From: The Rationality of Theism, eds. P. Copan & P.K. Moser (London: Routledge, 2003)
Cognitive Inspiration and Knowledge of God
Loyola University of Chicago
“... in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not come to know God....” (1 Corinthians 1:21, NASB)
I. Death and Life
Death looms large over human history, bearing on every human who has lived. Are we mortals alone in the world, on our way to death? Is there anyone who can save us from our moral and mortal predicament, including our ethical deficiency and impending death? We do well to ask, given the apparent finality of death. If death is final, it spells the absolute end of our lives, including all the good features of our lives. Human love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, humility, and self-control will then end in naught. The wondrous virtues of a good human life will then cease, once and for all, with death’s final blow. The evils of human life will then end too, but this will not restore life’s good features. Perhaps the finality of death does not rob human life of short-lived value and meaning. It does, however, preclude any lasting value and meaning of human life. This may explain why many people try to divert attention from our impending death. If death is final, its consequences are disturbing indeed, perhaps even psychologically unbearable.
We mortals lack the power of our own to escape or to survive death. Whatever our earthly fortunes, death awaits us. We might try to divert our attention, as we often do, but death still awaits. We evidently need outside help, beyond mortal help, if we are to overcome death. This outside help would have to be more powerful than death itself. An all-powerful God could save us from death. Even so, is such a God more than a mere possibility, in particular, a reality? If commitment to an all-powerful God is merely wishful thinking, then such a God is not real and so is unable to save us from death. If God is to rescue us from death, God must be real, not merely possible or imaginary. God must exercise real power to snatch us from death’s sharp teeth. Is there really a God with such power and such care for us?
II. God and Human Expectations
Answers to the question of whether it is rational to believe that God is real are predictable. Some say yes; others, no; still others, surprisingly, have nothing to say. The issue is vital; so silence is misplaced, if not negligent. The answer depends on, among other things, what the term “God” signifies. The term is maximally honorific, at least as I shall use it. It signifies that than which nothing is more honorable. It signifies a being worthy of worship. Is it rational to believe that there really is a being worthy of worship?
Worship and worthiness thereof should not be taken lightly. They call for moral excellence in any being we worship, and this excellence must not depend on the moral status of others. It must be self-possessed; otherwise, its source would merit a place in worship. Worship calls not only for veneration, adoration, and reverence, but also for whole-hearted trusting commitment toward the being worshiped. Morally deficient beings, however, do not merit such commitment toward them. Moral deficiency in a being does not underwrite full trust in that being; on the contrary, it recommends against such trust. A worshiped being should thus be without moral deficiency.
Moral excellence is not just a matter of performing right actions and refraining from wrong actions. It involves the kind of character, motivation, and will underlying actions. True moral excellence requires, in particular, unselfish love toward all, even enemies. A selfish person lacks moral excellence, as does one who arbitrarily favors some other people. However good a person is who arbitrarily favors some other people, we can imagine a morally better person who loves all people, enemies included. Moral excellence in a person, then, carries a burden of unrestricted love toward all people.
Since worthiness of worship requires moral excellence, only an all-loving being is worthy of worship. This considerably narrows the field of candidates, even among all the world’s religions. The most likely candidate will be a God who promises human redemption, a God who promises reliably to give us an opportunity to be saved from our moral and mortal predicament, including our ethical deficiency and impending death. An all-loving God would seek what is morally best for us as persons and thus would give us an opportunity for such redemption. Owing to the crucial role of human free will, however, the divine project of redemption can fail, in that some people can reject it. The needed redemption, in any case, would be a redemption of us, thereby preserving our status as persons and preserving us ourselves, not just something else. You are not redeemed if you no longer survive as a personal agent.
Remarkably, human history and its religions leave us with only one serious candidate for a God of redemptive promise: the righteously gracious God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. In order to be all-loving, a God of redemptive purpose must work in actual human history to form a loving community out of otherwise divided groups from every nation. The God reportedly at work in Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus, and their true followers meets this basic requirement and, in doing so, has no real competitors. Some nominal disciples of this God have opposed this requirement and even portrayed God as opposing it too, but this does not itself challenge the substance of God’s redemptive character or promise. Unreliable disciples cast no shadow of doubt on the reality of the true God.
