The thesis of this book is that Christianity teaches that it is inexcusable not to believe in God, and that this fact entails that God’s existence is clear; for ‘Clarity is required for inexcusability’ (p. 2). Further, it is not enough to be ‘personally certain or persuaded that God exists’; there must be objective certainty (p. 4). So the central theme is ‘the principle of clarity’, clarity meaning ‘the impossibility of the alternative’ (p. 139). Anderson puts his claim very strongly: ‘maximal responsibility requires maximal clarity, and Historic Christianity claims that there is a maximal responsibility to believe in God, so it must prove that there is maximal clarity concerning God’s existence’ (pp. 57–58, italics in original).
This is a remarkable thesis. For while many are personally certain that God exists, only some philosophers, those who believe that they have an absolute proof of God’s existence, can attain to the clarity that consists in being aware of the impossibility of the alternative. It would seem that, according to Anderson, the rest of us, the large majority, are left in inexcusable sin. This will even include himself, for by the end of the book he has not produced the proof required for absolute clarity.
Anderson writes from the point of view of what he calls Historic Christianity. This is summarized, according to him, in the Westminster Confession of 1646, which asserts ‘the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ, and claims that sin is the failure to seek, understand and do what is right. Furthermore, it asserts that redemption is required, and that redemption can only be attained through the death and resurrection of Christ’ (p. 9). All this is the familiar gospel of the strongly evangelical part of the church.
What is new is Anderson’s claim that a proof of God’s existence is ‘a necessary presupposition to Christianity’s redemptive claims’ (p. 58). A valid excuse for not believing in God ‘would undermine the claim that the unbelievers are guilty for their unbelief, and thus take away any grounds of the need for redemption’ (p. 3). But are there not other grounds of the need for redemption than not believing in God? From within ‘Historic Christianity’, the fallen angels had absolute clarity about the existence of God, but sinned by disobeying him. Adam and Eve had absolute clarity about the existence of God, but disobeyed him. So can it really be the case that there would be no need for redemption if there is no proof of the existence of God?
Again, are there not people to whom the world is religiously ambigu ous but who live highly moral lives, as moral as those who affirm the clarity of God? Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, but its ethical stan dards and practice are as high as those of Christianity. The biblical writers knew nothing about Buddhism, but today we do, and surely we have to do theology in the light of present day knowledge, not first century knowledge.
Continuing, Anderson is clear that the traditional ‘theistic proofs’ are insufficient. They over-extend themselves by assuming that a highest being, or a prime mover, or a designer must be a personal God. Anderson discusses these, concentrating particularly on Anselm and Aquinas, and he holds, in agreement with most philosophers today, that their arguments fail to prove the reality of the God of ‘His toric Christianity’. He also discusses and dismisses the attempts by such philosophers as Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig to fine tune these arguments to make them cogent today. Anderson also has a chapter discussing and rejecting attempts to avoid any need for arguments for the existence of God. His section on Reformed Episte mology is excellent. He also discusses elsewhere several other sug gested alternatives to proof. One is Fideism (Barth, Kierkegaarde), another Evidentialism (Samuel Clarke, etc), another Non-cognitivism (Schleiermacher). Another option dismissed is the cumulative case approach (Paul Feinberg); Anderson does not however discuss the kind of cumulative case proposed by Richard Swinburne. Another rejected option is Presuppositionalism (Van Til).
So Anderson affirms that there is clarity about God’s existence, and he rejects the idea that in this life the universe is to us religiously ambiguous. He says that ‘If the world is ambiguous, unclear, then there is not a clear distinction between being and non-being, between good and evil, or between true or false, and there can be no basis for making any claims whatsoever’ (p. 5, repeated on p. 16). By the world being ambiguous he means as regards the existence of God. But is his argu ment sound? Could not the existence of God be unproved, and someone be uncertain about it, but nevertheless be quite clear about the distinction between being and non-being? And between the torture of an innocent child being good and being evil? Or between many propo sitions being true or being false? And could not such a person correctly make all manner of claims – that it is raining, that today is Tuesday, that the world is round, etc., etc.? Anderson’s argument here is considerably over-extended.
