Paul K. Moser
“...people say to me continually, ‘Where is your
God?’” (Psalm 42:3, NRSV)
“When you search for me, you will find me; if you
seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me,
says the Lord....” (Jeremiah 29:13-14, NRSV)
WOULD AN ALL-LOVING GOD HIDE?
Somebody once asked atheist Bertrand Russell what
he would say if after death he met God. Russell’s reply:
“God, you gave us insufficient evidence.” This reply cap-
tures an attitude of many people, including theists as well
as atheists and agnostics. Why isn’t God more obvious? If
God exists, why doesn’t God give us “sufficient evidence”
of God’s existence? We shall see that God does indeed
supply sufficient decisive evidence. The decisive evidence
supplied is, however, profoundly different from what we
Let’s use the term “God” as a supreme title. It
requires of any possible holder: (a) worthiness of worship
and full life-commitment and thus (b) moral perfection
and (c) an all-loving character. Lacking a better candidate
for title-holder, let’s consider the God of Abraham, Isaac,
Jacob, and Jesus. We thus shall speak of “the Hebraic
God,” and correspondingly of “Hebraic theism” as the
view that the Hebraic God actually exists. Is Hebraic the-
ism true? Does our available evidence indicate, as Russell
held, that Hebraic theism is false or at least unreasonable?
Can we reasonably trust a God whom we neither see nor
We sometimes have misguided expectations regard-
ing God. So our expected indicators of God’s existence
may mislead us. Correct indicators of God’s existence
will line up with God’s character and plans. So we should
ask what God may be like and plan to do, before we set-
tle on our expectations for God. Perhaps, however, we are
unable to understand or to know God on our own and
thus must learn from God. The apostle Paul held that “it
is part of the wisdom of God that the world did not
know God through its own wisdom” (1 Corinthians
1:21). We do not need to assume now that Paul is right.
We should, however, be open to the possible truth of
Paul’s view. In that spirit, we shall note a number of scrip-
tural passages. Let’s treat them as suggestions of how we
might think of God and God’s ways. If they ultimately
make the best available sense of our human situation,
they will merit our serious consideration as indicators of
reality. The scriptures noted will give specific content to
our talk of the Hebraic God. In ignoring the scriptures,
we easily fall prey to abstract, speculative, or wishful
thinking about God and thereby miss the explanatory
profundity of Hebraic theism.
The Hebraic God is famous for hiding at times. The
theme of divine hiding reverberates throughout the
Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. So we are left
with an all-loving God who sometimes hides from
people. Many people assume that an all-loving God’s
existence, if real, would be obvious to all normal
humans. God’s existence is not, however, obvious to all
normal humans. So, according to many people, we may
reasonably deny that God actually exists. How could an
all-loving God fail to manifest God’s reality in a way that
removes all doubt about God’s existence? Some normal
humans do not believe that God exists. They claim not
to have adequate evidence for reasonable belief that God
exists. Would an all-loving God permit this? How could
this be, if God is indeed all-loving?
WHY ISN’T GOD MORE OBVIOUS?
Finding the God Who Hides and Seeks
Paul K. Moser
“...people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42:3, NRSV)
“When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord....” (Jeremiah 29:13-14, NRSV)
WOULD AN ALL-LOVING GOD HIDE?
Somebody once asked atheist Bertrand Russell what he would say if after death he met God. Russell’s reply: “God, you gave us insufficient evidence.” This reply cap- tures an attitude of many people, including theists as well as atheists and agnostics. Why isn’t God more obvious? If God exists, why doesn’t God give us “sufficient evidence” of God’s existence? We shall see that God does indeed supply sufficient decisive evidence. The decisive evidence supplied is, however, profoundly different from what we naturally expect.
Let’s use the term “God” as a supreme title. It requires of any possible holder: (a) worthiness of worship and full life-commitment and thus (b) moral perfection and (c) an all-loving character. Lacking a better candidate for title-holder, let’s consider the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. We thus shall speak of “the Hebraic God,” and correspondingly of “Hebraic theism” as the view that the Hebraic God actually exists. Is Hebraic the- ism true? Does our available evidence indicate, as Russell held, that Hebraic theism is false or at least unreasonable? Can we reasonably trust a God whom we neither see nor control?
We sometimes have misguided expectations regard- ing God. So our expected indicators of God’s existence may mislead us. Correct indicators of God’s existence will line up with God’s character and plans. So we should ask what God may be like and plan to do, before we set- tle on our expectations for God. Perhaps, however, we are unable to understand or to know God on our own and thus must learn from God. The apostle Paul held that “it is part of the wisdom of God that the world did not know God through its own wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:21). We do not need to assume now that Paul is right. We should, however, be open to the possible truth of Paul’s view. In that spirit, we shall note a number of scrip- tural passages. Let’s treat them as suggestions of how we might think of God and God’s ways. If they ultimately make the best available sense of our human situation, they will merit our serious consideration as indicators of reality. The scriptures noted will give specific content to our talk of the Hebraic God. In ignoring the scriptures, we easily fall prey to abstract, speculative, or wishful thinking about God and thereby miss the explanatory profundity of Hebraic theism.
The Hebraic God is famous for hiding at times. The theme of divine hiding reverberates throughout the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. So we are left with an all-loving God who sometimes hides from people. Many people assume that an all-loving God’s existence, if real, would be obvious to all normal humans. God’s existence is not, however, obvious to all normal humans. So, according to many people, we may reasonably deny that God actually exists. How could an all-loving God fail to manifest God’s reality in a way that removes all doubt about God’s existence? Some normal humans do not believe that God exists. They claim not to have adequate evidence for reasonable belief that God exists. Would an all-loving God permit this? How could this be, if God is indeed all-loving?
Divine hiding bears on theists as well as atheists and agnostics. Psalm 10 complains about God’s hiding. “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1, NRSV; cf. Job 13:24). Psalm 30 laments God's hiding after times of the psalmist's confident security. “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’ O Lord, when you favored me, you made my mountain stand firm; but when you hid your face, I was dismayed” (Psalm 30:7, NIV; cf. Psalm 104:27-29). Psalm 44 expresses outright annoyance at God’s hiding, suggesting that God’s hiding is actually morally negligent. “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (Psalm 44:23-24, NRSV). The subject of God’s hiding is no intellectual parlor-game in the Psalms. It cuts to the core of the psalmists’ understanding of God and at times prompts lament from God’s people.
Isaiah 45:15 sums up a central Hebraic view of God: “Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” The claim is not that God hides always or that we have no evidence of God’s reality. The sugges- tion is that divine hiding occurs at times for God’s own purposes. God’s purposes in hiding may be unclear and even impenetrable to us at times. This does not mean, however, that they are unclear in every situation.
God’s hiding is sometimes a response to human dis- obedience and moral indifference toward God (Deuteronomy 31:16-19, 32:19-20; Psalm 89:46; Isaiah 59:2; Micah 3:4). We should not, however, jump to a simplistic account of divine hiding. God hides at times for various purposes in relating to humans. Divine hid- ing is not always a judgment on human disobedience or indifference. It is often a constructive effort to encourage deeper human focus, longing, and gratitude toward God. God thus aims to take us, even if painfully, to our own deepest resources and their inadequacy, where “deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:7; cf. Psalm 130:1). In appre- hending God’s absence, we can achieve a deeper, more profound appreciation of God’s presence. God’s absence can indeed make one’s heart grow fonder of God, at least in some cases. By sharpening the contrast between God’s presence and absence, God can highlight the surpassing value of God’s presence.
Divine hiding, like everything else God does, seeks to advance God’s good kingdom by promoting what is good for all concerned. So we must keep divine hiding in the context of God’s main desire to have people lovingly know God and thereby to become loving as God is lov- ing. As Isaiah 65:2 reports, “I [God] held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good” (cf. Romans 10:21). God’s holding out hands toward people stems from the same concern as Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41; cf. 13:34). God desires that people turn, for their own good, to the loving God in filial communion and faithful obedience. God’s primary aim is not to hide but rather to include all people in God’s family as beloved children under God’s fatherly guidance. A loving filial relationship with God is God’s main goal for every human. This means that God wants us to love, to treasure, God as our Father, not just to believe that God exists (Deuteronomy 6:5; Mark 12:30; James 2:19). So production of mere reasonable belief that God exists will not meet God’s higher aim for us. For our own good, God is after something more profound and more transforming than simple reasonable belief about God. Mere reasonable belief is no match for personal transformation toward God’s loving character.
Divine hiding typically results from a human defi- ciency. An arguable exception comes from Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Jesus felt forsak- en by his Father at that time. Perhaps Jesus learned a deeper level of obedience toward his Father from this excruciating case of divine hiding (cf. Hebrews 5:8). Even so, according to a common biblical theme, God takes no pleasure in staying away from humans or being rejected by them (Ezekiel 18:23,32; 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:3-4). As all-loving, God seeks friendship with all humans under God’s fatherly love (James 2:23; John 3:16-17, 15:14-15). We distort God’s loving character whenever we portray God otherwise.
The epistle of James puts decisive responsibility on us humans: “Come near to God and God will come near to you” (4:8; cf. Jeremiah 29:13; Malachi 3:7). According to various biblical writers, we should take stock of our standing before God if God is hiding from us. We then may need to change something in our lives, perhaps certain attitudes and practices against the ways of God. For important lists of attitudes and practices against and in favor of God’s ways, see Mark 7:21-22; Galatians 5:19-26. These lists give specificity to the kind of unselfish love characteristic of God. Friendship with God, like genuine human friendship, depends on unselfish love.
In the case of “blameless and upright” Job, a pre- sumptuous attitude about knowledge of God needed revision (Job, chapters 38-42). Similarly, many people today presume to know how a loving God should or must intervene in our world, if God is to be loving. For exam- ple, many people suggest that an all-loving God would have to keep the world free of evil. What, however, determines how God should be revealed? What standard of clarity must God’s self-revelation meet? A loving God would not, and should not, be bound by superficial human expectations. Human expectations must be transformed, for the good of humans, toward the pro- foundly loving character of God. This disturbing and humbling lesson is central to Hebraic theism. It reminds us that our “wisdom” may not add up to God’s wisdom (Isaiah 29:14; 1 Corinthians 1:19-20). Our expectations may be shallow or even mistaken in comparison with God’s loving character and intentions. Due humility is thus appropriate in approaching the Hebraic God.
The New Testament characterizes God as hiding
either himself or important information about God from
certain people. Jesus prays as follows regarding the les-
sons of his mission.
