The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Obscurity of God

Moses and the Burning Bush
Why dost Thou stand afar off, O LORD? Why dost Thou hide Thyself in times of trouble? [Psalm 10:1 RSV]
In this note I address a series of objections taken from a passionately argued article by Richard Carrier. I have re-ordered his argument and generally speaking summarised his words while preserving his original intent. Whereas Carrier is intent on attacking what he understand Christianity to be, I have have replied with a defence of Theism: the belief in an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God.

God should be obvious and certain
Carrier argues that if God wished to communicate with humanity, God would do so in an obvious way, so that we could tell that it was God; and in a clear way, so that would know exactly what God’s business with us was. We would then be able to respond to God’s intervention in a rational manner. He claims that:
We would all hear him out and shout “Eureka!” So obvious and well demonstrated would His message be. It would be spoken to each of us in exactly those terms we would understand. And we would all agree on what that message was. Even if we rejected it, we would all at least admit to each other, “Yes, that’s what this God fellow told me.” Excuses don’t fly. The Christian proposes that a supremely powerful being exists who wants us to set things right, and therefore doesn’t want us to get things even more wrong. This is an intelligible hypothesis, which predicts there should be no more confusion about which religion or doctrine is true than there is about the fundamentals of Medicine, Engineering, Physics, Chemistry, or even Meteorology.

I reply that it is not always proper for God to do everything that God is able to do by virtue of God’s might: might is not right!  Carrier’s first mistake is to conceive of God as “a supremely powerful being.” This error compromises his entire argument. It makes him view God as immediately akin to other agencies with which he is familiar and in particular human beings. This error leads him to believe that it would be possible to reject the obvious and clear message of God. In fact this is not true. No sane person would be able to dissent, were God to intervene in human affairs as Carrier demands that God should.

Moreover, God can’t possibly want to “set things right”; for if God is God (and not simply the most powerful being that exists) then things must be exactly how God wants them to be and there cannot be any question of setting anything right. Nor can there be any question of God wanting to stop us getting “things even more wrong”. This is not God’s business at all. The way that things are “wrong” now is itself part of the Creative Act.  It is a mistake to think that it is God’s purpose presently to sort out the mess that humanity is undoubtedly making of its existence. God is not the manager of a holiday resort set with the task of keeping a horde of lager louts in some kind of order.

Rather than stating confidently what God ought to do if God was real and then concluding that God is not real because these things are apparently not being done; Carrier ought to investigate whether there is any way in which the idea of a benevolent and omnipotent God can be reconciled with the Universe as we find it.If he were able to be show that no such reconciliation is possible, he would thereby prove that God cannot be both beneficent and omnipotent. However, if he is not able to demonstrate this, then all he can say is that it is not clear how God can be both beneficent and omnipotent – which is not at all the same thing!

In point of fact Carrier does not justify his conclusion. Moreover, I believe that – for those with the right outlook and who are at the right point on their spiritual journey – God’s reality is sufficiently obvious to produce exactly the exclamation of  “eureka!” that Carrier says should be forthcoming.

Carrier’s second basic mistake is to assume that God is in the business of communicating a message. Now at one level Carrier is right. The prophets were very keen to preach the “Word of God” and Jesus went about “proclaiming the
Kingdom”, His Apostles following close in His footsteps. However, at a deeper level this idea is wrong and misleading. “Communicating a message” can mean a number of things:
  1. Indoctrination; as in techniques of manipulative political, religious or corporate attitude formation.
  2. Spinning a believable lie; as is typical of the public relations business or legal advocacy.
  3. Presenting a sales-pitch; as in an advertisement.
  4. Telling a fictional story as such, for the purpose of entertainment.
  5. Imparting information; as in the words of a platform announcer at a railway station.
  6. Drilling; as in the memorization of a set of required responses, so that they can be performed automatically in reaction to certain questions or commands.
  7. Coaching; as a sports instructor might seek to improve the performance of an athlete.
  8. Training; as in those techniques used by military authorities to enhance the character, morale and resolve of soldiers.
  9. Education, in which the interior life of the student is changed by a process of engagement with a teacher.
God is in the business of coaching, training and most especially of education; but not indoctrination, advertising, public relations or entertainment. God’s purpose is to persuade and seduce us into friendship; not to train us into dutiful servitude, and certainly not to coerce and spiritually rape us!