That there must, as Anderson argues, be something eternal has strong intuitive force, but considerable argument (which the book does not supply) would be needed to move from that to God as defined by Anderson, as ‘a Spirit who is infinite, eternal, and unchanging in being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth’ (p. 139).
Aquinas taught that reason cannot determine whether the world (i.e. the universe) is or is not eternal and that only revelation can settle that. However, Anderson claims that reason can settle it. For myself, I can accept that something cannot come out of nothing. And also that there must be something eternal, that is, infinite in time. But that does not prove the existence of God. It does not prove that the eternal reality is ‘a spirit, and that this eternal spirit is infinite and unchanging in prop erties such as knowledge, power, and goodness’ (p. 139).
I must mention Anderson’s continual personalizing of his criticisms of other thinkers. Hume and Kant, for example, ‘held positions for which there is no excuse. Their own views are inconsistent, were not lived consistently, and neither Hume nor Kant came to see what is clear to reason’ (p. 166). There is more than a whiff of intellectual arrogance in this dismissal of these two great philosophers.
Finally, Anderson is clear, as I mentioned earlier, that he is not offer ing ‘a proof for the existence of God. It is one step removed from that’ (p. xiv). But how can one ‘prove that there is maximal clarity concerning God’s existence’ (p. 58, italics in original) without having a proof of God’s existence? It is not enough to be one step removed from that. That further step is all-important. Why does Anderson not provide it, if he thinks that Historic Christianity entails that there must be such a proof?
There are in this book interesting discussions of many figures in the history of philosophy. But the basic thesis of the book is so improbable, unconvincing, and eccentric that I cannot responsibly recommend it.
Response to John Hick
By Owen Anderson
Arizona State University, USA
I think it can be said with little doubt that Professor Hick can be credited for reinvigorating the study of the philosophy of religion. Professor Hick’s work brought to mind the need to wrestle deeply with problems facing the world which have their beginning in religious beliefs. His focus on religious diversity brought to the foreground problems in the ethics of belief and the problem of evil that require going beyond the fideism at the foundation of most/all religious exclu sivism of our day. It makes sense, given his life’s work, to affirm the thesis of my book, which is not that it is clear that God exists, but that if it is not clear then pluralism follows and exclusivism must be aban doned. In the following I will outline what I believe to be crucial to my book. Once I have done this then perhaps some of the more problematic aspects attributed by Professor Hick to my claims lose their strength and instead something else comes to prominence which should be worth reconsidering at its own merit.
This book is both a philosophical and historical study of the claim that humans should know God and the corollary claim that not knowing God is a sin needing redemption. What I set up in my book is a dilemma: either it is clear that God exists and therefore unbelief is without excuse and in need of redemption, or it is not clear that God exists and unbelief does not need redemption. This is based on what I call the principle of clarity, which states that if I am responsible for some belief or action, then I must have been able to believe or act in this way (I argue this can be framed in either a libertarian or compatibilist manner). So, if I am guilty for not knowing God, then I must have been able to know God. And since responsibility can come in degrees, and Christianity has maintained maximal consequences for unbelief, there must be maximal ‘knowability’ of God, or what I call clarity. God must be readily knowable if there is no excuse for not knowing God.
I recognize that there are degrees of responsibility, but argue that historically Christianity has maintained maximal responsibility for rejecting God. That level of responsibility requires moving beyond intuitive or common sense belief in God as these sorts of belief leave many excuses open as live options for unbelief. Thus, the personal clarity that Professor Hick mentions is not sufficient since it is often mistaken due to culpable ignorance. The example of Aquinas, who maintained that reason cannot show that God is the creator of matter (it may be that matter has existed from eternity) is an example of an excuse. For instance, if Epicurus is in hell (as portrayed by Dante) for claiming that God the creator does not exist, isn’t he only affirming that what Aquinas said is within the limits of reason? It is because of this consideration that I spend a chapter arguing for the need to show that God exists through inferential arguments. Thus, an immediate affirma tion of God’s existence (a sensus divinitatis), without responding to defeaters, leaves excuses for unbelief which undermine the possibility of unbelief as culpable ignorance and carrying maximal responsibility. Far from claiming that only a few philosophers can attain clarity about God’s existence, I am arguing that all must be able to attain clarity if unbelief is inexcusable, and if such clarity is not possible then unbelief is excusable – this is a conclusion I thought Professor Hick would affirm.
