by Alexander Earl
Most people are familiar with the problem of evil: how could an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God be consistent with the existence of evil? After all, if God is all-good he abhors evil, if he is all-knowing he is aware there is evil, and if he is all-powerful he is capable of putting a stop to evil. In short, he doesn’t want it, he knows it’s there, and he can do something about it. Nonetheless, evil abounds aplenty. Q.E.D. there is no God. Of course, we could also rehearse all the ways that the history of theology (and contemporary anglophone philosophy) has attempted to tackle this problem: Gnostic dualism, Platonic privation, the overriding goodness of free will, the argument from cosmic plenitude, the benefits of a world oriented toward soul-making, speculation about possible worlds, the eschatological balancing of goods, universalism, or even pastoral redirections to the Cross; each can co-exist in endless mixture, and each in turn can occur within the nuanced distinction between theodicies and defenses.[i]
However, there is perhaps a less well-known dilemma, which is a sub-set of the problem of evil, known as the problem of Divine Hiddenness. It has received a vibrant buzz of scholarship for almost 30 years, which unsurprisingly has followed a similar course as its predecessor, which goes something like this: an atheist comes out swinging that belief in God is logically unsound and simply irrational, theists come to defend the logical possibility of faith, said atheist backtracks and reframes with a lighter touch by focusing on evidential problems, then the issue moves to ‘defense’ theories, and finally other ‘classical theists’ come to the table and try to muster the weight of traditional wisdom for guidance, and finally the debate dies down, or moves into some other direction, or what have you. That the debates take a similar course of argument is positively instructive; that we inevitably need to turn to the Holy Fathers for guidance, the Church’s rich tradition of reflection, and what dogmas she has on the matter, is not altogether surprising; that we need to be reminded to do so, I must admit, will never cease to be frustrating.
For some background, the contemporary debate over Divine Hiddenness takes off in 1993, when J.L. Schellenberg published Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason. Almost all of the literature has focused on a rejection of one of the premises of Schellenberg’s original argument, which is expressed in the following:
S1. If there is a God, God is perfectly loving.
S2. If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable nonbelief does not occur.
S3. Reasonable nonbelief occurs.
S4. Therefore: No perfectly loving God exists.
S5. Therefore: there is no God.[ii]
Schellenberg’s reasoning seems to rely on two underlying commitments. The first, if God is perfectly loving, then God would seek explicit reciprocal relationships with all of his creatures and, given that fact, we might expect God’s existence to be a little more obvious than it is. In other words, Schellenberg claims that there is a direct connection between love and the willing of personal relationships and so, he insists, how much more so for perfect love. The second commitment is related to the first: one way in which we might expect God to produce said relationships—or at any rate one way in which God could produce them—is by providing a kind of religious experience. I consider this claim about the necessary connection between (a) perfect love and (b) religious experience to be foundational to the Schellenbergian argument. I will return to these commitments later.
To get a grasp of what this argument entails, start by just looking around. You will find unbelief in God a rather typical state of affairs. Should we infer that every single instance of that unbelief is unreasonable? Let’s presume that most people do not have good reasons for their unbelief; nonetheless, there have been some prominent intellectuals who have desperately desired to believe, but simply could not bring themselves to do so in light of the evidence. And surely we can imagine many who have suffered horrendous evils, with no presence of God to be found, having some good reasons for losing faith, right? Ivan’s tirade in The Brothers Karamazov always comes to mind as he recounts the Turks butchering infants out of mere whim; another example comes from Schellenberg himself, who tries to draw an analogy of God’s hiddenness to us: picture a child lost in the wilderness, surrounded by beasts of prey, sobbing for its mother to no avail. Maybe this child even has amnesia, isn’t quite sure it has a mother, but in its most desperate moments calls out anyway. Would a perfectly loving God let these events occur, leaving infants to bayonets and his children to sulk alone in a dangerous and darkened wood? It certainly raises some concern. But before getting too ahead of ourselves, let’s take stock of the debate up to this point.
