Trent Dougherty on Paul Moser’s The Severity of God: Religion and Philosophy Reconceived
The Severity of God pretends to be one thing. Under the skin it is another creature. Advertised as a groundbreaking effort to transcend traditional ideas in natural theology, it is actually a turn away from recent skeptical theistic trends and a return to theodicy — which has no implications for natural theology. And that’s a good thing. We could use a return to more theodicy, especially as it pertains to a form of evil the book best addresses: the hiddenness of God.
This book is Paul Moser’s latest installment in an expansive series in philosophy of religion. Preceded by The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology and The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined, this work is the third in a projected tetralogy of reflections in and on philosophy of religion. (The fourth, in progress, is to be called The Presence of God.) Notice the language of his subtitles: “reconceived,” “reorienting,” “reexamined.” Moser believes what he is doing is radical. This is not wholly comforting. Fortunately, while Moser’s rhetoric does at times run to a high pitch, his ideas have a fairly conventional origin, as well as a benign and even helpful trajectory.
The conventional — though neglected, to be sure — origin of Moser’s rhetoric can be seen in another terminological consistency of his titles: a focus on the nature and attributes of God. Moser reminds his readers that if we don’t get the nature of God right, we’ll end up in a theological cul-de-sac. We must begin on the right path. Like British philosopher Richard Swinburne, who also pursues the conventional attribute-focused approach, Moser starts with a look at the nature of God and then asks what we should expect from such a being. In the present volume, this means recognizing a little-discussed (at least by this name) attribute of God: severity. God’s severity, Moser suggests, is revealed in the severity of the world. When naming a feature of the world, the term “severity” is meant to highlight the difficulty, rigor, and stress of human life. When used to name the feature of God in virtue of which he allows life to be severe, it names the property whereby God is compelled (by his nature) to strongly encourage (but not compel) humans to undergo the painful change needed to be happiest — that is, to be in full communion with a God worthy of worship. And it is the property of being worthy of worship that leads to God’s severity. God would not be worthy of worship if he allowed humans to slouch their way toward metaphysical mediocrity or float adrift on an island of false paradise.
Moser presents the concept of severity in the biblical language of righteousness (and a book with this much reference to Scripture should really have a Scripture index), and he can definitely sound like a preacher (though he is only preachy in the section on philosophy reform). With impersonal theisms on the rise, Moser’s focus on personal interaction with God in a work of academic writing is jolting. The chapter “Severity and Salvation” is an impressive work in soteriology with a strong emphasis on grace — without giving an inch to Calvinism on free will. Moser’s God woos; he does not overwhelm. Moser presents a view focused on “God’s vigorous effort to prompt humans, without divine coercion, to live in cooperation with God, in keeping with God’s perfect moral character.” This prompting can (and in many cases must) take the form of difficult and stressful events. And this puts at the center of Moser’s work “God’s redemptive involvement and power at the center of a robustly good, if severe, human life.”
The only serious negatives in this book are the preaching at (and I do mean “at,” not “to”) nameless professional Christian philosophers, and the negative tone Moser adopts when discussing natural theology — a tone that is wholly unwarranted by the positive theses of his project. Though I share some of Moser’s concerns, I fear that such preaching at will have its usual effect, which is the opposite of its intended effect. This book — and the series of which it is a part — practices a kind of philosophy deeply informed by Christian thought, of which the discipline could use more. Moser should have been happy to lead by example and leave off reproach.
The deprecation of natural theology is largely a summary of Chapter 3 of his previous book on evidence and God in the series. Moser’s attitude to natural theology is a complete non-sequitur, but it doesn’t affect the positive aspects of the book. Moser is working under the curious misconception that for the endeavor of natural theology to be worthwhile, it needs to be able to establish the identity of God as the God of the Covenant, and that the idea that we could know God by natural reason is idolatry. But of course that’s not true. The phrases “natural revelation” and “general revelation” are curiously absent from the discussion. Of course, all knowledge of God is the result of God’s self-disclosure. God could simply turn off our very concept of divinity if he wished. But as pre-Christian, non-Hebrew sources show, God has not left himself without witness. (We are treated to an interpretation of Romans 1:20 that only a philosophy professor could produce, one which conspicuously can’t apply to Psalm 19.) So, yes, it’s true that God “does not need the arguments of natural theology.” Then again, God does not need anything.
My appreciation of the book begins with a complaint. Chapter Two culminates in a false dilemma: “Such a ‘theodicy’ of nonseparation from God’s agape is ultimately the only theodicy on offer for us humans now. Given our real cognitive limits regarding God, a quest for a full explanation of God’s purposes in allowing evil is sure to fail in our current predicament.” There is no need for the scare quotes because he is straightforwardly offering a theodicy, for a partial theodicy is still a theodicy (because a partial explanation is still an explanation). His explanation is, in brief, “we may think of this world’s rigorous flux as, at least in part, God’s instrument for redemption in an agape struggle.” Moser avoids the word “evil” and uses instead the awkward term “rigorous flux,” once again revealing a veneer that much of the book shares. This is good old-fashioned theodicy. Why not just call it what it is? (Who cares that it’s less original if it’s good?)
The struggle he describes is that in which a holy but gracious God is willing to radically unsettle us in order to strenuously encourage us to settle for nothing less than our ultimate fulfillment in union with him. Reading this chapter made me wonder if we shouldn’t have more philosophers writing devotional material (and I really do mean “wonder”). The book has almost nothing to say to unbelievers, but this may not be a complaint. Given the amount of Christian-based philosophy of religion aimed at least partly at unbelievers, it would be good if there were more development of specifically Christian themes aimed at thickening the Christian picture in philosophical terms.
One of the best things about the book is that it is not nearly as groundbreaking as the author claims. (“Widely neglected problem” is the most repeated phrase in the book.) If it were too groundbreaking, it could not be what it is: a rewarding reminder of some traditional but neglected important truths connected to the fact that, if the God of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures exists, then the fact will be relevant to every area of inquiry, including how people come to know this fact itself. In short, thinking about God’s humanity-involving plans should teach us something about what kind of evidence he would reveal of his existence. This is well worth meditating on at length, even if it has nothing like the negative implications for natural theology Moser thinks it does. The pay-off, I think, is not in scapegoating natural theology but rather in his insights into the reasons for divine hiddenness.
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