Table Talk: The Hiddenness of God

by Richard Pimentel

In the last installment of Table Talk, we looked at the statement “There is one thing that I never argue about: religion”. I listed reasons why this statement is made and claimed that the value of religion in our lives is due to its relationship to the ultimate issues of life. However, philosophical statements made about religion do not stop there. Has anyone ever heard the following statement: “God does not make himself obvious to us.” Or you may have heard it as a question: “If God exists, why isn’t the evidence more plain and simple?” This question is normally stated as an objection to the existence of God, particularly the God of the world’s monotheisms. The statement and question are all part and parcel of a very important philosophical topic named “the hiddenness of God.”

The hiddenness of God along with the existence of evil and suffering are the two strongest objections to God’s existence. These objections are effective and acknowledged by many, including theists themselves. Many people are perplexed that, if God exists, He does not make His existence sufficiently clear. It poses a problem but what exactly is the problem? Theism posits the existence of God and this God is all-good, loving, holy, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. If God is truly all-good and loving, then this divine being would want what is best for His creatures. According to Christian doctrine, God wants His human creatures to be in full communion with Him because this is the purpose for which mankind was created. Therefore, what is best for humans is for them to have intimate relationship with God. However, many claim to have no awareness of God. Even theists admit that, in some sense, God is hidden but not completely hidden. Those who challenge God’s existence utilize the hiddenness argument as evidence that God does not exist.

The objection seems legitimate. How many of us have seen God show Himself in an incredibly obvious way? Someone once said, “If I were God, I would open up the sky and show everyone that I truly exist.” Even the great Mother Teresa confessed in some of her personal letters that she had such “a deep longing for God” but all she had “deep down was emptiness and darkness.” However, this leads to two questions. The objection may seem legitimate but do answers to this challenge exist and does it really show that God does not exist?

Numerous theistic philosophers have attempted to answer this pressing problem. Some of these answers or responses to the problem seem to fall short. One of those answers is related to the incorporeal nature of God. This means that God is not a material being. Some have appealed to God’s incorporeality and argued that God cannot be accessed by man’s sense perception as material beings can be accessed. Therefore, it is expected that God will be hidden to our perception. But does God’s immaterial nature answer why God can seem hidden to man. It does not properly answer the objection. If anything, appealing to his immaterial nature is a misunderstanding. Some who utilize the hiddenness of God as a disproof are not claiming that God must make Himself physically visible but that he should make His presence better know. This is what some philosophers call the existential problem.

Others respond by arguing that God, by nature, is transcendent. This means that God is above and distinct from all he has made. God, as a divine being, is of a different order of being. According to this line of reasoning, we should expect a transcendent being such as God to be hidden from us. As with the previous response, this does not seem to be an adequate explanation. Theism posits the transcendence of God but also posits the immanence of God, his presence and involvement in his creation. These two doctrines go hand in hand. You would expect hiddenness from a transcendent being but not from an immanent being.

This still leaves the issue of whether there are answers that provide an adequate reason or why God exists but remains hidden. There is an interesting, even if not fully adequate, explanation for the hiddenness of God and it concentrates on what God does rather than who God is. In addition to the attributes mentioned before, those who proffer this response state that God is free and self-determined which means that God’s thoughts, desires, and actions are not determined by external factors but by His own will alone. An adequate explanation for God’s hiddenness must focus on God’s intentions and not his immaterial and transcendent nature. In other words, what is God doing and why does he not do more is grounded in His will. In his book, Pensees,  the 17th century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal stated, “We can understand nothing of God’s works unless we accept the principle that he wished to blind some and enlighten others.” Thomas Morris points out Pascal’s statement in his book, Making Sense of It All and comments, “Now, it must be admitted that on first reading, this is truly a hard saying. Why would a loving and just God blind some and enlighten others?” Morris is right. It is a hard and seemingly unfair saying but Pascal and Morris may be on to something here.

Morris proceeds to explain that there is a relationship between the human condition and God’s actions and non-actions and why God may be hidden to some but not to others. When writing about humanity, Pascal emphasized two opposite yet equally important aspects of humanity: man’s greatness and man’s wretchedness. Man has incredible skills and talents to produce amazing works and acts yet man has the capacity to produce and participate in heinous and vile acts.  Pascal wrote, “Thus it is not only right but useful for us that God should be partly concealed and partly revealed, since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness as to know his own wretchedness without knowing God.” The point is that the human condition serves as an explanation as to why God seems to be hidden to some and not to others. It is plausible to think that God produces close encounters or provides clear evidence of Himself to those who are prepared for that encounter or evidences without becoming puffed up with pride and being able to properly handle what is revealed to them. This is commonly referred to as an existential response to hiddenness (and seems appropriate since many of the problems related to hiddenness are existential in nature).

This explanation is certainly something to consider. It seems to provide a plausible explanation for maintaining that the hiddenness of God is what should be expected if theism is true.  If this is the case, then the hiddenness of God cannot serve as a disproof for God’s existence.