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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.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. I understand your worries Ryan and I think the danger of ‘privatizing’ the evidence of God is real in our cultural millieu. Like you I think that would be missing a crucial point of Willard’s ideas here. Perhaps if zealous religiousity led to peace and harmony instead of division and discord the words of the Hitchins and Dawkins of the world would appropriately fall silent…

    June 19, 2009
  2. jc #

    As I read this the formula for knowledge about God is that one has to make a commitment to belief, an ‘existential leap of faith’ and then one can have knowledge of God. I don’t understand how anything of this sort could be called knowledge. Can one now just assert facts about reality or the supernatural and hold them to be true by an act of sheer will? It does seem that a lot of terms lose all there meaning when applied to God. Saying that one knows God seems to be very different then saying I know myself or I know my wife. Saying God has spoken to me is much different then saying my boss spoke to me. Do you think there is somewhat of a slight of hand trick going on here? Statements which include these words in relation to God seem to give them much more weight then they deserve.

    June 20, 2009
    • Willard is not saying you have to make a leap of faith in order to obtain knowledge about God. For him, there is a pretty strong rational case that can be made for the existence of some God or other. He starts with philosophy—the usual cosmological argument + argument from design. He then combines this with a historical argument for the resurrection of Christ (very similar to N.T. Wright’s stuff—heavy appeals to the existence of the early church, Jewish conceptions of the resurrection, etc). That whole package isn’t remarkably new or uniquely presented or anything, but it is still compelling, in my opinion. In any case, it’s not like he’s advocating belief by “an act of sheer will.” He thinks that those who really do the hard work of thinking rationally about the matter will have come a significant way to genuine knowledge of God.

      Saying that one knows God seems to be very different then saying I know myself or I know my wife. Saying God has spoken to me is much different then saying my boss spoke to me. Do you think there is somewhat of a slight of hand trick going on here? Statements which include these words in relation to God seem to give them much more weight then they deserve.

      I do appreciate the differences you speak of here. There is obviously a qualitative gap between claims to know flesh and blood human beings as opposed to claims to know God. Claims to know God or to have been spoken to by God are obviously (and have obviously been) easily abused. My inclination is simply not to use this kind of language at all, but that may or may not be the best response. In a sense, Willard’s argument is tough to disconfirm because he is saying that those who think really hard and come to believe in God via their reason and also live a life of spiritual and moral discipline will come to have knowledge of God. That’s a relatively small category of people. In a sense, he seems to be saying that these are the steps you take to “know God.” In that sense, knowledge of God is a different kind of thing than other kinds of knowledge because more of us is required to obtain it.

      June 21, 2009
  3. jc #

    “In that sense, knowledge of God is a different kind of thing than other kinds of knowledge because more of us is required to obtain it.”

    If it is so different, then theologians ought to use a different word. To say “If you try really hard then you might be able to entertain the idea that you have a relationship with God.”

    June 21, 2009
    • How do you know that it’s just something that people have managed (with great effort) to convince themselves of as opposed to real knowledge of God?

      June 21, 2009
  4. jc #

    I was just saying what it sounds like to me because I don’t really understand what “real knowledge” of God is. As we have discussed above I don’t think the word ‘knowledge’ is appropriate here since in relation to God it has such a different meaning. How would you describe the process that people go through to attain true beliefs about God?

    June 21, 2009
    • You may be right—perhaps “knowledge,” at least as we understand the word, isn’t appropriate here. But maybe this isn’t because our understanding of/relationship with God doesn’t satisfy enough of the criteria of what constitutes “real knowledge.” It could be that our understanding of the term is no longer deep or broad enough to encompass what previous thinkers/writers (including those in the Bible) would have meant or understood by the term “knowledge of God.” Jeremiah, for example, says that to “know God” is simply to “do what is right and just” (Jer. 22:15-16). Whatever else we may say about “knowledge of God,” it seems obvious that those who have used the term historically have not meant “certainty that God exists” or something like that.

      How would you describe the process that people go through to attain true beliefs about God?

