A Silent Saviour: Thinking Theologically about Divine Hiddenness

by Zachary Reimer

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Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.

– Shusaku Endo, Silence, 257.

Showed me different shapes and colours, 
Showed me many different roads,
Gave me very clear instructions
When I was in the dark night of the soul.

– “Tore Down a la Rimbaud” Van Morrison

One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life, the study of theology, and the work of philosophy is when the expected is absent or silent. Some have talked about the problems of evil as problems of absence – of the lack of health, or protection from harm, or even apparent meaning in the cascade of pain that we experience and witness. Another expectation is seen in the problem of divine hiddenness. I want to discuss the problem as considered in three veins: pastoral, theological, and philosophical. We will find that thinking theologically about God’s silence may prevent us from hearing the answer. Fortunately, when we think of theology properly, we can find valuable resources for discovering the hope of a God that reveals.

What are the Problems?

There are three main problems of divine hiddenness: the ‘pastoral’, ‘theological’, and ‘philosophical problems. In differentiating between the three, we can understand how to properly talk about God’s hiddenness and, perhaps, which resources help us solve which problem. Considering the extensive work that philosopher of religion John Schellenberg has done on the topic, my considerations on the types of hiddenness is primarily an explication of themes with which he works.

Pastoral

The first problem is the ‘pastoral problem’. By this, I mean several things. First, one’s felt experience of God can and does vary in intensity, quality, and duration. Sometimes, persons who are religious, or who have religious experiences, have vivid encounters with what they take to be a personal God; they may hear her voice, follow her guidance, and accept her peace. This is not always the case. Sometimes our experience within the relationship changes, and it can be for the worse.

Second, there is an expectation of God’s presence in times of difficulty. Like a friend or lover, one of the most important aspects of the relationship is God’s willingness to give of herself when it is most needful. When one is anxious, she can call on the peace of God. When one is depressed, she can seek a reaffirmation of the truth of God’s character and her worth. Suffering is contextualized, and pain is given purpose, in light of the presence of friends and family. How much more so is there the potential of God’s presence to aid us in our struggles? It seems clear that we expect God to act, not as a selfish demand or an entitled call, in times where the difference between despair and delight is one moment with God.

Third, there is a felt absence in the very moments where God’s presence is most needed, most valuable, and most worthy of praise. To discover stark descriptions of these experiences, read Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence, about the persecution of Japanese Christians and their priests in the 17th century. One of the priests states, “I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God . . . . . the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.”[1]We are not missionaries from the 17th century, but we probably all have had a call to God with no response. We rack our minds to find the source of the silence. We contemplate our own hearts, trying to find whether our plea is selfish. Unfortunately, we hear no purpose, not even condemnation, only silence. As singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson sings,

“It’ll break a man’s faith,
it’s enough to make a man wonder,
if he’s ever been sane.
When he’s bleating for comfort
from thy staff and thy rod,
and the heaven’s only answer
is the silence of God.”

(“The Silence of God” Andrew Peterson).

So, the pastoral problem is a form of suffering within a God-human relationship resulting from the expected presence and perceived absence of God.

Theological

The second problem is the ‘theological problem.’ This is when we have several commitments as religious people, which we affirm, and which we attempt to cohere. Specifically, regarding hiddenness, it would be that some theologians or religious documents affirm that God exists, desires a relationship with everyone, and yet some people appear to lack belief without fault. Considering that this problem occurs within a religious tradition, one has a ready set of resources to answer the questions posed by the problem. We may also look at the world around us – at human experiences and interactions – assuming that God has acted by creating what we see. A form of response could be the following: perhaps everyone is culpably ignorant of God due to sinning and resisting the knowledge they have of God. So, although it appears that there are “nonresistant nonbelievers,” they are in fact resisting God. To find examples, one could look to the bible (e.g., the fall in Genesis or Romans 1) or doctrinal statements in one’s church. Another solution is to look at the ‘dark night of the soul,’ wherein we find that people experience a profound growth in their relationship with God through a time of felt absence of God.[2] We can grow in our affection or desire for God through striving after him in times of doubt. We may look to exemplars in our own lives, or the lives of saints, to see what this would look like. So, the theological problem of divine hiddenness is a doctrinal development, assuming God’s existence, resulting from a paradox of God’s desire for relationship and God’s (at times) minimal self-disclosure.

