The Elusive God, Chapter 3, Sections 4-7
August 9, 2009 — 17:13

Author: Garret Pendergraft  Category: Books of Interest Religious Belief  Comments: 8

There is quite a bit of interesting material in these sections; I’ve tried to cover most of it while keeping the word count down as much as possible. At the end, I’ll raise a couple of objections and propose a friendly(ish) amendment to Moser’s overall project.

§4. GOOD NEWS

Having left Athens behind, Moser turns his focus to Jerusalem, and in particular the “kerygmatic core” of the Good News movement, according to which God sent or raised Jesus (why not “and”?), the proper response to which brings certain benefits (p. 163). Moser then explores (pp. 164ff.) some of the controversial questions surrounding the atonement—i.e., some of the questions regarding the connection between the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus on the one hand, and the forgiveness of human sins (human “resistance to divine unselfish love”) on the other. Moser labels his approach to the atonement the divine manifest offering approach, and he summarizes it as follows (p. 165):

What is being made manifest is God’s character of righteous and forgiving love, and what is being offered, in keeping with that character, is lasting divine-human fellowship as a gracious divine gift on the basis of both (a) the forgiveness offered and demonstrated via God’s atoning sacrifice in Jesus, the innocent victim of humans, and (b) God’s resurrection of Jesus as Lord and as Giver of God’s Spirit (emphasis in original).

Moser then says (same page) that “the death of Jesus … supplies God’s distinctive means of intended implementation via divine manifestation and offering.” Jesus is a mediator insofar as he both identifies with human weakness and represents divine love. His suffering on the cross was deemed adequate by God “for dealing justly, under divine righteousness, with our selfish rebellion against God and God’s unselfish love” (p. 167). And Jesus’ role as mediator was confirmed by his resurrection. (Thus, to bring in a point made earlier in the section, Jesus’ death and resurrection are both equally important to his role in the atonement.) The gracious gift of forgiveness made possible by the atonement can then be received by way of a volitional submission to God’s authoritative call. (Despite Moser’s emphasis on God’s righteous love, he is quick to point out that there is also an element of wrath in the Good News. This is necessary, not because God in any sense punished Jesus on the cross but instead because mere forgiveness, without judgment, is not what a morally perfect being would offer.) Jesus’ life of perfect obedience is what makes him eligible to be “God’s atoning sacrifice to God for us” (p. 170), and his manifestation of love indicates that God is worthy of worship.

§5. FORGIVENESS UNTO RECONCILIATION

Forgiveness, according to Moser, is a means to reconciliation and fellowship (of and with all people), not an end in itself. The relevant notion of forgiveness is not adequately captured by either the legal (financial) concept or the social concept. Instead, God’s perfect forgiveness is conciliatory, meaning that it invites the one forgiven to join God in fellowship. (As a side note, it might be interesting to explore the logical relationships between these three kinds of forgiveness. For example, would it be correct to say that conciliatory fellowship consists of the other two types, plus fellowship?) This forgiveness is also notable because it is offered freely and without precondition, but its reception requires the fulfillment of significant moral and volitional demands. This forgiveness does include judgment (otherwise there would be nothing to forgive), but the judgment is of the relevant individual’s attitudes or actions, rather than of the individual herself; to judge the person rather than the action would be condemn rather than to forgive. Jesus’ actions while on earth (e.g., with the paralyzed man) demonstrate that by his lights the primary human need was reconciliation with God—a reconciliation only made possible by perfect forgiveness (which, perhaps scandalously, was itself made possible through Jesus’ atoning death [although Moser appears to leave open the question of the necessity of that particular means to forgiveness]). The penal idea that Jesus’ death was a punishment from God, the just payment for human sins, is on Moser’s view a misunderstanding. Rather, Jesus’ “self-giving death represents God’s condemnation of sin (Rom. 8:3) in virtue of God’s reckoning it as such” (p. 174). None of the crucial facets of the atonement require that God have punished Jesus.
God’s gracious offer of forgiveness, demanding as it may be, is thoroughly rejectable (although even if God knows the offer will be rejected, it might nevertheless be offered, as an act of love). This is in opposition to the “dangerously bold” story according to which divine forgiveness and reconciliation are irresistible. The God of this story, “to put the point with blunt honesty, wouldn’t be worthy of worship and thus of being God, given a failure to love people universally and noncoercively” (p. 175). Moreover, on this (Calvinist) story we lose the distinction between offering forgiveness and receiving forgiveness.
This distinction also helps us to understand why God won’t forgive us if we don’t forgive others, because our not offering forgiveness will indicate that we haven’t fully received forgiveness (because we’ll be treating it as an exclusive, rather than an all-inclusive, thing). In fact, this understanding makes receiving forgiveness a much more demanding enterprise than many might think. Part of the resistance to the all-inclusive nature of forgiveness has to do with the feeling that some people—Pol Pot, to name just one example—don’t deserve forgiveness because they’re irredeemably immoral and thus not worthy of forgiveness. In response to this view, Moser first questions our ability to know that someone is irredeemably immoral, and second claims that (it’s obvious that) we should hate positions, attitudes, or actions—not people. The “offer of morally perfect forgiveness” that is a part of perfectly merciful love cannot be based at all on the likelihood of the forgiveness being received, or “morality becomes a morass” (p. 179). To miss this point is to get the direction of reconciliation wrong.

