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What Does God Want?

After a couple of weeks away from home on vacation where I tried to limit my reading to novels, I picked up Samir Selmanovic’s It’s Really All About God again this morning. As I’ve alluded to before, it’s a bit of a rambling and not altogether coherent apologia for a kind of “let’s just embrace mystery and all get along” approach to the challenges of the religious plurality that currently characterizes many parts of our increasingly globalized world. So far, the book strikes me as a commendable enough practical approach to living peacefully with those who do not share our beliefs, but one that tends to wander too frequently into confusing a practical political and social strategy for a coherent philosophical/theological worldview.

Nonetheless, Selmanovic does offer a number of passages that make the reader sit up and take notice. Like this one, from a chapter on the “blessing” of atheism:

God does not have an ego that can be wounded by our disbelief about God’s existence. God, I suggest, would prefer a world where humans love and care for each other and this planet even at the expense of acknowledging God, rather than believing in and worshiping God at the expense of caring for one another and the world.

This Sunday I will be preaching from 1 Tim. 2:1-7 where Paul talks about the “one God” and “one mediator between God and human beings” who wants “all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” On the face of it, Paul seems to flatly contradict the quote above and equate—or at least strongly link—salvation with knowledge of the truth. But things are not necessarily always as they seem. Among the questions I will be wrestling with is as I approach this weekend are:

  1. What role does knowledge play in the process of salvation?
  2. What does God gain by people believing or “knowing” the correct things if this belief/knowledge doesn’t lead to improving things here and now?
  3. Is it even possible to believe or know the correct things about reality without it having an effect on how we behave—without it leading to, as Selmanovic puts it, an increase in love and care for human beings and the planet? And if said increase is not evident, what does this say about what we think we know?
  4. Conversely, is it possible to live correctly without in some sense “believing” or “knowing” at least something of the truth about reality?

Lots to think about as Sunday approaches…

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gil #

    It seems to me that our default associations with the word “knowledge” tend to lead us astray on this question. We (or at least I) think almost immediately of cognitive conclusions that are underwritten by epistemological foundations. If this is what counts as knowledge then it would be very strange that God would require it.

    I wonder if, instead, “knowledge” has more of a component of “prizing” or “cherishing” to it than we readily admit. There would certainly be a logic to God desiring this kind of a relationship (just as we do).

    July 29, 2010
    • I like this a lot, Gil (I’m going to have to find a way to use it in my sermon :)). Prizing and cherishing are fundamentally relational terms and seem much more appropriate from a biblical perspective than “justified belief” or “cognitive conclusions” language. I think they create space for the kind of well-rounded understandings of “knowledge” of/about God that seem to be assumed in Scripture.

      July 29, 2010
  2. If for the Greeks the study of philosophy meant “submitting to a master in order to gain the virtues necessary to be a philosopher,” I have a feeling the 1st century meaning of the verb ‘to know’ has very little to do with our ‘justified true beliefs’, etc.

    July 29, 2010
    • I think you’re right, Michael. I also think that we in the western world are often guilty of equating salvation with having the right “justified true beliefs” about God and what he has done. I think there needs to be a corrective in how we talk about things like “knowledge” of God and “salvation” that moves towards a more holistic understanding of who we are (i.e., not just brains that need to accept the right propositions) and what we need (i.e., not just a transfer of forensic status but a model for living and being in the world). And we need to do it in such a way that the pendulum doesn’t swing too hard the other way, and cognitive knowledge ends up playing no role whatsoever.

      July 29, 2010
  3. Ken #

    A friend’s mother, always liberal in politics and theology, a progressive concerned with social justice and making the world a better place, turned away from her Christian past to Buddhism. It seems more truthful to her than Christianity and more moral. She is better able there, she thinks, to live a good life and to promote goodness in the world. She is a kind person, giving, loving, towards all.

    Her turn to Buddhism does not bother Selmanovic’s god. Does it bother yours?