After discussing the principle of clarity and this dilemma, I proceed to look at various attempts to avoid the need for clarity about God’s existence, the failure of the traditional proofs, the challenge to reason given by Hume and Kant, and numerous responses given by theists since Hume and Kant that have not aimed at or established clarity about God’s existence. Given this, I argue, it is not surprising that pluralism of the kind advocated by Professor Hick would be an allur ing position. There may be many things for which humans are responsible (as Professor Hick notes in his review), but in this book I
am interested in the extent to which we can be responsible for knowing God.
Before concluding that pluralism has won the day, I ask ‘what steps might be necessary to show that it is clear that God exists’? I argue that the question about God’s existence begins with a question about whether or not anything has existed from eternity because this is the most basic thing that can be said about God (God is eternal). The other properties of God presuppose that there is a being that can have such properties. I argue that this is based on the clear distinction between being and non-being, that being cannot come from non-being, that there is now being, and therefore there must have always been being (without identifying what being). As Professor Hick noted, just demonstrating the first step is a far cry from having actually shown that God exists, but it is a first step.
It is in this context that I discuss Hume’s radical empiricism and Kant’s antinomies of pure reason, which I argue are inconsistent, as Professor Hick noted. Using their own standards I argue that much more could be known through the use of reason than either thinker actually considered. I then look at notable attempts in the history of philosophy to maintain that there can be being from non-being. I con clude the book by considering what other steps might be necessary, and how these could be approached. I leave these as open possibilities that await further research. If we have made progress in knowing that some thing must be eternal, perhaps we can make progress in knowing that only God is eternal.
There are two points I would like to discuss that were raised by Professor Hick. The first involves the sense in which God is clearly known by fallen angels or Adam and Eve. The other is about the role of the intellect and its relationship to morality and common sense beliefs. These two considerations are related. I found one of the best expres sions of the first when reading Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American History. Hofstadter quotes from Puritan ministers who warned against being too intellectual, since the devil is the most intel lectual of the creatures. Instead, what is needed is some intellect and a great deal of piety. According to this view (categorized as anti intellectual by Hofstadter), the devil can do the intellectual work of knowing God, but this only ends in trouble and iniquity because he is not pious. By way of contrast, simple piety is what is needed, and this is what the world’s religions share; trouble emerges when we try to go beyond simple piety and make knowledge claims about reality which by their nature exclude some views as false.
The question is: in what sense do such persons (the devil, Adam and Eve) know God? I believe that in order for these stories to make sense the evil actions of these beings must be grounded in culpable ignorance. Can a person be said to ‘know’ Professor Hick if, although pointing
Professor Hick out in a crowd, the person attributes numerous qualities to Professor Hick that he does not possess, and denies other qualities that he does possess? I would take this to be the condition of the devil in relation to God. This becomes clearer in the case of Adam and Eve. In the Garden of Eden, the tempter asks Eve ‘did God really say you will surely die’, and instead suggests that humans could be like God. Adam and Eve eat, indicating that they believe God did lie, and that they can be like God. If they believe these things about God, then in what sense do they know God? In order to eat, Adam and Eve had at least failed to retain an understanding of what is clear about God – this is culpable ignorance.
This is related to the second point I would like to consider about the relationship between the intellect and morality. Professor Hick’s claim that the idea of God’s existence being clear is improbable is based on his conviction that the world is religiously ambiguous. Yet, in the midst of this ambiguity, he finds that the world’s religions affirm high moral standards, specifically in transforming humans from being self-centered to reality-centered. However, for Hick’s view to be correct there must be a clear distinction between self-centered and reality-centered. If this distinction is not clear, then there can be no way to know if I am already transformed or not, what such a transformation is, what groups advocate it and what ones do not, and what are some examples. The work of the intellect in making judg ments based on clear distinctions is a prerequisite for being con sciously moral. In an interesting way, if Professor Hick is claiming that it is clear we should be reality-centered, then he is implying that humans cannot be excused for not knowing this.
