How Do We Know God?
A quick look at the calendar shows that we are coming up on the one year anniversary of a very happy day in my life—the completion of my thesis. This is probably one of those anniversaries that will remain significant in my mind only, but I figured it’s as good a time as any to reflect on the subject matter I spent sixteen months of my life reading/writing about. I’ve continued to follow the exploits of folks like Dawkins and Hitchens over the last year as well as those who “defend the faith” against them. Mostly, the tone and the content of the discussions have seemed fairly belligerent, sterile, and unhelpful to me. The same old arguments, the same old defenses. People on both sides simply dig in their heels, talk a little louder (or more condescendingly), and try to prove who’s really the smartest. All in all, it’s not very inspiring stuff. On this level, I do not miss the debate.
On another level, however, the issue will always be relevant and often interesting. This week I went back to my thesis and reread the introduction. The last two paragraphs caught my attention:
My sense is that the new atheists have struck a nerve; they have simultaneously tapped into a real cultural anxiety about the role religion is currently playing the world and, perhaps inadvertently, testified to the universality of the need to make moral sense of the world….
In arguing that the primary motivating factor in the current rise of the new atheism is a moral protest against God’s governance of his world, I hope to provide a bridge of sorts, however small, in what has been an increasingly hostile and divisive engagement between atheists and theists. I hope to locate them within a shared moral universe in which all of us, religious or not, must interpret a morally ambiguous world in terms that are intellectually and existentially satisfying.
One of the things I did not address in my thesis was whether this “shared moral universe” might require or at least reward those who embrace and embody something like the moral dimension of knowing. It’s one thing to say that belief in God makes moral sense of the world and human experience, but the question of whether or not there is a moral dimension to actually knowing God was beyond the scope of my thesis (and, quite likely, my competence!).
On Monday I finished Dallas Willard’s Knowing Christ Today. It is a very thought-provoking book—one that will take some time to properly digest (perhaps a few more blog posts are on the way). Interestingly, in the middle of the book he wanders off into a brief excursus on the new atheists (he doesn’t identify them by name, but it is very obvious who he is referring to). Here’s what he has to say:
Their case is rhetorically strengthened in the public arena by the fact that those who self-identify in our culture as Christians often know no more about the interactive life with Christ in the kingdom of God than the atheists do and do not manifest that life to the public. They are in many cases only “nominal” Christians who in reality have little or nothing to do with the kingdom of God. They are in no position to respond to the atheists. To “reply” to the atheists and agnostics we need to take them in all intellectual seriousness, hold them rationally responsible for what they say, and lovingly deal with them in the currency of honest intellectual work. As followers of Christ we claim them as friends in the pursuit of knowledge. That should go without saying, but unfortunately it does not. We must do more, however. We must show the reality they deny….
[W]e must embody the character (intelligent love) and power of life in union with Christ in all aspects of human existence. That is how people are to be brought to know life in the kingdom if they are to know it at all. If only the intellectual issues are met, that alone will leave people stranded in a life away from God. To know Christ in the contemporary world our opponents must see people and communities of people in which he lives today.
I’m of two minds with respect to this passage. On the one hand, I absolutely agree there are some subjects of knowledge that involve commitment, personal investment, and moral/spiritual discipline to know. Knowledge of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ would seem, rather obviously, to fit into this category. In that sense, I think Willard is right to point out that we are barking up the wrong tree if we think that we can obtain knowledge of God solely via the employment of our rational faculties.
On the other hand, however, I wonder if, by using phrases like “interactive life with Christ,” Willard could easily be misinterpreted as advocating a retreat to the “private” realm as the proper domain for discourse of/about God. “You say you that God’s existence can’t be known? Well of course not! It is a special kind of knowledge that has to be experienced to be known.” This potential quasi-Gnostic misinterpretation (and I really do think it is a misinterpretation of what Willard is saying) makes me very nervous. I think the last thing the world (and the church) needs is more Christians who are convinced that God-talk is for the private world and not the public one.
I think Willard is communicating something very important here, I just hope that it doesn’t get misunderstood and trivialized in a culture where God and religion are already assumed to belong mostly, if not exclusively, in the private realm. I really do think that there is a knowledge of/about God that is only (fully) available to those who have put themselves in the appropriate moral and spiritual position to know him. Indeed, if God is a subject and not an object, this ought to have implications for how he can be known.