    July 29, 2010
  4. mdaele #

    When I asked my God – he was like – dude – that would make me so pissed.
    All this peace and harmony crap those Buddhist teach is bunk – yo!
    I can’t believe anyone would fall that shiznit!

    so then I’m like yeah but is that not what your homeboy Jesus was beaking off about?

    and he is like – seriously – shut up – that was different – I mean he was partying with some mean mothers and they needed to get toned down. Dude you can’t actually take that stuff as the gospel or nothing – be nice to your neighbor – who’s idea was that anyway. Man, if you are not down with some of that nuanced atonement bizness and if you can’t recite the 4 spiritual laws down pat – i am going to rage on yo a**! you hear me!

    and I’m like chill dude i was just saying this chick that ken was talking about figured this Christianity stuff is crapping her style.

    that’s when he got a text from some presby-hoochy-mama something or other and we ended up talking about the weather or something.

    so there you go hope that helps, but then again that’s just my God talkin…

    July 29, 2010
    • Ken #

      Say what?

      July 29, 2010
      • mdaele #


        July 30, 2010
  5. Jesus taught us to envision God as Father. I am not a father myself, but perhaps those who are can answer this… What father would not want to be known, thanked and believed in by his own children? Is there a father who appreciates it when his children ignore him?

    If I were a father, I would want my children to know and love me, and I would want them to do good things with their lives.

    July 29, 2010
    • I suppose the metaphor between earthly and heavenly father breaks down a bit when it comes to the fact that we can see and touch and audibly hear our earthly fathers. On at least some level, Christians have always believed that one of the ways we come to know God the Father is by obeying him, to the best of our abilities, in how we live. Behaviour is, in a mysterious way, one of the means by which proper cognition is attained/maintained. This does not seem to be the case with our earthly fathers. There is undoubtedly a qualitative difference in how knowledge operates in the two cases.

      Nonetheless, I think that as a father I can wholeheartedly affirm the wisdom and truth of your words here. I absolutely want my children to know me and to love me (despite what they know of me, sometimes!), and I absolutely want them to pursue goodness in how they live.

      July 29, 2010
  6. Al #

    I’m afraid the traditional evangelical interpretation of “…all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” is probably quite different from what Paul may have meant.
    Many would say that means “everybody needs to say the sinner’s prayer, and understand things the way we understand them.”
    But Paul was probably looking at the bigger picture of “…that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” from verse 2.
    It’s amazing how easy it is to jump to the same familiar interpretation, once you have been taught to do so.

    July 29, 2010
    • Yes, I think evangelicals are often quick to leap to overly cognitive and propositional interpretations of passages in Scripture that speak of knowledge. As you say, there is always a “bigger picture” to consider.

      July 29, 2010
  7. 1. I wonder if there is any exegetical insight behind the use of the word “and” (‘ be saved and …come to a knowledge of the truth’) in the text you’re using. Is knowledge of the truth an after-thought when address humanity’s salvation? Is the way “narrow” because it’s simply addressing humanity’s allegiance? And this allegiance is not based on any logical reasoning?

    2. And if Paul says elsewhere that “we know in part”, does he mean we never really know because our thoughts are painting an incomplete picture – leaving us with a number of brush strokes on a canvas that, at best, give us an abstract representation of God’s will for our present day? Or, are our limited thoughts more of a concrete representation of God’s will for our present day, and I should switch my abstract painting analogy to ‘possessing some of the pieces of an extensive puzzle’?

    3. And is there a significant difference between God’s desires for his followers to be knowledgeable versus reasonable? Reasonable, to me, seems to be more of a “trial-and-error” process, testing things to see what has the ability to make changes for the better in a society.

    July 29, 2010
    • 1. Based on the story of Scripture in its entirety, I think it would be difficult to make the claim that knowledge of the truth is an afterthought to salvation. I think that allegiance is also hugely significant and bound up with the question of proper (if limited) cognition. Just because logic alone isn’t up to the whole task doesn’t mean that it doesn’t play an important role in the salvation process.

      2. I like both of the pictures you’ve used here. The painting metaphor gets at the idea that there is an aesthetic component to life and salvation (i.e., our deep longings for beauty and goodness). The puzzle metaphor points to the fact that there is also a component of life that seems like a problem to be solved. In both cases, I think, it is possible for us to know enough. We will only ever know in part, but the part that we can know and love and pursue is sufficient (for the purposes of salvation and for the purposes of living a genuinely human life). Apparently God is OK with that.