§6. DYING AND RISING

Resurrection is of course not available to someone who hasn’t died. Thus, before looking forward to the resurrection, Moser first looks at the call to kill the old self via the power of the Spirit. So this section focuses on death—in particular, the death of our old, selfish “heart” (motivational center). In order for us to love as God loves, in fellowship with God, our old heart has to be killed and replaced, with the help of the Spirit, by a new one. We need the Spirit because we selfishly and fearfully resist giving up on our selfishness. But once we avail ourselves of the power of the Spirit, we start becoming fully and selflessly loving toward all people, making possible the sort of community that is the ultimate aim of divine-human reconciliation. So, again, our old, selfish life with its destructive tendencies needs to go the way of Jesus’ earthly life. This requires that we imitate Jesus in his divinely-powered life and obedient death, and the call to this imitation is the second key pillar of “God’s gracious manifest-offering of forgiveness,” because it specifies how the forgiveness is to be received. Another element of the Good News is our “human volitional weakness relative to God’s perfectly authoritative will” (p. 182); to deny this weakness is to betray the Good News. Knowing Christ, on this picture, is a demanding, volitionally involved enterprise that requires an obedience to God so complete that it might result in the loss of everything else. And the only way to get proper perspective on the importance of personal knowledge of (fellowship with) Jesus Christ is to regard this loss as no loss at all, because everything else is no better than, well, garbage. This personal, volitional knowledge is so demanding because of the objects of knowledge: the “worship-worthy God” and the “incomparably supreme Lord of all things” (p. 184, emphasis in original). This sort of knowledge is also unique insofar as it is enhanced and facilitated by suffering, which helps us place our hope and trust in God rather than in earthly things and through which we can demonstrate to others the power of God.
The first major step in this reconciliation process, given God’s nature and purposes, necessarily involves clearing away some obstructions: it involves the death—the killing—of our selfish deeds and attitudes, with the help of the Spirit. The power that is diametrically opposed to and helps us kill our natural attitudes then itself serves as firsthand evidence of divine reality. Jesus was not (merely) our substitute, but our life model: he illustrated both what God is like and what our lives should look like as we enter into a filial relationship with God.

§7. DANCING ON GRAVES

Spiritual Resurrection
We learn from Paul that the resurrection that God offers is a dual or hybrid resurrection: first spiritual, and then bodily. The spiritual resurrection (which is another way of describing an individual’s appropriation of the reconciliation made possible by the atonement) is both initiated and effected by “the Spirit of the crucified Jesus” (p. 188), and is in principle available to anyone and everyone. The Spirit does what we are unable to do, by providing us with a “new volitional center with a default position of unselfish love” (quoting ch. 2) and then empowering us to act accordingly. And again, this process, as experienced firsthand, provides increasingly powerful evidence of God’s existence and activities.
Bodily Resurrection
Bodily resurrection only seems absurd on the assumption the God doesn’t exist; if God does exist, then he is capable of dealing with all relevant problems with the doctrine, including the problem of preserving personal identity. Moser agrees with Swinburne and Wright that historical inquiry can’t rule out the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but thinks that they neglect the role of the Spirit when it comes to positive evidence for its occurrence. The Spirit is what explains the difference between those first-century Jews who accepted the resurrection and those who didn’t: those who accepted it were the only ones for whom the resurrection was a live option, relative to their understanding of God and his purposes. Other approaches (such as Wright’s abductive historical approach) cannot account for Jesus’ continuing life and presence, and since the knowledge secured by such an approach is merely theoretical, it cannot explain the volitional commitment of those who have accepted and proclaimed the resurrection throughout the centuries. Proper knowledge of the resurrection (including as it does hope for one’s own bodily resurrection) requires the testimony of the Spirit. At every step the nature of the evidence (and the nature of the evidence for the evidence) is going to depend on God’s purposes in providing it—which means, among other things, that it will not be merely theoretical or merely empirical. This is the difference (as Thielicke says) between Thomas saying “it fits” and saying “my Lord” (p. 195). Cognitive significance, in this context, is never divorced from volitional or moral significance. On this picture, unbelief is not a lack of information, but rather “willful resistance to the Good News of God’s intended divine-human redemption via the crucified and risen Jesus” (p. 197). On the other hand, those who receive the Spirit, in addition to gaining evidence of God’s existence, also gain assurance of their membership in God’s family and in the “forgiven resurrection community” (p. 198), which is built up and expanded as its members deliver the Good News and which will last forever.
Can other religions tell this sort of personal, volitional, firsthand epistemological story? They can, but only if that story includes “a perfectly loving God who has intervened to redeem people by divine grace rather than by human earning” (p. 198)—a requirement that rules out quite a few from the get-go. (Also cf. the earlier point, from §4, that Jesus’ role as atoning sacrifice is unique among world religious leaders.) Either way, if Moser is right, then an argument is not necessary (although one could be formulated) for the purpose of coming to knowledge of divine reality. Coming to such knowledge, according to Moser’s “volitional theistic epistemology” (p. 200), requires coming to grips with an authoritative call from God through his perfectly loving Spirit.
Some comments
Thus ends the précis. Now a few critical comments.

