Why doesn’t God simply make his existence obvious? Theological blogger Isso shares his thoughts on ‘the hiddenness of God’ and highlights some of the ways God does reveal himself.
In a recent livestream Q&A episode of Unbelievable? philosopher William Lane Craig discussed the hiddenness of God. It’s a question that often comes up in forums like this. If God exists, he’s certainly created a majestically intricate world, full of order and beauty. Why then has he promptly retired from sight and is now nowhere to be seen, a skeptic may dutifully ask?
The problem of God’s hiddenness and refusal to manifest himself is obviously problematic for Christians. Without question, God would certainly make our lives all easier if he revealed himself every now and then. So why doesn’t he?
Well, perhaps we take his hiddenness for granted and he may in fact manifest himself in varied and unusual ways, through both our conscience and affective lives. However, even if God remains hidden, maybe there are also good reasons for this and perhaps his hiddenness is a necessary condition for many things which we take for granted, such as hope, faith and love.
Revealed in flesh
Christians will try to obviate God’s hiddenness by saying that he took the form of flesh in the person of Christ and did in fact reveal himself to us. Catholic and Orthodox Christians may argue that he continues to manifest himself through the Eucharist, and we partake in this by eating his Body and drinking his Blood during Mass.
Christian scholars continue to explore other lines of enquiry and will often point to the case for the resurrection. For instance, why did the apostles preach the same gospel and die for it if they knew it was a lie? This hasn’t allayed modern skepticism though, with many countering that the manuscripts can’t be authenticated to a standard which satisfies them.
But, what if the value of the gospel is instantiated by its own weight, rather than through any critical tool we can use today? I feel these words best encapsulate such an idea:
“I believe in Christ like I believe in the sun. Not because I can see it, but by it, I can see everything else.” CS Lewis Is Theology Poetry?
For instance, the gospel transforms both lives and communities through its redemptive theology, seemingly being able to speak through the soul – something very difficult for a historical critical method to encapsulate in a meaningful manner. A Christian may also argue that the gospel provides a framework for life which is just as relevant today as it was in its Messianic context in first century Palestine:
“Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” (Matthew 6:34)
Revealed in spirit
Western Christianity has also developed a spiritual tradition, whereby we can discern God’s will within our affective lives. Ignatius of Loyola said that God’s Spirit reveals itself internally within us, also known as the ‘discernment of spirits’. Ignatius’ first rule spells out that when a person is going from vice to vice, “the good Spirit uses the opposite method, pricking them and biting their consciences through the process of reason”. St Paul argues something similar when discussing the eternal law of God and says Gentiles “show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Romans 2:15).
St John Henry Newman describes conscience as “a connecting principle between the creature and his Creator”. Newman suggest that God reveals himself to us through our conscience, so while God may seem externally hidden, he speaks to us internally. So, perhaps those feelings of disappointment, sadness, regret and shame when we fail to live the life we feel we should are God’s Spirit working within us. However, it also shouldn’t be taken for granted that we can blunt our consciences very easily and silence this natural process of reason. Ultimately, it’s up to us whether we listen to our affective life or ignore the movement of the Spirit.
Revealed in beauty
If speaking in terms of our affective lives is too opaque for readers to resonate with, perhaps we can instead say that God manifests himself through beauty and an overarching feeling of transcendence in the world. Whether these are distorted approximations of reality or not, they still feel ‘real’ and perhaps this is enough to go on.
A rainbow continues to engender a feeling of beauty for most, despite being reducible to how light reflects, refracts and disperses through water. It seems that the beauty of a ‘thing’ transcends the reduction to the sum of its parts.
Another interesting social observation is that despite Western society turning its back on organised forms of religion, Western culture still retains a strong quasi-spiritual impulse. One only needs to look at the growing practice of mindfulness and yoga in both corporate and personal spheres. Instead of seeing the death of spirituality, the West seems to have traded its own traditions for Eastern traditions.
Hidden for a purpose
God’s hiddenness is an essential part of Christian theology and allows the space for there to be faith and therefore love. As Christians, we may be tempted to ask why believing in Christ requires so much faith. Why can’t we approach our belief in him in the same abstract way we deal with mathematics or physics? Well, perhaps God has deliberately created the circumstances where meaningful belief in him requires faith, without evidential certainty.
We may be able to find a clue in the Gospel of John when, after Christ’s resurrection, a skeptical Thomas demands to see the wounds in Christ’s hands as proof that it really is him. Christ acquiesces and reveals both himself and his wounds to Thomas, but then says to him:
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29).
So, why does Jesus place such a demanding and counter-intuitive standard on us to have faith in what we have neither seen nor touched? Perhaps God has created this space for faith in Him because it also provides the necessary conditions for meaningful relationships with our fellow human beings.
Hidden for relationship
If you were able to see into the future and know for certain whether your spouse would be a faithful partner, would you do it? I could imagine that for many, being able to remove this element of faith that comes with a relationship would change how you feel about and see your spouse, certainly in a negative way. The inverse would probably also apply, whereby your partner feels they are not trusted as a faithful partner, and this could rupture the relationship. It may perhaps be the case that a necessary ingredient of love is that it requires a leap of faith between partners and removal of this faith from the equation constrains our ability to love and be loved.
The basis of love among family may also require this element of faith. Take a young child who depends on their mother. What makes this relationship meaningful is the sense of dependence by one party and responsibility by the other. This requires faith that one party will discharge their obligations to the dependant. The space for faith may again be the basis for love to express itself here. Perhaps this is why when Jesus is questioned on the greatest commandment, he affirms that you “shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”. There is a sense with this passage that your relationship with God serves as the bedrock for your relationships with others. So, it may be that God’s hiddenness is his greatest gift to us.
Hidden for love
Paul too seemed to understand that faith is a necessary element which allows for love to manifest. In his letter to the Corinthians, in almost Platonist language, he says:
“Now we see but a dim reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
Paul seems to be suggesting two things here. Firstly, that faith is premised on seeing and knowing something less than certain to our senses. And secondly, that love is the greatest of these three, but is also dependent on both hope and faith. Hopefully we’re able to better see the link between faith and love. And we understand that Christ’s demand for faith does two things – it strengthens our love for him because “we walk by faith, not by sight”, requiring us to put our trust in him entirely, akin to how a child places their faith entirely in a parent (2 Corinthians 5:7). And it also gives us the space and conditions to know the love of others through the faith which works to bind that love. Knowing that God is hidden but still present allows us to know and love him in a deeper sense, and so we can recall his words:
“Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)