Carrier conceives of God as at best a coach or drill sergeant, and as at worst an indoctrinator. What his argument succeeds in refuting is only his own assumption; namely that God is in the business of “imparting information" to humanity. This should not be surprising. I have already indicated what a terrible effect would follow, were God to communicate with humanity along the lines which Carrier demands.

The idea of freewill is ad hoc 
Carrier argues that for a human to have freewill, either their will must be “more powerful than the will of God, and therefore can actually block His words from being heard despite all His best and mighty efforts”, or else it must be that God somehow cares more about preserving our right “not to hear Him than about saving our souls, and so God himself ‘chooses’ to be silent.” He then says:
Of course, there is no independent evidence of either this remarkable human power to thwart God, or this peculiar desire in God, and so this is a completely “ad hoc” theory: something just “made up” out of thin air in order to rescue the actual theory.

I reply that the idea of human freewill somehow being “more powerful than the will of God” is absurd – whatever one means by “will”, human or divine. I therefore gladly accept his second alternative, namely that God generally5 chooses to moderate the impact of His communication with humanity for the sake of preserving our freewill. Carrier is, however, wrong to set up a dichotomy between God’s concern to maintain humanity’s autonomy and God’s concern to save our souls. First, it is not true that God “chooses to be silent”, as Carrier puts it; and second, it is precisely through God’s gentleness, reticence
and reserve that our souls are saved. I shall take up this point again in a little while.

If the idea that God generally speaks quietly precisely so that it is possible to ignore or mistake the Divine Word was not a core part of the Judeao-Christian tradition then his critique of the “freewill defence” would have some weight. However, Carrier is not right in saying that this is so.
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. [1 Kings 19:11-12 RSV]
Quite apart from Elijah’s particular experience, the prophets generally heard God’s word in private and then proclaimed
to the people in their own human voice what they had received. Isaiah declares that the Saviour of Israel is a “hidden God”.
Truly, Thou art a God who hidest Thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour.[Is 45:15 RSV]6
Moreover Jesus specifically thanks His Father for hiding the core message of the Gospel from “the wise and prudent”7
and Jesus’ practice of teaching via parables was specifically intended to bury the truth so that it took some effort to
unearth and was not on show for all to see.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.[<span>Mat 13:44-46 RSV</span>]
In all this, God’s purpose is to direct divine revelation to where it will do good and away from where it would do harm; away from those who would treat it as a scientific or political resource or would wish to debate it and towards those who are ready to engage and wrestle with it, to dialogue with it and to be moulded by the encounter.
Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you. [Mat 7:6 RSV]
In any case, no believer can legitimately claim that Theism is anything other than a reasonable hypothesis or rational account – a rather good theory, in other words. While it is backed up by evidence, this evidence no more definitively confirms it than does the evidence which can be presented in favour of various scientific theories such as Darwinian Evolutionism, Copenhaganist Quantum Mechanics and Einsteinian General Relativity definitively confirm them. It is true that the evidence in favour of God’s reality is more indirect, abstract and experiential than the evidence in favour of the typical theory of classical Physics; but the way that modern Physics is going the difference between it and theology is becoming less and less clear. In the end, all science is based on faith; and even our acceptance of logic as the basis of dialogue is a matter of conviction.