Our question becomes: Is it rational to believe that the alleged God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus is real? Many people suspect that this God, if real, is too hidden, or too obscure, to merit rational acknowledgment. They think that evidence favoring this God’s reality is tenuous and thus inadequate for rational commitment. John Baillie has noted some objections of a person with such misgivings: “You speak of trusting God, of praying to Him and doing His will. But it’s all so one-sided. We speak to God, we bow down before Him and lift up our hearts to Him. But He never speaks to us. He makes no sign. It’s all so one-sided.”1 It’s a familiar step from this allegation of one-sidedness to the conclusion that belief in God’s reality is not rational. Call this move the Divine Inadequacy Step. Many agnostics and atheists have taken precisely this step, and many tentative theists have been tempted to follow suit.
The Divine Inadequacy Step implies that it is not rational to believe that God is real. We do well to clarify how the term “rational” is being used here, given the many uses in circulation. Its use in the Divine Inadequacy Step requires “adequate evidence” for one to believe rationally that God is real. So far, no problem. The kind of rational belief suitable for knowledge does require adequate supporting evidence. The key question, however, is: What kind of “adequate evidence” is needed for rational acknowledgment of God’s reality? For any kind of adequate evidence one demands, we can plausibly ask: Why must acknowledgment of God’s reality be supported by that kind of evidence? The issue can be put more directly, with regard to any kind of adequate evidence one demands: Why must God, if real, supply evidence of that kind? This issue is crucial in that it cautions us against making misguided cognitive demands of God.
Our expectations of God can distort our cognitive reflections about God. Suppose I expect God to be loose and casual with indications of divine reality. I thus might naturally portray God (if God is real) as evidentially promiscuous regarding divine reality. That is, I might expect and even demand cheap and easy evidence of God’s reality. Many philosophers, including Bertrand Russell and N.R. Hanson, have demanded just such evidence.2 Since such evidence is not in fact available to us, they have recommended either agnosticism or atheism. This is a familiar instance of the Divine Inadequacy Step.
Why suppose that God would be evidentially promiscuous and thus support a kind of cognitive voyeurism regarding divine reality? We’ll see that we shouldn’t suppose this, contrary to what many philosophers uncritically assume. All our expectations of God, evidential and otherwise, should conform to God’s distinctive character and purposes. Otherwise, they may reflect more about us than about God. In particular, our expectations should accommodate the fact that God must be worthy of worship and thus must be all-loving. Given how foreign an all-loving character is to us (owing to our self-centeredness), we do well to settle our evidential expectations of God carefully. We need to separate irrelevant evidential expectations from expectations suited to God’s actual character of moral excellence, including perfect love for all people.
God’s moral excellence calls for specific features in available evidence of God’s reality. As morally excellent, God would seek what is morally best for us, including our becoming loving in the way God is. This requires that God preserve our capacity for freedom in decision making, and not rule by coercion. Genuine love for God and others cannot be coerced by God, or anyone else for that matter. So, God must abstain from offering evidence of divine reality that extinguishes our freedom. Evidence of divine reality must accommodate human freedom in God’s quest to elicit love from humans.
III. Divine Expectations and Love’s Judgment
We do well to ask what a God of moral excellence would expect of us, at least by way of our coming to know God. Certainly such a God would expect us to be humble, and not selfishly prideful, in receiving evidence of God’s reality. A selfishly prideful attitude toward a person is incompatible with genuine love toward that person. Genuine love requires an attitude of humble service for the good of others. So, a God of moral excellence would supply a kind of evidence of God’s reality that does not encourage selfish pridefulness, and perhaps even discourages it.
If the evidence of God’s reality were sophisticated, many sophisticated people would easily take selfish pride in comprehending it. Many intellectually sophisticated people would then easily treat knowledge of God as a privileged possession rather than as a gracious gift to be received gratefully and humbly. This would enhance selfish intellectual pride and thereby diminish unselfish love. It would thereby misrepresent the character of the God whose reality is being revealed by the relevant evidence. So we should not expect evidence of God’s reality to be sophisticated in a way that encourages selfish pride. In 1 Corinthians, chapters 1-2, Paul outlines an approach to knowledge of God that accommodates this point. (See the Appendix to this chapter.) This essay develops this approach.
An all-loving God would want us, for our own good, to be like God regarding our moral character. Such a God would also want us to have our moral character developed via a loving friendship with God, the source and sustainer of love among humans.3 Divine love seeks friendship with all people, not with an exclusive select group. This friendship is truly loving and thus is neither harsh nor obsequious. It seeks what is genuinely good for all people, and this sometimes differs from what we actually desire. Evidence of God’s reality would accommodate such divine goals. It would be sensitive to (a) our needing moral-character transformation toward God’s character and (b) our needing this transformation in reliance on friendship with God. Evidence of divine reality would fit with these needs.