These considerations raise some questions that I would like to ask Professor Hick. He dismisses as improbable the possibility that it is clear that God exists. This is not surprising given his life’s work, and it is consistent with the dilemma I have outlined here for Christianity. My first question is: on what basis can we say someone is culpably ignorant in the religious realm? In his review he gives some common sense examples, for instance, that it is Tuesday, raining outside, or that tor turing a child is wrong. These kinds of claims draw from tradition, experience, and intuition. What about examples from reason? He believes it would be unsound to claim that if God’s existence is ambigu ous then we cannot have clarity on these matters. I agree with him, and did not limit the need for clarity to God’s existence. Instead, I argue that if we cannot have clarity about basic things like good and evil, real and unreal, then we cannot have clarity on less basic things. Professor Hick agrees that being cannot come from non-being, and I tend to think this is a significant step in agreement since I spend an entire chapter considering notable thinkers who disagreed about this. Can we make any more progress than this through reason?
I am also curious about Professor Hick’s desire to get to the universal, a desire which I share. He has argued that the best examples among the world’s religions are cases where the Eternal One has pressed in upon human experience. This Eternal One is variously interpreted due to differences in geography, culture, and history. My question is: are there things about the Eternal One that all persons should know, such that not knowing them is culpable ignorance? If so, what? We can overcome cultural differences in other fields of human knowledge, can we do so here? Related to this is the question: where do we place the ambiguity? Should we say that reality is ambiguous or that the extent to which humans care to know it and are seeking it is ambiguous? If reality is ambiguous, then can we really hold to any clear distinctions, even the difference between self- and reality-centered? If humans are not seeking as they ought, then couldn’t it be the case that while there is clarity about what is real, the diversity of worldviews is due to humans responding to realty out of an insufficiency in their seeking to know? This need not be construed to say that all but one gets it wrong. Instead it could be that all religions are infected by a failure to lead the exam ined life which results in not knowing the Eternal One. In such a case, it could be that redemption is held out as a return to knowing the Eternal One, which would include knowing how the Eternal One will interact in both justice (responsibility for not knowing what is clear) and mercy (forgiveness and grace) toward those who are culpably ignorant.
Professor Hick rightly pointed out that if we cannot prove that God exists then it cannot be maximally clear that God exists. I believe he is correct in this observation. What I am studying is the implication of this for the Christian message of inexcusability for failing to know God, as well as why attempts to prove that God exists have come short of demonstrating the clarity of God’s existence. However, I do not end my book by concluding it is not clear, but instead by arguing against restrictions placed on reason by Hume and Kant. In concluding I outline what steps might be taken to show that it is clear that God exists.
I believe the relationship between clarity and responsibly has impli cations outside of Christianity. For instance, Professor Hick wishes to present his account of religions as a universal explanation, part of which is that religions are particular responses embedded in cultural differences. Yet, wouldn’t this also apply to his explanation, isn’t it also simply one particular response in a given culture? Is there anything that is truly universal and can serve as a foundation between humans as we seek to build a global community? If there is, wouldn’t ignorance of this make one culpable?
I believe these questions help explain why I believe the thesis of my book is important. The principle of clarity, relating responsibility to what can be known, and the dilemma I establish, present important questions for exclusivists as well as for pluralists like Professor Hick. Is anything in the religious realm clear such that the failure to know it is culpable ignorance? If so, what are the implications for the need of redemption? To what extent does the need for clarity at the basic level require a rethinking of Enlightenment conceptions of rationality, including those found in Hume and Kant? I hope I have begun to answer these questions in this book, and that they lay the foundation for further research in the ethics of belief. I also hope that this can be the beginning of a discussion between Professor Hick and me.