from cognitive grace, from God's gracious self-revelation of God’s loving character, and not from human ways that are self-crediting, manipulative, or selfishly exclusive. The true God first loved us and sought us, before we sought and came to know God. This God graciously inaugurates covenants of unconditional love with people in order to bring them into filial relationship with God.5
For our own good, we cannot know God on our self-serving terms. Instead, we must conform to God's terms for filial knowledge, and this requires genuine humility and personal commitment on our part toward God. It challenges our supposed cognitive autonomy, and calls for the yielding of our own wills, in faithful obedience, to God’s will. We must receive, enter into, and participate in a loving filial relationship with God in response to His first drawing us toward Himself through conscience and other means. This exceeds intellectual assent to, or acceptance of, a proposition. It demands that we put the true God at the center of our lives, in terms of what and whom we value, love, trust, and obey. This calls for a revolution in our cognitive lives and in our moral lives as well. There is no coming to know the true God without resulting personal agape transformation via the reception of God’s self-giving, forgiving love.
Given all-loving purposes toward us, God must be careful to have His self-manifestation to us elicit from us a freely given response of humble love rather than fear, indifference, or arrogance. In promoting divine love, God cares mainly about what and how we love, not just what we believe. For our own good, God aims that we (a) love God above all else, by subjecting our wills to God’s all-loving will, and (b) thereby live out God’s sacrificial love toward all people. Our filial knowledge of God requires that God’s own love be experienced and received by us. We must ask for it, receive it and yield to it, sincerely and repeatedly. This is the constant struggle of Gethsemane, a struggle won by Jesus and now shared by his followers.
Our transformation toward God’s kind of sacrificial love and reconciliation is noncoercive but still difficult, owing to obstruction from our wills. The needed transforming lessons must be shown to us in action and in relationship rather than simply stated to us in sentences or arguments. We must learn such lessons in obediently living them rather than merely thinking them, because the lessons concern who we are and how we exist, not just what we think. This bears on the needed role of God as the loving source of our personal transformation. God motivates the needed agape transformation by offering and promoting forgiving love. Accordingly, the sacrificial crucifixion of Jesus, as God’s unique son, offers a noncoercive demonstration of God’s self-giving love toward humans.
Given the crucial reality of human free will (a requirement for genuine love), a demonstration of love has no guarantee whatever of full success in being received, even when God is its perfect source. Not even the true God, having supreme power and knowledge, can force or otherwise guarantee genuine loving reconciliation with people. The will of the person loved always plays a crucial role, and some people, evidently, do not accept God’s love. Divine love, then, carries the risk of human rejection. Otherwise, it would be coercion, and not genuine love.
In response to God’s typically subtle call, we must attune ourselves to available evidence of divine self-revelation, the revelation of God’s forgiving love. Failure to receive some evidence stems from psychological facts about the intended recipients, not from flaws in the available evidence itself. People whose receptive attitude is closed to God's call to renewal by self-giving, sacrificial love may be blinded from the available evidence for the reality of the God of sacrificial love. The blinding comes from human attitudes opposed to divine love. If we filter all our evidence through our own self-serving grids, with no openness to God’s call to receive and to promote unselfish love, we will obscure real evidence of the God of sacrificial love. Such filtering will cloud not only the supreme value of God’s sacrificial love but also available evidence of God’s reality.
The evidence of God’s reality may be readily available, but we need a suitable scanner that attends to the needed frequency: God’s forgiving love. We need appropriate “ears to hear and eyes to see” the available evidence. We need a change of receptive attitude to apprehend the available evidence in the right way. This change involves the intended direction of our lives, including our settled priorities. It requires our sincerely receiving God’s sacrificial, forgiving love toward us as the motivational and normative basis for our lives. This demands a renunciation of our supposed independence of God regarding lordship over our lives. It also demands, as noted, that we acknowledge our being under the judgment of divine love. It thus requires that we subject our wills to God’s will, our lives to God’s life of unselfish love.