Our need of moral-character transformation stems from our failure to love as God would have us love. Given God’s being inherently loving, this failure is the most serious possible. If we are morally honest, we will acknowledge our failure to love others as ourselves and thereby to love as God would have us love. We readily see this failure whenever we reflect on our morally negligent treatment of the poor, the elderly, and the mentally disabled (to mention just a few obvious cases). True love requires that we go beyond our own needs to attend, in genuinely unselfish care, to the needs of others, but we consistently fail on this score. This is failure in what we may call Love’s Demand. Our conscience, if unsuppressed, convicts us of this failure, and we then experience guilt and even shame. Our self-centeredness leaves us with a troubled conscience, at least in the absence of our suppressing conscience. We are thereby judged by a divine standard of love represented by conscience. Moral honesty about ourselves requires that we acknowledge the propriety of such judgment. It requires candor from us about our violating Love’s Demand.
Human moral pride resists honesty about our flouting Love’s Demand. It offers a cover-up story instead, a story concocted to save our moral honor. Our moral pride suggests that we have no need of moral guilt or shame. We are, it proposes, morally in the clear on our own. So, according to our moral pride, we are not deserving candidates for moral judgment. We rather merit moral approval even from God, by the lights of our pride. Our moral pride thus opposes any place for judgment of us from Love’s Demand. (For a vivid illustration of the blinding effects of moral pride, see the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, in Luke 18:9-14.)
Our moral pride is at best a frayed paper-thin veneer, and we recognize this if we are honest. We violate Love’s Demand daily, and we have salient evidence for this. Our diversionary efforts on this front do not change the available evidence for this at all. They simply lead us deeper into the dishonesty of moral pride. Our most dangerous failures before the God issuing Love’s Demand include a failure of moral honesty. Our moral pride may very well stem from fear of judgment and fear of not being in charge morally.4 Even so, dishonesty about our unloving ways is among our most harmful failures before Love’s Demand. Our dishonesty about our moral status leaves us resistant to the God issuing Love’s Demand. It obscures, at least in our minds, how far we have departed from Love’s Demand. The God issuing Love’s Demand cannot transform us toward divine love as long as we cling to moral dishonesty about our unloving ways. We need to acknowledge our need for such transformation in order to yield to it freely, willingly, and gratefully. The transformation is, after all, a gift for our own good.
In moral honesty about ourselves, we acknowledge our need of moral transformation toward divine love and thereby open ourselves to judgment by Love’s Demand. We then expect judgment and even acknowledge its propriety in light of our failure to love. Even death would be a fitting judgment on us. We cannot undo our past failure to meet Love’s Demand; nor can we fully compensate for this failure by satisfying Love’s Demand from now on. Our past unloving ways are a real part of our own history; they cannot be dismissed as illusory or insignificant. These past ways underwrite our failure by the standard of Love’s Demand and our need of forgiveness relative to that Demand. Having failed repeatedly by the standard of Love’s Demand, we genuinely need merciful forgiveness from the God who issues that Demand, if we are to avoid guilt, shame, and condemnation.5 We cannot revive ourselves morally.
The actual result of moral honesty regarding Love’s Demand is surprising. Upon sincere request for divine help, we receive not condemnation but mercy, forgiving mercy from the God issuing Love’s Demand. This God, in response to our moral honesty and our sincere call for help, comes to us not in condemnation but rather in reconciling mercy. God, in perfect love, offers forgiveness to us, and friendship too. (The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus testify to this.) All things then become new for us. Guilt and shame begin to dissolve, and freedom emerges: freedom from the bondage of moral guilt and shame. We meet a God who prefers to befriend us rather than condemn us. We meet a God who promotes freedom over bondage, life over death, and love over selfishness. We meet the God whom Jesus represented with his life, death, and resurrection. This becomes part of our actual experience and even motivates and directs our daily life. Our moral honesty about our failure toward Love’s Demand enables our cognitive access to God’s reality.
The exact way in which God comes in forgiveness varies among people, owing to divine sensitivity to a person’s cognitive, emotional, and motivational situation. Not all people have, for instance, the kind of experience had by Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. In addition, not all people classify their experience of God’s presence in the same way. The descriptive classification by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-13), for instance, is not universally shared, even among Jewish or Christian prophets. We should also acknowledge that an all-loving God could come to people in forgiveness even when they have many false beliefs about God. This is one lesson of the book of Jonah, and the lesson recurs throughout the Jewish-Christian scriptures. We should acknowledge, furthermore, that people can, and often do, call out for God’s help in different ways. This call does not occur in a vacuum; it arises from a shared human predicament of moral deficiency and impending death. The convicting role of conscience is likewise widely shared, as are various salient goods within human life. Apparent glimmers of divine reality are available and widely shared. Even so, these glimmers do not yield a means of unfailingly arguing people into an attitude of welcoming divine help. Welcoming God results from a commitment irreducible to logical inference. It can, however, be firmly anchored in supporting evidence, even revelatory evidence of a special kind.