In his own ministry, Jesus suggested, the kingdom of God has arrived. “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20, NRSV). In the parable of the vine- yard (Mark 12:1-12) Jesus suggests that he is God's rejected (beloved) son who is heir to the things of God. In keeping with this theme, Jesus functions as the one uniquely qualified to send the Spirit of God to empow- er people (Mark 1:8; Acts 2:32-33). In addition, Jesus claims that his death will inaugurate the (new) covenant for many people (Mark 14:24). He thus suggests that his death has saving (or, redemptive) significance for others. Some Jewish literature around the turn of the eras acknowledges that human suffering can atone for sin, even for the sins of others (cf. 4 Maccabees 6:27-30, 9:23-25). The novelty is that Jesus—this Galilean out- cast—regarded his death as the means of God’s new covenant of redemption. The covenant is God’s loving plan to save humans from their destructive ways.
New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders observes that
Jesus himself shared the Gospel writers’ view that “he ful-
filled the hopes of the prophets.” He adds that “Jesus’
actual claim may have been... not only spokesman for,
but viceroy of, God; and not just in a political kingdom
but in the kingdom of God.”1 The previous New
Testament data suggest that Jesus regarded himself as
God’s unique Priest, Judge, King, Messiah, Son, and
Redeemer (=Savior). He saw himself as the one sent by
God to fulfill the hopes of Israel for an everlasting king-
dom under God. No other human could make such
authoritative claims with any real plausibility. Jesus thus
shatters the limits of human authority in a way that mer-
its our attention. Jesus is no mere moral reformer, spiri-
tual guru, or philosophical sage. He is either (i) patently
insane (Mark 3:21), (ii) Satanic (Mark 3:22), or (iii)
God’s unique son and viceroy. Sanders himself rightly
concludes: “He was not a madman.”2 His not being
Satanic should go without saying, after one attends to the
pattern of his life and teaching. The third of our three
options thus recommends itself seriously for our
endorsement. So we should take Jesus’ claim about
divine hiding seriously.
WHAT KIND OF KNOWING SUITS GOD?
In his prayer of Matthew 11:25-26, Jesus speaks of knowing “the Son” and “the Father.” He is speak- ing of a kind of knowledge that differs from mere jus- tified true belief that God exists. Jesus is speaking of knowing God as authoritative and giving Father. Perhaps you know that God exists as First Cause, Intelligent Designer, or Ground of Being. Knowing God as Lord, or Master, who is your righteously gra- cious Father is, however, significantly different. Devoted to the latter kind of knowing, Jesus addressed God as “Abba” (best translated as “Father”). The Greek New Testament’s retention of this Aramaic term (Mark 14:36; Galatians 4:5; Romans 8:15) offers warrant for treating “Abba” as part of the cus- tomary vocabulary of Jesus. Jesus’ customary use of “Abba” to address God distinguished him significant- ly from his contemporaries. God is, however, por- trayed as the Father of God’s people in the Hebrew scriptures (for example, Psalms 89:26, 103:13; Isaiah 63:16).
Proper knowledge of God, according to Jesus, requires your standing in a humble, faithful, and loving child-parent, or filial, relationship to God as your righteously gracious Father. Unfortunately, such filial knowledge rarely surfaces in philosophy of religion or even in Christian approaches to knowledge of God. New Testament scholar James Dunn observes that Jesus’ awareness of being God’s beloved son was an “existential conviction,” and not a matter of merely intellectual assent. “He experienced a relation of son- ship — felt such an intimacy with God, such an approval by God, dependence on God, responsibility to God, that the only words adequate to express it were ‘Father’ and ‘son’.”3 Jesus’ experience of being God’s son is clearly expressed in his prayers (for example, Mark 14:36; Luke 10:21-22; Matthew 26:42). Indeed, Jesus seems to have regarded filial prayer toward God as an ideal avenue to proper, filial knowl- edge of God and to God’s saving power (Mark 9:29). Such prayer is primarily a matter of asking what God wants from us rather than what we want from God. God rightly leads God’s family. We do not. Humans properly submit to God for guidance and knowledge of God.
We come to know other human persons by actively relating to them in personal interaction with them. Likewise, we come to know God via personal interaction whereby we become personally account- able to God. You could not responsibly apprehend the reality of your parents’ love for you apart from a sin- cere personal relationship with them. An analogous point holds for your responsibly apprehending the reality of God’s love. So filial knowledge of God is not just knowledge that another object in the universe exists. The Hebraic conception of filial knowledge of God requires that one know God not as a mere object but as the supreme subject who is Lord of all, includ- ing one’s own life. Such knowledge requires the responsiveness of a filial personal relationship with God. It calls for a proper family relationship with God as the proper loving head of the family. We must enter into, commit to, and participate in, a loving relation- ship with God. This is no mere intellectual matter. Likewise, your entering into a friendship or a mar- riage relationship exceeds thinking and reasoning.
New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd has helpfully contrasted Greek and Hebraic conceptions of knowledge.
In the prayer of Matthew 11:25-27, Jesus thanks his Father for hiding his ways from people unwilling to enter a humble filial relationship with God. He thus assumes that it is good for God to maintain God’s unmatched value rather than to neglect, or oth- erwise to compromise, the value of a humble filial relationship with God. In a similar vein, Jesus suggests that the kingdom of God is “like treasure hidden in a field” (Matthew 13:44; cf. Luke 19:42). God’s valu- able ways may require some human searching (Jeremiah 29:13-14; Matthew 7:7), as such searching can highlight their unsurpassed value for us. It can also show that we are unable to find God on our own, thereby prompting some humility in us. The Hebraic God wants humans to be fully engaged with God, even via our lament and protest in the face of God’s hiding, as the Psalms illustrate. Such engagement will save us from fatal apathy toward God. God’s occa- sional hiding thus does not entail that God is resist- ant, grudging, or deceptive toward humans (cf. Luke 12:32; Isaiah 65:1-2). It aims for our valuing, our treasuring, God above all else. Likewise, a loving earthly father will conduct himself in ways that main- tain his value as father of his family.
Divine hiding stems from God’s upholding the value of God’s invaluable loving ways. God sustains the value of God’s ways of human renewal in the pres- ence of people who would compromise this value to their own detriment. For instance, we would readily sidestep God’s challenges to our selfishness if we could. Having preeminent value, God’s loving ways must remain sacred and not be diminished in value (cf. Matthew 7:6). We must treasure God and God’s ways. God’s primary goal in self-revelation is transfor- mation of recipients toward God’s loving character. This goal will not be satisfied by a revelation resulting just in one’s reasonably believing that God exists. A person can reasonably believe that God exists but hate God. So God must be careful, and at times subtle, to have God’s loving self-manifestation elicit a freely given response of humble love rather than fear, indif- ference, arrogance, or hate. Likewise, our eliciting a response of love from children demands carefulness and subtlety on our part. God cares mainly about what and how we love, not just what we believe. God aims that we treasure God; for where our treasure is, there our heart is.
Proper moral education toward sacrificial love and reconciliation always has been difficult noncoer- cive business. Typically its important lessons must be shown to us in action rather than simply stated to us in sentences or arguments. We must learn such lessons by living them rather than merely thinking them. This holds true even when the moral educator is God. Accordingly the life and death of Jesus offer a nonco- ercive demonstration of God’s self-giving love and a life-pattern of obedient love for humans.7
Given the important reality of human free will (a requirement for genuine love), such moral education has no guaran- tee of success. Even when God is the loving educator, failure can result. For example, we can choose life-styles that sidestep our learning unselfish love. Not even God can enforce genuine reconciliation between humans and God, the heart of redemption, or salvation.
Consider some (transliterated) non-English language. Abba yithqaddash shemakh. Tethe malkuthakh. Lakhman delimkhar, habh lan yoma dhen. [= Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Our bread for tomorrow, give us today.] Perhaps you did not initially apprehend the meaning of this Palestinian Jewish Aramaic. You may not even have been confident initially that this token actually has meaning. Perhaps you had at most a vague glimpse of some of its meaning. The problem lies not in the Aramaic token. It lies rather in the overall per- spective of beliefs and other attitudes you bring to this token. Call this perspective your receptive attitude. The problem lies in your lack of appropriate exposure and sensitivity to Palestinian Jewish Aramaic. Perhaps your life has avoided the Aramaic vocabulary and grammar needed to grasp the previous token. So the reception of significant evidence sometimes depends on the receptive attitude of people.
Failure to receive some evidence stems from shortcomings in intended recipients of evidence. The evidence itself could still be flawless. An analogy arises. People whose receptive attitude is closed to God’s “language” (or, program) of liberating love may be blinded from apprehending available evidence for the reality of God. The evidence may be readily available, just as our Aramaic token is meaningful. According to Jesus, however, we need appropriate “ears to hear and eyes to see” the available evidence (Mark 4:9). We need an attitudinal change by becoming genuinely receptive to God, in order to apprehend the available evidence in the right way. We need to turn, to repent, and thereby to become sincerely open to God. We must thereby renounce all obstacles to God, in order to make God our priority. God is, after all, second to none in importance.
We must acknowledge that on our own we humans have failed dismally at the program of all- inclusive redemption (or, salvation), including self- redemption. This failure occurs relative to serious chal- lenges to our very existence (for example, death), to our well-being (for example, physical and mental decline), and to our moral standing (for example, our regrettable tendency to selfishness). Call these chal- lenges our human predicament. We have no self-made or even self-discovered solution to our common human predicament of serious deficiencies. Only a personal caring God can rescue us from this undeni- able predicament. This humbling acknowledgment is significant relative to our knowing God, as Jesus sug- gests in his prayer of Matthew 11:25. It requires that we change how we think of ourselves and of our rela- tion to a righteously gracious God. It calls for our beginning and continuing a humble filial relationship after the pattern of Jesus, the unique son of God. It also recommends a change in our intentions regarding our conduct and habits. Such change is volitional, a matter of the will. It is not merely intellectual. Contrary to Plato, we can know what is right but fail to do or even to favor what is right. We need to have our will captured and transformed by God’s love.
Our humble awareness of our needing God will displace us from the prideful center of self-importance in our supposed universe. This is illustrated by human behavior typical of confrontation with the Hebraic God. Such behavior includes one’s bowing, falling, or covering oneself before God or God’s heavenly repre- sentatives. See the cases of Moses (Exodus 3:6, 34:8), Elijah (1 Kings 19:13), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:28), Daniel (Daniel 10:5-9), Saul (Acts 9:4-9), and John (Revelation 1:13-18). We must become humble enough to receive God’s gracious love as a gift rather than as an earning. Our pride interferes by laying claim to our earning God’s love and thus robbing it of its status as amazing grace, or gift. (On the key role of humility before God in Hebraic theism, see Isaiah 57:15, 66:2; Psalms 34:18, 51:7.) Via transformation toward humility before God, we become able to appreciate the explanatory depth of Hebraic theism regarding the human predicament and condition. Our eyes and ears are thereby opened in new ways. Transformation of our will can thus contribute to our appreciation of Hebraic theism and its explanatory value. It can yield a new illuminating perspective on our common human predicament. Likewise, commit- ment to redirect focus can bring a new perspective on an ambiguous perceptual figure (such as the famous duck-rabbit figure) or on a stereogram where a three- dimensional image is hidden within a two-dimen- sional pattern (see such an image at http://www.mag- iceye.com/).