In resisting transformation toward God’s character of sacrificial love, we may be blinded by our own counterfeit “intelligence” and “wisdom.” We will then lack the kind of humility and filial obedience appropriate to relating to God, cognitively, morally, and otherwise. We will then have assigned the authority appropriate to God to ourselves or to some other part of creation. In that case, we would be guilty of idolatry, the mistake of exchanging God’s rightful authority for a misplaced authority. We commit cognitive idolatry when we demand a certain sort of knowledge or evidence of God inappropriate to a morally transforming filial relationship with God. We thus refuse to receive knowledge of God on God’s terms. This is a failure on our part to let God be God, particularly in the area of our knowing God. We thereby run afoul of God’s rightful authority in the cognitive domain. In that case, we become cognitive rebels against the true God, the original Knower and Lord of all. Our idolatry isolates us from the true God, for it repudiates the true God.
2. Love, Human Transformation, and God
Two kinds of knowledge have figured in our discussion: (i) propositional knowledge that God exists, and (ii) filial knowledge as one's humbly, faithfully, and lovingly standing in a child’s relationship to God as righteously gracious Father. Filial knowledge of God logically requires propositional knowledge that God exists, but it goes beyond such knowledge. One can know that God exists but hate God. Indeed, some people testify to being in such a situation. Propositional knowledge is thus insufficient for filial knowledge. Even the demons believe (and know) that God exists but shudder, according to the epistle of James. Filial knowledge of God, in contrast, includes our being reconciled to God (at least to some extent) through a loving filial relationship with God (or at least the start of such a relationship). It requires our entrusting ourselves as children to God in grateful love, thereby being significantly transformed in who we are and in how we exist, not just in what we believe. Such knowledge is inherently transforming of us toward God’s loving character.
Filial knowing of God is knowing God as Father and Lord in the second-person, that is, as supreme “You.” Divine Lordship entails supreme personal moral leadership, and such moral leadership entails a call to personal moral accountability and direction. When self-centered humans are the recipients of God's call, the call is for moral redirection and transformation toward God's character of sacrificial love. We stand under the judgment of divine love owing to our unloving ways. Knowing God as Lord requires my submitting my will to God in the manner noted previously: “Not my will, but Your will.” Filial knowing of God thus encompasses the spirit of Jesus in Gethsemane, as the way to the cross, in that it depends on our volitional sensitivity and obedience to the will of God. Such knowing requires a genuine commitment to obey God's call, even if the call is to give up one's own life in sacrificial love on a criminal's cross. We thus come to know the true God not in our prideful cognitive and moral strength but rather in our own volitional weakness relative to the priority of God's call and will. God’s love calls us up short, and seeks to change us for the better via filial knowledge of God.
This question arises: are we entitled to know God? Specifically, are we entitled to know that God exists without knowing God as Father and Lord, as the morally supreme agent for our lives? Some people uncritically assume an affirmative answer, but this distorts God’s status relative to humans. A prior question is: who is entitled to decide how one may know God —we 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, in opposition to God’s ways of being known? The question answers itself: no.
God does not owe us any kind of impersonal confirmation of God’s reality whereby we are unchallenged by God’s personal character of merciful, forgiving love. In fact, God owes us nothing beyond faithfulness to a loving character and to His promises stemming from such a character. We see, on reflection, that we have no right to make cognitive demands of God beyond such faithfulness. Nothing requires that God allow for (i) our propositional knowledge that God exists apart from (ii) our filial knowledge of God. An all-loving God would promote the two together. In knowing that the true God exists (rather than, say, the God of deism or “mere theism”), we have knowledge of God’s character of merciful love toward us and are thereby profoundly challenged for our own good to abide in filial knowledge of God. An all-loving God can supply evidence of His existence in a manner sensitive to a person’s receptivity to filial knowledge of God. God need not offer evidence of His reality susceptible to our trivializing Him by our not being challenged to undergo transformation toward filial knowledge. The true God, being a God of merciful love, does not settle for mere reasonable belief that He exists. God, in being all-loving, seeks to have us become loving as God is loving. God’s self-giving love seeks to foster love in us, even in our knowing God.
