Re-Run: Jeff Cook and Desire and God

Re-Run: Jeff Cook and Desire and God December 27, 2012

This post is by our friend Jeff Cook…

They Don’t Believe Because Your God Isn’t Desirable

I watched the recent debate between William Lane Craig, a Christian, and Sam Harris an Atheist. The debate (seen Here) was over the foundations of morality. The Christian addressed the philosophical question at hand with skill and insight. By the midway point the atheist struck me as seriously outmatched and overpowered.

Yet then things changed. Sam Harris began putting forth a set of arguments that had nothing to do with the topic at hand: the problem of religious diversity, the problem of pain, reflections on the character of God in the Bible. By the end I thought the Atheist won—not because he actually addressed the question at hand—on that front I thought he failed. But because I don’t recall anything the Christian said that made me want to believe in his God, yet I had a worthy list of things the Atheist said that made me think the Christian God distasteful.

Is the debate about what is rational or about desire? What do you think of Jeff Cook’s notion that desire needs to be addressed more in apologetics?

Such experiences are not uncommon. Despite solid, rational rebuttals from philosophers across the board, despite the fact that the “new atheist” clan seems hopelessly naïve about ethics and epistemology—their arguments continue to gain ground because they know something Christian apologist apparently don’t.

The debate about God in our culture is not about what’s rational.

Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, Penn Jillette, Richard Dawkins, etc, specialize—not in philosophical thought—but in ridicule. And that means the new atheists excel on the only evangelistically-effective playing field that matters—that of human emotion and desire. Most Christian apologists conversely seem content to surrender that ground in their preference for mere rationality. This is a tragic mistake and it’s the primary reason Christian belief is diminishing, marginalized and an easy target for nighttime comedians.

Blaise Pascal said, “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is” (Pensees 12).

All too often (especially online) those of us who like arguing for Christian Theism jump to the end of Pascal’s list. We think we have wiz-bang arguments to offer. Unfortunately, we don’t have a worthy foundation for showcasing such arguments. We have not established that Christianity should be revered, nor that it is attractive, nor that it is worthy of affection. We prefer to pull out our five proofs for its “truth” and argue our misguided interlocutors into the Kingdom cold. This is a mistake, for most of our audience see such arguments as power plays, as manipulation, as simply another advertisement out there trying to entice them to buy something.

Conversely, those arguing against Christian theism today have followed Pascal’s formula well. They begin by showing their audience that your God is blood-thirsty, arbitrary, and gains pleasure from the eternal conscious torment of large swaths of humanity to bring himself “glory”. Second, they have shown that Christian Theism is not attractive for it makes human beings into well-documented lunatics who start wars in the name of their god, who are irrational and condemnatory, and whose political preferences will destroy human freedom. And finally they put forth bland, non-curious, easily refutable arguments for the truth of Materialism (because unfortunately for them, those are the only kinds of arguments available for Materialism)—but by this point such arguments seem worthy and are easily swallowed.

Because, again, the debate about God today is not about what’s reasonable—it is almost entirely about preferences and desire.

One must want God to exist in order to become a follower of Jesus, and as such, it is time for a radical rethinking of apologetics that begins where nearly all of Jesus’ pitches for the Kingdom began—with human longing (consider, for example, the Beatitudes).

Let us begin with this preliminary set of questions:

Has desire been overlooked by apologists? Have the intellectual battles been won at the expense of enticing seekers toward the risen Christ? Where do you see Christians effectively showcasing the desirability of God?

Jeff Cook lectures on philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado. He is the author of Everything New: One Philosopher’s Search for a God Worth Believing in (Subversive 2012). You can see his work at



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  • This is excellent. Will there be a follow-up series showing how to actually do this? 🙂

  • Mark Nieweg

    Christians should already know this, if we listen to Paul who said our “good news” is a “scandal to Jews” (crucified Messiah) and “foolishness to Greeks” (God would validate a crucified Messiah by raising him from the dead and making him lord of all). I wonder though, in a world where the need for significance and security drives it to annihilate the enemy, with Christians joining in for the same rational reasons, will ever give this faith credibility. Does Jesus have any real witnesses today (I am sure he does)?

    I spoke with someone who is Muslim who asked me, when I said I could accept his challenge to re-evaluate my understanding of God in terms of ontology, but could not in terms of giving up a crucified Messiah, why I would embrace such foolishness. I responded that that was what I signed on for when embracing Jesus as Lord. That very action of God in Christ was what allowed me to be sitting with him at that moment without fear, or threat, or ridicule, treating him with respect.