In Pensées, the seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal emphasized the bearing of God’s hiding on volitional transformation.
It there were no obscurity man would not feel his corruption; if there were no light man could not hope for a cure. Thus it is not only right but useful for us that God should be partly concealed and partly revealed, since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness as to know his wretched- ness without knowing God. (§446)8
Sometimes we settle for false gods instead of the true God. We do this whenever we persist in our selfish- ness. So our idolatrous habits run deep indeed.
Without suitable transformation, we may be blinded from recognizing God, owing to our own counterfeit “intelligence”" and “wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:19-25). We may then lack the kind of sincere openness, humility, and filial obedience appro- priate to relating to the true God. We may then have assigned the authority of God to ourselves or to some other part of creation. In that case, we would be guilty of idolatry. We often promote cognitive idolatry by demanding a kind of knowledge of God inappropri- ate to a filial relationship with God.9 For instance, we often want controllable knowledge of God analogous to our knowledge of household objects. In thus vio- lating God’s program of gracious salvation through transformation, we are slaves to selfishness and need to be set free. The wisdom of philosophers, however sophisticated, offers no means of freeing us from self- ish fear of losing what we value (such as our supposed control). This wisdom lacks the needed power to set us free, to transform us from the inside out toward God’s ideal of all-inclusive love. Only the freeing power of God’s gracious offer of filial relationship meets this need. A loving earthly father can remove some of his child’s fears. Likewise, a loving God can dissolve the fears that prompt human selfishness.
The extent to which we know God depends on the extent to which we are gratefully willing to participate in God’s loving program of salvation (Jeremiah 22:13-17; Micah 6:6-8). Our filial relation- ship with God deepens as it yields our participation in God’s redemptive program. God’s program then becomes our program. So it is now obvious why we humans have difficulty in knowing God. The difficul- ty stems from our resisting participation in God’s redemptive program of reconciliation. So it is the height of arrogance for us humans to saunter up to the question whether God exists as if we were automati- cally in an appropriate moral and cognitive position to handle it reliably. Careful reflection on the purposes inherent to an all-loving God recommends an approach less cavalier than that typical of inquiring humans. We are, after all, inquiring about a very spe- cial kind of agent with distinctive purposes, not just a household object or laboratory specimen. We humans often proceed as if we had a hard time remembering this. Perhaps we cannot easily abide a gracious Being who evades our self-approving cognitive nets. Stubbornly, we insist on our own inferior terms for salvation. We thereby sidestep the genuine article and settle for counterfeits. So we miss out on the abundant life provided by filial knowledge of God.
God, we noted, is not after mere justified true belief that God exists. God cares how we handle evi- dence of God’s existence. The concern is whether we become loving in handling such evidence, in agree- ment with God’s character. So contrary to a typical human attitude, knowledge of God is not a spectator sport. It is rather part of a process of God’s thorough make-over of a person. It is, from our human stand- point, an active commitment to a morally transforming personal relationship. We come to know God only as God becomes our God, the Lord of our lives. God will then differ from a mere object of our contemplation, speculation, amusement, or self-indulgence. God refuses, for our own good, to become a mere idol of our thought or entertainment.
Proper knowledge of the Hebraic God is inherent- ly ethical and practical rather than simply reflective. Spectators complaining from the far bleachers may in fact remain out in the bleachers, by their own self-iso- lating choice. Knowing God requires one’s appre- hending a call to come in from the remote bleachers and gratefully join God's plan of gracious salvation. This plan is no mere intellectual puzzle for philoso- phers or theologians. God is more serious than our mental gymnastics, for our own good. We have, after all, lives to form and to live, not just thoughts to think or intellectual puzzles to solve. God’s call, in keeping with the call of Abraham, Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul, requires that we commit to using our whole lives for the advancement of God’s kingdom of self-giving love. So proper knowledge of God extends to our deepest attitudes and convictions. God is free of our superficial ways.
John’s Gospel highlights the importance of the human will in human knowledge. In John 7:3-4, Jesus faces a problem of hiding raised by his own brothers (who, according to John 7:5, did not believe in him). His brothers tell him that nobody works in hiding while seeking to be known openly. Their challenge is straightforward: “Manifest yourself to the world” (John 7:4; cf. John 10:24). Jesus replies that the world hates him because he testifies that its works are evil. He suggests that the world has the wrong attitude toward him. John then portrays Jesus as teaching in the temple that if anyone wills to do the will of God, that person will know whether Jesus’ teaching is from God (7:17). Note the importance of one’s willing to obey God, as in a humble filial relationship with God. It is fitting, then, that this part of John’s Gospel cul- minates in a dispute over filial association with either God or the devil (John 8:39-47). (See also the relevant filial language of one’s being “born” again/from above in John 3:1-12, in connection with seeing/entering the kingdom of God and knowing the things of God.) A human filial response to God presupposes that God graciously takes the initiative in trying to establish a filial relationship. God first calls us to humble reception of God’s transforming love. God loves us before we love God.
John 12:35-40 continues the theme of hiding. After predicting his death, Jesus advises his listeners to walk while they have the light, unless the darkness overtake them (v. 35). He suggests that understanding the things of God requires trust in God (v. 36). Christian faith is not, however, an ungrounded response to inadequate evidence for God. It is not a “leap of faith.” It is a filial attitude of obediently entrusting oneself to a faithful God who reveals him- self as a righteously gracious Father (cf. John 14:1).
Jesus hides from the unbelieving crowd. John links the unbelief to the kind of judgment described in Isaiah 6:10. “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, unless they should see with their eyes and per- ceive with their heart, and turn for me to heal them” (cf. Mark 4:11-12). John suggests that the crowd’s unbelief in the face of Jesus’ miraculous signs led to hardening and blindness in understanding. So one’s handling of the available evidence concerning God has serious consequences for one’s understanding other considerations about God. The signs of God must be handled with utter seriousness, as one’s very life is at stake. Assessing evidence of God is no parlor game.
John 14:21 portrays a grand promise from Jesus. “The person having my commandments and keeping them, that is the one who loves me; the person loving me will be loved by my Father, and I will love that per- son and manifest myself to him” (John 14:21). This amazing promise is general, applying to anyone keeping the commandments of Jesus. Note the importance of obedience and love, key factors that go well beyond rea- sonable belief that God exists. The promise has crucial volitional conditions. The prophet Hosea, we noted, uses a loyal marriage relationship as a model for know- ing God. On this model, mutual respect and love will obviously be central to a knowledge relationship. We could use a relation of friendship to make the same point, in keeping with John 15:13-15.
One of Jesus’ disciples restates the challenge from Jesus’ brothers in John 7:4, asking why he will not manifest himself to the world (John 14:22). The dis- ciples’ thinking is familiar: why hide from the world if you have miraculous powers? Jesus offers a reply that highlights again the importance of the volitional human attitudes of love and obedience in relation to God. “If a person loves me, that person will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (14:23). Jesus’ reply assumes that the world does not love the things of God. So God’s self-manifestation would not have the filial effect of love desired by God. Such a mani- festation would thus compromise the value of God’s self-revelation. In another context, Jesus remarks that “an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign” (Matthew 12:39, 16:4; cf. Mark 8:12; John 6:30). Entertaining signs and wonders are typically ineffec- tive toward a filial relationship with God. They do not cut deeply enough into one’s character to elicit sacrifi- cial love toward God. (Section 3 below considers this topic.) Jesus portrays God as desiring not mere acknowledgment or intellectual affirmation, but an attitude of filial, loving obedience toward God. For our own good, God wants us to treasure God as our Lord, as our loving Master.
The first epistle of John develops the theme that proper knowledge of God depends on a filial attitude of loving obedience toward God.
What about evidence of God from prophecies, miracles, the empty tomb of Jesus, the post-resurrec- tion transformation of the apostles, design in nature, and the reality of moral conscience? Such evidence enhances reasonable Christian commitment. Still, it is not decisive for filial knowledge of God. A person can accept such evidence without properly knowing God at all in a filial manner. One can acknowledge such evidence but still fail altogether to love God or to be committed to obey God. Accepting such evidence is one thing; loving God is another. This difference yields a sharp contrast between dead faith and saving faith. Saving faith is renewing faith, toward God’s loving character.
Jesus demands of his followers a whole-hearted loving commitment toward God as genuinely loving Father (Mark 8:34-38; Matthew 8:18-22, 10:37-39). Such whole-hearted commitment finds no adequate basis in the uncertainties of theoretical inference about history or nature. Its needed basis, we shall see, is in the morally transforming presence of God's righteous love through filial relationship. Such a rela- tionship is made available and exemplified by the self- giving life and death of God’s unique son Jesus. The historical evidence is indeed significant. The Hebraic God works tirelessly in the turbulence of human his- tory. God even sends his unique son into the histori- cal fray to exhibit God’s sacrificial love. Still, such evi- dence is not suitably decisive for filial knowledge of God. Our filial knowledge of God must be liberating, reconciling, and morally transforming toward God’s character. Historical evidence cannot fill that bill. By analogy, your having historical evidence about a loyal marriage falls short of your lovingly participating in a loyal marriage. Similarly, your knowing about a valu- able friendship does not add up to your having a valu- able friendship.
We must know God’s transforming love directly in filial relationship, not just in historical evidence about God’s love. C.H. Dodd has put this key lesson in context. “Perhaps one of the most striking features of the early Christian movement was the re-appear- ance of a confidence that [one] can know God imme- diately.... Jesus Christ, with a confidence that to the timid traditionalism of His time appeared blasphe- mous, asserted that He knew the Father and was pre- pared to let others into that knowledge. He did so ... by making others sharers in His own attitude to God.”10 Jesus’ shareable “attitude” to God is inherent- ly filial, as illustrated by the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-15) and the testing of Jesus in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-36). Jesus directly experienced his Father’s gra- cious self-giving love and obediently returned the same sacrificial love to his Father. We are called to do the same, even in the same whole-hearted manner.
Our discerning that Jesus himself offers a com- pelling reason to acknowledge God is no mere intel- lectual matter. We must be genuinely willing to exem- plify the kind of God-centered excellence shown by Jesus in his relation to God as Father. We must be willing to appropriate Jesus’ teaching that we humans have failed at being properly filial toward our right- eously gracious Father. We must also be willing to acknowledge sincerely that this is the worst kind of personal failure possible. We thus must render judg- ment against ourselves, judgment that we have rebelled against our filial responsibility before God (cf. Luke 15:11-32). This is the beginning of what Jesus called repentance and demanded of his followers (Mark 1:15, 6:12; Luke 13:3,5). It is crucial to our appropriating God’s forgiving love. Such repentance calls for humble recognition that we are not entitled on our own to know God as Father. We must recognize that filial knowledge of God can come only as a gracious gift, not as a prideful earning. Likewise, true love must be received, not bought or coerced. Accordingly we cannot buy or force even genuine earthly friendship.