Disagreements among theists

Carrier argues that even if the “freewill” defence is valid, there remains the problem of severe disagreements among religious authorities. Even among Catholics, who claim to accept the teaching of the Roman Church there are disagreements. Carrier rightly points out that:
These people have chosen to hear God, and not only to hear Him, but to accept Jesus Christ as the shepherd of their very soul. So no one can claim these people chose not to hear God. Therefore, either God is telling them different things, or there is no God.
Carrier argues that if God had a definite message for us, it would have been communicated indifferently to all peoples
and nations across the Globe, and all cultures would agree as to the basic business of salvation. Some would reject this message and others would distort it for their own ends, but if God cared to enable mankind to make an informed decision about spiritual matters God would have ensured that every human being had adequate access to the relevant facts. Carrier then claims that:
Everyone today, everywhere on Earth, would be hearing it, and their records would show everyone else in history had heard it, too. Sure, maybe some of us would still baulk at or reject that message. But we would still have the information. Because the only way to make an informed choice is to have the required information.
Carrier admits that people will disagree about anything, given half a chance, and that “there are always people who don’t
follow what they are told or what they know to be true.” However, he points out that Chemists agree on the principles of Chemistry; Physicians agree on the basic facts of Medicine and Engineers agree on the fundamentals of engineering.
So he asks, why can’t Theologians agree on the core doctrines of religion?

It would seem, therefore, that God has no business with humanity; or that God’s business is incoherent or mischievous; or that God is ineffective in communicating what God’s business is. Now, nne of these three options is attractive. It would therefore seem to make more sense to conclude from the discord among religions that God is nothing more than the imaginary construct (or, rather a set of disparate constructs) of the human imagination.

I reply that human beings certainly do suffer from conceit and don’t like to have their favourite (but mistaken) ideas corrected. Even those of us who on one level sincerely want to understand the things of God are often loathe to give up cherished ideas which we honestly think are good and wholesome; but which are in fact exactly the opposite. I think these considerations are sufficient to explain the observed disagreements among believers; even among those who claim to respect the same earthly authority. However, there is also a second consideration. This is that different personalities, perspectives and histories can easily give rise to diverse accounts of reality which superficially seem to disagree while being, at a deeper level, entirely compatible and mutually supportive.

What, in any case, would count as “the core doctrines of religion”? Perhaps people do agree well enough about these! St Paul tells us that, in fact, God has adequately and effectively communicated with all peoples and Catholics believe that every soul – even that of a pagan who has never heard of Jesus – receives sufficient grace to become God’s friend. The argument that there is insufficient agreement about “the core doctrines of religion” should be reversed. It should in fact be argued that what it is necessary to believe in order to be on the path of salvation is quite simple and straight-forward; indeed that it is pretty much common knowledge, so there is no excuse.
He that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.
[Heb 11:6 KJV15]
The Jewish tradition certainly takes this line; with the idea that for a gentile to please God, they must simply live a moral
life according to the Natural Law, as summarised by the Seven Commandments supposedly given to Noah. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether each of us has the right beliefs about anything; beyond the basics of kindness and simple decency. What matters is our sincerity of heart and goodwill and desire for justice. In the end “Be excellent to one another!” pretty much sums it all up.

God would be more humanitarian
Carrier argues that if God is quite definitely benevolent, loves justice and hates evil, God wouldn’t give up trying to help, cure or educate someone until their resistance to divine intervention became truly extreme. Any one who is really benevolent readily forces another person to act against their own immediate desires, over-riding their freewill in the matter, if that is necessary in order to rescue them from calamity. Carrier says:
Such people don’t give up on someone until their resistance becomes intolerable – until then, they will readily violate someone’s free will to save them, because they know darned well it is the right thing to do. God would do the same. He would not let the choice of a fallible, imperfect being thwart His own good will.

I reply that it is absolutely evil for someone to be spiritually raped. This can never be “for their own good”. The difference is that between human agency and divine agency. A one-off human coercive intervention can be benevolent, because it is temporary and has no implication for the way in which the person coerced lives their life once the coercion ends. Even one single dramatic divine intervention would have profound implications for the remainder of the life of those persons affected.
Now this isn’t to say that such interventions don’t take place. Typically, God acts in a dramatic and public manner when there is a pressing need to establish the credibility of some authority which will then abide for a historical period afterwards.

