Divine Ingenuity and Divine Hiddenness

There has been a great deal written recently in philosophical literature about Divine Hiddenness (DH). Put most simply, DH is the undeniable but potentially troubling fact that the public evidence we possess for God’s presence and activity is less strong than it might be. But it is important to add that it also includes the (less obvious, but still very likely) claim that our public evidence is not strong enough to rationally compel belief among all people. In this essay DH will mean the claim that our public evidence is strong enough to make Christian faith reasonable, but not strong enough to make it compelling,1 and I will try to use DH as an important part of a Christian’s response to the claim that evolutionary biology provides us with strong evidence in favor of atheism. Some Christians have gone so far as to say that our public evidence is not even strong enough to make it reasonable to believe that God exists, or has acted, and that there is something essential to the very concept of faith that requires that our total evidence (both public and private) be so meager. Soren Kierkegaard, for example, seems to have thought this, holding that the “leap of faith” must be taken against reason. But I will stop short of that, because it seems to me that Christians both have and need an adequate response to charges that Christian faith is irrational. So let us carve out a window of ambiguity regarding the strength of our public evidence for God’s presence and activity, and say that DH is simply the fact that we humans generally are in that ambiguous condition (with allowance for a significant number of individual exceptions, including those who have witnessed miracles, or received special divine revelation, or reported certain kinds of overwhelming religious experiences).2

It is perhaps puzzling that DH has been called into the service of a remarkably wide range of purposes, from support of atheism to Christian attempts at theodicy (i.e., trying to explain why God sometimes behaves in ways we think he shouldn’t). I must admit to a certain amount of sympathy with the latter purpose (see the March 3 and 4, 2014 posts on this very site), but I must also grant that DH is one of the strongest pieces of evidence that atheists have for their view. But that may be because, contrary to what most of us initially tend to think, God wants to remain hidden to such an extent that atheists are likewise able to make a reasonable (but not compelling) case.

In what follows I hope to make the case that DH should be part of a Christian’s response to the argument that evolutionary biology supports atheism. That argument cites features of the evolutionary development of life on earth (such as long ages of predation and animal suffering, and biological systems that are grossly inefficient from an engineering standpoint) that are contrary to what most of us would initially expect given that the development of life on earth has taken place under the providential oversight of God. So, is it reasonable toexpect instead that God (in all of his traditional perfections) would use the messy method of evolutionary development to create beings like us? Yes! But a common and attractive way of arguing for this falls short, and we will need to supplement it with DH.

One way of overturning one’s initial expectations is to come to appreciate the aesthetically pleasing qualities present in a remarkably diverse universe that has unfolded gradually over time from simple beginnings, all as a consequence of a few carefully chosen laws. Such a creation displays remarkable ingenuity and creativity on the part of the creator, much more so than any instantaneous “zapping” into existence. In Psalm 104, we are invited to worship the creator on the basis of the diversity and comprehensiveness that we perceive in the creation. The wisdom revealed in a thoroughly gradual unfolding can seem much greater than any wisdom we could perceive in a creation characterized by sudden interventions into the gradual process. Some are even inclined to regard such interventions as reactive, as if God were adjusting for inadequacies in his initial plan for creation. Thus we have some reason to expect that God would reveal his wisdom through a seamless and unbroken natural path. This inclination has been expressed many times before (Leibniz is a notable proponent), but a recent and characteristically modern articulation comes from Howard J. Van Till: “I am inclined to have high expectations regarding the wealth of formational capabilities that comprise the universe’s formational economy. … If the universe is a Creation, as we Christians confess, then its natural capabilities are part of its God-given nature. That being the case, I am more inclined to look for the Creator’s signature in the generosity with which the Creation’s formational gifts have been conferred. In other words, I think the Creator is better known by what the Creation can do rather than by what it cannot.”3

Usually, this sort of appreciation of the “formational capabilities” of the universe is itself the result of a gradual process. It is not what we humans tend to think unreflectively, because it requires a considerable refinement of one’s aesthetic sensibilities. A long and potentially painful process of reflection is often needed before one is led to change one’s expectations regarding God’s creative behavior. Also, it is not obvious that such reflection will inevitably produce the change in expectations that Van Till describes, because some may regard periodic interventions as having aesthetic (or other) qualities of their own. However, let us grant to Van Till a powerful point. We may indeed appeal to the aesthetic qualities of a gradual and intervention-less creation to give us some reason to think that God would want to create in that way. Let us call this the “aesthetic appeal.”