The excellence of Jesus is ultimately revealed to people sincerely willing to honor such excellence with their lives, and not just their thoughts (Matthew 16:15-17). Divine grace aims to remove community- destroying pride about good works and status (Luke 15:28-32; 1 Corinthians 4:7; Ephesians 2:9). Likewise, God uses the gift of God’s self-revelation to remove pride about self-crediting intellectual means of finding God (cf. 1 Corinthian 1:26-29). Argument can indeed remove some obstacles to God’s self-reve- lation. God’s Spirit is, however, the final source and seal of such revelation. God’s Spirit makes the wisdom of God a liberating power absent from worldly wis- dom. Proper knowledge of God thus has its ultimate source in the Spirit of God, who testifies about God immediately to our spirits (Romans 8:16; cf. 1 John 4:13, 5:6-9; 1 Corinthians 2:12-14). God’s Spirit con- victs us of our unloving ways and calls us to loving relationship with God and others, even our enemies.
In keeping with Jesus’ prayer of Matthew 11:25- 27, we ultimately know God by gracious revelation through God’s Spirit. Christian theory of knowledge must therefore give a central role to the immediate testimony and power of God’s revealing Spirit. Paul put the point clearly. “We have received not the spirit of the world but the Spirit from God, in order that we may know the things freely given to us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12; cf. 4:7, 12:3; Romans 8:14-16; John 3:8; 1 John 5:20). So people will be unable to appreciate the cognitive and spiritual depths of Hebraic theism from outside, apart from filial recep- tion of the Spirit of God. Jesus thus connects (a) our finding, and receiving from, God with (b) our receiv- ing the Father’s Holy Spirit (Luke 11:9-13). Our filial knowing of God thus depends on our receiving the Spirit of God. This does not call, however, for an irrational leap of faith. God faithfully supplies adequate, convicting grounds for our calling on the name of the Lord.
The Hebraic God is anything but cognitively “safe,” or controllable. We cannot control either God or God’s hiding on occasion. So we cannot remove God’s hiding with our self-made recipes. The Hebraic God leaves us empty-handed when we insist on seek- ing with our self-made tools, including familiar recipe- like spiritualities. We therefore cannot “solve” the problem of divine hiding if a solution requires a self- made tool to remove such hiding. We are, after all, neither God nor God’s advisers (Isaiah 40:13-14). At best we are God’s loyal children. So we should not be surprised that we lack our own devices to banish God’s occasional hiding. We have no warrant for trying to control God, just as children should not try to control their loving earthly father.
God’s ways need not line up with our preferred ways for God. This is one central message of the bib- lical writings. It fits with God’s distinctive role in the human predicament. God is the supreme Gift-Giver who seeks us prior to our seeking God. This is what Hebraic covenant love (chesed) and New Testament grace (charis) are all about. If we love God, it is because God first loved us, desired us, and offered God’s love to us (1 John 4:10,19; Romans 5:8). The order here is crucial, cognitively and morally.11 For our own good, God’s calls for our grateful surrender and obedience to the merciful Gift-Giver. Our anxiously casting about with our own self-crediting tools for finding God is thus misplaced (Romans 10:6-9). The Hebraic God is not to be found by our own self-pro- moting recipes.
We often prefer not to settle for grateful accept- ance of God’s gift of (a) personal filial knowledge of God and (b) God’s personal assurance of God’s pres- ence. We often prefer to earn our knowledge of God on our own terms. We prefer to have cognitive control here as elsewhere in our lives. Such control offers us a desired basis for prideful boasting in ourselves. The Hebraic God, in contrast, favors a cognitive approach of humble, self-giving compassion, where God serves as the humble Gift-Giver of knowledge and we serve as grateful recipients. It is only out of our acknowl- edged weakness—our recognized need—that we have true humility and gratitude toward God. We should let God be God (and thus be transformingly gracious) even in our acquiring knowledge of God. Analogously, children should permit their earthly father to be gracious toward them. Otherwise, a lov- ing relationship will be impossible.
Our habitual refusal to love sacrificially as God loves blinds us from seeing the things of God. As 1 John 4:3 states: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Our recurring atti- tude of prideful ingratitude is particularly self-blind- ing with regard to God, just as it undermines earthly friendships. Such ingratitude is the poisonous root of resistance to God. It is a corrosive attitude that drives God into hiding. Via gratitude for gifts received, in contrast, we come to trust and even to love God, thereby growing in filial knowledge of God. Perhaps God would become less hidden to us if we spent more time gratefully talking and listening to God rather than merely talking about God. We must welcome the gift of God’s presence for it to benefit us by trans- forming us. Proper reception of God demands invit- ing and welcoming God with gratitude. Mere reason- ing, however sound, will not fill this bill. Reasoning is at best a delivery truck. God must supply the priceless treasure (God’s love) to be delivered. Similarly, in earth- ly friendship we must receive the gift of friendship, thereby going beyond reasoning about friendship. Love always moves beyond mere reflection, to commitment and action.
Let’s distinguish: (a) propositional knowledge that God exists, and (b) filial knowledge as one’s standing in a humble, faithful, and loving relationship to God as righteously gracious Father. Filial knowledge of God requires propositional (or, intellectual) knowl- edge that God exists, but it exceeds propositional knowledge. One can know that God exists, as we noted, but fail to love God. Filial knowledge of God, in contrast, includes our being reconciled to God (at least to some degree) through a loving filial relation- ship with God. It requires our entrusting ourselves as children to God in grateful love. We thereby are trans- formed in who we are and in how we exist, not just in what we believe. God has manifested faithfulness toward humans in covenant relationships and in giv- ing us astonishing gifts. So we must be actively faith- ful toward God with all that we are and have. This is basic to genuine filial knowledge of God. Nothing requires that God supply our propositional knowledge that God exists apart from our filial knowledge of God. Ideally God promotes the two together.
We can now distinguish theoretical theism and fil- ial theism. Theoretical theism affirms that God exists. It is often coupled with the view that some people know, or at least reasonably believe, that God exists. Theoretical theism, however, will not resolve our common human predicament. A key human deficien- cy regarding God is in our moral orientation regard- ing lordship over our lives. Insisting on our own lord- ship, we are alienated from God. In the interest of genuine personal reconciliation, God does not settle for our accepting theoretical theism. Our having a friendship requires more than our knowing that a friend exists. So God promotes our embracing filial theism. This is the view that we are properly children of the God who as our loving Father merits our respectfully and gratefully believing in, or trusting, God as the Lord of our lives. Theoretical theism is fine as far as it goes. It does not go far enough, however, for God’s redemptive concerns. Filial theism goes beyond belief that God exists, in recommending a fil- ial life-commitment to a personal Lord. God wants us to be members living in God’s family, not just people who believe that God’s family exists.
Filial knowing of God requires our knowing God as Lord in the second-person, as supreme “You.” Lordship entails supreme moral leadership, and moral leadership entails a call to moral accountability and direction. When self-centered humans are the recipi- ents, God’s call is for moral redirection and transfor- mation toward God’s character of sacrificial love. Knowing God as Lord requires our surrendering to God as follows: “Not my will, but Your will,” “Not my kingdom, but Your kingdom.” Filial knowing of God thus points to Gethsemane and the cross of Jesus. It depends on our volitional sensitivity and sub- mission 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 life in sacrificial love on a crim- inal’s cross. We thus come truly to know God not in our prideful cognitive glory but rather in our voli- tional weakness relative to the priority of God’s will. Such humble knowing is indispensable to Hebraic fil- ial knowledge of God. Our willful pride must not get in the way of our embracing the God of gracious (rather than earned) love. As Jesus showed in Gethsemane, our will must take second place to God’s loving will. Otherwise, filial knowledge is impossible.
A pressing issue is: are we entitled to know God? Do we humans have a right to know that God exists without knowing God as Lord, as the morally supreme agent for our lives? Some people uncritically assume an affirmative answer and thereby neglect filial knowl- edge of God. An even prior question is: who is entitled to decide how one may know God—we humans or God? Given our status relative to God, can we reason- ably make demands on God, including demands about knowing God? Perhaps God’s dispensing of knowledge of God is truly gracious, a genuine gift calling for grateful reception. Many people presume that we have a right to know God on our preferred terms. In virtue of what, however, does God owe us revelation and knowledge of God?
God’s ways of imparting knowledge of God may differ significantly from our natural expectations regarding God. How we may know God depends per- haps on what God lovingly wants for us and from us. So as knowers we may be responsible to God, and not just to ourselves and our prior cognitive commit- ments. Perhaps, moreover, we can truly come to know God only if we acknowledge our unworthiness of knowing God. It may thus be illuminating to ask about the attitudes of people inquiring about God. What are our intentions in having knowledge of God? Do we have a bias against filial knowledge of God? Do we resist knowing God as personal Lord who lovingly holds us morally accountable and expects grateful obedience from us as God’s children? Such crucial issues rarely emerge in discussions about knowledge of God, but they bear nonetheless on real human attitudes.
Philosopher Thomas Nagel has a “cosmic authority problem”
with theism. In his words: “...I hope
there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t
want the universe to be like that.”12 Nagel confesses to
having a fear of any religion involving God. Such fear
seems widespread among humans. It stems from
human fear of losing human lordship over human
decisions and life. Such self-protective fear resists
God’s liberating ways of unselfish love. This kind of
fear prompted an atheist friend of mine to report that
he would kill himself if he had to acknowledge God’s
reality. The sad attitudes of Nagel and my friend
regarding God speak volumes about the human con-
dition. Such attitudes self-destructively banish God
from human lives.
ARE “SIGNS AND WONDERS” NEEDED FOR KNOWLEDGE OF GOD?
The Hebraic God is the God of miracles. How do miracles figure in knowledge of God? Shouldn’t God be less stingy with miracles, including altogether amazing observable events? Hebraic theism disallows God’s being trivialized as an object of amazement for our convenient examination or speculation. It calls for knowledge of God as Lord who is the supreme per- sonal guide and gift-giver for human life. This God is the lovingly commanding agent to whom we are ulti- mately morally responsible. This is the final personal authority over all creation, including over human knowers. In filial knowledge of God, we have knowl- edge of a supreme personal subject, not of a mere object for casual reflection. This is not knowledge of a vague First Cause, Ultimate Power, Ground of Being, or even a Best Explanation. It is convicting knowledge of a personal, communicating Lord who demands full grateful commitment in response to God’s gracious salvation. In love, God convicts us of our wayward tendencies. Such convicting knowledge includes our being judged, and found unworthy, by the standard of God’s love.
