Which God?

Dear Smithy

It was great chatting with you on campus the other day. You seemed like a thoughtful person with honest questions. I’ve therefore taken the liberty of trying to answer the written question that you gave me after Michael Ramsden’s talk on “One God; Many Paths?”

I actually like the written exchange format, because it gives both parties the opportunity to put some careful thought into a particular issue (although not everyone can afford the time and effort it often requires). Talking in person has its advantages, but writing often compels one to be precise and nuanced. So please feel free to engage with me if you’d like.

You had the following question:

“What gives Christians (from a neutral perspective) the right to not only claim that they know there is a god, but which god it is, when there are so many hundreds of religions out there? What makes the Christian religion more true? Can you answer this without using the Bible as an absolute proof?”

First of all, I am very sympathetic to the concern at the end of your question. It suggests that to imply that Christianity is true simply because its claims are based on, or found in, the Bible, is begging the question. And I agree, as such it might simply be an example of appealing to some unquestioned and unexamined authority – and why should anyone feel compelled to accept such an authority?

Of course, not all appeals to authority are suspect, for there might indeed be good reasons for why someone can speak authoritatively or why something bears the marks of authority on a particular subject. It’s always good to try and determine what those reasons might be.

So my answer wouldn’t be to say that Christianity is true simply because the Bible says so. But what if I am convinced that the Bible is reliable and that its intended claims are really true? Well, then you will and should probably ask me why I believe it to be true. And then we can start a conversation about questions related to determining the historical reliability of ancient documents, about a sound hermeneutical approach in reading such ancient texts like the Bible and philosophical considerations in understanding certain concepts and claims found therein. My point is that there are various fields of inquiry (and I’ve mentioned only three in broad strokes namely history, hermeneutics and philosophy) that will have something to say about the significance and scope of what is written in the Bible.

Okay, this brings us to the particulars of your question. Your reference to the variety of religions in the world and the implications of such a state of affairs, can be stated as follows:

  1. There are hundreds of religions
  2. Each religion (most of them, anyway) refers to particular god/gods
  3. Therefore, there are references to hundreds of different gods

You then raise a question about conclusion 3:

How can the Christian claim to know that a particular God exists?

The first observation to make is that all religions have a specific view on the nature of reality which includes specific views on the existence and nature of God. And there is nothing particularly problematic or arrogant in making a claim that excludes other claims. If any claim is really true, it will necessarily exclude other views – that’s just the nature of truth. Since different religions make contradictory claims on the existence and nature of something called “God”, they cannot all be true. It might be the case that they are all wrong (maybe atheism is right), or it might be the case that only one is right. So the question really is whether we can determine if any claim is actually true and not whether it is arrogant to do so.

Secondly, you seem to be asking if there is some sort of neutral perspective from where a person (such as a Christian) can make certain knowledge claims about God. I don’t think any human person really has a completely “neutral perspective” (the idea seems oxymoronic). In fact, even the idea of “neutral facts” can be misleading since all facts are interpreted in some way precisely because no person has a completely neutral perspective on things. I think the better question is whether we can strive towards objectivity even as people with biased perspectives. I think we can if we realise that striving for objectivity is always an ongoing and reflective process in which we should be aware, or become aware, of our own biases. This means that people should always try their best to really understand a differing or opposing point of view and always be willing to re-evaluate their own assumptions or conclusions in the light of the relevant (old or new) data.

So let’s reframe the question. Can we strive for objectivity in an assessment about whether a certain kind of God exist? I think we can, and therefore we need a closer look at the kind of evidence that there is for consideration. This evidence is derived from certain features and facts of the world we all find ourselves in and then asking what the best explanation is for those specific features and facts. The Christian philosopher William Lane Craig suggests the following features and facts of the world (excerpted from this article) that seems to be best explained by the existence of God and which at the same time also points to a certain kind of God:

1.  God provides the best explanation of the origin of the universe.  Given the scientific evidence we have about our universe and its origins, and bolstered by arguments presented by philosophers for centuries, it is highly probable that the universe had an absolute beginning. Since the universe, like everything else, could not have merely popped into being without a cause, there must exist a transcendent reality beyond time and space that brought the universe into existence. This entity must therefore be enormously powerful. Only a transcendent, unembodied mind suitably fits that description.

2.  God provides the best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe. Contemporary physics has established that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of intelligent, interactive life.  That is to say, in order for intelligent, interactive life to exist, the fundamental constants and quantities of nature must fall into an incomprehensibly narrow life-permitting range.  There are three competing explanations of this remarkable fine-tuning: physical necessity, chance, or design. The first two are highly implausible, given the independence of the fundamental constants and quantities from nature’s laws and the desperate maneuvers needed to save the hypothesis of chance. That leaves design as the best explanation.

