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Moser, Paul K.
The Severity of God. Religion and Philosophy Reconceived
Cambridge u. a.: Cambridge University Press 2013. 237 S. Kart. £ 29,99. ISBN 978-1-107-61532-8.
The subtitle to Paul K. Moser’s book alerts us to his ambitions: a reconception of both religion and philosophy. He sets out to do this by directing our gaze, at least temporarily, away from the often covered arena of God’s love, to the ostensibly less traveled paths of God’s severity. In the introduction we are helpfully given the book’s conclusion: »only a severe God would be worthy of worship, but such a God would be severely redemptive and thus vigorously transformative in a manner that overturns business as usual in religion, theology, philosophy, and related disciplines« (9).
»Worthiness of worship« plays a significant role throughout M.’s argument. For M., »God« is not the name of a particular being but rather an honorary title bestowed upon one who is »worthy of worship«. Thus, methodologically, we should ask what we would expect from a God worthy of worship. Since, as we are told in the introduction, »only a severe God« is so worthy, our questions must also ask what we should expect from a severe God. The answer to this, M. believes, will upend our expectations which are incorrectly framed when we ask about God as an abstract principle or over emphasize God’s love. In the first chapter, M. gives reasons for why the severity of God should not be seen in conflict with God’s love or grace but as one and the same. By emphasizing demand for »wor-thiness of worship« he hopes to guarantee that we view God as se-vere, and thus that whatever other attributes we expect of God be seen in the light of this severity.
The second chapter, »Severity and Flux«, deals with the ebb and flow of human life, the insecurity and transience we face as humans in a changing world. According to M., for human flourishing to be fully realized, we must have something to anchor ourselves amidst this flow. He writes, »we still need an antidote to the flux that threatens us as enduring agents and adds to life’s harmful severity« (59). To those »bold« philosophers who reject this claim (he refers explicitly to Bernard Williams, Bertrand Russell, and Thomas Na gel), M. responds that this is overly optimistic with respect to human flourishing. For M., we need both the guarantee of lasting human survival (an afterlife) and a stable force amidst the flux that holds the possibility of our flourishing together. No human philosophical orientation, he claims, can ever provide us with this possibility. Of course, »belief in God« could merely play the role of one more philosophical or existential orientation, and when it does so it begs the question. If no human orientation can supply what is needed, neither can this one. But M. is quick to respond; it is not mere belief in God that is necessary, but the God-given invitation to agape struggle amidst the flux.
As promised in the introduction, M. hopes to not only disrupt our existential expectations, but our epistemological, soteriological, and philosophical expectations as well. Chapters three through five take up these three areas in turn. Epistemologically, M. argues that we can have evidence for God but not of the natural theology variety. The sort of God established by natural theology fails the »worthiness of worship« test, and thus must be avoided. Instead, M. tells us that the experience of agape amidst the flux of life estab-lishes for the first-person experiencer the reality of God’s presence. Soteriologically we are told that a severe God, worthy of worship, would not grant salvation to those who have not participated in that salvation themselves. As such M. enters the longstanding theological discussion over the relationship between faith and works. M. concludes that »works« must be distinguished from human acts and participation as such, and that the latter must be required for salvation to be meaningful and come from a worthy God. And, finally, we are told that properly understood, »Christian philosophy« must be more than merely philosophy as done by someone who happens to be Christian. Instead, authentic Chris-tian philosophy is on M.’s account philosophy guided by and oriented toward the redemption of humans by the agapic work of God in Christ. »If philosophy is the love and pursuit of wisdom, then Christian philosophy is the love and pursuit of wisdom under the authority of Christ, which calls for an ongoing union with Christ, including one’s cooperatively belonging to God in Christ« (170).
So, does The Severity of God succeed in reaching the heights of its subtitle in reconceiving religion and philosophy? I do not see how it does so. One of the problems of the book, depending on its audience, could also be its strength. Namely, it does not very often seek to dialogue with contemporary philosophers or theologians. We are told an inordinately large number of times a variety of the following: »this is a topic too often ignored by philosophers«. But which philosophers does M. have in mind? The lack of critical dialogue with others makes it hard to place the book in any larger context. Of course, this could beg the question. If M. is truly writing on a topic ignored by others, how can he dialogue with non-existent partners? Unfortunately I do not think the text bears this out. Many of the questions M. poses with respect to the »severity« of God have been debated ad nauseam under the heading of theodicy. He claims that he goes beyond theodicy, but the lack of engagement with any contemporary arguments in theodicy makes this claim, again, hard to place in context. Moreover, in the opening pages M. laments that both theologians and philosophers spend too much time talking about love, and not enough time talking about the severe. Yet the book is also itself clearly oriented around the central concept of agape.
Finally, there is also a constant equivocation throughout the text which leaves the reader wondering whether the book is about the severity of God or the severity of human life. For M., the sever-ity of God is precisely found in God’s allowing us to face the sever-ity of human life in order to bring about a morally robust human salvation which allows for human flourishing. Perhaps so, but then this is hardly a novel proposal.