IV. God’s Spirit in Humans
The Jewish-Christian God goes beyond revelation as the imparting of information and experience. This God offers a distinctive kind of evidence of divine reality, a kind of evidence widely overlooked in philosophical and theological discussions of God’s reality. The evidence is the imparting of God’s Spirit to humans. Such evidence is reported widely in the Jewish-Christian scriptures, and receives special acknowledgment in the letters of the apostle Paul. It calls for attention, in religious epistemology, to the human conditions for receiving the Spirit of an all-loving God. Religious epistemology seldom attends to this vital area, despite its prominence in the Jewish-Christian scriptures.
In Romans 5:5, Paul writes: “... hope [in God] does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (NASB). Through the Holy Spirit given to us, our hearts, our innermost centers, receive the love of God and are thereby changed from being selfish to receiving God’s unselfish love. Paul’s insight bears on our available evidence of God’s reality. Our hope in God has a cognitive anchor in God’s giving His Holy Spirit to us, whereby God’s love changes our hearts toward the character of divine love. Paul expresses a similar insight in 2 Corinthians 1:21 in referring to the God who “has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (RSV). The Spirit given to human hearts guarantees, as a down payment, that God will complete the work of transformation begun in those hearts. Such transformation is salient evidence of God’s reality.
James Dunn has captured the experienced role of God’s Spirit acknowledged by Paul, as follows:
The Spirit is that power which operates on the heart of man —the “heart” being the centre of thought, feeling, and willing, the centre of personal consciousness.... The Spirit is that power which transforms a man from the inside out, so that metaphors of cleansing and consecration become matters of actual experience in daily living (1 Cor. 6:9-11). The Spirit is the source of that wave of love and upsurge of joy which overwhelms the forces that oppose from without (Rom. 5:5; 1 Thess. 1:5f.).6
The Spirit of God brings new power to a person, and this power is felt by its recipient and is even observable by others. It can be observed by someone looking for the power of unselfish love in a life. God’s Spirit empowers people to love as God loves, even in the self-giving way exemplified by Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. Evidence of God’s reality arises from the power of divine self-giving love present in a human life. Our appropriating such evidence firsthand calls for our welcoming and being moved by such power. Eduard Schweizer has thus characterized the Spirit of God, in Paul’s writings, as “... the power which involves [a person] in the saving act of God in Christ, ... makes impossible for him all confidence in his own “flesh” (sarx), and lays him open to a life of love (agape).”7
The power of God’s Spirit is easily overlooked, especially if we are looking for power that coerces or subdues people or otherwise advances one person at the expense of others. Indeed, the power of God’s Spirit may even seem to be foolish pseudo-power to people out of tune with the God of true love. To know God aright is to be volitionally united with God in the power of God’s Spirit, and this is to be united, in love, on the cross with God’s crucified Son. Schweizer thus remarks:
At the very place where Paul writes about the demonstration of the Spirit and of power, he states he has nothing to preach but the Crucified [Jesus], which is a stumbling-block to the Jews and folly to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:23, 2:2). Thus the power of the Spirit is demonstrated precisely where normally nothing is to be seen but failure and disintegration. What no eye has seen nor ear heard God has revealed to his own through the Spirit which “searches everything, even the depths of God”: salvation in the Crucified [Jesus].... Thus it is above all the Spirit that reveals ... that the “power of God” is to be found in the Crucified [Jesus] (2 Cor. 13:4; cf. 12:10).8
Evidence of the divine Spirit’s presence, then, involves a kind of manifested power foreign to natural expectations. This is the power of self-giving love, as manifested in the crucified Jesus and in his true followers. The Spirit of God is thus the Spirit of Jesus, the one who gave his life in self-giving, servant love. Worldly powers of coercion, oppression, and selfishness go in the opposite direction of the power of God’s Spirit. In expecting evidence of God’s reality to fit with worldly powers, many people blind themselves from apprehending God’s reality.
