Monday, July 06, 2009

The Elusive God

This is a review I found on for The Elusive God, by Paul Moser. The reviewer seems to think Moser has a great and provocative case, a real challenge for atheists. I beg to differ. The reviewer starts right off on shaky ground.
Where in the world is Waldo!? This is probably the question we ask ourselves when we are looking at a Where's Waldo? book created by Martin Handford, a children's writer and illustrator. John Ortberg says in his book God is Closer Than You Think "This guy Waldo is supposed to be on every page. The author assures us that it is so. But you couldn't prove it by me. He is often hidden to the untrained eye. You have to be willing to look for him. "Surely Waldo was in this place, and I knew it not." When you find him, there is a sense of joy and accomplishment. In fact, developing the capacity to track him down is part of the point of the book. If it were too easy-if every page consisted just of a giant picture of Waldo's face-no one would ever buy the book. The difficulty of the task is what increases the power of discernment. The author said he hides Waldo so children can learn to "be aware of what's going on around them. I'd like them to see wonder in places it might not have occurred to them." But sometimes it takes a while to find Waldo. It demands patience. Some people are better at it than others. Some people just give up. Part of what makes it hard to find Waldo is that he is so ordinary-looking. In the initial pages his presence is obvious. Later on, he's hidden but the other occupants of the page are giants and sea monsters, so Waldo still stands out. Then eventually we come to the last and hardest page. By the end he's in a room full of Waldos virtually identical to himself, the only distinction being that one detail is different, such as he's missing a shoe. Handford allows rival Waldos to counterfeit his identity. You can be looking right at him without even knowing it. Where's Waldo? Why doesn't he show himself plainly? Why does he hide his face? He may not be absent, but he is elusive. He is Waldus absconditus-the Waldo who hides himself." (pages 31-32)
The insult at the beginning is subtle yet familiar: you can't see, sense, or otherwise perceive god because of your "untrained eye." It's your fault. But wait a minute. That Waldo analogy doesn't quite hold up, does it? The Waldo analogy is clearly weak. Unlike god, Waldo can be seen and independently confirmed to be Waldo. People who find Waldo can show him to you. Waldo himself actually is there. Whether I want to see or not, whether my eye is trained or not, Waldo can be brought before me. We cannot say the same for god because there is no direct evidence. Indeed, this supposedly is part of the point of god.

The review continues:
Philosopher Paul Moser argues (without the Waldo analogy) on a sophisticated level yet still accessible to the average person in his book The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology that the Judeo-Christian God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, is like Waldo; there (as in this God does exist) but hidden or incognito for specific divine loving purposes and intentions. Not only is this God's existence disguised but also evidence for this God's existence. In Moser's words, "this book contends that, despite being concealed at times, the reality of the God of traditional monotheism is knowable firsthand by humans on the basis of salient and conclusive, if elusive, evidence." (page 2)

The “reality of the God…is knowable firsthand”?
I can applaud the boldness of Moser's claim, but I still have an issue with the argument that god is "hidden or incognito for specific divine loving purposes and intentions." Instead of explaining the hiddenness - how it works, how it's achieved - Moser decides to defend it. But what business is it of Moser's or mine or yours to defend this god's actions? They tell us this god is inscrutable, except when they are apologizing for him. They tell us his ways are mysterious and beyond our mere human, subjective morality - except when they tell us he's all good, all the time. I am always puzzled and irritated by this asymmetry: We can't say anything about this god or about religious beliefs, unless we're praising or defending them. So, at this point in the review, I'm pretty suspicious. Will we learn just how to know this god firsthand, or will we instead be baited-and-switched to a meditation on these assumed loving purposes and intentions? Place your bets....
This elusive evidence isn't kept hidden because God is morally bankrupt; the evidence is kept elusive due to the morally loving character of God keeping with loving divine aims. The loving divine aims have to do with bringing selfish and destructive humans into a loving, volitionally surrendered fellowship with an unselfishly loving God. To make this possible, the evidence at hand cannot be given coercively. This evidence cannot coerce a will toward or against God, for that would violate a loving God's loving aims, purposes, and intentions for humans. In Moser's words, "Conclusive firsthand evidence for divine reality is, I'll contend, purposively available to humans, that is, available in a way, and only in a way, that accommodates the distinctive purposes of a perfectly loving God. The latter purposes, we'll see, would aim non coercively but authoritatively to transform human purposes to agree with divine purposes, despite human resistance of various and sundry sorts." (page 2)
Hmm. At least as reported here, Moser’s argument is tough to parse. He starts off by asserting something rather straightforward: humans have access to conclusive firsthand evidence for the existence of God.