God aims that all people freely choose to be transformed by God from self-serving to self-giving, loving children of the God of morally serious love. (For suggestions of this ideal, see Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:12-13; Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:28-30; John 15:9-17). As all-loving, God desires that eventually all people freely come to be morally and lovingly perfect as God is morally and lovingly perfect (Matthew 5:48). Given this aim, God is not required to offer undeniable, or insuppressible, evidence that would pro- duce universal mere propositional knowledge that God exists. Love of God, like ordinary friendship, cannot be coerced but must be freely given, and God is in the full-time business of promoting love of God. In respecting human freedom, God has offered evi- dence of God that allows for deniability of God’s exis- tence. God does not generally value knowledge that God exists apart from filial knowledge of God. For our own good, God desires that we know God as God, specifically, as our gracious Father. God is cognitively sovereign and morally demanding. God lovingly sets the conditions for approaching God, and the conditions set are sensitive to our moral attitude toward God. We have no firm basis to demand that God meet our own favored ways of approaching God.
The Hebraic approach to filial knowledge of God gives primacy to revelation from God. It thus offers a top-down rather than a bottom-up approach to the source of filial knowledge of God. This explains the absence of esoteric philosophical reasoning about God in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Filial knowl- edge of God is available to every sincere seeker at God’s appointed time. Still, its realization comes via—and not in advance of—an attitude of sincere willingness to love God with the kind of love charac- teristic of God. This fits well with the Christian mes- sage that God is love, that is, inherently loving (see 1 John 4:8,16; cf. 2 Corinthians 13:11). Our resisting God’s characteristic kind of love, including love of enemies, is to reject God. Paul thus notes that if he understands all mysteries and all knowledge but lacks God’s love, he is nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2).
Each person must individually seek filial knowl- edge of God, just as each person must form his or her own friendships. You cannot give me your filial knowledge of God. Nor can anyone else. On God’s side of the relationship, only God can show you God in a way that constitutes reconciling and morally transforming filial knowledge of God. Other people cannot accomplish this on their own for you. Our needed turning to God moves us away from selfish- ness, ingratitude, and self-righteousness—the core of resisting God. Such repentance is necessarily personal. It cannot be done by proxy. It is not, however, cogni- tively arbitrary. All mature human persons have evi- dence from moral conscience that their self-righteous- ness and selfishness lack support from the quality of their actual moral character. Our frequently presumed status of superior moral importance is but misguided pride. We can know this on proper reflection. Our recurring moral pride is indeed a thin veneer, perhaps lightly covering but not genuinely improving who we really are.
Critics will object that God’s presence is too ambiguous to merit reasonable acknowledgment. God owes us more miraculous signs and wonders, whatever God’s redemptive aims. Why doesn’t God convince us, once and for all, with decisive manifesta- tions of God’s awesome power? It would cost God nothing, and it would vanquish nagging doubts about God’s existence. A truly loving God would use mirac- ulous powers to free us from our doubts. God’s redemptive purposes, many will thus object, do not exonerate God from the charge of excess restraint in manifestation. If God exists, God is blameworthy for inadequate self-revelation.
Philosopher Norwood Russell Hanson complains about the absence of observable happenings that 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.”13 Hanson observes that nothing like the Zeus-event has ever occurred so as to recommend theism to all reasonable people. He thus concludes that theism lacks adequate warrant for universal acceptance.
Critics such as Hanson exhibit misguided expec- tations about what exactly astonishing signs will accomplish. Astonishing signs, like ordinary events, are interpretively flexible. They logically admit of var- ious coherent interpretations, including nonmiracu- lous interpretations. Miraculous events do not impose their interpretations on us. We interpreters must decide on our interpretations of events, and various background beliefs and motives typically influence our interpretive decisions. We thus should not regard miraculous signs as effective for all inquirers. A miracu- lous sign can prompt and build trust toward God in people genuinely open to God’s intervention, but not in all people. The best and correct explanation of a striking event may be that it is miraculous. Suppose, however that your background assumptions were thoroughly materialistic, acknowledging only physical entities as real. In that case, an explanation acknowl- edging miracle would not prevail for you by your standards. You would then find an alternative treat- ment of the striking event. Perhaps you would with- hold judgment on its interpretation or appeal to illu- sion or even to extraterrestrial powers (e.g., UFO’s).
Astonishing signs often fail to convince. People can minimize the force of such signs by making cer- tain alterations in their beliefs. The New Testament suggests as much. “If [people] do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). The Gospel of John concurs regarding the ineffectiveness of miraculous signs in producing faith. “After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them. Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him” (John 12:36- 37). Humans can reject even the loving signs from God’s self-giving son.
If you demand a universally convincing undeni- able manifestation of God, you should consider whether that is really a viable demand. For any amaz- ing manifestation, you could coherently ascribe a source (however implausible) without making reference to God. The strange possibilities are endless; like- wise for your wiggle room regarding God. Suppose, however, that you came to refer to God at a time. You would then persist in this reference only if you trust- ed God not to change in a way incompatible with the supreme title “God.” Such personal trust exceeds one’s apprehending an astonishing sign. God builds his kingdom on personal trust anchored in God’s supreme love. This preserves the kind of personal free- dom essential to genuine love.
What about people open to God’s intervention but not yet believing in God? Wouldn’t they benefit from miraculous signs by coming to believe in God? Perhaps. Let’s distinguish people passively open to belief in God and people actively open to belief in God. People passively open to such belief do not put any serious effort into examining whether God has intervened in history. Such people are “open” to God with striking indifference. This indifference manifests itself in failure to act in ways that take seriously the availability of evidence for God. Passive openness is mere lip service to taking a real interest in the avail- ability of evidence for God. We do not appropriately value evidence for God if we lack a morally serious interest in the availability of such evidence. Passive openness is thus an improper, insufficiently serious attitude toward available evidence for God. It trivial- izes a matter of supreme importance.
People actively open to belief in God take a morally serious interest in the availability of evidence for God. Such an interest has potential morally trans- forming effects. These people are not morally indif- ferent about whether God has intervened in history. They take a morally serious interest in available evidence for God’s intervention. People suitable for filial knowledge of God must be actively willing to be morally transformed toward the loving character of God. Are there such morally serious seekers who would believe in God if and only if they had firsthand a miraculous sign from God? This question suffers from vagueness in talk of a “miraculous sign” from God.
Let’s distinguish morally impotent and morally transforming miraculous signs. Morally impotent miraculous signs can surprise and entertain people but cannot transform their moral character. Morally transforming signs, in contrast, change one’s moral character toward the moral character of God. People often seek mere entertainment from visible phenome- na. God, however, seeks our moral transformation from the inside out. For our own good, God is not in the entertainment business regarding our coming to know God. Isaiah 58:2 portrays God as complaining about the Israelites that “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.” The New Testament likewise discourages our seeking after morally impotent signs from God. It promises, however, a morally transform- ing sign to genuine seekers after God. Since this sign is a definitive sign from the God of morally serious love, it manifests the character of God. It thus mani- fests God’s morally serious love. The New Testament confirms this expectation, explicitly and repeatedly. (See 2 Corinthians 5:16-17; 1 John 4:12-13,16,19.) Paul thus remarks that hope in God does not disap- point us “because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts” by God’s Spirit (Romans 5:5).
The presence of God’s morally transforming love is the key cognitive foundation for filial knowledge of God. Such divine love is a foundational source of knowledge of God (Colossians 2:2; 1 Corinthians 8:2-3; Ephesians 3:17-19.) It is real evidence of God’s reality and presence. This love is a personal interven- tion by God and the basis of a personal relationship with God. It is the presence of a personal God. So the filial knowledge in question exceeds propositional knowledge. It rests on morally transforming love from God that produces a loving character in children of God, despite their obstruction at times. This transformation happens to one, in part, and thus is neither purely self-made nor simply the byproduct of a self- help strategy. This widely neglected supernatural sign is available at God’s appointed time to anyone who turns to God with moral seriousness. It transforms one’s will to yield gratitude, trust, and love toward God and love toward other people. So: “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). So we need to learn how to apprehend, and to be appre- hended by, God’s supreme love for all of us, not just truths about God’s love. Neither God nor God’s love is a proposition or an argument. Neither is reducible to an intellectual construct.
The evidence of God’s presence offered by loving character-transformation in God’s children is crucial. It goes much deeper than the comparatively superfi- cial evidence found in entertaining signs, wonders, visions, ecstatic experiences, and fancy philosophical arguments. We could consistently dismiss any such sign, wonder, vision, ecstatic experience, or argument as illusory or indecisive, given certain alterations in our beliefs. In contrast, genuine character transforma- tion toward God’s all-inclusive love does not admit of easy dismissal. It bears directly on who one really is, the kind of person one actually is. Such transforma- tion cuts too deeply against our natural tendencies toward selfishness to qualify as just a self-help gim- mick. It thus offers a kind of firm evidence that resists quick dismissal. Critics of Hebraic theism have uni- formly failed to undermine such crucial evidence for God. Typically they ignore it. It thus escapes their self- limiting cognitive nets.
Entertaining signs and wonders are optional and not mandatory for God. They are not suitably morally transforming in the way required by filial knowledge of God. In this regard, they are markedly inferior to the supernatural sign from the transforming presence of God’s love. An all-loving God would make God’s presence available to humans at God’s appointed time. God’s presence, however, need not exceed the presence of God’s love or be available apart from morally serious inquiry. God’s presence need not include miracles irrelevant to moral transformation toward God’s character, even though God may use such miracles as attention-getters. An all-loving God can properly make confident knowledge of God’s exis- tence arise simultaneously with filial knowledge of God. So God is exonerated from the charge of irre- sponsibly neglecting entertaining signs, so long as God reveals God’s presence to anyone suitably recep- tive. Hanson’s use of the Zeus-example overlooks these considerations. It trivializes God’s actual aim. As all-loving, God aims to bring unloving people to love God and others, even enemies. One could not have a more difficult, or a more important, task.
God does try at God’s appointed time to draw
everyone into the kingdom of God, but God does not
extinguish our free will. Neither God nor anyone else
can coerce genuine gratitude, trust, or love. Free
choice is a prerequisite for loving relationships. Forced
friendship is no friendship at all. In keeping with full
moral goodness, God seeks loving relationships above
all else. God seeks the freely chosen grateful union of
our wills with God’s morally serious loving will. Only
then is an all-inclusive loving community possible.