3.  God provides the best explanation of objective moral values and duties. Even atheists recognize that some things, for example, the Holocaust, are objectively evil. But if atheism is true, what basis is there for the objectivity of the moral values we affirm? Evolution? Social conditioning? These factors may at best produce in us the subjective feeling that there are objective moral values and duties, but they do nothing to provide a basis for them. If human evolution had taken a different path, a very different set of moral feelings might have evolved. By contrast, God Himself serves as the paradigm of goodness, and His commandments constitute our moral duties. Thus, theism provides a better explanation of objective moral values and duties.

4.  God provides the best explanation of the historical facts concerning Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  Historians have reached something of consensus that the historical Jesus thought that in himself God’s Kingdom had broken into human history, and he carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcisms as evidence of that fact.  Moreover, most historical scholars agree that after his crucifixion Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty by a group of female disciples, that various individuals and groups saw appearances of Jesus alive after his death, and that the original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection despite their every predisposition to the contrary. I can think of no better explanation of these facts than the one the original disciples gave: God raised Jesus from the dead.”

Each of these instances of where Craig and many other theists think that God is the best explanation of a particular feature or fact of the world, has been argued for through rigorous philosophical formulations. These arguments all represent attempts at objectivity and although not all people are compelled to accept the conclusion of such arguments (that God exists), it does suggest that a belief in God’s existence and that this God has certain characteristics, isn’t merely a matter of blind faith or groundless assertion, as theists are often accused of having.

Taken together these arguments form a cumulative case for thinking that it is more reasonable to believe that God exists rather than that he does not. It also presents us with a particular kind of God, one that is entirely consistent with the claims of Christianity.

In the abovementioned article, Craig goes on to give a fifth piece of evidence that bears on the existence of God. He writes: “God can be personally known and experienced.  The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Down through history Christians have found through Jesus a personal acquaintance with God that has transformed their lives.”

Now this fact about the world (that people claim to personally know and experience God) doesn’t strictly serve as objective evidence for the existence of God, for such experiences are subjective and not accessible in a public or objective sense. But in another sense the very fact that someone can have a subjective, personal experience of God, would actually serve as the strongest kind of evidence for God’s existence. If the God who actually exists, is able to reveal himself to me in a very personal and direct way (as Christianity claims he does when we are really interested in getting to know him), wouldn’t that serve as the best possible confirmation that God is a real presence in my life and therefore in the world? The fact that this experience isn’t accessible to others and that others might therefore doubt the veracity of my experience, wouldn’t be a good reason in and of itself to therefore deny my own experience of God and my conviction that God really does exist, especially not when there is also all the objective evidence for his existence to consider.

Here is something important to realise about the question of whether God exists. If there really exists a personal God as Christianity claims, who wants us to be interested in getting to know him instead of merely knowing about him (such as that he merely exists, for example), then it might well be that no amount of evidence for his existence could ever satisfy our quest for certainty. One could be forever curious about who someone is without desiring a relationship with that person and ironically therefore forfeiting the opportunity to really know someone. Many people are curious about God, but never seem to find the God who actually exists, simply because they are not really interested in meeting a person who is absolutely good and loving, and confronts us with our own wrongdoing and hypocrisy. I believe that God has revealed enough of himself in the way he has created us and the world we live in, so that any person who honestly seeks after God, will find him both intellectually and experientially. At the same time God is under no obligation to reveal more of himself (as is often demanded by atheists and agnostics) to the person that he knows is not and never will be interested in him as a person.

According to Christianity, the way we meet God is through the person of Jesus Christ. It’s simply by accepting the forgiveness that he offers when we realise our need for rescue from the consequences of our God-forsaking lives, that we enter into a relationship with him. Not all feel the need for rescue and forgiveness, nor for a relationship with God – many people live self-made and fiercely independently lives and could care less about what is really true and what is truly meaningful.

All this is not to imply that our intellectual questions about God and his existence are unimportant. Not at all, we can and should ask questions and pursue the answers with vigour. But it does suggest that not all questions are equal: some questions are asked in an attempt to hide ourselves from God; whilst other questions are asked in a sincere search of a God who might have really revealed himself. In the end both types of questions expose the true motives of our hearts.

If you want to talk further about anything that I’ve said here or about anything else, then you are most welcome. We can either continue our correspondence or talk over a cup of coffee.

Regards

Udo

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