Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist” Chapter 28
Chapter 28: What Does God Taste Like?
As we learned last time, Randal feels that it is more important to know if you have a real relationship with God than simply to know what the right doctrines about God are.
A puzzled Sheridan inquires whether one can believe practically anything about God, even if what they believe is false, but still be in a relationship with God. Randal asserts that, in not so many words, yes.
Randal then informs there are two different ways of knowing something, and informs us that there is propositional knowledge (which can be put into factual statements) and knowledge of acquaintance (knowledge via experience).
It appears Randal is being fancy with his epistemological terminology. There really aren’t different kinds of knowledge, as far as anyone is concerned. There are, however, different ways of acquiring knowledge. And I think this is what Randal intends to say.
Next the analogy regarding a college graduate entering into real life is brought up as a way of saying that the propositional knowledge one gains in institutional learning is notably quite different from acquaintance knowledge one gets from actually experiencing the thing itself in the real world.
Randal then states that
“[T]he more important kind of knowledge is knowledge of acquaintance.”
I don’t know if I’d agree. To me they simply are different types of knowledge, and one doesn't appear to be any more or less important than the other. They both have a role to play in how we come to understand the world around us.
I suppose Randal’s preference for one over the other comes as no big surprise however, because a person of faith would certainly have to feel that way if they felt having an experience of God somehow leads them to a greater understanding than simply reading about God in some old dusty theological text.
But perhaps this overlooks the relationship between the two forms of understanding. It would seem the experiential knowledge, or knowledge of acquaintance as Randal calls it, would need to be formed before the propositional knowledge could be derived from it.
One may prefer the immediacy of experiential knowledge, as propositional knowledge, or “head knowledge” as Randal calls it, can be more difficult to acquire since there is no immediacy of understanding gained through a direct firsthand experience. I can certainly understand such a preference, but I’m still not convinced that makes either form of understanding innately better than the next.
Sheridan then asks how one could show that they’re in a real relationship with God. Randal answers:
“Just as you can’t provide any certain, definitive argument that there is no God, I can’t provide a certain, definitive argument that I am in relationship with God.”
Now, that’s an interesting admission to make at this juncture in the book. So basically, Randal is opening himself up to the objection that his experience could be anything, that it may in fact not be God, and that he is simply mistaken, especially if there is no convincing argument he could make to prove definitively that he was in a relationship with God. I hope he addressed this problem later on.
Randal goes on to say:
“Christians can identify reasonably good grounds or evidence that we are in this kind of relationship.”
So it’s kind of like an approximation, then?
“For starters, I’d say that we ought to look at evidence in our own lives, evidence that we’re becoming more Christlike. That is, we should seek evidence that we’re becoming more generous, loving, forgiving and all those other things that the apostle Paul called the fruit of the Spirit.”
Fruit of the Loom aside, why is this evidence for a relationship with God exactly? Wouldn’t it be more plausible that a person who has grown more generous, loving, and forgiving simply has gotten their act together, matured a big, and grown to realize these things make their life more fulfilling? Why does it have to be if a person changes for the better then “Because God”?
Another question I would ask is, what if the person who rejects God altogether becomes even more Christlike than any Christian? I’ve had numerous experiences with people from various cultures from all around the world, from China to Japan, and from Australia to Scotland, who were far more loving, caring, generous in nature, and showed greater tolerance and understanding, and ultimately forgiveness, than any Christian I’d ever met. And none of them were believers! What does that say about Randal’s state of “evidence”?
One of the reasons I seriously had doubts about my Christianity after 30 years was the fact that when I met my Japanese wife, she showed me that my Christian values of generosity, consideration, and forgiveness failed in comparison to her own secularly raised generosity, consideration, and forgiveness. If her godless system was superior to my Christian one, then what did that mean for me as a Christian? I tried to uphold all these Christian virtues, but in the end, they simply weren’t good enough. In other words, I had the shoddy types of generosity, love, and forgiveness made in the U.S.A., but like a good television, she had the one made in Japan—and it was simply better in almost every regard.
That shocked me awake to the fact that my standards, as given to me through my Christianity, were rather low. Embarrassingly so. Ultimately, this realization helped nudge me away from the Christian faith and forced me to have to grow up and learn from people like my loving wife—who showed me you can be good without God. So good in fact, that people with God should be horribly shocked at the fact that they aren’t becoming more generous, loving, or forgiving. At least, not in the way they should be if their God was real and their relationship constituted anything other than an imagined experience.
Randal then informs us that
“I’d say that the more Christlike we appear in our lives, the better the evidence we have that we’re enjoying a relationship with God.”
Tell that to my wife. No, wait. On second thought, tell that to the several billions of people who are equally as “Christlike” as any Christian but only without God, and then witness their blank stares as if your delusion simply did not translate into their cultural understanding of what it means to be a good person. I know from firsthand experience that it can be a little jarring. I only wish Randal would experience as much so he could better sympathize, not only with atheist like me, with all the good people of the world who expressly have no belief in God.
That’s why I say it is a lot like being “shocked awake.” In actuality, you’re cultural worldview is being challenged by an equally valid worldview that simply does not accept certain claims which you take for granted. Believing that you must have God in your life to be good is simply a delusion that crumble away in light of an equally valid alternative that has nothing to do with God but gets you to the same, if not better, place in your life.
Sheridan finally raises the same objection I made earlier when he asks:
“But what about others? Muslims? Hindus? Even atheists like me? What if a non-Christian looks Christlike? Do you think they’re in (sic) relationship with God?”
Since Randal’s whole argument hinges on this one question, I hope his answer is a good one.
“I don’t think it’s my place to say how far God’s grace might extend.”
Well, I supposed it’s a more honest answer than most apologists would typically give. Randal does however goes on to quote Matthew 25, informing us that although these aforementioned people may still do good works, and be good people, that
“[T]his doesn’t mean the works save the sheep, but the works serve as signs of the genuine sheep.”
There’s the Randal we’ve all come to know and be confused by. Still, this doesn’t address the objection.
If an atheist can be good, or even better than a Christian, how can the Christian lay claim to God’s goodness guiding them to a superior echelon of Christlike living, when this is nowhere evident in the juxtaposition of their "Christly" acts with the acts of any other nonbeliever?
Furthermore, I think it’s totally unfair to let Randal get away with the stupid sheep analogy. If the good works are indistinguishable from that of a nonbeliever and a Christian, for example, then the false sheep and the genuine sheep are also indistinguishable, and Randal’s argument fails. He should have just left it at his admission that he doesn’t know.
This brings the chapter to a close. Meanwhile, chapter 29 is called “The Light Cast by Little Amazing Moments of Providence.”