The two prime examples are the establishment of the Mosaic and Christian Covenants, each of which is supposed to have been associated with dramatic historic events. In neither case, however, was the divine intervention so dramatic that it forced all those who either witnessed or knew of it to accept that it definitely meant what it appeared to do; leastwise not once the passage of time had erased its immediacy from their minds.

Various Old Testament figures (especially, but not only various prophets) are presented as having had pretty direct encounters with God. Some of these were pretty coercive. Jonah is the most obvious example, but the experiences of Elijah and Jeremiah were similar. However, these were all events in the lives of individuals who had specific tasks to perform. God’s particular intervention in their lives set no general precedent and was private, not public; though the effects – as evinced in the subsequent lives of the prophets – were public, of course.

God deals with each of us as an individual, in accordance with our own peculiar needs. God knew that Jonah would not be harmed by being “bullied” in the way that God did this. Certainly Jonah wasn’t going to be convinced irreformably that God was real as a result of it: Jonah already believed that much quite definitely enough! No, the main risk was that Jonah wouldn’t be able to accept the reality of God’s benevolence towards sinners and that he would turn his back on God’s justice, preferring his own notion of “justice” based on retribution and vengeance.

In the case of Elijah and Jeremiah, God’s intervention was in the lives of men who were already intimate with the Divine. Although God certainly bullied or cajoled them into doing things, these things were actions which flowed from a faith which already existed. The fundamental orientation of their lives was not affected, but only nurtured and reinforced.

The analogy of a father or friend
Carrier argues that just as his father or a friend doesn’t violate his free will when they advise and admonish him – still less when they answer his questions clearly – neither would God do so by acting in the same kind of way. A good God must surely be motivated to act towards each of us with at least as much benevolence as a friend or father; and yet, Carrier claims that:
God doesn’t do anything at all. He doesn’t talk to, teach, help, or comfort us, unlike my real father and my real friends. God doesn’t tell us when we hold a mistaken belief that shall hurt us. But my father does, and my friends do. Therefore, no God exists who is even remotely like my father or my friends.

I reply that it is wrong to argue from what it is right and proper for a human being to do to what it is right and proper for God to do. Human beings are not God and are not infallible. Their answers, admonitions, advice and help are never ultimately authoritative and unquestionable, and we always know this to be the case. Hence, we always subject them to our own scrutiny and judgement, except in the urgent case of an emergency.

God is not any thing like a human being. Every one of God’s actions is necessarily indefinitely puissant and, if not moderated and mediated, forces the outcome. This is why God regularly acts through intermediaries. Even when God came into this world in the person of Jesus, He chose to do so in an obscure way and to teach in parables. Jesus was careful to talk-down the idea that He was the Messiah. Even when He rose from the dead, Jesus chose to reveal Himself informally and only to a select group rather than to appear publicly in glory.

In any case, God does do all the things that a good God should do; if only you look in the right places. God simply doesn’t do these things in the way that one might na├»vely think that God ought to. Instead, God generally acts quietly and gently in our lives, out of love and respect for our independence.

The analogy of a physician
Carrier argues that a physician is not vague when he counsels a patient as to how they can get well. On the contrary, he speaks clearly and in terms the that patient can readily comprehend. He answers the patient’s questions, and is ready and willing to present the evidence on which he is basing his treatment recommendation. Carrier says of the physician:
He won’t hold anything back and declare, “I’m not going to tell you, because that would violate your free will!” Nor would any patient accept such an excuse – to the contrary, he would respond, “But I choose to hear you,” leaving the doctor no such excuse.

I reply by pointing out that the relationship we each have with God is not comparable to the physician-patient relationship (where it is the business of the physician to actively cure the patient who is passive in the physician’s care) but rather the teacher-student relationship (which is predicated on a certain equality and on friendship) with the prospect in view of this developing into the lover-beloved relationship.

