The Phenomenon of Divine Absence

Joseph Minich
Friday, April 23rd 2021

Most Christians who enjoy a healthy life of the mind have some acquaintance with doubt. It is not always very pronounced, and perhaps some get over it entirely. But for the majority of us mortals, occasional bouts of doubt (sometimes substantial) remain a stubborn feature of religious life. Occasionally, there is an attempt to dignify this situation. The person who lives in doubt is claimed to be the mature person in the room, attuned to the limits of their finitude while the rest remain juvenile in their creedal bravado. Perhaps there are instances where this is the case, but one could be pardoned for detecting a little self-flattery in cases where this is a reflexive reading of things. Human intellectuals have a long-observed capacity to deploy their subtle craft in self-deceptive ways, narrating an imaginative world to themselves wherein they are the mature and others the barbaric.

But right or wrong, mature or immature, dangerous or not, the fact remains the same. Christians with an active life of the mind often confront pangs of doubt. The typical method for treating this symptom is to read books, solidify one’s presuppositions, think (and pray) through whatever it is that is a conscious intellectual bother. And of course, this is—for many people—a necessary step toward fully working through one’s questions. It is not uncommon, however, that the intellectual discovers the wisdom of Solomon’s old utterances about the cost of learning. On the one hand, an intellectual project can help shore up one’s convictions and firm up one’s faith. On the other hand, an expanding intellectual project can convert into an expanding doubt project, such that one vulnerability is simply covered with another. Rather than increased intellectual stability, more knowledge means an expanded degree of exposure, an ever-growing pile of questions at the margins. Or at least, it is common to vacillate between these, and not without some sincerity in both directions.

There are many reasons for this vacillation, but a common one is what some have called the problem of divine absence. In most of history, the so-called “problem of divine absence” has mostly been a matter of theodicy. It is the question that comes up when we are trying to figure out if God cares about human suffering. “Where are you, O Lord?” is a frequent refrain of both Scripture and the saints. But in the modern period, the problem of divine absence has taken on a different valence. Divine absence is taken to be prima facie evidence for a divine vacuum. And so, it is not just that God’s existence is supposedly disproved by His failure to show up in cases of senseless evil. Rather, it is that God is profoundly non-obvious. Of course, there are those who will reflexively demur, but ponder. Those who reflexively demur have possibly also experienced very sincere pangs of doubt about God’s existence at some point in their life. But they have probably not experienced sincere pangs of doubt about the number of fingers that they have, or whether fire is hot. Whether a presuppositionalists, an evidentialist, or a classical apologist—however we actually justify our beliefs in this or that—we all find it very difficult to doubt certain kinds of things, and somewhat tempting to doubt others. And this irreducibly has something to do with how obvious (in a pre-philosophical manner) one thing or another is to us.

Bringing the point home, there is something in us that finds this situation peculiar. Why would it be that God’s existence is less obvious than other things? Why should the fact of all facts be an elusive fact? It isn’t that there are not good reasons to believe that God exists. It is that the very fact that God seems questionable is peculiar. God, after all, could easily persuade all persons of His existence. Just as He could prevent all senseless evil without any effort whatsoever, so is God capable of manifesting Himself before mankind in such a way that very few could possibly find His existence non-plausible. So why doesn’t He? There are, of course, all sorts of theological answers to such questions, and sometimes they all too easily parody the arbitrary and retroactive maneuvers that we all make when faced with inconvenient truths that we seek to integrate into our ever-tweaked synthesis. In God’s mercy, many have discovered their way to the other side of this tension.

One clue to the way through our quandary is to notice precisely that it seems modern. It would seem that the kind of absence that we experience of God was not unknown to our ancestors. Israel went hundreds of years with no divine messengers. And it is the stuff of universal poetry to wish to see God. But this was not cashed out in terms of God’s non-existence. In short, we are the weird ones for making the connection. And so it is we who need to discern why we do so. In this and in the next two essays, therefore, I will attempt to make (here) a few preliminary comments, then (next) interpret how and why divine absence has taken on the character that it has in modern life, and (finally) I will suggest a path toward growing Christian confidence in the face of this felt problem.

For the remainder of this article it is crucial to address a gut reaction that is perhaps native to most of us. To wit, aren’t we supposed to simply smack away our doubts like a pest? Just as one might presumably fight lustful thoughts like a game of whack-o-mole, should we not take the same approach to doubtful thoughts? Are these not the serpentine whisperings of Old Scratch?

