INTRO BY JIM: Why isn’t God’s existence and presence more blatantly obvious in the world? Many people within the faith claim to see God everywhere, but to those outside the faith that is just a subjective, “reading into” experience. They want to see something more tangible and objective. And to be honest, many people within the faith also experience “dark nights of the soul,” when God does not seem to be present in the sense we think he should. John Mullen has written for us before about the hiddenness of God. Here he digs deeper into what reasons God may have for leaving public evidence of his existence somewhat ambiguous.
Previously on the BioLogos blog (March 3 and 4, 2014; and January 7, 2015) I suggested that God has taken steps to remain significantly hidden to us, and that fact has explanatory power regarding His (otherwise puzzling) choice to create us through an evolutionary process that contains a variety of apparent evils that usually shock us. That suggestion stands, but I was perhaps frustratingly unforthcoming regarding the reasons God might have for remaining so hidden. And it is important that we be able to produce at least one plausible reason. The appeal to God’s hiddenness will seem suspiciously arbitrary if we cannot supplement it with at least an inkling of a reason for why God would want to actively hide. But if we do have such an inkling, then the appeal to hiddenness will seem a natural, even inevitable, response to His choice to create by evolutionary means. So this essay is an attempt to say a little more about God’s reasons to remain hidden, and perhaps remove some of the frustration. But it is certainly not an attempt to present an exhaustive list of possible reasons, nor even an attempt to prove that the reasons offered here are correct. But I do take them to be plausible, and I think we can be content with that. If anyone can find additional reasons, then by all means use them. When it comes to reasons for God’s hiddenness, the more the merrier.
First, let’s briefly review what has been said already (see the 1/7/15 post). Hiddenness was defined as a condition of evidential ambiguity in which we humans find ourselves, precisely because God has intentionally placed us in it. Our public evidence for God’s presence and activity is strong enough to make it reasonable for us to believe, but not strong enough to rationally overwhelm us. Such a condition seems necessary for our choices and life commitments to be praiseworthy exercises of our personal freedom, regardless of the multiple ways one might understand our human freedom. If our evidence is too strong or too weak, rationality compels us to believe or disbelieve respectively, and freedom becomes a curse. This is because it opens up the possibility of making irrational and potentially blameworthy commitments, but does not seem to generate any additional value when it is redundantly exercised in conformity to pre-existing rational requirements. Hence there is a significant value in making choices and commitments from within this ambiguous condition, and this may be the value of freedom itself. But in the 1/7/15 blogpost we stopped there, not saying anything about what the object of our commitments might be. That happened because I claimed that we don’t need to identify or analyze the value of freedom any further in order to reasonably believe that there is some sort of very significant value in it. That’s true, I think, but it might leave one feeling a bit shortchanged. Perhaps we can sense that there is a significant value in freedom, and hence also in the ownership of our commitments that seems to follow from making them freely, but sometimes we can find ourselves wondering if we wouldn’t be better off if we were less free. Is freedom itself really so valuable? We might ask this, not because there is some sort of error in the initial perception of the value of freedom, but rather because we might think that further reflection can defeat that initial perception. There are many (perhaps even most of us?) who have abused their freedom so harmfully that they might gladly trade it in for a little compulsion if it would have prevented them from behaving as they did. Thus we hear and understand the psalmist who pleads with God to “keep [him] from willful sins, that they may not rule over [him]” (Psalm 19:13, somewhat paraphrased). So, in order to restore our confidence that our freedom is good for us, perhaps we should try to identify an additional condition that is so valuable that we can reasonably believe that God would want to remain hidden in order to enable us to commit to it freely. That’s a mouthful, but it does make sense. So, let’s try it.
To move things along, I will skip over a great deal of historical study of the great thinkers in Christian history who have wrestled deeply with this very issue (most notably Luther, Pascal and Kierkegaard), and propose a condition that I believe emerges from such a study: God hides in order that human beings will come to know and love him for his gracious attributes, and not for His glorious attributes. We must, of course, distinguish between the gracious attributes and the glorious attributes, but that won’t be terribly difficult. Let’s stipulate that the gracious attributes are mercy, forgiveness, tender affection, humility, mildness, compassion, loving-kindness, etc. And as for the glorious attributes, let’s identify them as power and knowledge. That will suffice for our purposes, and I think the distinction is clear. However, for present purposes I must leave it to the reader’s intuitive judgment to recognize that this is a condition God would indeed regard as very valuable, and would seek to achieve, and that hiding (in the sense of leaving us in an ambiguous evidential condition) is necessary to achieve it. The latter is especially clear once it is granted that it is fallen creatures such as ourselves that he seeks to bring into such a condition. As a first step into the necessary historical investigations, I recommend Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation and Kierkegaard’s famous Parable of the Mighty King and Humble Maiden (see note 1).