    To take on Jesus as Lord means giving up what he gave up for the sake of others. This can only be good news if we can get to where Paul got when he could say:

    “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

    One has to really believe in something that death cannot shake to do this. Paul himself says he has not arrived but presses on towards this goal (Phil. 3:7-14). For a world where the “fear of death” is what drives it to do unspeakable things, ours is good news – if we only believed it ourselves. But it takes of dose of “irrationality” in terms of worldly wisdom to do it.

  • Taylor George

    Brilliant. Absolutely spot on.

  • mike h

    Perhaps the irrationality comes to play in action. George Fox once wrote about knowing God ‘experimentally.’ That is through experience. Irrational followers of Christ are the ones who stay in plague ridden locations attending to those who are sick and dying. They are intimate with Aids victims and the ‘untouchables’ in the streets of Delhi. They are the first to bring aid and acceptance to the marginalized of any culture. They are, in a word, ‘examples,’ of the Christ they follow. Yeah, the athiest has a great point. One that Christ followers cannot argue with. But, the Christ follower has love to show, against which their is no argument.

  • James Petticrew
  • Dana Ames

    Dallas Willard made the point that God must be loveable, a God that people would want to desire, in “Divine Conspiracy.” Since Jeff agrees with Dallas, I would say yes, definitely, the desire issue must be addressed 🙂

    I think the difficulty is not so much with rationality as such, but with making that the be-all and end-all, driven by the need to convince; Evangelicalism has its roots in the rational explanation of “the plan of salvation” with an end to enticing people to “accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.”

    I think this also points out the difficulty with making “salvation” purely about morality. Lack of morality is not humanity’s deepest problem. Anybody of any faith or none can act in deeply moral ways. Morality is morality; there are not grades of morality, and one’s moral acts are not “better morality” simply because the person doing them may be a Christian. Lack of morality is not the problem for which the Incarnation and Resurrection, particularly, were the answer.

    Nope, the bigger problem is precisely ontologic: Death and the fear thereof that makes us slaves to sin: Heb 2.14-15. The desire issue and the death/fear issue are 2 big reasons why I became Orthodox:
    -In the Eastern Church, the Resurrection is the central thing, because that is the deliverance of humanity from death, and the beginning of the New Creation. That is why St Paul can write, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” and Romans 8.
    -God is truly good and truly loves mankind. The Incarnation is no “plan B” that God reluctantly undertook because of sin, but rather God planned from the beginning to become incarnate and united with his human creation and created a world in which that could happen, ’cause love seeks union without colonization of the beloved. The Cross is about the absorption of sin so that it can be condemned in the flesh of Christ, the evident display of God’s forgiveness of everyone, the identification of God with humanity even unto death, and the entrance of God into death in order to explode it from the inside out. There is no such place as “Hell” – rather, when we finally encounter Jesus face to face, we will see clearly all the truth about our lives, and that will cause some pain – not from God, but from within ourselves, because we will truly understand how much we have lived in lack of love, with self-preservation at the expense of others as our goal. (And allowance is made that this torment may not be unending; there is no speculation about that which scripture does not clearly reveal.) There is also no such “place” as “Heaven” – there is the Paradise of life lived on this restored earth, as it was meant to be lived: the Kingdom of God in its fullness in the New Creation. As N.T. Wright has said: “Love is not a duty – it is our destiny.”

    I did not find any way to get to those 2 things (and some others as well) by means of the western understanding of God that is currently prevalent.


  • Taylor George

    It’s the values in other Christians and my own heart that help draw out desire: love for neighbor, sexual purity, concern for the marginalized, genuine concern for the whole of humanity. In a word, love. My faith taught me how to love properly. I know that I would be a worse person without it. The problem with this, of course, is that many of these values can be found in other religions.

    To me, the central message of Christianity is that Jesus gave himself for all of us. That God became a human (humility value) and sacrificed himself for us. Sacrificial love is our most defining value and it is what is desireable about our faith. Namely, that we will give of ourselves for the lives of others.