Philosophical

The third problem is the ‘philosophical problem,’ historically presented by John Schellenberg.[3] Whereas the the other two problems arise within religious commitments, the philosophical problem of divine hiddenness is an argument for atheism which appeals to religious commitments. In contrast with the pastoral problem, this problem does not claim that the absence of an experience of God is an evil. Rather, it is a problem of evil in that nonbelief is analogous to evil in serving as a point of conflict with what believers must hold in a perfect God. The central commitment, and the motivation for the argument, is that if there were a God, that being must be one of perfect love. We look at examples of love from parents, friends, and romantic relationships to discover what is best about love. From this, we see that it is a desire for relationship, not merely generic benefits or distant care, but full and fulfilling participation in engaging with the other. To speak meaningfully about God as loving and analogous to a parent, God, it seems, must be like this.

Further, one of the requirements for a relationship, it would appear, is that both parties believe that the other exists. We could not properly make ourselves believe, so God must, if she wants relationship, provide us with experiences or evidence that would give us good reasons to believe. So, God, loving everyone, would provide all with enough for (minimally) some sort of belief in God; no one would nonresistantly fail to believe in God. Unfortunately, there appear to be many different types of people who show virtue in their search for God – they may even want God to exist – but they do not believe. We can think of people from cultures without the introduction of theism, people who used to believe in God, or people who now believe in some nontheistic religion.[4] Given the essentially loving nature of any perfect being, it would preclude all reasoned nonbelief. If we have to believe that even one person for one second in the history of the world lacked belief in God without resisting God, the argument succeeds, and God does not exist.

To respond, we could either reject the idea that there are these types of persons, reject the perfect love of God, or reject that God’s perfect love precludes reasoned nonbelief. So, this type of hiddenness is an argument for atheism from theistic commitments of a God’s nature and the fact of honest nonbelief. 

Where Theology Gets It Wrong

One would think that, considering that the pastoral and theological problems are problems for religion and may be addressed using theological resources, the philosophical problem could be addressed in a similar fashion. Theological problems require theological solutions, don’t they? Unfortunately, the reality is not so simple with divine hiddenness. There are three problems that we face in finding a solution to the problem of divine hiddenness. These are the ‘vices’ of theology.

Misplaced Loyalty

First, there is the risk of ‘misplacing our loyalties.’[5] As I mentioned in the first two problems, we experience these concerns within our spiritual life or theological commitments. We are, even before our commitments to solving the problem, committed to God. This allegiance may come with virtues, for we may show great courage and loyalty in searching for and defending God’s existence. Unfortunately, as Schellenberg argues regarding the virtues that theists show in searching for evidence regarding God, what may be virtuous may actually hold us back from having good reasons in defense of God’s existence.[6]

We, in searching for evidence, want to be as neutral as possible. When we are loyal to God, we may see arguments against God as temptations to sin, opportunities to trust God in spite of what we see of the evidence, or the time to make a leap of faith. As Schellenberg states, “the loyal Christian whose belief is under attack commonly relies on evidence of experience or argument that has been called into question when dealing with the attack, or ‘gives it all over to God’ when the existence of God is precisely what is at issue.”[7] Rather than loyalty to truth however we find it, our loyalty is to a God whose existence has come into question. Regardless of whether God exists, being biased in assessing the evidence in favour of God shows that our loyalty at times removes our justification for our faith.[8] Thinking theologically, with its attachments to religious tradition and a fight against the temptation to succumb to counter-evidence, may diminish the strength of our search for the evidence.

Begging the Question

The second way in which thinking theologically about divine hiddenness can go awry is by confusing the theological and philosophical problems.[9] As you recall, the theological problem allows one to work within one’s religious commitments and traditions; you may assume that God exists, for instance. This can become fallacious when brought in contact with the philosophical problem, for it is an argument against God’s existence. To argue from theology against the hiddenness argument would be to assume that God exists while discussing the very issue of whether God exists. A representative form of Schellenberg’s response to this move is found in his reply to philosophers Tom Poston and Trent Dougherty. He states, “why suppose that God’s creative options are restricted by the features of the actual world, unless one is tacitly assuming that the actual world is created by God and thus begging the question against the hiddenness argument?”[10] Theologians may search for values in this world, may assume God exists, and may affirm that God and hiddenness are somehow compatible, but to rely on those assumptions will remove one’s ability to respond to the philosophical problem.  If one appeals to conceivable scenarios that God would desire that require hiddenness, or some scenario that would prevent some from believing that God exists, she must give reason to believe that it occurs in this world and that God could not have been more loving than to create this world. Schellenberg states it well when he says, “Theology starts off by accepting that God exists and so has to make God fit the actual world.”[11] To do philosophy of religion, on the other hand, starts with a perfect being and then considers “what a God and a God-created world would be like.”[12]