Being all-loving, God seeks such a God-centered com-
munity above all else (John 13:34-35, 15:12-17,
17:20-23). Given the signs of personal excellence left
by God in ourselves and other areas of creation, we
should seek after God and thereby come to know God
in a filial manner. Some people, however, will neglect
the responsibility of seeking after God. The demands
of discipleship are too inconvenient for many of us,
given our chosen priorities. (See the Parable of the
Sower, in Mark 4:3-20, for Jesus’ diagnosis of unbe-
lief.) We thus refuse to be displaced from the center of
our universe. Still, God challenges our self-destructive
blinders that aim to disregard God’s program of
all-inclusive redemption. We cannot plausibly blame
God, then, for the blinders we sometimes stubbornly
choose to wear.
HOW DO WISDOM AND EXPLANATION FIGURE IN KNOWLEDGE OF GOD?
As our wills yield to God’s excellence, we open ourselves to a kind of transforming wisdom and super- natural power unavailable from worldly wisdom. We then encounter a divine Father able and willing to lib- erate us from our own destructive, even self-destruc- tive, ways. Paul captures this point succinctly. “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not in human wisdom but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5; cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:5). Talk is cheap indeed, but God’s power is priceless. The power of God’s Spirit appears not with competitive, prideful, or otherwise self-serving behavior. It rather involves such unworldly fruit as self-giving love and service. Accordingly the cross of Jesus is the standard of God’s power (1 Corinthians 1:18). Paul lists some supernat- ural fruit of God’s Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self- control (Galatians 5:22-23; see 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 on God-inspired love). Such fruit is as rare as it is excellent and is no mere self-help product. It rather is the yield of God’s supernatural transformative power. God is the original bearer of such fruit. So we should approach God and knowledge of God accordingly. God’s merciful wisdom has authority and power of a special kind. It is a saving authority and power that works from within to avoid coercion, to preserve freedom, and to liberate us from bondage to selfishness. Jesus captured the idea by telling his disciples that the authority of God comes through service rather than through wielding control over people (Mark 10:42- 45). So Jesus accepted scandalous death on a criminal's cross, thus manifesting God’s self-giving, sacrificial love to the very end. God, through Jesus, reconciles us by manifesting self-giving love and by calling us to fol- low suit (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:19). The disturbing authority of Jesus is all about laying down our person- al rights in love, for the sake of the good of others. It is thus the direct opposite of worldly authority. Indeed, it is foolishness in the world’s eyes (cf. 1 Corinthians1:22-29). Even so, the divine love involved in such authority is the anchor all humans need to avoid being swept away in fear, pride, and selfishness.
The love we receive from God is not only obligat- ing (we have been purchased with a high price) but also empowering. It empowers us to live freely in God’s self-giving love, thereby empowering others to do the same. Such empowering love is the God-given recipe for the building of God’s everlasting kingdom. We sometimes fail to see the supernatural power in such love, because we tend not to value such love properly or we do not want its guidance in our lives. We thus miss the empowering self-revelation offered by God. At times we even presume to have the power of sacri- ficial love solely within ourselves. This, however, is an illusion of our pride. Our lives tell the real truth about us. We need God’s empowering Spirit of love to live in love. True sacrificial love is “from God” (1 John 4:7). It is not ours to trumpet. Our boasting should thus be in God, not in ourselves.
We have touched on the relevance of wisdom to knowledge of God. What, however, is wisdom, and what does love have to do with wisdom? Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics (1141a), portrays wisdom as the most finished of the forms of knowledge and links it with excellence. Wisdom in general is knowledge, or sound discernment, of what is excellent. What is excel- lent in a certain domain of existence is what is the best available in that domain. Wisdom regarding our own human kind is just sound discernment of what is excel- lent for human character and human intellectual and practical life. Wisdom thus exceeds knowledge. We can have knowledge of many things but lack sound discernment of what is excellent for human character and life. Our having justified true beliefs does not guarantee our having sound discernment of what is excellent for us. Many people have extensive knowl- edge while their lives remain in shambles. Many such people lack the perspective of genuine wisdom, of sound discernment of what is excellent for their lives.
The life of wisdom is just the life characterized by excellence. What qualifies as excellence for our lives depends on the kind of universe we inhabit, as it depends on the best actually available for our lives. A question of first importance is thus theological. Is there a god who loves us? Is there an all-loving being worthy of worship and full life-commitment? Most contem- porary philosophers say no. This fits with a commit- ment to materialism, the view that all of reality is ulti- mately physical. The universe portrayed by material- ism has no room for the all-loving Hebraic God, who is by nature non-material. Bertrand Russell has vividly described the universe of materialism in his 1903 essay “A Free Man’s Worship.”
Russell portrays “wisdom” in terms of “the Stoic freedom” of submitting our desires to the reality of the hostile universe. Such submitting of desires requires that we not rebel with indignation against the uni- verse. It requires that we resign ourselves to its hostili- ty. Russell’s brand of wisdom thus entails that “from the submission of our desires springs the virtue of res- ignation” (p. 49). So Russell’s foundation of “unyield- ing despair” promotes resignation rather than indigna- tion. Russell urges nonetheless that we help others suf- fering “in the same tragedy with ourselves,” that we “instill faith [for others] in hours of despair” (p. 53).
Russell does not say what we should instil faith in; nor is it clear that his materialism offers any real option for a worthwhile object of faith. Still, we should appreci- ate Russell’s honesty about the ominous results of materialism, even though his confidence in material- ism is overdrawn.
Russell acknowledges that his materialism leaves us with some “strange” and “inexhaustible” mysteries. We humans are one of the mysteries. “A strange mys- tery,” according to Russell, “is that Nature, omnipo- tent but blind, ... has brought forth at last a child ... with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother” (p. 46). Russell’s materialism seems doomed to acknowledge mystery here, given its implication that we are “but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms” (p. 45). Russell also speaks of the “inexhaustible mystery of existence” in general (p. 51). If the unconscious material world is just the result of accident, inexhaustible mystery is no surprise. Mere accident, whether in matter or in minds, has a way of being irredeemably mysterious.
In a 1936 essay, “Do We Survive Death?,” Russell recommends his hypothesis of accident over any com- mitment to an intelligent designer of the universe. “The world in which we live can be understood as a result of muddle and accident; but if it is the outcome of deliberate purpose, the purpose must have been that of a fiend. For my part, I find accident a less painful and more plausible hypothesis.”15 Russell sketches a similar view in “A Free Man’s Worship,” proposing that the world’s evil would make God evil if God existed. Two problems emerge, aside from Russell’s oddly over- looking the role of free agents other than God in the origin of evil.16 First, we should be wary of Russell’s talk of the world’s being understood as resulting from accident. The accident postulated by Russell leaves us with unexplainable mystery rather than understanding. Russell’s postulating the accidental origin of our world does not yield an explanation of the world’s origin. Rather, it disavows the availability of an explanation and thus of understanding. If the origin of the material world is truly accidental, it lacks the kind of components needed for explanation and understanding.
The second point concerns Russell’s talk of the relative plausibility of his hypothesis of accident versus a thesis of intelligent design. By what standard is Russell’s hypothesis of accident more plausible than Hebraic theism’s commitment to a personal creator? Russell says that his hypothesis is “less painful” than theism. He would not argue, however, that the less painful of two hypotheses is more likely true. Perhaps a view about what kinds of things are real influences Russell’s judgment of relative plausibility.
Russell’s general view of reality rests on his view that the natural sciences have cognitive priority over common sense and everything else. Russell acknowl- edges that the sciences begin with common-sense notions and judgments: notions of causation, space, time, things, etc. The sciences, however, often revise or eliminate such common notions to achieve their explanatory purposes. Russell observes that we typically start our theorizing from “naive realism,” the view that things are just as they seem. We initially think that the objects we perceive really are as they appear. We think that snow is white, that fire is hot, that feathers are soft. The natural sciences, however, offer a strikingly different view. Our best physics entails that the features ascribed to external objects by naive realism do not really inhere in the external objects themselves. For example, our best physics entails that physical objects are devoid of color and gappy rather than continuous. Russell thus remarks that “naive realism leads to physics, and physics, if true, shows that naive realism is false.”18
Should we follow Russell in taking the natural sciences as our ultimate cognitive authority? Russell holds that “the conscious purpose of philosophy ... ought to be solely to understand [or, to explain] the world as well as possible...”19 Philosophy, in his view, should therefore seek the best available explanation of the world, including ourselves. This is indeed a major aim of philosophy, even if not the sole aim. Still, it is an open question whether the natural sciences have ulti- mate authority concerning the best available explana- tion of the world.
The view that the natural sciences alone have ultimate cognitive authority is scientism. Scientism is not itself a thesis of the natural sciences. Nor is it recommended by the natural sciences themselves. Scientism is a philosophical thesis about the authority of the sciences. So scientism is apparently self-defeating. It is not supported by its avowed sole source of ultimate cognitive authority—the natural sciences. The important point is that the natural sciences themselves do not conflict with Hebraic theism. Conflict arises when a theorist, going beyond the sciences, proposes that the natural sciences alone have ultimate cognitive authority. Such a theorist is then engaged in questionable, if not self-defeating, philosophy.
We now face a crucial question. How should we decide what merits ultimate authority for us regarding what we believe and do: for short, regarding our lives? Many people go through life without an explicit com- mitment to an ultimate authority for their lives. They still may have an implicit commitment to such an authority. The unexamined ultimate authority, howev- er, is not worth having. It lacks the consistent guiding power it merits, at least relative to a person’s commitments. Philosophy makes an important contribution when it identifies an ultimate authority for a person’s life and clarifies its importance and viability. What ultimate authority should we choose for our lives? How should we arrive at such a decision? Note the double occurrence of “should.” Another question arises: should for what end? Without an answer to the latter question, we lack adequate understanding of what kind of requirement figures in our question of what ultimate authority we should adopt.
The end we select to delimit the sense of “should” will give definite sense to our question about what ultimate authority we should choose. It will also specify the ideal we value in our own decision-making. So it will manifest the kind of people we aim to be. Where our central ideals are, there also is our heart, the core of our personal character. Typically we adopt our ideals for decision-making in light of the ultimate ends we value. The natural sciences do not settle this matter for us. They do not recommend ultimate ends for us. The natural sciences proceed on the basis of certain ends valued by many scientists. The mind-independent world does not settle the present matter for us. It does not dictate our ultimate ends, even though it can pre- clude our satisfying certain ends. Our ultimate ends, for better or worse, are our own final responsibility.
If we aim for excellence in inquiry, we may specify our question clearly. Given the end, or ideal, of acquiring truth that best accounts for the world, including ourselves, what should our ultimate authority be? The answer is now straightforward. Aiming for excellence in inquiry, we should pursue true beliefs that contribute to the best available explanation of the world. We thus should acknowledge the existence of those things that figure in the best available explanation of the world. This is required by excellence in inquiry. If we aim for excellence in all available domains, we should acknowledge and pursue whatever makes for excellence in those domains, including the domains of belief, action, sentiment, and character. The kind of excellence a person acknowledges and pursues reveals the state of that person's character. Ideally we would seek excellence not just as truth-seekers but as morally responsible agents as well.