  • Marshall

    Reformed-style Christianity happens in the distant past, culturally strange environment of the Passion or the even more distant era of the Eschaton. Which makes it difficult to speak into peoples’ lives, where desire operates and where a decision for Christ must be taken. The “prosperity gospel” is mocked as “Lord, won’t you buy me a color TV”. “Progress” and the notion that God wants his people to grow in grace over historical time frames is held to be nothing other than the Great Enemy, “Evolution”. It’s a theology of despair, not of any present hope. So yes, I think Evangelicalism would do well to speak more towards the Kingdom that Jesus promoted in the here and now. And indeed, some are turning in that direction.

  • I have come to believe that choice is both central and ignored when it comes to man’s response to God. We can argue people into the ground – making it seem as if there is no real choice other than to accept God and Jesus. To refuse it is to be stupid, evil or crazy.

    However, I don’t think humanity is waiting to be rescued – I think it’s waiting to be empowered. And to be empowered you need to be able to chose – not just go with the default setting. What kind of world do we want to live in? That’s a choice we have to make. What kind of people do we want to be? That’s another choice we have to make? What sort of relationships do we want to have? Another choice. And as people stop to think of what they want from the world, themselves, their relationships – that creates desire.

    “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” ~ Psalm 37:4

    Christianity ought to be understood not simply in terms of our standing before God, but in terms of the sort of people we are called to become, the way that we are to relate to each other, and the way that we as salt and light season the dish and light the way (ie change the world with our presence). That sort of Christianity is both desire and the answer to the desires of our heart.

    But we Christians are the fruit. If people look at us and are repulsed, that’s our witness to the truth of our faith. People are supposed to look at us and think, “those people are really loving, gentle and gracious. They are always looking out for everyone other than themselves. The world is a better place because of people like that.” Now, I believe that the world is immesurably better today than 2000 years ago because of Christianity, but the truth remains that as individuals and corporately, we present a picture of some rather off-putting, undesirable fruit. Perhaps we need to lay off worrying about making the faith desirable for everyone else for a while and just focus on allowing the faith to make us desirable instead.

  • Craig Wright

    I experienced the same thing in watching a debate between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens at Biola U. Craig was philosophical, but Hitchens spoke from the heart. Hitchens never answered Craig’s philosophical reasoning, but talked about he couldn’t accept the God of the OT. Lane never countered that.
    My own reasons for believing in Christianity, formed in a succinct manner as I helped sponsor the Christian club on the campus of the public high school where I taught, and wanted to give the students attractive answers for their faith were: I need to have a sense of a purpose in life, the Christian story of the incarnation is by far the best story I’ve ever heard, and the concept of love must be understood to get ahold of this whole story. A big problem with Christianity is that it is used to judge social issues in a condemning way. We have to work on that.

  • James

    I would like to know what Jeff Cook thinks of Hart’s Atheist Delusions (both with regard to Cook’s observation that the New Atheists deal more in ridicule than in reason and with regard to Cook’s larger point that what is needed is a desirable Christianity.)

  • Amanda B.

    I agree wholeheartedly. Cold, hard facts have never moved a heart. While of course we want our faith to be a reasonable one, and there is a place for classic apologetics in certain circumstances, ultimately, no one will adhere to something they find to be distasteful.

    What gets me, though, is that the sort of materialism that Harris, Dawkins, etc., promote is extremely unattractive–hopeless, without a future, without purpose; bitter, jaded, angry and mocking towards those who disagree with them. It is a serious failure on our part if we cannot present a faith that is more desirable than that, and if we ourselves cannot be more compassionate and winsome than that.

  • barney armstrong

    I used to be into apologetics — it has the same kind of feel as patriotism or political activism. But it becomes rather boring in light of the joys of the Gospel. One has to be careful because desire itself doesn’t define what God has given/done for us, and we can get into error in thinking that. On the other hand, He hasn’t given us what we don’t want or need –what God has provided, what He answers in the giving of His Son, corresponds perfectly to the deepest desires/questions that we indeed have.

  • Steven Carr

    ” They begin by showing their audience that your God is blood-thirsty, arbitrary, and gains pleasure from the eternal conscious torment of large swaths of humanity to bring himself “glory”.’

    In other words, they read out large sections of your Holy Book to people who would not otherwise have read any of it.

  • Steven Carr

    ‘I watched the recent debate between William Lane Craig, a Christian, and Sam Harris an Atheist. ‘

    Is that the same William Lane Craig who was taken apart by Dawkins in a national newspaper in the UK, when Dawkins produced quote after quote by Craig about how killing children was God’s will?