Many people have objected that God's reality is too unclear to merit reasonable acknowledgment. God, they suggest, owes us more miraculous signs and wonders, whatever God’s aims for humans. God, they claim, should present us with some decisive manifestations of awesome divine power. This would not cost God anything, and it would (allegedly) vanquish nagging doubts about God’s existence. God's redemptive purposes, many critics will thus object, do not exonerate God from the charge of negligent restraint in self-revelation. God, if real, is altogether blameworthy for inadequate self-revelation. N.R. Hanson, for instance, comments on the absence of observable happenings that would establish God’s existence: “There is no single natural happening, nor any constellation of such happenings, which establishes God’s existence.... If the heavens cracked open and [a] Zeus-like figure ... made his presence and nature known to the world, that would establish such a happening.”6 Hanson claims that nothing like the Zeus-event has ever occurred in a way that recommends theism to all reasonable people. He concludes, then, that theism lacks adequate warrant for universal acceptance.
By way of reply, let’s consider that miraculous signs come in two forms: agape impotent and agape potent miraculous signs. Agape impotent miraculous signs can astonish people but they are not intended to transform a person to become more loving. In contrast, agape potent signs are intended to reveal love and to elicit love; in particular, they are intended to change a person toward God’s character of merciful love. The miracles of Jesus should be viewed as agape potent, intended to elicit agape transformation. People often seek stimulation and entertainment from visible phenomena, but God seeks our personal transformation toward divine love, at the deepest level of our being.
The true God, as perfectly loving, is not in the entertainment business regarding our coming to know God. This God complains about the ancient 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” (Isaiah 58:2). Our seeking God without our obeying God’s loving demands is pointless. The New Testament likewise discourages our seeking after agape impotent signs from God (see Matthew 12:38-39). Hanson’s aforementioned example falls short of being agape potent. In addition, contrary to Hanson’s suggestion, it would not “establish God’s existence.” The realization of his Zeus example is perfectly compatible with the non-existence of an all-loving God and even with the improbability of the reality of an all-loving God. Hanson’s Zeus-like figure could very well be a moral tyrant.
The New Testament promises a personally transforming sign to all seekers actively open to change toward God's character of merciful love. The needed sign is a salient indicator from the God of morally serious love. So we should expect it to manifest the character of God: namely, God’s morally serious, merciful love. The New Testament confirms this expectation in no uncertain terms. Paul, for example, observes: “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 ). This “pouring out” of God’s love is inherently personal, owing to the ineliminable role of God’s personal Spirit. It involves a new filial relationship, as Paul notes: “When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit [of God] himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:15-16, RSV). (See 1 Corinthians 2:4-16 on the role of God’s Spirit in Paul's pneumatic epistemology.)7 As we respond to God’s love with filial acceptance, we become transformed into children of God, and God’s love emerges as the central motivation of our lives. God’s love begets our love, in filial relationship.
The presence of God's transforming love is the key cognitive foundation for filial knowledge of God. This experienced love is a foundational source of knowledge of God (cf. Colossians 2:2; 1 Corinthians 8:2-3; Ephesians 3:17-18) and is salient evidence of God's reality and presence. Such love is a matter of personal intervention by God and is the stable basis of a filial relationship with a personal living God. So filial knowledge of God rests on divine love that produces a loving character (at least to some extent) in genuine children of God, even if at times they cloud God's transformation toward love. This agape transformation happens to a person, in part, and thus is neither altogether self-made nor simply the byproduct of a self-help strategy. We need the phrase “in part” owing to the role of human free will in responding and tuning in to God.
The supernatural sign of divine love is available at God’s appointed time to anyone who calls on God with due moral seriousness. The clause “at God’s appointed time” respects the fact that God has a privileged position in identifying when one is duly serious and ready to respond appropriately to God’s presence. One’s receiving the presence of God’s love at the opportune time transforms one's will to engender gratitude, trust, and love toward God and unselfish love toward other humans, even enemies. Thus: “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, then, to learn how to apprehend, and to be apprehended by, God's love for all of us, not just truths about God's love. This is often a slow, difficult process of agape transformation, given our self-centered ways. Neither God nor God's love, being irreducibly personal, is a proposition or an argument. God and God's love are much deeper and much more powerful and thus can underwrite durable hope, healing, and rescue for us as persons.