  1. This is related to a point that has been made previously, but I think it’s worth raising it in the context of this chapter. Moser seems quick to affirm the inadequacy of our cognitive position (not to mention our volitional ability), and this inadequacy is employed to great effect throughout the book. But if we take the point seriously (as I think we should), then it seems to undermine some of his claims. For example, Moser claims that a god whose forgiveness was irresistible (but not offered universally) would not be morally perfect, and thus not worthy of worship, and thus not God after all (p. 175). But, as has been noted in earlier comments (particularly by Robert Gressis, including his Interpretation Question and his God’s Character Question in his own post), it seems that a healthy dose of cognitive humility, such as the one recommended by Moser, might at least qualify this claim somewhat. Or to put the point differently, Moser’s claim about what would disqualify a being from being morally perfect smells like natural theology to me. I find the aroma to be relatively pleasing, but Moser has made it clear that he doesn’t. (And I also have a quibble: Moser is clearly at pains to dismiss the view according to which God’s forgiveness is offered coercively, but I’m not sure exactly who holds that view. Of course some will claim that those who accept God’s forgiveness are determined to do so in some sense, but presumably they’re going to have something to say [which may or may not be plausible] about how that doesn’t count as coercion.)
  2. Regarding the atonement, Moser’s approach rejects penal aspects while apparently retaining and going beyond substitution. There’s quite a bit to recommend his model, and I certainly don’t have a better one to propose, but I’d still like to press on the idea that’s substituted for punishment, namely the idea that Jesus’ “self-giving death represents God’s condemnation of sin (Rom. 8:3) in virtue of God’s reckoning it as such” (p. 174). If this is the significance of what happened on the cross, and if that significance derives from God’s reckoning it as significant, then it seems that something less painful and gruesome could have just as easily been reckoned by God to represent his condemnation of sin. In other words, presumably it would not be morally appropriate for God to allow that much suffering to come to Jesus, who was innocent, unless it was necessary that that much suffering come; and surely the manifestation and offering of God’s love could have been achieved in another way? Moser does say (p. 166) that Jesus’ obedient death “aims to manifest how far he and his Father will go,” but I think the question can still be asked: If God would “deem adequate” (p. 167) Jesus’ gruesome suffering and death, then why not “deem adequate” something else, something less gruesome? (Perhaps there’s a vagueness response available here, along the lines of what van Inwagen says in his Gifford Lectures regarding the actual amount of suffering in the world.)
  3. Finally, and again in line with some of the things that have been said previously (e.g., Joshua Thurow’s point about how natural theology might help us become more attuned to the right kind of evidence), I have a brief and schematic suggestion for how the Moserian might make nice with the natural theologian: Begin with Pascal’s Wager, and use the evidence of natural theology, if possible, to identify the God of Christian theism as the deity most likely to exist. Then undertake what some have called the “devotional experiment” that the Wager recommends, which would be precisely the volitional move that, according to Moser, opens us up to the possibility of purposively available evidence of divine reality. Thus we have natural theology dovetailing nicely with Moser’s project. (I should note that I proposed this to Moser in person, but he wasn’t a fan.) In fact, this seems to be a nice general strategy: clear away some evidential obstacles to your preferred approach to life (whether it be the spiritual life, the ethical life, or what have you), and then invite the reader to undertake that approach for a time so as to test its viability in action.
Comments:
  • Adrian Woods

    Thoughtful Response Garrett. I find it interesting when philosophers hone in on the painful suffering of the Cross and I wonder if you might reflect and comment on how the Gospels dont actually key on the suffering in that sense. For instance, Mark’s gospel key’s on the humiliation and shame of the Cross. I think the writer of Hebrews picks up on this same understanding in 13:11-13
    “11The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.”
    In contrast, for John the cross is the sign of Glory or Divinity. The Cross is the place where God draws all humanity to himself.

