Divine hiddenness, continued.

Time for some thoughts on this week’s philosophy of religion class. It’s worth beginning by reposting the Nietzsche quote that I aired on Saturday, which really captures the topic well:

A god who is all-knowing and all powerful and who does not even make sure his creatures understand his intention-could that be a god of goodness? Who allows countless doubts and dubities to persist, for thousands of years, as though the salvation of mankind were unaffected by them, and who on the other hand holds out the prospect of frightful consequences if any mistake is made as to the nature of truth? Would he not be a cruel god if he possessed the truth and could behold mankind miserably tormenting itself over the truth? – But perhaps he is a god of goodness notwithstanding-and merely could express himself more clearly! Did he perhaps lack the intelligence to do so? Or the eloquence? So much the worse! For then he was perhaps also in error as to that which he calls his ‘truth’, and is himself not so very far from being the ‘poor deluded devil’! Must he not then endure almost the torments of Hell to have to see his creatures suffer so, and go on suffering even more through all eternity, for the sake of knowledge of him, and not be able to help and counsel them, except in the manner of a deaf and dumb man making all kinds of ambiguous signs when the most fearful danger is about to befall on his child or his dog? – A believer who reaches this oppressive conclusion ought truly to be forgiven if he feels more pity for this suffering god than he does for his ‘neighbors’ – for they are no longer his neighbors if that most solitary and most primeval being is also the most suffering being of all and the most in need of comfort.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that something like this thought was implicit and dominant in my long-standing objections to theism: the incomprehensibility of my not being able to access this allegedly amazing relationship that the divine is said to be so keen to have with me. And it kind of reminds me of a more polemical and succinct formulation of a related point, that Hitch opened God Is Not Great by citing. The ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam‘:

And do you think that unto such as you;
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew:
God gave the secret, and denied it me?–
Well, well, what matters it! Believe that, too.

When I saw The Tree of Life two years ago, I wrote that:

To watch The Tree of Life is to see a film in which every frame is packed with the influence of the Holy Spirit. Not a single scene fails to tell us very loudly why Malick is unashamedly Christian. You may listen to Priests harp on about the presence of God throughout nature all day long, but it’s not until you see this film that the meaning of the claim is brought to life. That every organism and natural phenomenon is part of a teleology sounds crackers, but Malick makes it at least temporarily look obvious to us. It’s like we put on his metaphysical glasses and all of a sudden it is absurd to see chaos and disorder in the world, rather than the intrinsic beauty he believes in and captures so well.

I stand by this. It may sound nuts to anyone that knows me, but watching this film is the only time in my life that I can recall not only understanding, but wanting to embrace Christianity. But I can’t embrace it because I do not believe in God. I don’t see revelation through nature. I haven’t had a personal spiritual experience. I see no reason to take scripture at face value. I just don’t get that ‘feeling’. As such, I’m deprived of the ability to sustain a relationship with this figure that is claimed to bring supreme meaning and joy to everyone that it encounters. And yet, despite that, my exclusion from this circle is not meant to threaten God’s benevolence in any way.

There is, obviously, a lot of tension here. And I think that there may be good grounds for concluding that many religious stances on this matter boil down to a contradiction.

Schellenberg argues for such a conclusion in the following way. Theists commonly claim that God loves us. Love involves desiring and seeking a relationship with someone; sharing thoughts and concerns; empathising. Since God is said to be supremely knowledgeable and benevolent, his having a relationship with us would enhance our well-being infinitely. He could help us, and it is claimed that he wants to.

Furthermore, since this relationship is said to be of such supreme value, we must also take it that God’s benevolence means he wants such a relationship to always exist, and with everyonesince he loves us equally and for eternity. So insofar as we have the capacity to form a relationship with God, there’s no reason for it not to exist right now. However, clearly this relationship doesn’t exist for everyone right now, which seems to strongly suggest such a God doesn’t exist after all.

Now, Daniel Howard-Snyder and Michael J. Murray have objected to this argument in similar ways. It’s worth taking their claims together.

They respond, then, roughly by arguing that for our relationship with God to truly work it is advantageous if we come to discover his awesomeness and come to love him naturally. However, for God to reveal himself too easily would be to coerce us into a relationship with him, and that sort of motivation detracts from our ability to genuinely engage in love. And it is this that is said to be God’s good reason for suspending relationships with some people – so that they can come around with time. Reality is a better place when this uncertainty and choice prevails.

But this is extremely implausible. Firstly, as both Howard-Snyder and Murray concede, even if the argument works, it could only conceivably explain why God would suspend or delay relations with certain people. It surely couldn’t justify a permanent exclusion, for how could the value of choice be so great that it is decisive even if the consequences are so disastrous that a vast percentage of the world’s population is continuously sent to Hell? And yet, that is what many religious people claim. Do they concede that it is morally untenable, and just don’t care? Or do they think there is some elusive way of imposing sense upon it and rendering it reasonable?

And the reason it is unreasonable leads on to the second thing we should say about this response. As Schellenberg notes, believing that God loves you and can provide meaning in your life quite clearly requires that, first of all, you believe God exists. So it is logically impossible to enter this flourishing relationship with God unless you believe God exists. But belief is involuntary, in the sense that we cannot just decide one day to believe something. Our beliefs respond to what we have reasons to believe, and so as long as the skeptic’s inability to see any good evidence lasts, they will be permanently stranded from the divine. But if God loves us so, evidence should surely be forthcoming that is sufficient to render religious belief reasonable.

Since such evidence is not readily available – atheism and agnosticism are perfectly valid epistemic positions to take – we have very good reasons to doubt that a loving God exists. It may be better if we can arrive at a relationship with God ‘naturally’, but if the result of that attempt is that no relationship ever begins, or the glorious benefits of the relationship, unfathomable in magnitude, are denied, then it’s hard to see how this could be consistent with a character that allegedly burns with benevolence.

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