The Hebraic God plays a crucial role in the best available explanation of the world, including human moral agents. This God removes what Russell identi- fied as the unexplainable mystery of the existence of a material world. A puzzling question merits attention. Why is there a material world rather than no such world at all? A second puzzling question arises. Why is there the present law-governed (perhaps statistical law- governed) material world rather than a world marked- ly different? The goal-directed intentions of the Hebraic God can supply an answer to such questions, thereby removing Russell’s supposedly unexplainable mystery of the world’s existence.20
The Hebraic God figures crucially in our best available explanation of (a) why there is a material world rather than no such world at all and (b) why there is the law-governed material world hospitable to the origin of human life rather than a significantly different world. God has causal powers that contribute to such explanation and thereby remove mystery. Even so, our seeing the things of God depends on God’s “showing” them to us (Romans 1:19; 1 Corinthians 2:11-12; cf. 1 John 5:6-9,20). Cognitively, we need God to enable us to see the things of God. God’s loving purposes account for the world’s apparently being the kind of place designed to humble us and thereby to enable God to call us to God in our vital need (cf. Deuteronomy 8:1-3). God’s existence does not remove all mystery for us. The existence of God, for instance, may always be a mystery to humans. We should not be surprised by this, however, given our extensive cognitive limitations.
Some relevant explanation-seeking questions con- cern ourselves as moral agents. Why are there such beings as ourselves with the remarkable feature of con- scious free agency? We consciously act, for better or worse, on intentions to achieve our ends. We thus dif- fer from the intellectually blind material world. The difference is not just that we can think. It includes our being able to act intentionally, with an end in view. We are purposive agents, able to act in a goal-directed man- ner. This is an astonishing fact about us, even if we often take it for granted. The Hebraic God’s existence enables us to answer our question about free agents. God created beings in God’s own image of conscious free agency to enable those beings to sustain loving relationships with God and with each other. We are dependent under-creators owing to our being created in the image of the original creator.
The Hebraic God is the perfect manifestation of
personal excellence for free agents. So we may
characterize wisdom for human agents in terms of
knowing God in a filial manner. In virtue of knowing
God, we come to know personal excellence for such
free agents as ourselves. A truly excellent all-powerful
God would give us an opportunity, without coercion,
to achieve God’s kind of moral excellence. God would
enable us to be rescued, without coercion, from our
moral deficiencies and thereby to become morally like
God in filial relationship with God. Such an opportu-
nity would be volitional and not just intellectual. It
would enable us to have our wills transformed, not just
our intellects. So the kind of knowledge of God con-
stitutive of wisdom is volitionally transformative rather
than merely intellectual. It entails self-sacrificing per-
sonal excellence that exceeds contemplation, insight,
enlightenment, and ecstatic experience. Excellence in
relationships among agents requires self-giving love
and thus interpersonal trust. So any being worthy of
the supreme title “God” must be in the full-time busi-
ness of promoting such love and trust. God thus must
be in the business of transforming such naturally
unloving agents as ourselves into morally new people.
We can now see, then, the important explanatory value
of filial knowledge of the Hebraic God. It enables us to
make good sense of our common human predicament.
HOW IS KNOWLEDGE OF GOD MADE SECURE?
From Reflection to Obedient Love
Our foundations for acknowledging the Hebraic God lead us beyond matters of explanatory power to moral transformation. A truly excellent God would be all-loving and therefore would work in human histo- ry to encourage free human agents to seek God’s kind of moral excellence. In the absence of such saving work, God could still be just , or fair, if human agents have rebelled against God. God would not, however, be all-loving in that case. God would then be indif- ferent to rebellious humans in a way incompatible with self-giving love. When we look in human histo- ry for a self-giving God who manifests excellence, the history of ancient Israel sticks out like a sore thumb. It manifests patterns of human behavior and instruc- tion best explained by the Hebraic view that God has chosen a people for God in order to transform, moral- ly and spiritually, all the nations of the world (see Genesis 12:1-3, 26:4, 28:13-14; Acts 3:25; Galatians 3:8; Romans 4:16-18). These patterns of Hebraic his- tory call out for explanation. They underwrite the Hebraic view that a God of personal excellence and powerful love has indeed tried to save humans from their self-destructive ways.
We do well to consider the importance of the biblical record of God’s interventions in human histo- ry. This record is crowned by the messianic biography of the four Christian Gospels: the evangelistic biogra- phy of Jesus. In Jesus we find a kind of authoritative teaching and conduct that leaves us with the clear choice already noted. Either (a) he was patently insane, (b) he was demonic, or (c) he was the unique person he claimed to be, the unique son of God. We do well to pay serious attention to these stark options. Only one of them is sustainable given our evidence concerning Jesus.
Anyone genuinely open to excellence for us humans, including moral excellence, will see that Jesus was by no means insane or demonic. He was a living paradigm of sanity and even unsurpassed wis- dom and goodness. He was exactly what one would expect, on proper reflection, of the human manifesta- tion of a truly excellent God of self-giving love. Just as God is the perfect personal manifestation of wisdom, Jesus is the perfect human manifestation of wisdom. Jesus spoke of himself as the representative of God’s wisdom (Luke 7:31-35; cf. Matthew 11:16-19). So if we acknowledge the authority of Jesus, the fact that Jesus was fully committed to God as a loving father offers us a compelling reason to follow suit. Jesus as Lord should be our life-model for relating to his Father and our Father (Matthew 10:24-25; John 13:13-17; 1 Corinthians 11:1).
Our calling on God as our Father will properly lead to the kind of repentance and filial knowledge preached by Jesus. God’s self-revelation of transform- ing love will thereby take us beyond mere historical and scientific probabilities to a secure foundation of personal acquaintance with God. As Paul remarks, in our sincerely crying out “Abba, Father” to God (note the Jesus-inspired filial content of this cry), God’s Spirit confirms to our spirit that we are indeed chil- dren of God (Romans 8:16; cf. Romans 10:6-9; Deuteronomy 30:14; John 10:16,27; 1 John 5:6-9). We thereby receive God’s personal assurance of our filial relationship with God. This assurance is more robust than any kind of theoretical certainty offered by philosophers or theologians. It liberates us from dependence merely on the quagmire of speculation, hypothesis-formation, or probabilistic inference about God. Such assurance yields a distinctive kind of grounded firm confidence in God unavailable else- where. God thus merits credit even for proper human confidence in God (Ephesians 2:8). So humans who boast of their own intellectual resources in knowing God have misplaced boasting. God as Gift-Giver offers the confidence we cannot muster on our own, however shrewd we are.
Russell has objected to the Christian view of repentance, in his influential essay “Why I Am Not a Christian.” “When you hear people in church debas- ing themselves and saying that they are miserable sin- ners, ... it seems contemptible and not worthy of self- respecting beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face.”21 Hebraic theism recom- mends, in contrast, that we first look ourselves in the face. We may very well have a plank blinding our eyes from seeing our own moral condition, including our self-righteous pride. Whether we are what Russell calls “miserable sinners” may depend on what God, as the personification of moral excellence, demands of us. Judging ourselves by the moral standard exemplified in the life and teaching of Jesus, many of us must con- fess that we have failed miserably. I, for one, have never met a person who claims to have always loved God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength and to have always loved his neighbor as himself. Given this standard, even Russell would have to confess mis- erable failure. To the extent that we violate the stan- dard set by Jesus, we are slaves to selfishness and we need to be set free. The wisdom of the world lacks the power needed to free us. Our fears of personal loss and death, and our self-centered ways resulting from those fears, die hard indeed. It is thus no surprise that “Fear not” is one of the most common biblical injunctions.
Russell’s moral standard evidently implies that he is not a “miserable sinner.” Otherwise, Russell would have no basis for rejecting the Christian view that we are sinners needing transformation. Whatever alterna- tive moral standard one offers, we must ask whether it demands something less than personal excellence from humans. The key issue will be whether the kind of self-giving love demanded and exemplified by Jesus is required for personal excellence. This issue brings us to our ultimate values, values that do not depend on any deeper values. Our ultimate values constitute who we really are and guide how we exist as persons. God’s transforming values based on self-giving love make us new people via our filial relationship with God. (On the newness that God promises and brings, see Jeremiah 31:27-34, 32:37-40; Ezekiel 36:26; John 3:3-8; 2 Corinthians 5:14-19; 1 Peter 1:22-23.)
Proper seeking after God goes beyond mere reflection to eventual loving submission to God as the personal authority over all things. The big risk is that we have to relinquish our own idols, our own selfish priorities. Many people choose not to take this risk at all. Jesus made it clear that the good news he preached was also difficult news, news that requires full renun- ciation of old, self-centered ways of living (cf. Mark 10:17-27; Luke 14:25-35). So Jesus concluded his Sermon on the Mount with the sad news that few people actually find the gate leading to life (Matthew 7:13-14). We certainly will overlook the life-giving gate if we share Russell’s suggestion that we are not failures on our own. In that case, we will not see our desperate need of the God who alone can give life.
Wisdom is the discernment of excellence, and God is the perfect manifestation of personal excellence. So the pursuit of wisdom requires pursuit of filial knowl- edge of God, including God’s self-giving love. Jesus taught and lived God’s lesson of self-giving love impec- cably and thus is the very heart of God’s wisdom. We need to value, then, not only the love of wisdom but also the self-giving love, in Jesus, definitive of God's wisdom. We also need to acknowledge that the author- ity of personal excellence, exemplified by God in Jesus, invites and then waits to be invited rather than coerces. God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus. God does not coerce us to receive the unmatched gift of self- giving love. God rather sends Jesus to knock, in sacrifi- cial love, at the door of our heart in the hope that we will be hospitable (Revelation 3:20). Impartial reason, if there is such a thing, cannot test this kind of super- human loving authority. God aims for the willing trans- formation of all reasoners to become children of God living by the power of God’s own loving excellence.
Our response to God’s program will define the kind of people we are: self-giving or self-serving. It will also determine whether we can plausibly regard our lives as having lasting value rather than the futili- ty and despair of materialism acknowledged by Russell. If our lives lack enduring value, they have no robust, lasting meaning and thus invite despair, at least for the long term. Materialists, following Russell, may hold out for short-lived meaning. Even so, only a life with enduring value can stave off the unyielding despair that threatens any reflective life without God. The Hebraic God guarantees that lives united voli- tionally with God in excellence will survive the destruction of death through personal resurrection and thereby have lasting value. Fortunately, we there- by have a more excellent alternative than Russell’s avowed despair. This troubled world has a silver lining after all.