Suppressing Our Imaginations

The final vice of theology regards the way we conceive of God. Schellenberg presents God as perfectly and essentially loving.[13] Some theological traditions or thinkers may have a ready reply: God has not been revealed to them in the way that he describes. Perhaps God does not desire a relationship. Or perhaps some qualities like God’s justice or transcendence keep us from having knowledge of her or being nonresistant in our search for God. Like the confusion above, we are limited in our imagination of perfection, but this time it is specifically with regards to the nature of God.[14] We have the idea of perfection, but centuries of scriptures, doctrinal statements, and theologizing lead us to think of God not merely in terms of the concept of perfect being but in terms of how God is seen within those traditions. To solve the problem of divine hiddenness, we cannot assume that God is the way we expect given our religious traditions. T  Either way, there is an assumption that precludes an answer to divine hiddenness as an argument for atheism rather than a problem within theology.

Where Theology Gets It Right

A Continued Conversation

In reply to the first vice of theology, that we may be loyal to God and biased against the arguments of nonbelievers, thus making our loyalty a threat to claims that we have properly investigated the question of God’s existence, theology rightly considered looks at the character of any God that there might be. To flesh out the goal of our search, consider a rumour that has been spread about a friend of yours. You could reason in the following fashion. Loyalty would call me to defend my friend and her character. If she is truly my friend, she would want me to fight for the truth above our friendship. I trust her character. So, if she values our friendship over the truth, then she does not have a character worthy of my loyalty. So, if she is worthy of loyalty, she would want me to fight for the truth and avoid bias in her favour, and if she is not worthy of loyalty, then I should fight for the truth and avoid bias in her favour. How odd would it be if a friend of yours said, “I trusted you! I called you my friend! You betrayed me by caring about the truth more than me!” If the evidence was neutral, then she would want you to be neutral. If the evidence was against her, a true and virtuous friend would want you to believe that the evidence was against her.

God is like a good friend. We believe that, if there is a God, that God must be perfect. If that is true, we can be confident that a) the evidence will eventually point to God, and b) God would want us to go with whatever position is intellectually virtuous to hold at the time. A God that would desire a biased loyalty in the face of evidence is a God that does not care about your cognitive health – a God that does not want what is best for you. What, then, would God (in the key of theology) desire? I suggest that the goal is a continued conversation: strive after neutrality; present your conversation partners with the utmost clarity and charity; never fear that there would be a conflict of loyalty to God and the evidence. A truly good God would not ask for your belief with the requirement of an unhealthy bias.

A Variety of Values

Recall that one of the primary vices of theology is that we have a limitation on our imagination of what a perfect being would be like. We think that perfection must look a certain way and, in a sense, we have to deal with the picture that has been presented to us in the history of theology. God as, perhaps, distant and jealous, tribal and nebulous. Fortunately, theology can actually present us with a vast number of resources in addressing the philosophical problem of evil in the following way. Theology provides a variety of values, motivating our intuitions regarding what is truly admirable. This often dictates, for the better, our analogies of what perfect love would look like. For instance, we can see throughout the bible instances of the nature of a divine love that is shown in God and able to be imitated by us; she empathizes with outcasts, strives for justice, and is reveals a character that is, or is becoming, unwaveringly worthy of trust. We find, through such works as Soren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, St. Maximus the Confessor’s Four Centuries on Love, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, and St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul portraits of the height of human understanding of perfect love. These traditional and theological resources elevate and inspire our intuitions about what God would be like rather than minimizing our philosophy of divine perfection. Schellenberg, in conceptualizing about God, employs the resources of theology and scripture in a similar fashion. So, the question is not whether we can use theology but rather whether our theology makes our ideas of perfection conform to the world or our ideas of the world conform to our ideas of perfection.

An Epistemology of Trust

One of the problems that I mentioned of theology – its central focus on loyalty to God – may be seen as its greatest blessing. I think there is a beneficial response to be make from God’s character. Consider the following idea about divine perfection. I believe that a perfect being would desire an ‘optimal propositional attitude’ over a ‘maximal propositional attitude.’ A propositional attitude can be best explained with examples. When we think of a proposition – some thought or idea that we can express in multiple ways – we can relate to it in multiple ways. I can hope that the weather is pleasant today. I can believe that the weather is pleasant. Further, many attitudes that I take to propositions can have various degrees of strength. Hopefully, one will have really strong beliefs only when they also have very good evidence. So, a maximal propositional attitude would be having the highest degree of the right types of attitudes towards a proposition.

