Erik Strandness explores the hiddenness of God
Why doesn’t God seem to reveal himself to people who are open and seeking him? This was the premise of an episode of Unbelievable?, featuring Christian apologist Lukas Ruegger and atheist Alex O’Connor (aka Cosmic Skeptic ).
I think it’s obvious that if we could see God there would be no atheists. If he constantly put himself in full public view, then questions about his existence would be ridiculous. The gold standard, therefore, is a visual sighting. The Bible, however, tells us that one cannot see God and live, which to an atheist sounds like a dodge because what should be an intimate relationship with the divine is reduced to an online love affair where the object of our affection is never available for a video chat or physical meeting. While this biblical explanation may satisfy the Christian who lives by faith, it raises concerns in the mind of an atheist who doesn’t want to be catfished.
Show us the father
The desire for visual evidence is strong. We like to recite the oft-quoted aphorism “seeing is believing,” attributed to the 17th Century English clergyman Thomas Fuller, but forget there is more to his statement than is commonly known. The complete saying is: “Seeing is believing, but feeling is the truth.” Our enlightened minds restrict the evidence for God’s existence to a sighting and then dismiss the goosebumps we experience when the heavens declare.
The disciples were just as guilty as the rest of us. Thomas famously didn’t believe Jesus had risen until he saw his scars. And Philip, a man who had spent significant amounts of time with God incarnate, still wanted a visual:
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:8-9)
All of this raises a very interesting question: is God hidden or have we lost our senses?
It takes two to tango
Alex O’Connor, the Cosmic Skeptic, pointed out that the Christian God of relationships has been derelict in his duties.
“It’s a fairly intuitive point that if there were a God who existed, and particularly a God who loved us and wanted to enter into a relationship with anyone who was willing and able, it seems surprising, at the very least, that so many people are restricted from experience of, or with, this God for so much of the time.” (O’Connor)
But what if the problem wasn’t God’s emotional distance but our fear of commitment? What if we have fallen in love with the feeling of love and let his sacrificial love go unrequited? It takes two to tango, therefore you can’t dump your partner and expect him to catch you when your life takes a dip. God is ready to rhumba, so before we accuse him of not showing up, we had best check to see if we even wrote his name on our dance card.
Man seeks God
Human seeks a God who enjoys being in a relationship. A God who delights in walks in the Garden in the cool of morning, attending weddings and having fish bakes on the beach. Must be forgiving, loving and loyal. Please enclose a recent picture.
We want God to answer our relationship ad but then see his picture and esteem him not. We reject his advances because a God who hangs on a tree has no beauty that we should desire him. Maybe the problem is that the God who answers our ad isn’t the God of our dreams, and while he may not be the God we desire, he is the God we desperately need. God has revealed himself in Jesus and offered us no greater love, so let’s stop this silly idea that the Christian God of relationships has ghosted us. If you want to question God’s fidelity, then be prepared for him to get a little cross with you.
Interestingly, the Romans utilised crucifixion as a public display of power that would encourage the populace to bow a knee to the emperor. Ironically, that display of power lasted three short days and was replaced by a several thousand-year demonstration of God’s power found in weakness. Jesus is living proof that God isn’t hidden. We see him on every cross necklace, we encounter him at the Lord’s table, and we recognize him in the hungry, sick, foreign and imprisoned. So, for those who persist in asking God to reveal himself, his response is clear: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me?”
Playing peek-a-boo with God
Jesus said we must become like children to enter the kingdom. Does he mean that we need to be trusting and innocent or does he mean we should be capable of experiencing wonder in that which is hidden? Anyone who has played peek-a-boo with a young child knows the joy they experience when they catch intermittent glimpses of us. It’s a joy that isn’t limited to the child but is also shared by the adult who initiates the game. Is it any different between God and us? We smile every time we get a peek at the reality behind God’s mystery, and he in turn delights in our joy such that he continues to play the game.
Isn’t religion just an organised game of divine peek-a-boo? Humankind has been getting glimpses of God for thousands of years, so the issue isn’t God’s hiddenness but his identity. The real question is not why is God hidden but who is this God who periodically covers his face?
Quick to listen, slow to speak
It appears that short of death we will not soon see the beatific vision so maybe we need to use our sense of hearing to adjudicate the problem of God’s existence. The issue then becomes not his hiddenness but his silence. We need to remember that in a relationship, conversation is a two-way street, and what we perceive as God’s silence may, in fact, be our impaired hearing. Interestingly, the people of the premodern world believed that the gods were intimately involved in every aspect of their lives, and while that certainly made for many a ghost story, it did at least attune their ears to the murmurings of the spiritual world. Sadly, the ensuing Enlightenment, while opening our eyes to superstition, closed our ears to the divine.
It could also be that when God isn’t speaking, he is listening. And this may be especially true when tragedy strikes because he knows that we need to ventilate and get out all our anger and frustration before we are ready to have a conversation. He gives us the opportunity to curse, criticise and cry, and the lack of divine commentary doesn’t mean he is absent but that he is intently listening. Maybe God is just practising what he preaches and is quick to listen and slow to speak. Silence doesn’t mean that God is distancing himself from us but rather that he is leaning in closer to hear every word we have to say .