The evidence of God's reality offered by profound agape transformation cuts much deeper, at least in its grateful recipients, 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, profound transformation toward God’s love does not admit of easy dismissal by its transformed recipients. It bears directly on who one really is, specifically, the kind of person one actually is. Such transformation goes too deeply against our natural tendencies toward selfishness to qualify as a self-help construct. It constitutes firm evidence of God’s reality, evidence resisting quick dismissal, at least by its changed and changing recipients.
An all-loving God would make His personal reality available to humans at His appointed time. God’s self-revelation, however, need not exceed the presence of God’s morally serious love or be available apart from morally serious inquiry and seeking. Specifically, God’s self-revelation need not include miracles irrelevant to transformation toward His character of love, even though He may use such miracles to get our wayward attention. A perfectly loving God can properly make confident knowledge of His reality arise simultaneously with filial knowledge of His reality. As a result, God is absolved from the charge of negligent refraining from performing entertaining signs, so long as He reveals His personal reality to anyone suitably receptive. Hanson's aforementioned use of the Zeus-example overlooks these considerations and trivializes God's actual redemptive aim for humans. As all-loving, God aims to bring naturally unloving people to love God and others, even others who are avowed enemies.
God’s self-revelation of transforming love takes its recipients beyond mere historical and scientific probabilities to a foundation of personal acquaintance with God. As we noted from the apostle Paul, in our sincerely crying out “Abba, Father” to God (note the Jesus-inspired filial gist of this cry), His Spirit confirms to our spirits that we are indeed children of God. We thereby receive God’s personal assurance of our filial relationship with Him. This assurance is more robust than any kind of theoretical certainty offered by the arguments of philosophers or theologians. It saves a person from dependence merely on speculation, hypothesis-formation, probabilistic inference, or guesswork about God. The personal assurance of God’s Spirit yields a distinctive kind of grounded confidence in God unavailable elsewhere.8 God thus merits credit even for proper human confidence in God (cf. Ephesians 2:8). Humans who boast of their own intellectual skills in knowing God, therefore, have misplaced boasting. Such boasting erects a cognitive barrier (not unlike the golden calf of Exodus 32) between humans and God.
3. Knowing God and Explaining God
The reality of the true God is testable now in a morally serious manner. In addition, God’s reality should be tested now by every capable person. Each person must test by seeking God with due sincerity, humility, and moral seriousness. Pride and indifference automatically blind us from seeing God and our genuine need of God. The appropriate test requires one's willingness to forsake all diversions for the sake of the required relationship with God, including personal transformation toward God’s character of love. Filial knowledge of God is by grace rather than by earning, and this cognitive grace is available (at God’s appointed time) to all who call on God with sincere humility and due moral seriousness. The true God wants to give all humans lasting gifts, but we often cling, selfishly and self-destructively, to lesser goods. Even our own lives and our knowledge can become idols blocking reception of the true God.
One’s having adequate evidence of God’s reality is not the same as one’s having a comprehensive explanation of God’s ways and means. We thus need to distinguish between:
(a) When you seek God properly, you will find God’s self-revelation,
(b) When you seek God properly, you will find a comprehensive explanation of why God acts as He does.
The promise of (a) regarding God’s self-revelation does not depend for its correctness or warrant on our understanding all God’s intentions and thus does not underwrite a theodicy. So (a) does not entail (b). The promise of (a) regarding God’s self-revelation concerns one’s acquiring evidence of God’s reality, not one’s acquiring a comprehensive explanation of God’s ways.