The Christian alternative to despair is not just a hope for the future. It is realized in part now. God’s wisdom is realized now when we are united with Christ in faithful filial obedience to God. We thereby witness to the reality of God’s personal excellence. Christian faith is thus no merely intellectual matter of assenting to propositions. It is rather our trusting in God whereby we yield and conform to the gracious will of God. Such faith requires our being united voli- tionally with Jesus, the very image of God the Father. So Paul spoke of the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5, 16:26; cf. Romans 10:16; Acts 6:7; 1 Peter 1:21-22). The wise person, then, is the faithful filial witness to God’s loving excellence. Wisdom without God leaves us at best with the hopeless despair of Russell. Wisdom with God leaves us with the empowered lov- ing excellence of Jesus. Our decision between the two may seem easy but is actually demanding and ongo- ing. On either life-forming option, we all must count the high cost every day of our lives (Luke 9:23). We should handle a commitment against despair and for God with due humility and love at all times. Our aim will then be to reflect the One who personifies humil- ity and love. Let’s turn finally to the real cost of fol- lowing Jesus in filial relationship with his Father.
We must not leave talk of God’s gracious love and excellence abstract and impractical. Paul gives such talk an immediately practical value. He states that God’s salvation is “through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us in order that ... we may live with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10). The practical value of God’s gracious redemption is that we may “live with” him and his reconciling son. God thus wants to “live with” people. Indeed, this is the remarkable story line of the whole Bible. Live with people how? Paul answers clearly. “For the following reason Christ died and lived again: in order that he might exercise lordship over the dead and the living” (Romans 14:9). Christ “died for all, in order that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for the one who died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15). Having been pur- chased with a matchless price of sacrificial love at God’s expense, we are no longer our own. We are to live in service to God and God’s kingdom rather than to ourselves (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, 7:22-23). So God’s merciful reconciliation aims for our living in community with God under the lordship of God’s reconciling son. Community under any other lord- ship is pseudo-community.
Genuine lasting community requires unselfish love among its members. Human love is untainted by fear and resulting selfishness only as it is supplied and mediated by the Hebraic God. This God is our only empowering source of unselfish love. We must draw from God’s empowering source of unselfish love by allowing the good news of God’s gracious reconcilia- tion to saturate our minds, wills, and emotions. In gratitude, we must then allow it to spill over into all our attitudes and actions toward others. Appropriation of God’s gracious love in our individual lives thus empowers and sustains the kind of unselfish love required for genuine lasting community.
Our relying on God’s gracious love is of chief importance. This explains Jesus’ otherwise puzzling hyperbolic remark that whoever comes to him with- out “hating” immediate relatives and even life itself cannot be his disciple (Luke 14:26; cf. Matthew 10:37). It also explains Paul’s striking remark that he was determined to know nothing among the Corinthians except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). The crucifixion of Jesus, God’s innocent son, is the pinnacle of God’s self-giving love toward us. God so loved us all that Jesus came from God to die for us. Paul agrees. “God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NASB; cf. 1 John 4:9).
The reconciling death and resurrection of Jesus empower genuine community by freeing us from bondage to our fear, selfishness, self-righteousness, and our accompanying guilt and shame. We no longer have need of the latter burdens given what God has accomplished for us through Jesus. We can now risk living for God and others in resurrection joy. God sus- tained and vindicated Jesus by resurrection to imper- ishable life. Likewise God will sustain and vindicate people faithfully following Jesus in self-giving com- mitment. So for the sake of lasting community, God’s gracious reconciliation seeks renunciation of our self- ish autonomy, our exercising lordship in place of God. We must die to our self-crediting ways in order to live to God, specifically to Jesus’ ways of self-giving love and community. We must be crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:19-20; cf. Colossians 3:1-4).
Our death to selfish autonomy is no loss of value at all. Such autonomy is not genuine freedom, but is rather slavery to fearful insecurity, self-seeking ambi- tion, and an illusion of ultimate self-control. We are too fearful and weak to love as God loves. Loyalty to the self-giving Christ, in contrast, brings liberation from bondage and final death (Romans 6:15-23; John 8:34-36). Through God’s Spirit dispatched by Jesus, we are to become fully loving grace-givers in the man- ner of God. God’s grace is the glue needed to unite members of any lasting community.
Our being Spirit-led citizens of God’s new, liber- ated creation requires the death of our old, selfish ten- dencies (Ephesians 4:20-24). The Christian calling is thus a call to suffer and to die with Christ (Galatians 2:19-21; Philippians 3:7-11; Romans 6:3-14; Colossians 2:11-12). Jesus puts the idea starkly. Whoever does not follow him by carrying the cross of suffering, self-giving love cannot be his disciple (Matthew 10:38-39; cf. Mark 8:34-35). After Jesus made such remarks, according to John's Gospel (6:53- 66), many of his disciples complained that this teach- ing is too difficult and then stopped following him. True grace is thus unsettling and even divisive (Matthew 10:34-36; Mark 3:31-35; 1 Corinthians 11:18-19), owing to selfish resistance in its audience. The Christian calling nonetheless is inherently cross- shaped, after the pattern of Jesus. If we are not dead serious about this calling, we should not answer it at all (Luke 14:28-33). Jesus’ death purchased no part-time disciples; nor is it just a substitute for us. Christians are to be full-time imitators of the self-giving life and death of Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 2:5-13; cf. Leviticus 19:2). Jesus suffered out of love for others, and his followers must do likewise.
God works redemption, or reconciliation, in us through the weakness of suffering and death, in order to demonstrate that genuine saving power is altogether God’s (1 Corinthians 1:17-25; 2 Corinthians 4:7-11, 12:8-10). God demonstrates through God’s power in our weakness that no human has a right to boast in God’s presence (1 Corinthians 1:29). Our own strengths, real or apparent, do not amount to the sav- ing power belonging to God alone. Trust and hope based on the power of humans, rather than on the power of God, are as redemptively impotent as humans themselves. Indeed, God’s grace supplemented by human credit cancels grace. All spiritual power comes to us on God’s Christlike terms of human weakness rather than on our self-promoting terms. So our boast and hope should be in God alone (1 Corinthians 1:31; cf. 2 Corinthians 13:4). God’s redemptive power is set in sharp relief against a background of human weak- ness. Anyone contradicting this lesson with a tri- umphalist self-exalting attitude betrays God’s good news by offering a self-serving counterfeit corrupted by human power (2 Corinthians 11:1-12, 12:1-10). Any such person is, by Paul’s lights, an “enemy of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18). Intellectual triumphalism is especially threatening to those of us accustomed to much reflection.
Paul identifies the goal of suffering the loss of all things for Christ as mandatory for Christian disciple- ship, even for “knowing Christ” (Philippians 3:7-11). Paul notes, in Philippians 2:7-8, that Jesus himself set the model for discipleship by suffering the loss of all things in self-emptying obedience to God. According to Philippians 3, we should follow the model of Jesus. Paul’s discipleship goal is “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his suf- ferings, being conformed to his death, if somehow I may arrive at the resurrection of the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11). This kind of knowing Christ is an intimate, loving, and transforming personal rela- tionship. It is thus no mere intellectual matter. It is full self-commitment to a personal agent, not just to ideas or principles.
Why does Paul link knowing Christ with suffer- ing the loss of all other things? The answer comes from Paul’s talk of the necessity of regarding all other things as trash, or excrement, in order to gain Christ (Philippians 3:8). We must genuinely deem all other things as worthless “because of the surpassing value of personal knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:8). Personal knowledge of Christ, the Lord of the uni- verse, is of incomparable value relative to all other things. We thus must treasure such knowledge, such relationship, above all else. So we shall be in a position to receive the gift of such knowledge only if we put all other things in relative perspective. They are at best garbage in comparison. In the tradition of Jesus’ demanding portrayal of discipleship, Paul’s theme is difficult indeed. Even so, we are not dealing with ordi- nary knowledge. We are considering personal knowl- edge of God and God’s unique son. Such knowledge requires complete honor and gratitude toward its exalted personal object (Romans 1:21). We must know God and his unique son as God, as exalted, incomparable Lord of all things. Otherwise, personal knowledge of God is unavailable. This, we noted, is for our own good. God will not compromise the unsurpassed value of one’s knowing God.
Paul suggests that Christian suffering yields hope of a kind that does not disappoint us (Romans 5:3-5). Suffering with Christ produces a special kind of hope for God’s deliverance. This is hope that God himself shores up with his loving presence. Blessed are those who suffer with Christ, then, for God’s purifying gra- cious presence will fortify and comfort their hopeful hearts (cf. Matthew 5:4,8). This leads Paul to recom- mend that we should boast, even rejoice, in our suf- ferings (2 Corinthians 7:4, 12:9-10; Colossians 1:24). Sufferings can reveal God’s distinctive powerful pres- ence and thereby further God’s redemptive work. By God’s Spirit, our sufferings empty us of our self-exalt- ing tendencies and our supposed self-sufficiency. They thus enable us to be filled with God’s self-giving grace via deeper trust in God (Romans 8:14-17). Our suf- ferings thereby become a basis for our rejoicing. They signify a coming time when God will wipe away every tear, and death and suffering shall be no more (Revelation 21:4).
We should think of the suffering Jesus as a life- model rather than a mere substitute for us. Jesus offered himself as a life-model (Luke 9:23-24, 4:27- 33). Paul likewise offered Jesus as a life-model for Christians (Philippians 2:5-13, 3:7-11; Romans 8:17; cf. 1 Peter 2:20-25). In humbling himself, even to the point of suffering and death, Jesus showed us what our humble and all-compassionate God is really like and what we too should be like. Jesus showed us what it is to be truly a human person, a person fully in the image of God. To the extent that Jesus is actually our life-model, we too can be persons realizing the image and filial knowledge of God. We are to be persons reflecting, and thus witnessing to, the very glory of God (2 Corinthians 3:18). Our lives are to show that God is definitely real, in ways that add real power to our words. We are to be living symbols of our divine Father. We must thus look two ways: back to what God has uniquely and lovingly done in Jesus and for- ward to what God will similarly do through us, after the life-pattern of Jesus.
Why, then, isn’t God more obvious? The question suffers from a misplaced emphasis. It should be redi- rected. Why do we fail to apprehend God’s loving reality and presence? Recall our opening statement of Russell’s reply to God: “God, you gave us insufficient evidence.” In God’s presence, we do well to question ourselves rather than to blame God. Russell overlooked this lesson, as we all do at times. In our willful pride, we often overlook God’s supreme ways of humble love. If our hearts are willingly attuned to God’s self- giving transformative love, God will be obvious enough. We thus need proper eyes to see and ears to hear the reality of God. To that end, we need to call on the Lord, who alone can empower our appropria- tion of the things of God. The Hebraic God of love will then answer in love. All things will then become new, under God’s powerful transforming love. So “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).22
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