But here’s the catch: to access this evidence, one must be attuned to whatever the "distinctive purposes" are of a "perfectly loving God." In other words, one must be biased as a condition of obtaining the evidence. One must assume the existence of a perfectly loving being and somehow imagine the purposes of such a being. Moser basically champions confirmation bias: if you believe it, it will seem true.

If this is the big insight, we're already done. But, let's go on and see what's said about the nature of the “evidence” for the reality of god.
This evidence is not spectator evidence. As humans, this evidence challenges us to get off the bleachers of our search and onto the field of our search. In other analogical words, the evidence is found on the field of our search and even challenges who we are becoming as persons and how we play the game of life.
And this evidence is….?
In Moser's words, "we'll consider purposively available evidence that is both person-involving and life-involving in its identifying and challenging both who we are and how we live as morally accountable personal agents under the authority of a perfectly loving personal God. Such purposively available evidence would seek whole-hearted transformation of humans toward God's character via volitional fellowship with God, where such fellowship between God and a human requires sharing in each other's concerns guided by love. The relevant evidence, then, wouldn't assume that humans are just spectators in need of further information or intellectual enlightenment. It would thus contrast sharply with any kind of spectator evidence that fails to challenge humans to yield their wills to a perfectly authoritative agent." (page 2)

All throughout the book, Moser argues that question (a) Do we humans know that God exists? is better answered if we start with question (b) Are we humans known by God in virtue of (among other things) our freely and agreeably being willing (i) to be known by God and thereby (ii) to be transformed toward God's moral character of perfect love as we are willingly led by God in volitional fellowship with God, thereby obediently yielding our wills to God's authoritative will?
We’re bordering on dishonesty now. The silly argument here seems to be that to know god exists we must be willing to be known by god. Well, that’s just balderdash. Imagine if someone said, in order to know my dog exists you must first be willing to be known by my dog. No, I can know your dog even if I don’t want him to know me. We made this point early on when we were thinking about the Waldo analogy. Sheesh.
In Moser's words, "We'll see that question (a) is fruitfully approached via question (b), given that a perfectly authoritative and loving God would be distinctively purposive in relating to humans, cognitively (in terms of evidence and knowledge provided) and otherwise." (page 4) Behind question (b) lurks another important question; question (c) Are we humans known by God in virtue of (among other things) our freely being willing to receive an authoritative call to volitional fellowship from a God of perfect love that is presented to us in order to reveal, at least to us, the adequacy or inadequacy of our moral and cognitive standing before this God? Moser notes that this shift of focus is suggested in some of the apostle Paul's writings found in the Christian writings in the Bible. He goes on to argue that "we are morally responsible for the questions we willingly pursue, just as we are similarly responsible for everything else we intentionally do. The typical focus on question (a) to the exclusion of questions (b) and (c) tends to place the sole responsibility on God for supplying the desired knowledge to humans, as if humans were just spectators who need only to open their eyes to see the relevant evidence. In contrast, this book's focus on questions (b) and (c) as means to answering question (a) directs us to ask whether we humans are well-positioned to receive any purposively available evidence and knowledge of God's reality. Perhaps we aren't thus well-positioned, because our wills have gone awry and thus need attunement to reality, including divine reality." (page 5) Moser argues that this is indeed the dilemma that human beings find themselves in; we aren't well positioned and we are in need of help or a word from a morally loving and perfect God. But what will happen when this elusive word comes? How will human beings respond? Moser argues that there are three main ways humans can respond: conforming (or, obedient) reception, indifferent reception, and negative (or, disobedient) reception. Regarding the most important response (conforming reception), Moser argues that "This book's account of purposively available conclusive evidence and knowledge of divine reality focuses on a distinctive kind of evidence available in experience: evident authoritative divine love expressed via human conscience, including an evident invitation to repentance and volitional fellowship with God." (page 8)