In demanding human seeking, God upholds the supreme value of divine revelation, thereby saving it from being cheapened by naturally selfish humans. God aims to have humans supremely value divine love, and to be personally transformed by it, not just to think about it. Still, human seeking, even when accompanied by one’s finding God, does not yield a theodicy, because it does not produce a comprehensive explanation of God’s ways with His creation. Even when one’s seeking God delivers evidence of God’s reality, the seeker who has experienced God can lack understanding of the specific intentions motivating God’s actions at times. This should be no surprise, given the notable differences, cognitive and otherwise, between God and humans. Our lacking a comprehensive explanation of God’s ways, however, does not challenge anyone’s having good evidence of God’s reality and love. (The closing chapters of the book of Job confirm this.) We should not be timid, then, about our lacking a theodicy. In addition, people who hope to find God should not delay their search on the ground that they lack a theodicy. Finding God is not necessarily finding a theodicy. The real and needed treasure is finding the all-loving God of all creation.
Our seeking for and then properly receiving God’s self-revelation will change us toward God’s love in a morally profound manner. Having undergone the experience of such change, one may then report a personal acquaintance with the Maker of Heaven and Earth. In addition, one may then report that God figures crucially in the best available explanation of who one really is. One will then be a person who has begun to love as the living God loves. The world actually looks as if it’s the kind of place where we are to begin learning humbly to love as God loves. It certainly is not the kind of place where we are to receive either maximal pleasure or maximal pain.
If we are properly attuned to available evidence of God’s reality, including God’s self-giving love, God will be clear enough. We need, then, proper eyes to see and ears to hear the reality of God. To that end, we must call on the Lord, who alone can empower our cognitive and moral appropriation of the things of God. Ultimately, God’s personal Spirit enables us to apprehend the things of God; we cannot do it on our own (1 Corinthians 2:11-12). At the opportune time, the true God of love answers our call in His love. All things then become new, under God’s powerful transforming love. We all do well, then, to seek and to appropriate the available evidence of God’s reality, however morally challenging the process is. Our adventure of learning to love as God loves will then begin and never fail. God’s love, once received by grace, never fails. Let us, then, taste and see.
1. On inference to a best explanation, see William G. Lycan, “Explanation and Epistemology,” in Paul Moser, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Epistemology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 408-33. I have discussed the role of inference to a best explanation in empirical knowledge in Moser, Knowledge and Evidence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
2. Regarding Jesus and the New Testament on God as Father, see Bernard Cooke, God’s Beloved (Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity, 1992), pp. 1-24; Neil Richardson, God in the New Testament (London: Epworth, 1999), pp. 9-38; and Marianne Meye Thompson, The Promise of the Father (Louisville: Westminster, 2000).
3. See Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 130. For an explicit acknowledgment of volitional resistance to commitment to God’s reality, see Mortimer Adler, Philosopher at Large (New York: Macmillan, 1977), pp. 315-16. For discussion of the role of the human will in knowledge of God and its bearing on divine hiddenness, see Paul Moser, “Cognitive Inspiration and Knowledge of God,” in Paul Copan and Paul Moser, eds., The Rationality of Theism (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 55-71; and Moser, “Cognitive Idolatry and Divine Hiding,” in Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul Moser, eds., Divine Hiddenness (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 120-48.
4. On Jesus’s experience of God, see James Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit (London: SCM, 1975), pp. 37-40; Cooke, God’s Beloved, pp. 1-24; and T.W. Manson, The Teaching of Jesus, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935), pp. 89-115. On Jesus on knowledge of God, see Paul Moser, “Jesus on Knowledge of God,” Christian Scholars Review 28 (1999), 586-604.
5. On the nature of divine covenants, see James Torrance, “Covenant or Contract?,” Scottish Journal of Theology 23 (1970), 51-76; and Torrance, “The Covenant Concept in Scottish Theology and Politics and its Legacy,” Scottish Journal of Theology 34 (1981), 225-43.
6. Hanson, What I Do Not Believe and Other Essays (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1971), p. 322.
7. On this topic in 1 Corinthians, see Alexandra Brown, The Cross and Human Transformation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995).
8. On the experience of God’s Spirit and its relation to the cross of Jesus, see Michael Gorman, Cruciformity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 50-62. See also Charles Cosgrove, The Cross and the Spirit (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1988); and James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 413-40.