The teacher’s best tactic at all times is to ask questions and to challenge and to critique their student, not simply to drill
and indoctrinate them. Even if the student demands to be given the right answers, perhaps so that they can be memorized for the exam, it is entirely wrong for the educator to accede to this request. Indeed, one of the first things which the student must learn, if they are ever to understand anything at all, is that they must not make such demands – or at least never expect them to be satisfied.

Carrier’s problem here is that he doesn’t recognise how high is the vocation which human beings have received from God.
He presumes a much lower vocation – one that, perhaps, seems more reasonable. Once he finds that this doesn’t fit in with the facts he then claims the very idea of Theism is false, whereas what he should do is go back and check his premises.

The example of Christ and His Apostles
Carrier argues that the autonomy of the Apostles was not compromised by their spending three years in the society of Jesus, being instructed by Him; or by their witnessing His resurrection. Not even the autonomy of Thomas, who had the chance to place his hands in Jesus’ wounds, was harmed. Neither was the freewill of Saul of Tarsus violated by his dramatic conversion experience, or by the fact that he claimed to have received a direct revelation of the Gospel from Jesus.

Carrier then proceeds to ague that if Christianity were true, the Gospel would be presented to each and every one of us immediately by God, in much the way that God dealt with Thomas or Saul of Tarsus. He asks:
Was their free will violated? Of course not. Nor would ours be. Thus, if Christianity were really true, there would be no dispute as to what the Gospel is. There would only be our free and informed choice to accept or reject it. At the same time, all our sincere questions would be answered by God, kindly and clearly, and when we compared notes, we would find that the Voice of God gave consistent answers and messages to everyone all over the world, all the time.

I reply that for the Apostles to accept what Jesus said as authentic required a step of faith; one which many of their contemporaries didn’t make. It was not obvious to them that Jesus was the Messiah, let alone that He was God Incarnate! After all, both the religious and secular authorities rejected Him and many of His disciples walked away when He spoke words which they couldn’t accept.

Our present circumstances are not so far removed from those in which the Apostles found themselves. They existed within a religious tradition with its authoritative texts. They had met a teacher who seemed able to expound those texts and represent and develop that tradition in ways that rang true to them. He worked miracles and claimed peculiar authority – but He seemed every bit as human and frail as they. Then He died, executed as an agitator by the Roman authorities. Then they became convinced that He was really alive again in their midst and that He actually spoke to them and ate physical food with them.

We exist in exactly the same tradition. Nowadays it has a few more texts – which tell the story of the life, death and resurrection of the Teacher who the Apostles met; and which present His teachings as understood by them. His followers claim that miracles are still worked in His name, from time to time, and His chief follower claims to be able to speak with a peculiar authority when this is needful.

The main difference between us and the Apostles is that we haven’t had direct personal contact with Jesus. This is
not necessary for us, whereas it was very necessary for the Apostles; for they were being constituted as prime witnesses
to the resurrection and the authoritative exponents of the New Covenant. It was their role to testify personally to the historic reality of the Incarnation and to establish it as a matter of record. What we do not have is an infallible divine oracle. The existence of such an agency would undermine human autonomy. The situation would be rather like the vision which Galadrial, the Queen of the Elves, had of herself should she take the Ring of Sauron; which vision motivated her to refuse to take the Ring, even when Frodo freely offered it to her.

Carrier continues:
God would make sure He told everyone, directly, what His message was. Everyone would then know what God had told them. They can still reject it all they want, and God can leave them alone. But there would never be, in any possible Christian Universe, any confusion or doubt as to what God’s message was. And if we had questions, God himself would answer them… Indeed, the very fact that God gave the same message and answers to everyone would be nearly insurmountable proof that Christianity was true. Provided we had no reason to suspect God of lying to all of us, Christianity would be as certain as the law of gravity or the colour of the sky.

This pretty much makes the points that I have been arguing. If God did communicate with humanity as Carrier demands,
then “there would never be… any confusion or doubt as to what God’s message was… Christianity would be as certain as
the law of gravity or the colour of the sky.” This is contradictory to the statement “They can still reject it all they want.”

