Responding to Divine Absence

Joseph Minich
Friday, June 25th 2021

Having discussed the phenomenon of divine absence, and given some account of that phenomenon, we are now in a place to respond to divine absence in its contemporary form. If the argument of my previous essay has purchase, then many people within the late modern West will inevitably tend to have some doubts about God’s obviousness. Unsurprisingly, this does not seem an ideal state of affairs to most souls. Doubt is sometimes romanticized, especially by those whom it has led into unbelief or by skeptics who find refuge from making responsible judgments through conveniently deployed methodological doubt. But for the soul that longs to know God’s being, favor, truth, and way – substantive and perpetual doubt about some truth or way of life is unpleasant. And if this is an ordinary effect of modernity, what can be done about it?

One response to this is that we must find orientation from looking back to how our ancestors lived and try to recover the kind of civilization that didn’t seem to operate with a perpetual “crisis of faith.” The most fundamental problem with this response is that it is impossible. Indeed, to attempt it would not be to accomplish it, but rather to produce a very peculiar variety of modern life. If “dis-enchantment” is the problem and “re-enchantment” is the solution (and this is not incontestable), then “going back” is not the path to re-enchantment, but rather to sublimated dis-enchantment – a LARP’ing that is so habituated that it is confused for real life. Along these lines, we probably underestimate just how much the conservative impulse in late modernity is perennially tempted by cult (the outsourcing of reason, conscience, or prudence to a surrogate – resulting in a sensation of “arrival” through downloaded talking points rather than through intellectual, spiritual, or moral pilgrimage alongside helpers). Moreover, it is not so clear whether the “enchanted” world so sentimentalized in our imagination was really a place that most of us would want to live if we could visit. We focus on its advantages, but think little of its hardships (even spiritual hardships). And when we take realistic stock of these, it is not so clear that the spiritual realities on the ground in the so-called enchanted world were so much more impressive on the whole than we experience in our day. Sure, more people believed in God, but to what end? Did they go to church? How rampant was sexual immorality? How rampant was abuse of all kinds? How corrupt was the exercise of power? How pious was the ordinary layman? The polemics of the Renaissance, Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Enlightenment are remarkably unified in their unflattering portrayal of real religion in an enchanted era. And this should not surprise us. Presumably, after all, God was rather obvious to the Israelites in a way that He is not to us. However, note again that this did not correspond to the spiritual advantage that one might project. Divine obviousness co-existed alongside hearts of a pagan hue, ungrateful to the God who saved themselves and their children from Egypt, and deferential toward gods who demanded the sacrifice of those same children.

What is the point of this? It would appear that “divine obviousness” might not be the advantage that we suspect. In a historical condition wherein this obviousness is somewhat blurred, therefore, any orientation we are to get must carefully evaluate what is really at stake and what we are really after. If what we are after is human maturity and a firmer persuasion of God’s truth, then it seems to me that we can say two basic things. On the one hand, our contemporary temptations (and their antidote(s)) are of a piece with the temptations and antidote(s) that have always existed. Nothing is new under the sun. On the other hand, our temptations “manifest” with unique and ever-changing faces, and wisdom grows as we learn to discern between good and evil when they change clothes. Let us take these in turn.

Generally, the spiritual temptation we endure is not so different from the temptation that has existed since Adam. God could have always, after all, been more obvious. Adam was not created with the beatific vision and rather was made in such a way that he would have to trust God. God appears to “visit” the garden theophanically, and then to depart. After the fall, there are extended periods of divine absence (between Genesis and Exodus, and between Malachi and Matthew). In each of these circumstances, God could have been more obvious than He was. Similarly, in the case of Christ, there are moments wherein Christ is deliberately less obvious than He might have been. It would seem that God is not interested in being as clear as He might possibly be, relative to all human faculties. Rather, God is clear enough to the seeking soul to warrant our trust, and He postures Himself precisely in proportion to our need to recover our dignity by reaching out for divine help. Our problem is not fundamentally one of epistemic lack, but of distorted wills. And precisely for this reason, as Jesus notes, those who will not believe Moses and the prophets will not believe (in the relevant sense) even if they are presented with more obvious signs.