Get access to exclusive bonus content & updates: register & sign up to the Premier Unbelievable? newsletter!
Wart or pheromone?
One of the points raised by Ruegger was that God makes himself known through the natural world. O’Connor acknowledged that natural theological arguments such as the Kalam cosmological argument and fine tuning of the universe can be powerful, but noted that they miss the point of Christianity. He pointed out that natural theology rather than fostering a relationship between God and man only “syllogize(s) what is essentially a fascinating intuition.” He elaborated.
“Particularly for Christianity, religion is not about natural theology. Natural theology is this strange philosophical wart on the side of what is supposed to be this glorious relationship with a loving person.” (O’Connor)
I think O’Connor is correct that the theologising of natural revelation overintellectualises what should simply be Christ in us. However, natural theology offers more than scientifically and philosophically appropriated abstractions, it also evokes wonder and awe. Most people don’t go into nature to catalogue it but to be at peace with it, describing the experience as “communing with nature,” a phrase which has an eerie relationship vibe to it. It appears that nature isn’t a library where we learn about God but a cathedral where we go to worship him. Maybe natural theology, rather than being a repulsive philosophical wart, is a divine pheromone drawing us into a deeper relationship with God.
Speaking my language
O’Connor is an intellectual who has spent his young life dealing with God’s existence on an academic level. Interestingly, while being governed by reason and logic, he still finds emotional satisfaction in good arguments. He admitted as much when he described the ontological argument as “beautiful, interesting, fascinating and fiercely clever” which suggests that even rigorous reasoning can tickle one’s fancy. Is it possible that God has already spoken to him, but he has confused the waveform on an EEG with the pleasure of hearing from a God who took the time to speak his love language?
Walking in somebody else’s shoes
If God is hidden and silent then maybe he can be found by walking the walk. In other words, encourage atheists to live like Christians through prayer, worship and community in the hope that they will get in touch with the God they don’t believe in. While an interesting experiment, I must agree with O’Connor that living like a Christian without a metaphysical commitment would likely lead one to “palpably trip over” themselves.
In addition, it would be quite un-Protestant to tell someone to practise a works-based version of Christianity when their ultimate salvation hinges on faith. In fairness, Christians should also be willing to walk in an atheist’s shoes for a day to see how they fit. However, since both options seem very impractical, I think we should keep living our lives the way we normally do but try being more circumspect about how our worldview works out for us. We need to wake up every morning and candidly ask ourselves: “Can I believe it again today?”
“Every morning you should wake up in your bed and ask yourself: ‘Can I believe it again today?’ No better still, don’t ask it till after you’ve read The New York Times, till after you’ve studied that daily record of the world’s brokenness and corruption, which should always stand side by side with your Bible. Then you can ask yourself if you can believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ again for that particular day. If your answer is always Yes, then you probably don’t know what believing means. At least 5 times out of 10 the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and…great laughter.” (Frederick Buechner)
Alex, apostle to the academics
“If I experience, even just in the form of a flash of light like saint Paul…Just once, just one time: ‘Listen, here I am.’ I could live on that for the rest of my entire life… Just enough to form a belief that he exists. If I can have just that, just once, then I’ll become the most prolific Christian apologist that you’ve ever met.” (O’Connor)
I would love for O’Connor to have a Damascus Road experience and take the gospel to Oxford, England and the ends of the earth, because he has a remarkable apostolic skill set. He is always prepared to give answers to all and present his arguments with gentleness and respect. The problem is that the “flash of light” experience that would convince him of God’s existence would be dismissed by his atheist friends as a temporal lobe seizure or worse yet a “God Delusion”.
The very experience that he would find necessary for his conversion would be ruled out of evidential bounds by his materialist compatriots. The New Atheists dismissed fellow atheist Antony Flew’s embrace of deism as the infirm ruminations of an octogenarian philosopher, so it wouldn’t be at all surprising if an O’Connor conversion would be dismissed as an unfortunate capitulation to the whims of youth.
Welcome to our Christian experience!
While O’Connor is correct that Christianity “is supposed to be about a relationship” we are forced by our interlocutors to explain God in non-relational terms because on the atheist battlefield the only weapons allowed in combat are logic, reason and science. We are forced into the business of selling God in the marketplace of ideas rather than telling people that the Holy of Holies is having an open house and they might want to check out.
Eavesdropping on heaven
Is God hidden? It could be that a historical God sighting in the form of Jesus is just too distant a memory to convince us. It could be that the Enlightenment has blinded our eyes and stopped our ears such that we have hermetically sealed ourselves away from God’s spirit. Maybe what we need isn’t a visual sighting or a spoken word but an opportunity to sit outside heaven’s door and listen to him breathing. God’s perceived silence may actually be the deep breath he takes before he whispers something sublime in our ear.
I am hanging on every word you say
And even if you don’t want to speak tonight
That’s alright, alright with me
‘Cause I want nothing more than to sit outside heaven’s door
And listen to you breathing
Is where I want to be (Lifehouse - Breathing)
To listen to the full episode of Unbelievable?, click here.
Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.