There are two things to say to this. The first is simple. That’s not generally how the Bible treats ordinary human doubt. Even when human doubt is rooted in culpable stubbornness or ignorance, God often still addresses the doubts themselves in some meaningful sense. When Moses said, “God, how will I be able to do that?” God said, “Here is how.” After several rounds of this, God (in fact) accommodated mercifully to Moses’ self-declared limitations. Likewise, right or wrong in his motives, when John the Baptist was imprisoned and sent a query to Jesus concerning Jesus’ Messianic status, our Lord answered his cousin directly, and with evidence. In principle, then, we can distinguish the question of the morality of our doubts from the question of their answerability. We are weak. We need help in our unbelief, and God has not revealed Himself to be dis-interested in doubts that arise from ordinary human frailty, confusion, and weakness.

But a more basic point must be made in addition to this. Even if this were the proper response to your doubts, the “whack-a-mole” approach only smacks away the moment of doubt, but not doubt itself. Similarly in the case of lust, a severe struggle ordinarily requires (in addition to the ordinary need for habituation toward self-control) a deeper confrontation of our desires and our hopes. When it comes to our doubts, those “moments” cannot be reduced to temptations from outside of us, but are often signals to us from within us—and about us. If there is a recurring doubt that arises to the surface of your consciousness, then you do not feel fully settled in an entirely stable way on some matter. You have some “belief wobble,” as it were. Minimally, you could be more settled than you are.

If this is not admitted and addressed, then festering doubts can silently grow, resulting finally in a crisis when they cannot be ignored any longer. Relief from doubt cannot be seized by the will. We do not simply decide to be more certain than we are. We are unsure of the things we are unsure of. We only know what we actually know. To the extent that we imagine doubt must simply be suppressed and certainly seized by an act of will, we inevitably create a religion that fails to minister balm to the real life of man, but rather increases addiction to the broken cistern of cult. When relief from doubt is simply asserted, expected, and demanded (note the similar alter-ego in the woke movement), what we are cultivating is not the free Christian soul, but a seizure of the kingly mantle without the prophetic pilgrimage.

Another approach to contemporary doubt is precisely (as I have begun to hint at above) to look at its contemporary nature. Charles Taylor’s 2007 tome, A Secular Age, has (now) famously argued, modern belief is characterized by being relative to other options. In the year 1500, atheism was not a living option for almost anyone in Europe. By 2000, not only is it a living option, but so are many other things. We cannot but feel relativized as we dwell among and talk to people who seem very much like ourselves, but who are persuaded of their own beliefs and take them just as much for granted as we do. Taylor’s point is that all of us feel this situation as part of our pre-understanding against which we make religious decisions.

We might simply riff on Taylor this way. It should not be particularly surprising if modern Christians tend to have doubts about the items that populate a living faith because this is almost inevitable in any context where you are surrounded with alternatives. As soon as human beings have other options, they tend to compare their own way to that of others. The result of this process can take an extreme or a mild form, and so does doubt in our own time. But the key point is that confusion about many things is liable to be a greater affliction in our own moment than in past moments for fairly plain reasons. In this way, what is before us is not merely a problem to be overcome, but a trial to be endured.

Going beyond Taylor, however, it would be helpful to give an account of how divine absence took on such a prominent character in the contemporary imagination. Why do we feel the pain of this particular problem? And why do we all intuitively feel that we’d find some relief if God would just peel back the sky for a few minutes and wave every now and again?

In a way, we have already begun to answer this question. In the first two articles in this series, I tried to show that much of our problem has to do with the very manner in which we define “God” and the question of His “existence.” Nevertheless, the problem is not just an intellectual but a habitual one. Correcting our definition of the divine nature is not the same thing as correcting our imaginative habits when we think of God or His deeds. In the next essay, then, I will look into what might be called the emergence of divine absence as a problem related to God’s existence. When did human beings begin to make this connection, so to speak? Why is it intuitive to us? What in our mental or practical habits sustains it? Trying to identify these features of our experience will put us in a better place, then, to evaluate how we can minister to doubt arising from this source. The beginning of dealing with our doubts is being honest with them, and sitting with them before God. Doubt without divine friendship is overwhelming. But if God is our Father, doubt is a site in which we may come to know His care, His “having of us.” Slowly, our head is lifted up, and we learn to see God’s trace in all things.

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 5 ] [ part 6 ]

Friday, April 23rd 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