God’s Spirit, according to Paul’s writings, reveals God and our relationship with God. In 1 Corinthians 2:12, Paul remarks that “... we have received ... the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God” (NASB; italics added). Only the Spirit of God knows the things of God; so, ultimately, only the Spirit of God can reveal God to us. Paul thus concludes that we are given the Spirit of God in order to know God and God’s ways of self-giving love. By giving his Spirit, God shares himself and knowledge of himself with others. In Romans 8, Paul comments that “... you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”, it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God....” (Rom. 8:15-16, RSV; cf. Gal. 4:6-7). God’s Spirit thus confirms to an individual’s spirit that he or she is a child of God, a child called to filial relationship with God. The same lesson of the Spirit’s cognitive role emerges in 1 John 4:13: “By this we know that we abide in [God] and [God] in us, because he has given us his Spirit.”
The Jewish-Christian God is inherently personal. So, the personal Spirit of God is the best source, including the most direct source, to confirm God’s reality and our standing before God. Indeed, given God’s being inherently personal, God’s personal Spirit is the only self-authenticating source of evidence of God’s reality. If God’s own personal Spirit cannot authenticate God’s reality for us creatures, then nothing else can either. Certainly nothing other than God can. In picking something other than God to authenticate God’s reality, we can always plausibly ask: What is the cognitively reliable connection between that thing and God’s reality? This question will leave an opening to doubt the authenticity of the supposed witness to God’s reality. So, God’s Spirit authenticates God’s reality directly, with unsurpassable authority and in agreement with God’s character of love. This kind of cognitive inspiration yields knowledge of God. It’s implausible to suppose that God should, or even could, supply some other kind of direct authentication of divine reality.
What else could God supply as salient evidence of divine reality, besides his Spirit and his unique Son? They provide the best evidence imaginable and the only evidence worthy of full commitment to God. Others kinds of evidence suffer from a questionable distance from the God in question. The next best kind of evidence comes from humans actually guided by God’s Spirit. They manifest the reality of God’s loving character to others, even if indirectly. Thus Paul writes: “...thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Cor. 2:14, RSV). God, according to Paul, leads Christians in the triumph of self-giving love exemplified by Jesus, thereby making available the knowledge of Jesus and of his Father.
Paul regarded the Corinthian Christians themselves as “letters of recommendation” confirming the veracity of Paul’s message of the reality of God’s love in Jesus. He writes to the Corinthian Christians: “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:2-3, RSV). God’s Spirit, according to Paul, changes a person’s heart to make that person a living sign, even breathing evidence, of the reality of God’s love. Still, my full appropriation of this evidence requires that I myself be acquainted directly with God’s Spirit.
The Spirit of God, according to Romans 8, empowers an individual to relate to God as Father, thereby bringing a person into a relationship of obedient love toward God. Knowing God as Lord requires such a relationship of obedient love. Thus 1 John 4:8 states: “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Here we see how knowledge of God is inherently volitional, and not just intellectual. It takes us beyond reflection to obedient love toward God.
V. Spirit, Will, and Knowledge
The Jewish-Christian God’s self-revelation is typically sensitive to the volitional state of recipients. This God wants to engage the human will, not just the human mind, because this God seeks to befriend people for the sake of a loving relationship. This is no merely intellectual matter. A loving relationship is inherently volitional; it rests on a faithful commitment of the will toward a person loved.9
One important way in which knowledge of God is volitional emerges in John’s Gospel. A direct connection between one’s willing and one’s knowing something of God arises in John 7:17, where Jesus says: “If anyone is willing to do [God’s] will, he will know of the teaching [of mine] whether it is of God....” In knowing God aright, we know God as Lord, and knowing God as Lord requires willingness to do God’s will. Knowing God aright stems from one’s having a will open to submission to God; it does not come in advance of one’s having such a will. Indeed, one’s willingness to obey God attunes one to otherwise overlooked evidence of God’s reality. One then becomes sensitive to the reality of God’s merciful love at work in human lives. Consider an analogy. If I am unwilling to befriend you, I may block my access to a wealth of evidence regarding the reality of your personal virtues and even the reality of who you truly are. In contrast, if I am willing to befriend you, I can put myself in a position to acquire considerable evidence of the reality of your virtues and who you truly are. My volitional stance toward you can thus bear directly on my evidence regarding you, even regarding your reality. Likewise for one’s volitional stance toward God.
John’s Gospel connects obedience, love, and human reception of God’s self-manifestation. After promising God’s Spirit to those who love him, Jesus comments:
He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him. Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him (John 14:21-23).
Judas is surprised that Jesus will not manifest himself to the whole world. The brothers of Jesus were similarly surprised. They protest: “No one does anything in secret when he himself seeks to be known publicly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world” (John 7:4). They overlook the important role of volitional factors in knowledge of God.