And so, on the one hand, our temptation is a perennial one. People have always had to struggle with some lack of obviousness in God’s being or way. This might not have taken the form of atheism, but it might previously have taken the form of worshipping a more obvious local god, or some instinct that God’s silence means that He does not care for us, and so we must take care of ourselves after all (practical atheism). In all of this, however, God is not merely interested in minds that are persuaded of God’s existence, but whole persons who seek to know God’s truth in the mind, and to love God’s goodness through their will. Unlike angels (who, on the classical view, know immediately), human beings develop their knowledge dialectically. There is a conversation between our mind and our will, and a conversation between these, God, and the world. And it is with this color palette, as it were, that God progressively splays Himself, and summons us to the kind maturation that can appreciate all that He is up to in the world. Our Father is in the business of having sons, and He postures Himself perfectly in relation to us so that we will grow into that sonship through being summoned out of ourselves by following His trace in all things.

It is fair to say, on the other hand, however, that our general temptations take on a specific hue in our context. Perhaps God could always have been more obvious, but it would be surprising if there were no qualitative difference between a world in which God is simply taken for granted, and one where His being and activities are “on the dock” (as Lewis memorably put it). And it is Lewis, again, who has the best analysis of our situation. Concerning modern secularism, Lewis writes,

The state of affairs in which ordinary people can discover the Supernatural only by abstruse reasoning is recent and, by historical standards, abnormal. All over the world, until quite modern times, the direct insight of the mystics and the reasonings of philosophers percolated to the mass of the people by authority and tradition: they could be received by those who were no great reasoners themselves in the concrete form of myth and ritual and the whole pattern of life. In the conditions produced by a century or so of Naturalism, plain men are being forced to bear burdens which plain men were never expected to bear before. We must get the truth for ourselves or go without it. There may be two explanations for this. It might be that humanity, in rebelling against tradition and authority, has made a ghastly mistake; a mistake which will not be the less fatal because the corruptions of those in authority rendered it very excusable. On the other hand, it may be that the power which rules our species is at this moment carrying out a daring experiment. Could it be intended that the whole mass of the people should now move forward and occupy for themselves those heights which were once reserved only for the sages? Is the distinction between wise and simple to disappear because all are now expected to become wise? If so, our present blunderings would be but growing pains. But let us make no mistake about our necessities. If we are content to go back and become humble plain men obeying a tradition, well. If we are ready to climb and struggle on till we become sages ourselves, better still. But the man who will neither obey wisdom in others nor adventure for her/himself is fatal. A society where the simple many obey the few seers can live: a society where all were seers could live even more fully. But a society where the mass is still simple and the seers are no longer attended to can achieve only superficiality, baseness, ugliness, and in the end extinction. On or back we must go: to stay here is death.

Miracles, 66-7

Adding to Lewis’ analysis of our pressures, it is worth identifying an implicit feature. A world in which the common person is required to discover the truth for themselves is a world that demands a unique degree of harmony between the human mind and the human will. Where orthodox belief and practice are the only options, it does not take a great deal of will to conform to the externals of religion. In our context, on the other hand, belief might require a certain attunement between mind and will that is the mark of mature faith. In short, we must become adult Christians or die. Such maturity has all sorts of ideological parodies, of course, but the necessity of growing up (Bonhoeffer’s “man come of age”) is clear.

One might draw a parallel here to the world of modern sexual temptation. On the one hand, sexual temptation is as old as humankind. On the other hand, the condition of temptation in a world awash in pornography is somewhat different from a world that is not. To be chaste in this world requires not merely external guards against vice, but a renewed internal commitment to God’s way, a more athletic pursuit of chastity. Similarly in the world of belief, to believe perhaps requires a greater conscious relationship to one’s faith than has historically been normal. The importance of “apologetics” for modern believers is partially explained by this. And while this does create some vulnerabilities, it can also be its own source of advantage when united with a prayerful and humble heart.

None of which is to suggest that this state of affairs is ideal. And yet it will require fresh and creative wisdom to discover what it might mean to re-discover social arrangements which are genuinely post-secular, or even the surrogate of a post-secular civilization. There are many salutary movements (“common good” politics, etc), but perhaps we can elucidate what the character of any trend toward the good must take. If the argument of my previous essay is correct, the existence of God becomes an existential crisis in precise proportion to the de-personalization of the world, the eclipse of man in his relationship with other men, and the eclipse of man in relation to his own labor. It would stand to reason, then, that God will become more real to the extent that man is reminded that he himself is real. To become aware (to become “unable to unsee”) the mystery of human life and activity is to be on the way to see the Living One. The human is His chief reflection, and He will reflect in precise proportion to our being awakened to the wonder of His image.

Joseph Minich (Ph.D, The University of Texas at Dallas), is a Teaching Fellow at The Davenant Institute. He is the author of Enduring Divine Absence.

Read next: [ part 1 ] [ part 2 ] [ part 3 ] [ part 4 ] [ part 5 ]

Friday, June 25th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology