Richard Gale wrote this book to clarify and assess various influential arguments against and for God's existence. The book's positive role is to contribute to “a more adequate conception of God – a God that will prove a worthy object of worship and obedience, even if the case for believing in his existence is shaky” (p. 3). Accordingly, the book examines some atheological arguments, such as the deductive argument from evil and arguments from divine immutability against divine omniscience and creation. These arguments call for “a more adequate conception of God's nature” than that offered by traditional theism.
The book's negative role is to identify the inadequacy of some influential arguments for God's existence, or at least arguments for justifying belief that God exists. These arguments include ontological arguments, cosmological arguments, pragmatic arguments, and arguments from religious experience. None of these arguments fares well, according to Gale, but he avowedly ignores “inductive arguments based on design, beauty, and lawlike regularity and simplicity for the existence of God, as well as those based on evil to show the improbability of his existence” (p. 1). So, he reports: “Since I completely eschewed inductive arguments, no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding the rationality of faith.” Instead, he identifies some blind alleys in the rational pursuit of the issue of God's existence.
Gale seems content with the absence of a rational justification for belief that God exists. He reports being inspired by “Hume's Philo,” adding that it is “the sceptical Philo whose spirit imbues my book” (p. 2). Still, Gale acknowledges the influence of Kierkegaard (no skeptic about God's existence). He suggests that the absence of a rational justification for belief that God exists “would be welcomed by a wide range of Kierkegaardian types who completely eschew any attempt to give an ‘objective’ justification of faith.” He adds: “I resonate to their view of faith as a subjective passion that outstrips our reason” (p. 387).
Perhaps the problem is not with faith in God, but is with a desired “objective justification of faith.” Gale opposes a case for justification of faith on the basis of religious experiences, on the ground that such experiences are not “cognitive,” that is, “alone would not constitute a basis for our gaining knowledge of some objective reality” (p. 287).
Preface and acknowledgements
Human talk of God is often cheap and easy, and self-serving too. It thus leaves us with a god unworthy of the morally perfect title “God.” This book takes a different route, in order to move away from counterfeits and toward the real article. Our expectations for God, if God exists, often get in the way of our receiving salient evidence of God. We assume that God would have certain obligations to us, even by way of giving us clear evidence, and when those obligations are not met we discredit God, including God’s existence. This is a fast track to atheism or at least agnosticism. We need, however, to take stock of which expectations for God are fitting and which are not, given what would be God’s perfect moral character and will.
Perhaps God is not casual but actually severe, in a sense to be clarified, owing to God’s vigorous concern for the realization of divine righteous love (agapē), including its free, unearned reception and dissemination among humans. Perhaps the latter concern stems from God’s aim to extend, without coercion, lasting life with God to humans, even humans who have failed by the standard of divine agapē. God’s vigorous commitment to that goal could figure in God’s making human life difficult, or severe, for the sake of encouraging humans, without coercion, to enter into a cooperative good life with God. This severe God would not sacrifice a human soul to preserve human bodily comfort. In this scenario, divine agapē is the unsurpassed power and priority of life with God, and humans need to struggle to appropriate it as such, in companionship with God. It comes as a free gift, by grace, from God, but the human reception of it, via cooperative trust in God, includes stress, struggle, and severity in the face of conflicting powers and alternative priorities.
Christianity can falsely be made so severe that human nature must revolt against it … But Christianity can also be made so lenient or flavored with sweetness that all the attempts to perk up the appetite and give people a taste for it with demonstrations and reasons are futile and end up making people disgusted with it.
Certainly no presentation of the Christian message today is likely to be of the least avail which does not hold firmly together both the goodness and the severity of God.
Christianity and theology aside, human life is severe in many ways, and, adding injury to insult, human death is no easier. Candor requires that we acknowledge as much, even though we humans seem to be unable to improve our predicament in any lasting way. If some children are sheltered from life’s severity for a time, reality eventually intrudes, painfully and undeniably. This intrusion prompts humans to undertake all kinds of conduct for the sake of self-defense or at least temporary relief. Psychologists talk of human “coping mechanisms” and “diversionary tactics” in this connection.
Many people fold in the face of life’s severity and settle for a kind of despair or hopelessness about human life. Bertrand Russell, for instance, recommended that a human life should be based “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair” (1903, pp. 45–46). (It is doubtful that Russell was able to follow his own recommendation, given his aim to “instill faith in hours of despair,” but that is a separate matter.) This book contends that life’s severity does not underwrite a life of unyielding despair.
Infinite humbling and grace, and then a struggling born of gratitude – this is Christianity.
Christianity … in its philosophical stance … takes the bull of impermanence [including time, body, and history] by the horns and shakes it into permanence.
What, if anything, is the bearing of the flux, or impermanence, of this world on a commitment to the severe God of Jewish and Christian theism? This chapter contends that the bearing is positive rather than negative, given the redemptive character and aims of this mysterious God. It proposes that a distinctive agapē struggle involving humans and God is an elusive indicator of permanence in connection with this redemptive God. Philosophers of religion typically have neglected this important lesson, often as a result of looking for permanence in the wrong places. We shall identify the upshot of this lesson for the available evidence for God. This chapter offers a broad vision of such evidence on the basis of plausibility considerations, and this vision opens up some new prospects in the philosophy of religion, particularly in connection with divine severity and human evidence for God.