Jesus corrects the protesters. He remarks to his brothers: “The world ... hates me because I testify of it that its deeds are evil” (John 7:7). He assumes that the world does not welcome the things of God, and that therefore a divine manifestation would not receive the loving response desired by God. God, Jesus assumes, desires not mere acknowledgment from humans but a response of love. In John 14, Jesus draws a direct connection between loving God (a matter of the will) and receiving God’s self-revelation. The self-revelation is the sending of God’s Holy Spirit, called “the Spirit of truth” in John 14:17. God’s Spirit is dispatched to manifest the reality of Jesus and his divine Father. This manifestation is of no avail to people resisting God’s ways. It will not transform their selfish wills toward the loving will of God. However much it entertains or otherwise distracts such people, it will not draw them into a loving relationship with God and others. Since such a relationship is God’s chief end, God offers his self-manifestation accordingly, typically in a manner sensitive to the volitional state of people.
An all-loving God would, by nature, promote loving relationships among humans and among God and humans. He would rely on divine self-manifestation to advance such relationships. An all-loving God would find no point in a self-manifestation that merely antagonizes or repels people, leaves them indifferent, or puffs up their pride. He would thus assess human inclinations toward divine manifestation, to discern whether they are favorable, that is, welcoming, toward such manifestation. They are unfavorable, or unwelcoming, when God’s presence elicits a clash of wills, when a human will responds with rejection of God’s loving ways.
Faithful love toward God includes a readiness to put God’s will first, even over one’s own will. Such an attitude of love has been exemplified by Jesus in Gethsemane. In the teeth of an impending horrifying death, he prays: “Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:26, NASB). The submission of one’s own will to God’s, even in the presence of death, is the heartbeat of obedient love toward God. It is also the best avenue to knowledge of God. This is not surprising. An all-loving God would intend knowledge of God to be morally transforming of knowers toward God’s character of self-giving love and toward a loving relationship with God. Knowledge of God is thus no spectator sport. It demands that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
The giving of God’s Spirit, as a basis of knowledge of God, figures centrally in the ongoing struggle between the will of unloving humans and the will of an all-loving God. The key question becomes: What ultimately empowers me in my life? Is it my own (often selfish) will, or is it the unselfish will of God’s Spirit? God offers his Spirit to humans to empower them to obey God and thus to love as God loves. Otherwise, we lapse into unloving, selfish ways and thereby violate Love’s Demand. As human history shows, we lack the power of our own to love as God loves. A little reflection on our own lives, particularly their bearing on others in real need (such as the poor, the elderly, and the mentally disabled) confirms this without a doubt. We must will to have God’s Spirit empower us to love, since a loving God cannot coerce us here. Even so, the actual power to love comes from God’s Spirit, not from ourselves. There is no paradox here. God’s Spirit can be what actually empowers us, even if we must exercise our will in yielding to the power of God’s Spirit. In willing to have God’s Spirit empower us, we put ourselves in a position to acquire otherwise unavailable evidence, and even knowledge, of God’s powerful reality.
VI. Knowing God’s Reality
One’s willingness to befriend a person, we noted, can put one in a position to acquire evidence of that person’s reality. In contrast, one’s unwillingness to befriend a person can block one’s acquiring evidence of that person’s reality. We should avoid any confusion between evidence of a person’s reality and evidence of the reality of a person’s body. One can have evidence of the reality of a person’s body without having evidence of the reality of the person. Even so, someone might propose that evidence of a person’s reality differs from evidence of a person’s traits. Perhaps willingness to befriend a person gives us access to evidence about that person’s traits. Still, evidence that the person is real seems to be something else and seems not to depend on willingness to befriend that person. This much is right: I can have evidence that a person (say, the President of the United States) is real even though I am not willing to befriend that person.
What about firsthand evidence and knowledge of a person’s reality? An all-loving God would want to promote such evidence and knowledge of himself, in order to advance loving relationships among all people. He would seek to promote such relationships by means of people being directly acquainted with his Spirit. In coming to know firsthand the reality of a person, I must become acquainted with some of the personal traits of that person. I must be willing not only to apprehend those traits but also to interact with them as the traits of a person. I must be willing to attend to the personal traits in question as traits of a person rather than traits of a mere object. Knowing a person’s reality firsthand thus goes beyond mere knowing that a person is real.