      I obviously don’t have a template, but I’m inclined to agree with Willard when he argues that at least part of what it means to know God is to live a certain way. To know Christ you have to do what he says (cf. 1 John 2:3-6). As I said above, knowledge of this sort includes but is not limited to the exercise of reason and logic. Willard includes a discussion of the spiritual disciplines, the cultivation of a life of generosity, and prayer along with some more familiar moral injunctions as part of how we come to know God. It’s certainly a more obviously subjective kind of knowing that is difficult to pin down precisely but again, perhaps that is to be expected when we are talking about a subject rather than an object of knowledge.

      June 22, 2009
  5. Ken #

    Knowledge of God and of God’s will came to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob through dreams and visions and angels. The prophets also knew God that way, and John. People in the first century knew Jesus by miracles. Where does these ways of knowing fit in your epistemology? Should we still look there?

    Moses murdered the guard. And he knew God face to face. David was an adulterer and murder. And he knew God. I don’t think the case can be sustained that knowledge of God depends on living morally, or on following the commandments of God.

    I agree with you that our epistemology in modernity limits our knowledge of God. And now, I am not really sure we even trust the word knowledge to correspond to truth.

    I don’t share your attraction to morality. I don’t believe it results in knowledge of God. After you started writing about it I began to notice this emphasis on morality among some of the evangelicals that I know. They seem to have the belief that living morally gives their life meaning and happiness that they otherwise did not have – before their conversions to right living. I don’t want to disrupt another person’s faith, so I don’t want to disagree with them. They must know whether or not their lives are better for it. It does seem that I am really not a legitimate Christian by their standards.

    On morality it appears that I am aligned with enlightenment writers, and romantics, even with Nietzsche. Do I have a place in heaven, in the kingdom of God, in the church? Must one be moral to be part of it all? Is faith a synonym for living right? Is the kingdom of God a synonym for those who are living right?

    June 22, 2009
    • I am not setting forth “my epistemology” here. So as far as miracles, dreams, visions, etc go, I am not trying to construct a theory of knowledge that fits every piece of data from the Bible in it. I’m OK with saying that God has spoken differently at different periods in history; I’m also OK with allowing that he may still speak in unusual ways. I think God can speak through scripture, reason, tradition, or experience but if one of these modes is saying something that seems radically incongruous with the other three we ought to be suspicious.

      Moses murdered the guard. And he knew God face to face. David was an adulterer and murder. And he knew God. I don’t think the case can be sustained that knowledge of God depends on living morally, or on following the commandments of God.

      As I’ve said in previous discussions, I don’t think that knowing God requires that the ultimate standard of morality be reached. Of course people fail. But this does not warrant the further claim that ethics can be simply divorced from knowledge of God. Willard uses the phrase “being reconciled to living a life of love”; as I see it, this means that the goal and orienting focus of our lives is to live as Jesus did and that in so doing we will come to know God better. I don’t see how this is controversial.

      I don’t share your attraction to morality.

      What do you mean by this? That you don’t find Jesus‘ morality compelling? That you don’t find any morality attractive?

      I began to notice this emphasis on morality among some of the evangelicals that I know. They seem to have the belief that living morally gives their life meaning and happiness that they otherwise did not have – before their conversions to right living. I don’t want to disrupt another person’s faith, so I don’t want to disagree with them.

      Do you know that they are misguided in their beliefs about the connection between morality and the knowledge of God? How?

      It does seem that I am really not a legitimate Christian by their standards.

      I think this is a different issue altogether, but I’m curious—if you have no attraction to Jesus’ way of life, little admiration for morality, and are quite skeptical about whether or not God even exists, is “legitimate Christian” a title you would even seek as a descriptor? Why?

      June 23, 2009
  6. Ken #

    I do sense that you and I place a different value on morality. My impression is that morality is something that you trust and that I do not. I tend to see it as a power claim. At the same time, I do see that morality for at least some evangelicals is an important part of knowing God, and of having a measure of inner peace that they did not have before their conversions.

    At the same time, my impression is that you and I, and my evangelical friends, live in much the same way and by the same moral standards. The difference does not seem to be in how we live but in what we believe about God and morality.

    When I encounter Christians with quite different beliefs than my own, especially those who have less doubt than I do and those who have particularly strong beliefs about how God wants us to live, I do wonder whether or not I am a legitimate Christian. In the seminary most professors and students appeared to believe that unless one embraced a far left political view, as in radical feminism, for example, that one was not really a Christian. My sister in law is a conservative evangelical. The folks in seminary do not believe she is a real Christian. She, of course, does not believe they are Christians and my impression is that she does not believe I am a Christian either.