In contrast, an optimal attitude takes other requirements in consideration. We add to this a circumstantial need for information. Consider the case of a doctor’s appointment. The doctor may diagnose you with a profoundly challenging illness. She could give you very good evidence that you should fear the fact of your being diseased and believe that you are diseased. Fortunately, we also recognize and admire the virtue of tact – telling the truth in the right ways and times. So, we would want the doctor not merely to care about telling the truth; we want truth told tactfully. This brings us to the ‘optimal’ part of this term. We humans respond to the truth – even told well – in radically different and unexpected ways. We do not always take the truth well; we resist. God, being loving, would want to give us belief states and desire states based on how we would freely react. So, on theism, we should not expect complete confidence of belief in God, if we expect that some people would freely respond and resist the truth. God does not reveal herself on a “need to know” basis; she reveals on, at least, a “won’t ultimately resist” basis.

The optimal state at each moment would be one in which the hope-er, accepter, or believer would have the attitude which corresponds with her level of evidence and takes into account her psychology, trajectory towards various virtues and vices, and how she would freely respond with any particular type of attitude. It is good to hope that God exists, if one has evidence that we should hope that God exists (some arguments in defense of the value of God, for instance), but it would not be ultimately good for that person to be believe, if that person would be less resistant, if she or he would lack belief for a time. Since we can easily imagine that some would freely resist God had they believed at a particular time, and we would not be able to tell in which circumstances she or he would do this, we cannot affirm that God would always ensure that we believe that God exists. What does trust have to do with this? Given an analysis of the character of a God, regardless of God’s existence, we cannot be confident that God would ensure belief. Rather, what I call an epistemology of trust would give us reason to believe that, if there was a God, any attitude that we have would either be due to our own resistance, or it would be beneficial for our growth as persons, given our unique personalities, virtues and vices, and free decisions. Loyalty to God, when rephrased as standing for the concept of a perfect God’s character, is a source for trust that any experience one has could be an opportunity for personal development and not a threat to faith.[15]

Concluding Reflection

As in the song by Van Morrison, maybe at the times when we are at a loss for words, or when it seems that there are no words from God, we get “tore down” in an unexpected way. Do we know “what it’s like to be”? Have we had “days of deep devotion” in struggling to find God? Do you have the hope that you could look back and say you had “very clear instructions when . . . in the dark night of the soul”?[16] If so, then with a continued conversation, a variety of values, and an epistemology of trust, we have good reasons for a sublime hope. If there is a God, she will guarantee that every doubt will be defined by care for our response, every sacrifice made triumphant, and every search worthwhile. We have heard the silence, and whether currently a believer or not, we can all expect a saviour.

 

Zachary Reimer is currently completing his MA in Philosophy at Ryerson University and received his BA Honours in Philosophy from Tyndale University College and his BA in Social Science from Providence University College. His research interests include moral epistemology, free will and agency, and divine hiddenness. He loves to bake and takes it very seriously.

[1]  Shūsaku Endō, Silence (New York, N.Y.: Picador, 2017), 79.

[2] John of the Cross. Dark Night of the Soul, trans. by E.Allison Peers and Silverio (New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 2005), 79-85.

[3] The following is a summary of part 1 of John Schellenberg, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason: With a New Preface. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

[4] For more detail on these forms of the philosophical problem, see John L. Schellenberg, The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007),.

[5] This theme and topic is explored throughout John. L. Schellenberg, “‘Breaking Down the Walls That Divide’: Virtue and Warrant, Belief and Nonbelief,” Faith and Philosophy 21, (2004): 195–213.

[6] Schellenberg, “Warrant,” 203.

[7] Ibid., 204.

[8] Ibid., 205.

[9] Schellenberg critiques many such examples of this, but one of the clearest cases is his response to Calvinist responses to divine hiddenness in Schellenberg, Hiddenness, 74-82.

[10] Re poston and Dougherty: 203.

[11] Wisdom, 198.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 197.

[14] Ibid., 196-197. This is one of the strongest aspects, in my opinion, of Schellenberg’s atheology.

[15] This reply is similar to, and can we seen as a blend of, work by Daniel Howard-Snyder,  “The Argument from Divine Hiddenness,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 26, (1996): 433–453 and Justin P. McBrayer and  Philip Swenson, “Scepticism about the Argument from Divine Hiddenness.” Religious Studies 48, (2012): 129–150.

[16] Quotes from Van Morrison, “Tore Down a la Rimbaud.” A Sense of Wonder (New York, NY: PolyGram Records), 1984.

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