My merely knowing that a person is real is compatible with my having no direct acquaintance with that person at all. Such mere factual knowledge would not please an all-loving God. The writer of the epistle of James has something like mere factual knowledge in mind when he says, with sarcasm: “You believe that God is one? You do well: even the demons believe [this] and shudder” (James 2:19). This is not to say that factual knowledge that God is real has no importance. It is rather to say that, for the sake of pleasing an all-loving God, such knowledge must go together, and should arise together, with firsthand knowledge of God as Lord. The two should not be separated in actual knowers, even if a conceptual distinction between them exists. Our knowing God as Lord includes obedient love toward God as our merciful Father. It thus engages our wills at the deepest level, at the level of what we love most. Paul thus puts factual knowledge in its proper place: “... if I understand all mysteries and all knowledge ... but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2).
In the case of God, the reality is inherently a personal all-loving Spirit who is not necessarily embodied. An all-loving God is inherently worthy of worship, and coming to know such a God is, properly, coming to know God as Lord. In addition, coming to know firsthand the reality of God as Lord requires a willingness to attend to God’s traits (including God’s expressed love and mercy) as the traits of a worship-worthy person rather than a mere object. Our properly attending to such divine traits requires a willingness to interact with them as the traits of a person worthy of worship and thus obedience. This means that our coming to know firsthand the reality of God as Lord involves our wills. We must be willing to receive God’s manifestation in a manner suited to worship and obedience. This is no matter of mere reflection. It engages our wills in terms of the directions of our lives. Will we put God’s manifested will of love first, or will we cling to our own wills? Will we respond in obedience to the call of God’s love, or will we languish in our own selfish willfulness? The answers to these questions rest on volitional commitment, not mere reflection. They also determine the ultimate direction of our lives.
Knowing God’s reality firsthand is direct in the way that mere factual knowledge that God is real is not. In depending on the reception of God’s Spirit, it includes a kind of direct revelation different from (but not necessarily incompatible with) the conclusions of traditional natural theology.10 Knowing God’s reality firsthand is knowing God, owing to acquaintance with God’s Spirit. Unlike natural theology, it is not merely knowledge of propositional conclusions on the basis of propositional premises. It is person-centered knowing, not just propositional knowing. It comes as a gift, not as an earning. We do not merit such knowing on the basis of our intellectual skills or any other skills. Knowing God is by grace, not by works of human credit. “In the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not come to know God...” (1 Cor. 1:21, NASB).
The reality of knowing God firsthand is authenticated by the superhuman power of God’s Spirit. Hermann Gunkel has captured the heart of Paul’s position:
The Christian possesses a force more mighty than the natural man. What the latter could not do, the former is able to do. The natural man languished under the reign of sin; the Christian has become free from it. It was impossible for the Jew to keep the Law; Christian love is the fulfillment of the Law. The demons with dark impulse led the heathen astray to dumb idols; the Christian is able to cry, “Jesus is Lord.” Thus a person cannot by himself create that mode of life which seizes the Christian; he cannot attain to the power over which the Christian disposes. This power is absolutely suprahuman. Therefore, in whomever this power dwells, he “receives” it (1 Cor. 2:12; Gal. 3:2,14; 2 Cor. 11:4; Rom. 8:15). It is “given” to him (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Rom. 5:5; 1 Thess. 4:8), “supplied” (Gal. 3:5), and “sent” (Gal. 4:6). This power is “experienced” (endured: pathein), as are its activities (Gal. 3:4).... The Christian is “led” by it (Gal. 5:18; Rom. 8:14).... The Christian life therefore rests upon a power that would be an impenetrable mystery if it were explained in terms of human capabilities.11
In other words, the power of the Christian life is explained best, if not explained only, by the good news that God’s Spirit has truly intervened in human lives, under the authority of Jesus, the dispenser of God’s Spirit. This power yields a salient kind of evidence for the reality of God. It underwrites an inference to a best available explanation to recommend Jewish-Christian theism on evidential grounds.12 Even so, our access to such evidence depends on our willingness to acknowledge it as not of our own making. It is received as a gift or not at all.
The human reception of God’s Spirit is no merely subjective matter. It yields one’s becoming loving (at least to some discernible degree) as God is loving. It yields salient fruit of God’s Spirit, such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control (see Gal. 5:22-23). These are not merely subjective phenomena. On the contrary, they are discernible by any people appropriately attentive to them. These phenomena emerge in the lives of people in ways that are readily identifiable and testable.