Flux in life
We all have various experiences as we read a sentence on a page, for instance, and we have various experiences prior to reading the sentence and after reading it. Many, if not all, of these experiences are transitory, but some of them are nonetheless salient, even strikingly salient, such as our hearing a screaming police siren or a roaring jet engine. My world of experience – like that of many other people, I suspect – seems to be largely in motion rather than static. This world of experience can become tiring and exhausting in all of its ongoing movement, and such movement can be confusing and even psychologically overwhelming for some people. Even so, change can be for the good; it need not be bad for humans.
The Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.
When we have seen God as Christ saw Him, as One who is infinitely austere in His demands on Himself for our sakes, One in whose heart is the final self-surrender which we see in the Cross, then to give all, if necessary, for Him will not merely seem a reasonable demand … but a joy and an opportunity which we would not miss.
Talk of “divine severity” calls, of course, for a conception of the divine, or of God. It also would be helpful to have some sense of God’s purposes, if God exists, in relating to humans and the severity in their lives. This chapter offers some illumination on these fronts, in order to suggest how divine severity can fit with the perfect goodness of a God worthy of worship.
God and Grace
Worthiness of worship
Setting the bar high, indeed as high as possible, we will approach the term “God” as a supreme title of personal perfection rather than a proper name. (We can always lower the bar if our overall evidence calls for this.) Likewise, some variants of monotheism suggest that the term “God” is a normative title requiring worthiness of worship. Given such a title, no mere potentate who dominates over all others will qualify as God. Something beyond domination is needed, because worthiness of worship is needed. Such worthiness is normative, not merely descriptive, and therefore does not support the false claim that “might makes right.” According to this view, “God” is not God’s name, because the term “God” is a normative title. A title can be meaningful but lack a titleholder. In talking about God, then, we can give a fair hearing to proponents of atheism and agnosticism without begging questions against them or otherwise dismissing them.
Among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden.
The fact that Christ can and does breathe his life into us, taking the first step in this true miracle of a communication of spiritual life, is one aspect of the whole fact which the term “mystic” is chosen to indicate rather than the term “moral.”
We might think of a philosophy as having a shape, a form, or an image given by its presumed ultimate authority regarding the good, the true, and the beautiful. A rationalist philosophy that has just pure reason as its ultimate authority might be said to have a purely rational form, and an empiricist philosophy that has just empirical experience as its ultimate authority might be said to have a purely empirical form. In addition, a philosophy that has just sound arguments as its ultimate authority can be said to have a purely argumentational form.
A distinctly Christian philosophy would be neither purely rational nor purely empirical nor purely argumentational in form. Instead, it would accommodate the subversive Christian message that the outcast Galilean “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3; see Acts 2:36). In its talk of “Lord” (kurios), this message assigns distinctive authority to Jesus Christ, even the authority proper to God (see, for instance, Phil. 2:9–11). The claim that Jesus is Lord figures not only in who counts as a Christian (namely, the one for whom Jesus is Lord) but also in which philosophy counts as Christian (namely, the one for whom Jesus is Lord).
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
It is the Spirit who gives life. Yes, the Spirit gives life – through death.
Soteriology, or the explanation of salvation, includes the distinctive Christian approach to salvation developed by the apostle Paul. We shall see that Paul’s gospel of salvation does not fit with many influential modern interpretations, but that it is nonetheless resilient and powerful, in keeping with the severity of God. According to this chapter, Paul’s case for salvation by divine “grace” requires an active, if severe, role for humans in their salvation. In identifying this active role, we shall elucidate our own accountability in the realization of human salvation. The chapter clarifies this active role via an important distinction between (a) action that either constitutes or earns salvation and (b) action that receives already constituted salvation. The chapter illuminates the nature of divinely reckoned righteousness in terms of human faith that is rigorously active concerning (b) but not (a) in the salvation that involves the human reception of divine resurrection power.
Grace and works
Paul’s account of salvation is theocentric in that it revolves around a distinctive perspective on God. He announces: “the gospel … is the power (dunamis) of God for salvation (sōtērian) to everyone who has faith … for in it the righteousness (dikaiosunē) of God is revealed” (Rom. 1:16–17). The Christological emphasis of Paul’s soteriology stems from its theocentric character, and not vice versa; that is, Paul’s Christology owes its importance to God’s redemptive plan in Christ. His soteriology highlights God’s righteousness, which concerns God’s powerful life-giving moral character and redemptive purposes and figures directly in Paul’s understanding of human salvation via God’s grace in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
Our intellectual sophistication is nowadays so great that it is difficult to achieve, or to recover, that naked contact of our minds with the confronting reality out of which true wisdom alone can be born. Jesus said, “Except ye become as little children.”
As the Introduction suggested, many people have misguided expectations for God, that is, expectations that fail to match what would be God’s purposes, if God exists. Such expectations cloud human recognition and appropriation of the evidence for God that would be on offer. This evidence, being evidence for God, would be volitionally rigorous in a manner illustrated by the Gethsemane crisis-experience of Jesus. This chapter develops this neglected theme.
The reality of severity in human life includes the reality of deep experiential and volitional conflict in humans. In humans struggling with God, such conflict has a name and even a historical location: Gethsemane. A deficiency of religious life and thought, including in Christian and Jewish variations, is their failure to give due import to Gethsemane and its disturbing, severe God. In shunning Gethsemane and the priority of God’s will, people become world-bound and thereby obscure any distinctive evidence of God in themselves and for themselves; hence the spiritual flatness among many human, even religious communities. Indeed, we humans are experts at fleeing or otherwise avoiding the needed volitional crisis of Gethsemane.
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