The whole of Moser's book focuses on three main questions: (1) If God's existence is concealed, hidden, or incognito, why should we hold that God exists at all? (2) If God exists, why is God's existence hidden at all, particularly if God aims to communicate with people in some way to lead them into better lives? (3) What are the implications of God's concealment for philosophy and religion as they concern talk of God and of knowledge of God? Without falling into some type of fideism, Moser gives due attention to certain skeptical doubts, questions, concerns, and objections all throughout his work. In his words, "careful attention to skeptical qualms will keep us honest in our inquiry, and save us from any uncritical or cognitively arbitrary dogmatism." (pages 8-9)

Regarding how this Jewish-Christian epistemology works in other religious conditions and geographical situations, Moser notes that "the true God may indeed be troublesome rather than convenient by our preferred standards, and may need to be thus, given our dire predicament of destructive selfishness. If God seeks to rescue us convincingly from our predicament, God would need to convince us of our need of rescue and of God's reliability in the rescue effort. In addition, God would have to challenge and then noncoercively transform our deadly selfishness. A God of perfect love, as suggested, would aim to elicit not just new beliefs in us, but also new volitional attitudes, including unselfish intentions and desires. That's no small task, of course, and it may succeed rarely if at all.
This is classic religious bogeyman-making: “the dire predicament of our destructive selfishness.” Notice how in the quoted phrase religion has portrayed humans as helpless damsels in distress, needing the hero-god to "rescue" us. Dire predicament is a matter of perspective, and I frankly don't think we are or ever were in one. Religion depends on the Romantic notion of being desperately captured in our own passions. Indeed, religion revels in it. But we are not slaves to our desires; neither do we need to be ashamed of them. How sad that in religion people are encouraged and praised for pining away in the hopes of solutions to non-problems.
As indicated, however, we shouldn't assume that divine intervention is just in the life of Jesus; it may be wherever God is at work, regardless of geography, even if Jesus is the authoritatively and morally perfect exemplar of divine revelation in a human." (page 14-15) All in all, as one who was an honest and open agnostic (while also seriously entertaining the possibility of atheism), I think Moser's work does indeed offer an enormously effective challenge to skepticism about the reality of the Judeo-Christian God. This book will not only challenge the way you think but also challenge the way you live your life...if you're willing.
Of course we have to get to the odious figure of Jesus, and of course the reviewer feels the need to say "I was once agnostic, but now I'm found. Amazing Grace, meh-meh." This is standard rhetorical fare, where the writer's former skepticism is supposed to make his present conviction all the more persuasive and fulfilling. Like so much that has come before, it's just and only artifice in intellectual drag.

I can see that Moser's book may challenge the way one thinks, but that's because in the end the thinking seems to be rather shoddy. Maybe it's high-caliber shoddiness - obviously, neither the book author nor book reviewer is a dummy. Moser seems not to produce any firsthand evidence, just assertions that "god-creme will make you feel 100% better instantly. You'll be completely satisfied." God's a placebo-product in this. It's The Emperor's New Waldo - everyone proclaims "I see him!" And maybe they really think they do see him. I wonder if in his book Moser ever considers the idea that Waldo actually ain't there, that god doesn't exist. That would be impressive.

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