    It is hard to say why I identify with Christianity – so many Christians apparently don’t think I am. But I do. I wish I could answer your question. I see Christianity as mythology, but the myth is important to our lives, including mine, and I think it reveals a cosmic truth about who we are and where we are.

    I suppose you and I must remain somewhat enigmatic to each other, at least for now. Nevertheless, I continue to imagine that we are closer together in our thoughts and feelings about theology than this difference on the emphasis we place on morality, on how we read Willard, may seem to indicate.

    June 23, 2009
    • I’m not sure that we place different value on morality as much as we use the word somewhat differently. You seem to think of the term in rather severe terms (a “power claim,” as you say) and are suspicious of those who would impose their vision on others. I’m operating with a fairly broad and (I hope) generous understanding of the term which simply says that part of understanding and living in the world as we were intended to by God involves doing our best to live morally. I don’t think this is just important for evangelicals or for those it happens to “work” for. It’s a feature of human existence, not just a peculiarity of this or that group of religious people.

      At the same time, my impression is that you and I, and my evangelical friends, live in much the same way and by the same moral standards. The difference does not seem to be in how we live but in what we believe about God and morality.

      I think you’re probably right. My question would be, why do you live by these moral standards as opposed to, say, the ones Nietzsche espoused?

      It is hard to say why I identify with Christianity – so many Christians apparently don’t think I am. But I do. I wish I could answer your question. I see Christianity as mythology, but the myth is important to our lives, including mine, and I think it reveals a cosmic truth about who we are and where we are.

      This may be opening up a whole new can of worms—and you can feel very free not to go down this road—but what cosmic truths does it reveal about who we are and where we are? Do these cosmic truths have anything to say about how we ought to live?

      Perhaps we will remain enigmatic to each other. For my part, I think most of our disagreements have to do with the connotations we have for various words. I think we are much more alike than we are different. And for whatever it’s worth, I have no interest in pronouncing upon the legitimacy of your Christianity. I think God honours those who seek him diligently and from the sounds of it this describes you pretty well.

      (Interestingly, Willard has an entire chapter on what he calls “Christian pluralism” where he deals with the question of the scope of salvation. You may be surprised to learn that his views are quite generous on the matter—probably more generous than some might be happy with. Maybe I’ll post about it in the future).

      June 23, 2009
  7. Ken #

    I think your analysis here is right – of how we each respond to the idea of morality.

    I may live to some extent as Nietzsche envisioned, if the will to power is interpreted as a kind of creative urge. I also think that sometimes the Christian way of sacrificing oneself for others becomes pathological, which is one way of interpreting Nietzsche’s complaint about this. It is okay and natural for a parent or spouse or even close friend to sacrifice themselves for the ones they love, but in the abstract it sometimes is pathological – unnecessarily, unmercifully destructive. (And I think sometimes Christianity encourages such sacrifice.) I have seen this in my profession. It is too much to expect people to sacrifice themselves for others in many cases where it is expected. (My sympathy for Nietzsche may be like yours for Willard.)

    About the cosmic truth: In the Christian narrative, our lives are understood in relation to God and we have hope that all things will be made right. In the modern, evolutionary narrative, our lives are understood in relation to all of life, but the process by which life is ordered is indifferent to us. The difference comes down to hope and I do think that hope affects the decisions we make about how to live.

    Ultimately, I think the Christian narrative, and the Hebrew narrative, is about mercy. I think that is the ethic that accompanies hope. An ethic of mercy is a different ethic from from one of justice or morality that involves shoulds and should-nots, right and wrong. I know that the ancient theodicy is that goodness is rewarded and evil punished now and in eternity. At the same time, theology reflected in the Bible and in church history acknowledges that there is more to the story than that, and that good theodicy, like all the other good ones, has been better understood as reassurance rather than as threat.