But even if a thorough survey of Luther, Pascal and Kierkegaard should persuade us that God has good reasons to remain significantly hidden, the extent of the hiddenness may yet remain a puzzle. None of them directly discussed the possibility that God may wish to leave atheism open to human beings as a reasonable option given our public evidence (though Kierkegaard does hint at it). Can the reason we have proposed so far be employed as a plausible explanation for why God might want to remain hidden to that degree? Yes, I think so. That is, I don’t think we will need to seek an additional end or goal that God may have. But we may need to place the one we have already identified into a new context.
Whatever value itself may be (I am not undertaking an analysis of value or “goodness” here) it is evident that value can be perceived, and this is an experience with which (almost) all of us are intimately familiar. And a very common experience is to perceive a very high degree of value whenever a person overcomes obstacles, endures hardships or successfully opposes threats, in the pursuit or preservation of something that is itself highly valuable. Furthermore, the greater the obstacles, hardships and threats, the greater is the value that is perceived in the overcoming, the enduring and the opposition. Now I cannot argue forcefully for any of this without a satisfactory account of value, and I doubt very much that anyone has such a thing. So all of us will have to proceed in the absence of an argument that makes confident use of a general account of value. But it does not follow that we must proceed blindly, without any basis in experience at all. We may appeal to our raw and unreflective (perhaps naïve?) perceptions of value, and that is what I propose to do. Such perceptions can be corrected and perhaps overturned by subsequent reflection, but presumably the correcting process must contain appeals to other perceptions of value that are themselves raw and unreflective. We may hope in time to reach a state of equilibrium, or balance, with respect to all our basic perceptions, even though they may conflict with each other initially. But that project is far too ambitious for the present task. Today we are looking for a plausible reason to think that God may want to leave atheism as a reasonable option given our public evidence. I propose to do that by appealing to the value that (almost) all of us perceive in overcoming obstacles, enduring hardships and opposing threats. Further reflection may require some modifications, but we may leave that for another time. Right now we are trying to establish whatever it is that may require modification in the future.
So let us imagine a person, call her “Susan,” who has come to believe in God because she is taking her private evidence seriously. Susan’s private evidence includes a love that she senses for God because of His attributes of grace and mercy. So Susan has established her relationship with God on the proper basis as we have identified it so far. She then cultivates this relationship “with her whole heart” in accordance with what she has been taught within her faith community, and consistently with what she reasonably believes on the basis of her experience. Both the relationship itself and her subsequent cultivation of it are extremely valuable. So far so good for Susan. As time goes by, she encounters obstacles and threats to her faith, and finds that maintaining it can seem like a hardship. But it is even more valuable for Susan to maintain her faith in spite of all the pain and opposition. Susan recognizes that fact herself, which helps her to maintain her faith. And God, knowing that the value of her faith and its maintenance is increased as the severity of the threats to it are increased, does Susan the favor (though she will have great difficulty recognizing it as such, at least for a time) of increasing the severity of the threats to her faith. And it should be obvious that placing Susan into a condition such that her public evidence makes it reasonable (but not overwhelmingly obvious) that the universe is ultimately pointless and absurd will severely threaten her faith. But of course the value of maintaining her faith against such opposition is correspondingly increased. She must rely on her private evidence even more, which means holding fast to the grace and mercy that she perceives in God’s character. And so God does indeed have a good reason to place her into such a condition. But that is just to say that God has a good reason to remain hidden to the degree now under consideration. This is a very great value that can be realized only if Susan must seriously confront the abyss of a pointless and absurd universe. And the threat of a pointless universe can be seriously confronted only if one’s public evidence is at least strong enough to make it reasonable to think such a thing. May we sum up this discussion by concluding that God’s reason for hiding to this extent is that he wants us to realize the value in holding fast to His grace and mercy, even against the threat of pointlessness and absurdity?
We are all like Susan. For if she should be placed into a social environment that includes a certain kind of publically available evidence base, then everyone in her social environment will share that publicly available evidence base. Now it is possible that we are rapidly heading toward a social condition in which all humans will share a common public evidence base. Hence God, in anticipating such a time, has a good reason for ensuring that that evidence base leaves atheism (i.e., the type of atheism that has a pointless and absurd universe as a consequence) open as a reasonable option. God may, of course, continue to supply individuals with private evidence as he pleases. But that is precisely the point.