      3. I think the main difference would be that there is a subjective dimension to knowledge of God (or any other personal being) that goes beyond the trial-and-error” of purely rational exploration (if, indeed, we are capable of such a thing). The exhortations to know and be known by God seem to incorporate all of who we are (e.g., the allegiance question you mentioned above) and move us from the realm of the “objective” evaluator of evidence to a position where we, too, are the subjects of scrutiny and evaluation.

      July 30, 2010
  8. “Behaviour is, in a mysterious way, one one of the means by which proper cognition is attained/maintained.” This is a powerful statement. What I do shapes what I know… and whom I know. What I do also influences what I can know. Doing and knowing are intertwined.

    What if the person who struggles to know God, who despairs of ever knowing God, who is angry at people who claim to know God, what if this person, in spite of not feeling as though they know God, kneels down at their bedside and begins to pray. Then prays again the next day, then the next day. Will not their doing (kneeling down to pray) fuel their knowing, that is, their sense of connection with God, or what they call God?

    July 30, 2010
    • Well said, Chris. Doing and knowing are, indeed, intertwined as I think your example illustrates perfectly.

      It reminds me of the advice someone told me they used during counseling couples having marriage problems: for the next week (or month or year), try acting as if you loved your partner and see what happens. Very often, the results are remarkable. I think the same can be true of faith and knowing God—we can, at least in part, behave our way into knowing and relating in more healthy ways.

      July 30, 2010
    • Chris,
      It sounds like your example is meant for people who already believe God exists. But it reminded me of a conversation involving my non-belief that I thought you might find interesting.

      My wife and I welcomed some Mormons into our living room to tell us what they were sent to communicate to non-Mormons. I told them I use to think God exists and that I’ve experienced a supernatural reality but I don’t think so anymore. They asked me if I’ve properly tried to discover God’s existence. They said I should pray to God with them, and if my heart was really in it, I would discover God’s existence.

      I asked, “Are you saying that if I’m really good at pretending to talk to God, eventually I will believe I’m talking to God?”

      They said, “Yes.”

      I told them, “You know, I don’t deny that our minds have incredible pretending power, capable of making strong, emotional commitments to a highly imagined idea. But how do you know that all your effort to pretend in God’s existence hasn’t led you to convince yourself God is real instead of actually encountering God’s existence?”

      They said, “Because we know deep in our hearts God is real.”

      I said, “You’ve shown me that you believe deep in your hearts that God is real, but you haven’t demonstrated to me that you know God is real. I’m not saying you haven’t actually had encounters with God. But it strikes me as being unreasonable, not to mention odd, that you expect me to try to have a conversation with a being I don’t know exists and have never experienced to be real?” And then they wrote down a list of scripture passages for me to study before their next visit.

      July 31, 2010
    • I won’t presume to speak for Chris, but I certainly found the conversation you described interesting for a number of reasons.

      I found it interesting that your interlocutors seemed to locate definitive “proof” for God’s existence in some kind of personal, experiential encounter. This seems an odd strategy to take, for surely God does not communicate with everyone in the same way. If God is, indeed, “the one in whom we live, move, and have our being,” I would expect that every mode of human enquiry and apprehension would be fair game for how God is to be sought and found (i.e., reason, Scripture, the wisdom of tradition, nature, etc). It seems to me that God’s existence is inferred from the collective interpretation of a broad range of phenomena possibly including, but certainly not restricted to personal experience of the kind your guests described.

      I also found it interesting that you seemed to rule out the possibility that things like prayer or some kind of personal committed pursuit could be a part of how God comes to be known. You seem to assume that God is the result of the “pretending power” of the human mind—that 100% epistemic certitude is the necessary starting point for believing in/following God. This seems an odd criteria to me, as it has quite literally never been met (or, often, even expected) throughout the millennia that people have talked about these questions. It’s not as though we have finally discovered, here in the 21st century, that God cannot be observed in the same way that we can observe a stick or a stone, or that we do not normally hear God’s voice audibly, like we do a friend or a spouse. Whatever “discovering” God’s existence might look like, most people through the history of religious inquiry seem to agree that it is not done in precisely the same way that we discover things in the material world.