    August 9, 2009 — 21:39
  • Matthew Mullins

    Nice post Garrett. I’ve heard something like the strategy you suggest in (3) suggested by the likes of Eleonore Stump and C Stephen Evans, among others, and I still can’t see why Moser would want to reject this. I don’t know anyone who would suggest that an argument is necessary for the purpose of coming to knowledge of divine reality. Heck, a lot of us don’t even think you need evidence to come to such knowledge! Nonetheless, arguments for God’s existence can, and do, move people to be in position to receive God’s authoritative call. (At least I think so.) I’m reminded of PvI’s remarks in Quam Dilecta about how he read CS Lewis and saw that there was an “it” to be believed, even if he didn’t as yet believe it. However, it wasn’t until later that PvI would come to believe, and not on the basis of further arguments, but certainly those earlier arguments put him in a position to believe. So I guess I’m really curious as to what Moser’s reply was, because he hasn’t said anything to make me think there is something wrong with your proposal in (3).

    August 9, 2009 — 22:10
  • Re. point 2, perhaps Moser meant “in virtue of God’s appropriately reckoning it as such”?

    August 10, 2009 — 9:36
  • Let me expand on the point. There surely are constraints on what one can appropriately (or, at least, not inappropriately) reckon to be a condemnation of sin. For instance, a miraculous appearance of a delicious seven course dinner for a dictator whose policies were deliberately aimed at the starvation of thousands would by itself be inappropriately reckoned to be a condemnation of the dictator’s sin. We can, further, assume that whatever God reckons, he reckons appropriately, if this is the sort of matter where one can make the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate reckoning. As the above example shows, this is that sort of matter.
    Moreover, charitably, it’s not just a matter of condemning sin, but condemning sin sufficiently. A cold look is often sufficient condemnation of another’s having made a minor lie; but it is typically not a sufficient condemnation of murder.
    Now, all this might provide an answer to the worry that God could have reckoned something less gruesome. For it might be that, given what the sins of the world are, anything less gruesome, or at least significantly less gruesome, would be inappropriately reckoned a sufficient condemnation of these sins.
    At the same time, the following possibility opens up. Given the constraints on what God can appropriately reckon to be sufficient condemnation, is God’s reckoning doing any work here, or is all the work being done by conforming to these criteria, i.e., by the fact that the event can be appropriately reckoned to be sufficient condemnation?

    August 10, 2009 — 10:51
  • Garrett Pendergraft

    Thanks, Adrian. I appreciate the point about not focusing too much on the suffering on the Cross, but I think the suffering is relevant in light of Moser’s starting point, namely a God who is morally perfect. Several times throughout the book so far, he’s used God’s moral perfection as the basis for various inferences about what to expect from God, what would preclude someone from being God, etc. So I was just wondering if the same sort of inference might be used to question the nature of what happened on the cross. I don’t want to press the point too far, but I think whatever force it may have still applies even in light of what you say. For example, given that humiliation and shame are the crucial elements of what happened on the cross, then why did that humiliation have to come by way of so much physical suffering?
    Additional responses to come!

    August 10, 2009 — 12:31
  • Garrett Pendergraft

    Thanks, Matthew—I should take a look at what Stump and Evans have to say. Is that in God and the Philosophers?

    August 10, 2009 — 13:06
  • Matthew Mullins

    Garrett,
    I heard this from Stump in conversation, and from Evans during a lecture series. Both were responding to questions about how one overcomes the gap between the god of philosophical arguments, and belief in the more personal God of the Bible. If no one has run this line in print, which would be surprising, then I suspect there is a publication in the offing for you.

    August 10, 2009 — 13:59
  • Garrett Pendergraft

    Alexander, thanks for the comment—it seems to me quite a plausible response on behalf of Moser. I do think that in that case most of the work is being done by the criteria you mention, but I suppose Moser wouldn’t object, given the work he assigns to the criteria that apply to a morally perfect being.

    August 10, 2009 — 15:52