Knowing clearly what God’s message was and knowing that the message was definitely from God would make that message as impossible to reject as the fact that the cloudless sky is blue. As Carrier himself continues:
If Christianity were true, there would be no point in “choosing” whether God exists any more than there is a choice whether gravity exists or whether all those other people exist whom we love or hate or help or hurt. We would not face any choice to believe on insufficient and ambiguous evidence, but would know the facts, and face only the choice whether to love and accept the God that does exist.

Carrier is crucially mistaken here. Not even this choice would be open to us. This is because God is not any thing like a human being. God isn’t any thing that one can chose to adopt an attitude towards. Once one knew clearly that the omnipotent and benevolent God, the source of all beauty and life, the very ground of all being, is real; then it would make no sense to do anything other than adore this God: because this God would be, in all certainty, the most adorable object of love.

God does not respect agnostics
Carrier claims that many unbelievers are reasonable and open minded. He says:
I and countless others have chosen to give God a fair hearing – if only He would speak. I would listen to Him even now, at this very moment.
Carrier claims that the problem that he and others have is that God remains silent; the evidence in favour of God’s reality remains sparse and the arguments put forward by theists remain weak.

I reply that God speaks everywhere. The danger is that while on one level a person can be willing to hear God’s voice, on another they can remain antipathetic. They can insist that the answer be given in their own terms, even when those terms exclude the very answer that is supposedly being sought. It behoves each of us to examine our heart, to make sure that we are not imposing preconditions on God which make it impossible for us to hear God’s voice and recognise the everyday evidence of God’s reality. Jesus puts the matter before us in black-and-white semitic style.
And when He was alone, those who were about Him with the twelve asked Him concerning the parables.
And He said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything
is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand;
lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” [Mk 4:10-12 RSV]

Jesus means that He uses parables in order to get people to ponder on His preaching, so that they might come to a personal understanding of it and so enter the Kingdom. He does not mean, as it might seem from this translation, that God purposefully disguises and hides from full-view the divine message precisely so as to ensure that people will not understand it and so be condemned because of their incomprehension. After all, not all those who were “outside” the inner circle with “the twelve” were somehow destined to be lost, which is what the text might seem to mean! The New Testament includes a number of statements conveying the universal vocation of salvation.

This process is necessarily open to the possibility (not the certainty, hence Jesus’ two-fold use of the phrase “they may indeed”) that an individual will fail to perceive Jesus’ intent and remain outside. The last phrase means only that anyone who does come to understand and accept Jesus’ message will be forgiven and that those who do not do so – and remain outside the Kingdom – will not be.

Moreover, I suspect that Jesus is also exasperated with the behaviour of those who should know better. Elsewhere He chides the Pharisees:
You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to Me; yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life… If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote of Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words? [Jn 5:39-47 RSV]

Notice here that Jesus puts the onus firmly on the choice of those who refuse to see what is in front of their noses. As Jesus elsewhere has Abraham remark:
If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead. [Lk 16:31 RSV]

1 comment:

  1. Well this is going to take a few reads. It's a wonderful argument.

    It seems reasonable to me that if God wanted us to know Him undeniably and without error then He would have hard-wired that knowledge into our nature, my very being. The knowledge of any data received via the senses is necessarily dependent upon the rational faculty to comprehend it? If God wanted that knowledge beyond doubt, then He would necessarily have to by-pass the sense-world, the world in which we find ourselves, and come to know ourselves in and by relation to the cosmos around us, because the senses are always interrogated by the rational faculty, which renders a sense of 'reality' according to its capacity make intelligible to itself the sensory data it receives.

    Such a God would not allow us to question His nature, and thus if such knowledge is what He wills, He does so perfectly and is not subject to any condition or determination by man.

    Such knowledge of God, as you so rightly point out, would strip us of the freedom to love Him.