      Your critique of your visitors—that they believe, but do not know, that God is real—also seems like an interesting one to me. The realm of religion and metaphysics has always dealt in concepts that do not admit of 100% certainty. We are in the realm of probability here, not proof. When it comes to questions of God’s existence or non-existence nobody “knows” in the way that you seemed to demanding. Your question to your guests could, of course, be reworded: “But how do you know that all your effort to pretend in God’s non-existence hasn’t led you to convince yourself God is not real?” The minds of atheists and agnostics presumably have the same “pretending powers” and propensities toward “emotional commitments” as religious folks, right? It seems to me that we’re all in the same boat here—religious or not—dealing with limited (sometimes even deceptive) minds, trying to sort out questions that transcend (without ruling out) the realm of empirical observation.

      August 2, 2010
  9. Ken #

    Another friend, an atheist, tells me that his wife, a Christian, worries about his disbelief. She worries that she will not have him with her in eternity. He is kind man who loves his wife and it bothers him that she is worried. He wonders what he can say. He does not believe God is the truth, or that the promises of God are the truth. Like my friend’s mother in the above comment, he is one who loves his neighbor as himself. He appears to have a genuine feeling of goodwill towards others. He is not seeking to do the right thing, but his goodwill flows in every relationship and encounter with others.

    What can he say to his wife? What would you say to him? What would you say to her?

    Why no reply to the comment above?

    July 30, 2010
    • I didn’t respond to your comment above because someone else engaged you and I was waiting to see if anything materialized from that conversation. Also, there are often gaps of time between when I am able to sit down and formulate a proper response to a question (especially when the question is a difficult one).

      In both of the cases you mentioned, I would enthusiastically affirm the good being done, regardless of the worldview motivating it. I think that goodness and love of neighbour, wherever they are found, are gifts of God even if the giver of the gift goes unacknowledged. I would also be interested in exploring with the people you mentioned questions about worldview and behaviour and the connections between the two. It’s not uncommon to hear some variation of, “well Christians think that you can’t be good without God but I’m an atheist (or a Buddhist) and I’m good, so they’re clearly wrong.” I think this is a very simplistic understanding of what Christians mean (or should mean) by the claim that goodness without God is impossible.

      At the end of the day, though, I think that religious pluralism as a philosophical view is logically incoherent so I would not affirm the idea that acting correctly, whatever the beliefs that happen to motivate it are, is good enough. I think there is something important in properly acknowledging the source of the goodness to which we aspire, and submitting ourselves to the will of the one who made us. And yet… I’m not prepared to completely rule out something like Karl Rahner’s idea of “anonymous Christians” in at least some cases.

      Having said all this, in both of the cases you describe, “what I would say” to them cannot properly be articulated in a hypothetical response on a blog. What I would say, if it were to have any value at all, would emerge out of a genuine conversation with them that honestly explored their own reasons for holding the views they do and behaving as they do.

      July 30, 2010
      • Ken #

        Not being one who emphasizes morality or truth in theology, I looked for the most merciful way to answer their questions. To the friend who worried because his mother turned to Buddhism, I told him that I thought it did not matter, that God loved her anyway. To the friend who worried about his wife’s worries about him, I told him that in my own understanding of the ways of God that they would be together in eternity. Truth or not, it was mercy they sought and found. It is on such a god that I too depend.

        July 30, 2010
      • I think that your comment indicates that you do emphasize both truth and morality in your theology (which is a good and unavoidable thing, in my view).

        When you told your friend who worried because his mother turned to Buddhism that you thought it didn’t matter, and that God loved her anyway, were you hoping that your friend would accept your words as true? When you told your other friend whose wife was worried that they would be together in eternity, were you expecting this information to give them peace or to alleviate their anxiety somehow? Could your words do these things if you or your friend(s) knew that they were false? In both cases, it seems to me that you were intending that those you were speaking with would receive your words as truth.

        I think there is a deep connection between mercy and truth. It’s hard for me to see, in the cases you’ve described, how your words would be merciful if they were false. What if you are wrong? What if your friend’s anxiety about whether she will be separated from her spouse is well grounded? What if there is a possibility that they will not be together in eternity? In that case, an action that you consider to be merciful would be having the effect of giving her a false sense of relief and minimizing a concern that might be appropriate. It seems to me that in order to tell your friend not to be anxious about her spouse, you must have first decided upon the truth or falsity of the basis for her concerns.

        I think that your concern to treat your friends mercifully is a moral one and your commitment to truth is a non-negotiable component of speaking with integrity and honesty. Both aspects are to be commended, as I see it.

        July 30, 2010

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