How far will the aesthetic appeal take us? How much mileage can we get out of it? Is it sufficient to neutralize the atheistic argument outlined above, or will we need more? I am willing to concede that if the only biological evil to be overcome is engineering inefficiency, then the aesthetic appeal would suffice. But the others (long ages of predation and suffering) present us with a horrifying and shockingly vicious natural world. Darwin himself was famously led into theological doubts by reflecting on the morally despicable way in which the larvae of the Ichneumonidae, a parasitic wasp, eats its host caterpillar from the inside out while the caterpillar is still alive (a meal of fresh “meat” being more fitness-enhancing than a meal of partially decomposed “meat”). Examples may be multiplied, and each such example intensifies the problem. It is exceedingly difficult to regard such events as “good,” but the evolutionary account (which is now beyond doubt) places them into the very center of the creative process God has chosen. How can Genesis 1:31 ever be affirmed in the face of such a wretched state of affairs?4 If one is trying to persuade an undecided Christian that an evolutionary creation should move him/her to praise and worship, it is very poor salesmanship to bring up the ubiquity of predation.5 The aesthetic appeal is still as attractive as it ever was, but it has been swamped under by the overwhelming moral demerit of “nature red in tooth and claw.” We do need more, though there is no need to discard the aesthetic appeal.

If God has a good reason to remain significantly hidden (in the sense described above as DH), then it makes sense that some of the consequences of atheism will be at least partially borne out. And one of the consequences of atheism is that the universe is likely to contain many features that we find morally repugnant, and not just slightly so, but intensely so. Why would an impersonal universe be conveniently free of any truly stomach-churning features? No, such a universe would contain some of those too. So, if God wants to remain hidden to such an extent, then we may expect that atheists will have enough evidence to keep their view somewhere within the range of rational permissibility.

But why would God want to remain hidden to such a great extent? Surprisingly, this question has several reasonable answers, though none of them are decisive. I will end with what I take to be the best such answer, without for a moment suggesting that other answers are unreasonable. But plausibility is all we need for this task.

What is needed is a goal that God might have, the achievement of which is logically impossible unless God remains significantly hidden. Furthermore, achieving this goal must make it worthwhile for us to endure all the ill-effects of remaining temporarily within an ambiguous condition. Will anything suffice for this? If we can perceive great value in making important life commitments without being rationally compelled to do so, in order that we might own those commitments for ourselves (as opposed to having them forced upon us by rational compulsion), then we will have what we seek. This is, of course, an appeal to the value of some type of freedom, however one may understand our human freedom. It could be that our human commitments have a greater eternal value when God’s existence and activity are at least partially hidden from us, and this eternal value makes it worthwhile for us to temporarily endure the ill-effects of DH. And it is logically impossible to achieve this value apart from DH, because the value derives from the ambiguous condition itself. It simply is the value of making choices and commitments from within that ambiguous condition, so it is not possible to achieve it without being in that condition (yes, God is constrained by strictly logical requirements, which is a good thing for us).

Would you like to know more about this value? So would I. Do I need to say more about it in order to reasonably think there is such a value? No, I don’t think so, because most of us can sense how dull and unremarkable it is to commit to things that are rationally compelling for us. Failure to make such commitments consigns us to lunacy. Such commitments have little bearing on the direction or outcome of our lives other than to keep us in the mainstream of human discourse and activity. Who thinks there is anything impressive or praiseworthy or specially valuable about committing oneself in our age to, say, the quadratic formula, or Copernican astronomy, or the circulation of the blood? We have no rational alternatives, so there is no special value beyond mere expedience.

Though we may reasonably believe that there is such a value without further identifying or analyzing it, a more concrete example may nevertheless help to illustrate it. Suppose that the CEO of Company A is considering a merger with Company B. The strictly financial consequences of the merger might be so beneficial that the CEO cannot meet his/her fiduciary obligations to the shareholders without agreeing to the merger. Likewise, the financial benefits might be so meager that he/she is obligated to decline. In both cases the only value in the decision is conformity to constraints imposed by the financial realities. However, if the financial consequences neither compel nor forbid the merger, then the CEO is in some sense free to commit to the merger on the basis of other factors. In that case the financial situation is ambiguous with respect to a merger, and now the CEO’s commitment can acquire a different sort of (non-financial) value. But this non-financial value would be unattainable if the CEO has no financial alternatives, and in the same way life commitments cannot have any special (non-rational) value if we make them with no rational alternative. It is plausible to think so. And plausibility is all we need.

Notes & References

John T. Mullen
About the Author

John T. Mullen

Dr. John T. Mullen earned his doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame in 2004. He also holds a Masters degree in the History and Philosophy of Science from Notre Dame, and a Master's degree in Philosophy from Texas A&M University. He specializes in Epistemology, Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy of Science, and has extensive teaching experience in Ethics, Logic and the History of Philosophy. He has previously taught at St. Gregory’s University, the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics, Oklahoma Baptist University, and Valparaiso University. Dr. Mullen began teaching at Bethany College (Kansas) in 2012. He and his wife Rhonda have two children, Amy and Christopher. Dr. Mullen is also a retired U.S. Naval Reserve Commander, and a 1983 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.

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