Paul Moser’s The Elusive God

As the subtitle says, Paul Moser’s The Elusive God is a project in “re-orienting religious epistemology.” One might think that this pricey tome from Cambridge University Press is apparently written for “religious epistemologists,” though that is misleading. It is really addressed to anyone who takes the time to think hard about how we have (or might have) knowledge of God. While I am sure he had a general reader in mind who could be of any religious persuasion (or not of any at all), I found Moser’s book to be one of the more challenging, philosophically oriented devotional (Christian) books I’ve ever read.

What is needed, argues Moser, is a shift from thinking “What does God have to do to prove that he exists?” to  “What do I have to do to show that I am open to God existing and making claims on my life?”  Or as Moser puts it the questions we are responsible for is not “Do we know that a perfectly loving God exists?” but “Are we willing to be known and thereby transformed by a perfectly loving God?”

These questions are meant to address the problem of divine hiddenness, which might take the following form: (1) If a perfectly loving God exists, then evidence of God’s existence would be obvious to all; (2) Evidence of God’s existence is not obvious to all; therefore, a perfectly loving God does not exist. But why think that God would make himself cognitively available to us on our terms, asks Moser? Many of us (if not all) have what Thomas Nagel describes as a “cosmic authority problem:”

I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

Perhaps it is not couched in these precise terms, but a cosmic authority problem is just the propensity to reject God’s authoritative claim on our lives and set ourselves up as the judge of what is good, true, and beautiful.

In response, Moser argues that a perfectly loving God would deliberately hide himself from those who claim such a self-serving cognitive position so as to lead them out of their destructive selfishness noncoercively. A key claim in Moser’s argument is that if God made his existence obvious to all, everyone’s belief in God would be brought about through coercion. Yet because God is perfectly loving, which includes a perfect love of his enemies, God does not coerce anyone into believing in or following him. God’s intention is to make “purposively available evidence” to everyone such that evidence of God’s self-revelation is available to anyone that is willing to receive it.

The volitional component to accessing knowledge of God is one that God requires of us–he makes cognitive demands of us so that we will be properly situated to know that he is God and we are not. Perhaps the strongest virtue of Moser’s book is how he accounts for both God’s authority and love–“authoritative love” he calls it–in a theory of religious knowledge that depends on God’s grace and our willingness to come to him on his terms. Coming to God on his terms benefits us by leading us out of our destructive selfishness (which leads to death) and gives us a knowledge of God that comes more by acquaintance than by argument or other forms of propisitional belief. As such, it is not subject to sorts of defeaters that arise from divine hiddeness or problem of evil arguments that readily undermine claims made from natural theology.

Yet as interesting as this re-orientation is, I was most captivated by the challenging remarks Moser makes by way of personal application. Here is a number that prompted serious reflection:

“We fear, of course, that our well-being and our rationality, if not our public or academic reputation, will be be at risk if we trust an invisible God. The fact of the matter, however, is that our well-being and rationality are at risk already and even doomed if we fail to have a perfectly loving God to trust. Death serves as a vivid reminder, even a loud should, of potentially irreversible trouble at hand. Without a perfectly loving God as hour trustworthy savior, final death awaits us, and only a dark grave then remains for us. There’s no hope for well-being or rationality, or even worthwhile reputation, in that vicinity (p. 28).”

“In our skeptical moments, we may ask: God, are You there at all? Are you truly with us at all? If so, why must You be so very elusive, often to the extent that You seem nonexistent? Instead, in redemptive love, God would ask us: Are you truly with Me, in your will as well as in your thought? If we aren’t, spectator evidence of God’s reality would only domesticate or otherwise devalue God’s authoritative reality, because it wouldn’t challenge us to submit to God as Lord of our lives (p. 51).”

“If God could be put to the test for authenticity, we humans could be put to the test too. Some immediate test questions for us humans, including skeptics, are: (1) Are we willing to receive a perfectly loving God’s authoritative call to us for what it is intended to be, including a challenging call for enemy-love and enemy-forgiveness? (2) Are we willing to engage in the attentive discernment integral to receiving with due care and respect a perfectly loving God’s authoritative call? (3) Having received God’s authoritative call for what it is intended to be, are we willing to be correctively judged and then remade by the power of a perfectly loving God’s unselfish love? (4) Are we willing to let a perfectly loving God be God even in our won lives, that is, the Lord whose will is perfectly authoritative and supreme for us regarding our attitudes, actions, and lives? (p. 66)”

“We typically favor idols over a perfectly authoritative and loving God given our penchant for maintaining authority, or lordship, over our lives. Our typical attitude is this: I will live my life my way, to get what I want, when I want it. We thereby exalt ourselves even over a perfectly loving God. We then risk losing self-control to our being controlled by idols, from which we seek success happiness, comfort, wealth, honor, and self-approval (p. 104)”

“Our dying to selfish autonomy is no loss of enduring value at all. It only seems so, superficially. Autonomy of that kind isn’t genuine freedom at all, but is, rather slaver to fearful insecurity and anxiety, to self-seeking ambition, and to an illusion of ultimate self-control. We are too fearful and weak on our own to love unselfishly as a perfectly loving God loves. Even facing the prospect of our being guided by self-giving love, we typically fear a significant loss to us without corresponding gain. God’s intervening Spirit, however, aimes to bring liberation from human bondage to such fear (cf. Rom. 6:15-23, Jn. 8:34-36). (p. 181)”

“Why do some philosophers, even philosophers avowing Christian commitment, ignore or even resist the priority of Jesus as Lord and his authoritative divine love commands? The most straightforward answer is this: we humans seek, as much as possible, to be in charge of our lives, perhaps relative to peer-approved standards. In other words, we aim to retain as much authority in our lives as we can, and, as a result many people share Thomas Nagel’s ‘cosmic authority problem’ with acknowledgement of God, as outlined earlier. The underlying sentiment is that if I relinquish my authority over my own life, I then will be susceptible to harm by someone who doesn’t have my best interests at heart. So, the reasoning goes, it’s it in my best interest for me to maintain authority over my life. (p. 214)”

“Nagel’s position illustrates, if unintentionally, that some human attitudes towards God’s existence aren’t purely cognitive in their origin and sustenance, even if we pretend otherwise in in some philosophical discussions. A human quest for moral independence sometimes looms large behind such important attitudes, and obstructs purposively available authoritative evidence of divine reality. (p. 257)

These themes are repeated throughout and are applied to how we spend our time, how we approach philosophic questions, and even how we do philosophy. In light of our destructive selfishness and the looming reality of death, Moser wants us to see that the moral independence we strive for in the end leads to futility.

Moser’s book is not an easy read, but it does repeat its central argument in various ways on almost every page, so the reader will gradually get a good hold of it in the end. Not everyone will appreciate Moser’s dismissive comments about the usefulness of natural theology or the claims of “divine sovereignty” from a Calvinist viewpoint (which I had no problem with, of course). But anyone who knows deep down they have a cosmic authority problem would do well to be challenged by Moser’s provocative thesis.

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