1 John 4:1 wisely advises people to “test the spirits to see whether they are of God” rather than to believe every spirit. Otherwise, people would be led away from truth and into serious error by false teachers. Jesus offers similar advice: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.... Every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit” (Matt. 7:15-18). Likewise, one can know the reality of the presence of God’s Spirit by means of the fruits yielded by the Spirit. This Spirit makes one loving (at least to some discernible degree) as God is loving. This is the primary fruit of the Spirit, and it is identifiable and testable in a person’s life. The presence of God’s Spirit thus comes with salient evidence observable by any suitably attentive person.
The Spirit of God serves as the cognitive anchor of firsthand knowledge of God. According to the New Testament, this Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus and thus is seen most clearly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We will apprehend this Spirit’s reality only if we are willing to have “eyes to see and ears to hear.” That is, we must open ourselves to be attuned to receive God’s Spirit. Even in connection with knowing, God seeks to move our wills. The true God, being all-loving, seeks above all to have us learn to love as God loves, and that goal is irreducibly volitional. God graciously offers cognitive inspiration, even God’s own Spirit, for just that reason, and that is reason enough. Knowing without loving is altogether foreign to this God.13
1 Corinthians 1 (NASB):
18 For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.”
20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not (come to) know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
22 For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom;
23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness,
24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
27... God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong...,
29 so that no man may boast before God.
31 ... just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
1 Corinthians 2 (NASB):
1 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God.
2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
4 ... my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,
5 so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
7...we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden (wisdom) which God predestined before the ages to our glory.
11 For who among men knows the (thoughts) of a man except the spirit of a man which is in him? Even so the (thoughts) of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.
12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God,
13 which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit....
14 But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.
1. John Baillie, The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 1956), p. 137.
2. See N.R. Hanson, What I Do Not Believe and Other Essays (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1971), p. 322; Bertrand Russell, “The Talk of the Town,” The New Yorker (February 21, 1970), p. 29, cited in Al Seckel, ed., Bertrand Russell on God and Religion (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1986), p. 11; and Russell, “What is an Agnostic?,” in Louis Greenspan and Stefan Andersson, eds., Russell on Religion (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 41. For misgivings about their cognitive demands on God, see Paul 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.
3. On the relationship between friendship and knowing God, see Leslie D. Weatherhead, The Transforming Friendship (New York: Abingdon Press, 1928).
4. See Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 130.
5. On the importance of forgiveness, see John Austin Baker, The Foolishness of God (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1970), pp. 400-409; Baker, The Faith of a Christian (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1996), pp. 125-30; and Lewis Smedes, The Art of Forgiving (New York: Random House, 1996). On the origin and effects of shame, see Lewis Smedes, Shame and Grace (San Francisco: Harper, 1993).
6. James Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit (London: SCM Press, 1975), p. 201. See also Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 419-33.
7. Eduard Schweizer, “Pneuma,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, eds. G. Kittel and G. Friedrich (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-76), Vol. 6; slightly edited version in Bible Key Words, Vol. 3, eds. D.M. Barton, P.R. Ackroyd, and A.E. Harvey (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), p. 80. Cf. Schweizer, “The Spirit of Power,” Interpretation 6 (1952), 273.
8. Eduard Schweizer, “On Distinguishing Between Spirits,” Ecumenical Review 41 (1989), 411. See also Schweizer, The Holy Spirit, trans. R.H. and Ilse Fuller (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), pp. 78-79, 119-23. Likewise, see Tom Smail, “The Cross and the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Renewal,” in Tom Smail, Andrew Walker, and Nigel Wright, eds., The Love of Power or the Power of Love (London: SPCK, 1993), pp. 23-36; and James Dunn, “The Spirit and the Body of Christ,” in Dunn, The Christ and the Spirit, Vol. 2: Pneumatology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 350-57.
9. On this theme, see Lewis Smedes, Caring and Commitment (San Francisco: Harper, 1998).
10. For some misgivings about traditional natural theology, see Paul Moser, “A God Who Hides and Seeks,” Philosophia Christi 2 (2001), 119-25. On the role of natural theology in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, see James Barr, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).
11. Hermann Gunkel, The Influence of the Holy Spirit, trans. R. A. Harrisville and P.A. Quanbeck (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979 [orig. 1888]), pp. 93-94.
12. For some of the features of inference to a best available explanation in the empirical domain, see Paul Moser, Knowledge and Evidence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989). See also Moser, “Cognitive Idolatry and Divine Hiding,” in Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul Moser, eds., Divine Hiddenness, pp. 122-26.
13. I presented a shortened version of this chapter as a 2002 McManis Lecture at Wheaton College. Many thanks to the Wheaton audience, especially Bob O’Connor and Jay Wood, for helpful comments. Thanks, too, to Paul Copan for a number of helpful suggestions.