    I think we are merciful not when we feel it is the right thing to do, but when we have pity for others and ourselves. I think of the Book of Jonah as being a definitive example of mercy. The Ninevites deserved justice, but God gave them mercy. Their repentance was shallow. Jonah and God knew it. Jonah wanted justice. He was a moral man. It is of the nature of mercy that it is undeserved, unjustified, unrequired, and even unfair.

    I would rather have mercy than justice.

    Back to Nietzsche: I agree with him that morality should not be grounded in the idea of sacrifice, and that the emphasis so often placed on morality is inhuman. If I could speak to him, we would talk about mercy. Surely he would want mercy.

    June 23, 2009
    • I agree with you that the Christian/Hebrew narrative is about mercy but I don’t think that this has to be set against justice in an either/or fashion. It’s extremely difficult to read the Bible and not come to the conclusion that justice and morality are important to God even if grace and mercy are what drives the story. We are not only creatures that evoke (and ought to evoke) pity from God and our fellow human beings; we are also creatures who have the dignity of responsibility before God and each other. Maybe I want to have the best of both worlds here, but I genuinely do think it is possible to hold these two important ideas together as basic to the character of God and the fate of his world.

      It is of the nature of mercy that it is undeserved, unjustified, unrequired, and even unfair.

      I absolutely agree. And this is what the self-sacrifice of Christ secures for us (leaving aside all the thorny issues about precisely how this is accomplished—I suppose we’ve discussed this enough elsewhere). Like you, I have some sympathy for Nietzsche. I think he understood the nature and implications of Christian morality far more deeply than most Christians. But I think it is entirely possible to look upon the sacrificial life of Christ and see not an iron-clad new set of laws to follow or a glorification of weakness but, among other things, an inspirational example of love and mercy to emulate. If this is possible, then self-sacrifice will not become a “pathological” but a way of participating in the redemption story being authored by a gracious and merciful God.

      June 24, 2009
  8. Ken #

    I remain cautious about the application of morality in Christianity, notwithstanding its place in scriptures. I am sure that you stand closer to the truth here than I do. Your effort to hold justice and mercy together are backed by centuries of theology. And the connection you make between living a moral life and knowing God is backed by the personal testimony of many. And yet, still I see the dark side of morality and, for that reason, it is hard for me to associate it with God. I have no solution, no resolution.

    I think of the sacrifice represented by the death of Jesus as a cosmic myth, and not as a moral example. It seems closer in meaning to the sacrifice described in Leviticus than to love and mercy. And, it is something like God’s provision of the ram at the binding of Isaac in Genesis. It does not inspire me to be moral. It is a strange act – sacrifice – strange in the way the cosmos (the order of life and the universe) is strange.

    June 24, 2009
    • If you don’t associate morality with God and are cautious about its application, what do you suggest as an alternative? How are we to live? Is morality to be dissociated from God altogether? Is God amoral? Immoral? According to what standard?

      (I realize that you said you had no resolution, but I’m just trying to better understand where you’re coming from here).

      I think of the sacrifice represented by the death of Jesus as a cosmic myth, and not as a moral example. It seems closer in meaning to the sacrifice described in Leviticus than to love and mercy. And, it is something like God’s provision of the ram at the binding of Isaac in Genesis… It is a strange act – sacrifice – strange in the way the cosmos (the order of life and the universe) is strange.

      I don’t see how the death of Jesus actually accomplishes anything then. If it’s just another strange event in a strange cosmos it doesn’t seem to offer much reason for hope.

      June 25, 2009
  9. Ken #

    Your questions probe deeply into the character of God, and deeply into my comments here. I guess I don’t have answers to them, other than to say that morality has a long relationship with God in theology and I don’t mean to fight with that. And I don’t mean to argue against any of the commandments. I continue to think that mercy subverts morality and is, in that sense, the alternative to morality. For now, I can only say that I think a path that seeks and shows mercy offers more hope than one that seeks and shows justice or morality.

    I suppose the meaning of sacrifice takes us back to the discussion of atonement.

    These theological discussions are hard. So much is at stake – our peace of mind. I am thankful to be able to have them with you. You have a fine mind and heart.

    I will be hiking for a few days now, and will take these questions with me into the silence and beauty of the wilderness.

    .

    June 25, 2009
    • Thank you Ken—I appreciate these conversations as well. Have a great time in the wilderness.

      June 25, 2009

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