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Does ‘divine hiddenness’ belong to theists or to atheists?

Theistic literature is full of references and allusions to a self-concealing deity. The psalm writer whose poems are included in the Hebrew Bible regularly calls out, in alternating notes of perplexity, impatience and despair, to a God whose felt presence apparently seemed frustratingly inconstant. But he or she still assumed that God was there.

Something similar is true in the rest of the Bible, and indeed across most of western religious history. Take the notion of a ‘dark night of the soul’ associated with Saint John of the Cross. The medieval Spanish mystic was talking about the mysterious ways of operating of a divine reality in relation to human beings who seek God. Apparently he was not in doubt at all about whether such a being belonged to reality in the first place.

But recently things have changed. A few years ago the world discovered the distress of Mother Teresa of Calcutta over her own long and apparently unremitting ‘dark night.’ In some quarters this particular dark night is discussed in hushed tones because it appears to have included doubts about the very existence of God. Mother Teresa has many compatriots among those who quite explicitly are former believers, for whom the hiddenness of God’s presence has turned into what we might call the hiddenness of God’s existence.

Having reached this idea, we can see that – even though some linguistic stretching is required – it invites application to many more than just those who, like Mother Teresa, were led into doubt or disbelief by an inconstant or absent sense of God’s presence. Today many live their whole lives without God. In my first real job, at an employment center, I sat across from a pleasant young man who reminded me of evangelical Christians I knew. It turned out he had never given God a thought. The topic simply had never come up. And modern science helps us see the vast spans, prior to the advent of western religions and dozens of times longer than their histories, in which humans were quite innocent of belief in the God of those religions.

All of this is background to an interesting recent development not in theology but in analytical philosophy, which has discovered the hiddenness of God’s existence and fashioned from it a new challenge to the existence of God. Theists of course take God’s hiddenness literally. And because many theists have responded to the argument, it is often called the argument from divine hiddenness – though when I first developed the argument in 1993 I did not call it that. As a sort of linguistic compromise, I am today inclined to call it ‘the hiddenness argument’. How did we get this twist in the tale?

02 dante's inferno 5 Regina Coupar 2011
“Dante’s Inferno” © Regina Coupar. Image used with permission.

In part it’s tied in with the growing secularity to which I’ve alluded. Because of this twentieth and twenty-first century phenomenon, even theologians are today willing to admit that much doubt and disbelief about God is honest, reflecting good character rather than bad. And, as noted, a sort of ‘nonresistant nonbelief’ can be observed across long periods of human life that are at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving recognition because they pre-date ‘civilization.’ Also important is the fact that we have become more sensitive to how truly loving people are open to a meaningful conscious relationship with those whom they love, and less willing to assume that fathers – remember God the Father? – are often forgivably distant from their children.

Stir all these facts together, add the insight that you can’t have a meaningful conscious relationship with someone you don’t believe to exist, and what you have is a simple new argument for atheism, easily summarized: a perfect personal being (which God must be) would be perfectly loving toward all such creatures as ourselves, and so would be open to the relevant sort of relationship with us, and therefore would never allow the sort of nonbelief – completely nonresistant nonbelief – that flourishes on the planet.

With this reasoning, atheism – understood not as seeking the demolition of religion but as stroking out one item on a list of ways religion could be right – has claimed a large tract of hiddenness territory as its own, and has a powerful new argument to add to the problem of evil. (The hiddenness argument doesn’t depend on there being something bad as the argument from evil does.)

So we have the question: in 2015, to whom does ‘divine hiddenness’ belong? To theists or to atheists?

You might want to go with the second option, since if the atheistic hiddenness argument, focused on God’s existence, can’t be answered, there’s little point in speculating about why God might allow those other sorts of hiddenness I alluded to earlier – the hiddenness of God’s nature or of God’s presence or of God’s plan for the world.

But the issue is complicated by the fact that theists have in the past couple of decades been very busy trying to answer the atheistic hiddenness argument: a long line of replies followed the original statement of that argument into the literature. They keep coming. And very recently, analytical philosophers who belong to a movement called ‘analytical theology’ have sought to direct attention back to theology’s own broader take on hiddenness issues, and to the ways in which believing theists experience the hiddenness of God.

This last could be seen as an attempt on the part of theistic philosophers to reclaim the hiddenness discussion for theology. It could also be that theologians are hoping to generate some new and more convincing replies to the atheistic hiddenness argument. Unless that argument can be made to go away, the distraction of in-group conversations may prove ultimately unsatisfying. Indeed, the possibility of hiddenness in the context of a relationship with God, on which theistic philosophers have been focusing, may be more of a problem than a help, since it suggests that the hiddenness of God’s existence isn’t needed for the various good states of affairs under discussion. It would only be a distraction for God!

That is my view. But the hiddenness problem hasn’t been only mine for a long time now. At the present juncture, one might say that ‘divine hiddenness’ does not fully belong to either theists or atheists. Given how things started out, with the problem firmly in the hands of theists, that’s already an interesting realization. And it will be fascinating to see how the discussion continues to unfold. (Contributions from people new to the discussion are just out, or around the corner.) What ‘divine hiddenness’ will finally reveal no one knows.

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  1. - So What?

    […]  “A perfect personal being (which God must be) would be perfectly loving toward all such creatures as ourselves, and so would be open to the relevant sort of relationship with us, and therefore would never allow the sort of nonbelief – completely nonresistant nonbelief – that flourishes on the planet.”[2] […]

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