The surest guide we have to what God is like is the good human parent. This seems true upon reflection and it seems to have been the conviction of Jesus (see especially Matt 7:9-11, Luke 11:11-13).
Discernment uncertainty in friendship with God is by divine intention. God wants his friends to decide what they think is most consistent with the friendship. So long as they choose what they think is most consistent, they are being the best friend to God they can be, regardless of whether they choose what is actually, objectively most consistent with their friendship with God. Again, this is by God’s design. And it is a good and wise design. Among other benefits, it trains his friends to become good decision makers.
There is no greater evidence than self-evidence. Take the proposition “2+2=4”. How do I know this proposition is true? I know it is true because it is self-evidently true. I do not need to appeal to evidence outside the proposition to know it is true.
Of course not all propositions are this way. Consider the proposition, “George Washington was the first President of the United States.” I believe this proposition is true, and I believe my belief is correct. Therefore I believe that I know the proposition “George Washington was the first President of the United States” is a true proposition. But how do I know this is true? Because it is self-evident? No. I know it is true because trustworthy testimony tells me it is true. In other words, my knowledge of the truth of the proposition depends upon evidence beyond the proposition itself. It is not enough to simply state the proposition “George Washington was the first President of the United States” to know that the proposition is true. But it is enough to state “2+2=4” to know that is true.
There are many propositions besides “2+2=4” that are self-evidently true – at least to me: what is self-evidently true to one person is not necessarily self-evidently true to another person. For example, the proposition “I exist” is self-evidently true to me. Likewise, the proposition “I am not the only thing that exists” is self-evidently true to me. Also the proposition “it is wrong to torture babies for fun” is self-evidently true to me.
“So what”, you may be thinking. “What’s the significance of all of this?” Well, let’s turn to some theological propositions that some assert to be true.
Consider, for instance the proposition: “God, a morally perfect being, will torture people forever.” Is this proposition true? If you think so, if you think even maybe it might be true, then I think you are certainly wrong. For, to me, this proposition is self-evidently false. It is as self-evidently false, even more self-evidently false than the proposition “It is not wrong to torture babies for fun.” I do not need any outside evidence, no divine revelation, no expert testimony, not anything but the proposition itself to know that the proposition is false. The proposition has no meaning. It’s like saying 2+2=5.
Likewise, consider the Calvinist proposition that “God, a morally perfect being, has necessitated, or ordained, whatsoever comes to pass, the good and the evil (every murder, rape, act of pedophilia, the Holocaust, etc.)”. Again, that is self-evidently false to me. Even if someone were to persuade me that the “Bible” teaches it, that would only be evidence that the Bible is wrong, at least on this point (but the Bible does not teach this absurd proposition in my opinion). The same goes for other Calvinist propositions, for example the proposition that “God, a morally perfect being, holds people accountable for sins he necessitated.” And traditional Calvinism even combines these absurd propositions with the eternal torment proposition! Again, all of this is self-evidently false to me. Meaningless propositions. If the Calvinist wishes to amend the definition of God as a morally perfect being, then well and good. But so long as they define their God as a morally perfect being, the actions they ascribe to God are simply impossible. Nonsense. They might as well tell me “it is not wrong to torture babies for fun” or “2+2=5”.
As I said before, what is self-evident to one person is not necessarily self-evident to another person. And it is not even possible for everything self-evident to one person to be self-evident to every person. For example, to a great mathematician it is self-evident that 8,974 X 4,534 = 40,688,166. But it is hardly possible that this could ever be self-evident to anyone besides a great mathematician. But regarding the theological propositions discussed above, I suggest that although their falseness is not self-evident to all – otherwise, there would be no one who believes the propositions, but there are people who believe them and alas teach them, which is the only reason I write about them – their falseness should be self-evident to all. Or to be more frank: there is something wrong with the moral aptitude of the person to whom these propositions are not self-evidently false. Either that or the person knows not what he says. Or both.
— I have received and read with thankfulness and pleasure your denunciation of the abuses of tobacco and wine. Yet, however sound in its principles, I expect it will be but a sermon to the wind. You will find it as difficult to inculcate these sanative precepts on the sensualities of the present day, as to convince an Athanasian that there is but one God. I wish success to both attempts, and am happy to learn from you that the latter, at least, is making progress, and the more rapidly in proportion as our Platonizing Christians make more stir and noise about it. The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man.
- That there is one only God, and he all perfect.
- That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.
- That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion.
These are the great points on which he endeavored to reform the religion of the Jews. But compare with these the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin.
- That there are three Gods.
- That good works, or the love of our neighbor, are nothing.
- That faith is every thing, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith.
- That reason in religion is of unlawful use.
- That God, from the beginning, elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned; and that no crimes of the former can damn them; no virtues of the latter save.
Now, which of these is the true and charitable Christian? He who believes and acts on the simple doctrines of Jesus? Or the impious dogmatists, as Athanasius and Calvin? Verily I say these are the false shepherds foretold as to enter not by the door into the sheepfold, but to climb up some other way. They are mere usurpers of the Christian name, teaching a counter-religion made up of the deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign from Christianity as is that of Mahomet. Their blasphemies have driven thinking men into infidelity, who have too hastily rejected the supposed author himself, with the horrors so falsely imputed to him. Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian. I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.
But much I fear, that when this great truth shall be re-established, its votaries will fall into the fatal error of fabricating formulas of creed and confessions of faith, the engines which so soon destroyed the religion of Jesus, and made of Christendom a mere Aceldama; that they will give up morals for mysteries, and Jesus for Plato. How much wiser are the Quakers, who, agreeing in the fundamental doctrines of the gospel, schismatize about no mysteries, and, keeping within the pale of common sense, suffer no speculative differences of opinion, any more than of feature, to impair the love of their brethren. Be this the wisdom of Unitarians, this the holy mantle which shall cover within its charitable circumference all who believe in one God, and who love their neighbor!
I conclude my sermon with sincere assurances of my friendly esteem and respect.
To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse Monticello, June 26, 1822
To whom does greater glory accrue? To the one who compels another to love him, or to the one who is loved by another by the other’s own free choice? Do I receive greater glory if I compel a woman to marry me (even if I am somehow able do so in such a way that she believes she is freely choosing to marry me), or if a woman chooses to marry me by her own free choice (that is, her choice is such that she could either choose to marry me or choose not to marry me)? I can find nothing glorious in compelling another to love oneself. In fact, I think it is altogether inglorious and indeed an impossibility, as necessitated love is not love at all. But I can think of no greater glory than the glory of being freely loved by another.
The presence of women among Jesus’ disciples and followers should not be doubted, and several seem to have been closer to him than even some of the twelve.
James Dunn, Jesus Remembered