Justin McBrayer and Philip Swenson provide a helpful summary of the debate and its various positions. To summarize, they split the positions into those that reject S2 and those that reject S3, demonstrate how they are inadequate responses, and then offer their own response known as skeptical theism. For our purposes, I only want to summarize what they consider as the ‘major contemporary defenses’ and what they propose as a solution.[iii]
Those positions that reject S2 are labeled as follows: The Coercion defense, the argument that God’s revealing himself would prove coercive and thus remove the possibility of free will, which is a morally significant good.[iv] The Goods defense, the argument that God’s hiddenness, for all we know, is necessary for bringing about certain goods, such as a respect for the will and desires of human beings, personal relationship, love and trust, humility, love of truth, and so on.[v] The Improper response defense, the argument that God’s revealing himself would prove explicitly harmful to some, i.e. they may respond negatively to such a revelation.[vi] As for those that reject S3, McBrayer and Swenson provide the following: Sin, the argument that human sin is to blame for our cognitive and moral failings, and if not for sin God’s existence would be obvious to us.[vii] And lastly, the G.E. Moore Shift, the argument that belief in S2 entails that S3 is false, for if a perfectly loving God exists, then supposed instances of reasonable nonbelief are in fact illusory, e.g. the mark of self-deception.[viii]
As for their own view, McBrayer and Swenson argue that, “we don’t think that atheists or theists can say with any serious degree of confidence why God does what he does or why he would or wouldn’t do a certain thing.”[ix] Moreover, their critique of the positions, as a totality, amounts to insisting that “they each assume that we can know too much.”[x] Given those assumptions, McBrayer and Swenson consider their position free from common objections, as well as embodying a kind of intellectual humility that is missing from the literature.
That’s wonderful as things go, intellectual humility is a must, and epistemic realism is admirable; but I’m not sure how this view doesn’t amount to a mere scholarly parry. It is what I frequently call a punt to mystery. Mysteries are conclusions to rigorous metaphysical reflection, not a comfortable premise that allows one to escape through the back door when things get messy.
So what’s gone wrong here, then? As alluded to above, where are the Fathers? Where are the Councils or the canons? Where is the liturgy with its fasts and feasts, its hymns and rhythms? More pertinently, what God is even under discussion here? Is it the God revealed in Christ who through the Spirit is present in the Church until the end of the age? Is it the God revealed in the singing of the psalms and the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the one cup? The real difficulty here is that the entire debate has lost sight of not only what the classical tradition means by God, but it has lost sight of God’s transcendence as it is revealed in Christ and encountered in the Eucharist, which is not a revelation opposed to hiddenness, but is rather the revelation of hiddenness. This neglect is purposeful. Schellenberg explicitly denies that Christians have recourse to an argument from Divine transcendence, saying quite boldly that “theists […] are not in a position to think of God as absolutely transcendent”—a more bizarre claim could not be made.
Any cursory engagement with the Christian tradition demonstrates that it is absolutely and unequivocally a tradition of apophaticism, which means it is a tradition that engages God as the Absolute, the Transcendent, and the Simple cause of all; God’s ineffability logically follows from that reality. Schellenberg’s rationale for rejecting transcendence and apophaticism stems from the seeming performative contradiction of saying, “God is ineffable.” If God were ineffable, then I shouldn’t be able to say anything about him, either the putative title ‘God’ or an attribute like ‘ineffability’. However, Schellenberg argues, Christians are committed to saying quite a bit about God; thus, God must not be ineffable; therefore, God must not be absolutely transcendent.[xi] However, this train of thought fails to understand the dynamics of the apophatic tradition. We have to understand first principles, per Origen:
God therefore must not be thought to be any kind of body, nor exist in a body, but to be a simple intellectual existence, admitting in himself of no addition whatever, so that he cannot be believed to have in himself a more or a less, but is Unity, or if I may so say, Oneness throughout, and the mind and fount from which originates all intellectual existence or mind.
– Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles I.1
God must be absolutely simple, consisting of no parts whatsoever, even metaphysical parts. To be a composite entity is to have parts that are prior to the unity, and God can have no reality that is prior to himself. Moreover, to have parts is to raise the causal question of how those parts have come to exist as a unity, or how they can be meaningfully distinguished as parts of said unity. Since God is not caused, but is the source of all things, then no such causal question can emerge. Further, if God is absolutely simple, then there can be no intellection of him:
To tell of God is not possible, so my argument runs, but to know him is even less possible. For language may show the known if not adequately, at least faintly, to a person not totally deaf and dull of mind. But to mentally grasp so great a matter is utterly beyond real possibility…
– Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 28.4
Intellection requires an object of intellection, and to know an object is to know it as one thing over against another, a this instead of a that. If God is the source of all things, then he is not one of them. The very categories of sameness and difference are posterior to him. It is for these reasons that there is a robust tradition of speaking about the encounter of God as the encounter of darkness:
What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? […] For leaving behind everything is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness […] knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by men but also by every intelligent creature.
– Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses 2.162-163
It is not as if God were a really big entity whose attributes are quantitatively superior to ours and so we politely say we cannot know him. On the contrary, he is absolutely unknowable, and that confession is not a pious platitude. In fact, that God is absolutely unknowable is the philosophical ground of the Judeo-Christian prohibition of idolatry. No image or conception of God can capture God, nothing can define him as a this and so limit him or, worse, control and manipulate him. We must protect against idolatry if we are to encounter the true and living God! So Evagrius of Pontus says, with a sheer simplicity of words to match the content:
God cannot be grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped, he would not be God.
– Evagrius of Pontus, PG 40:1275C
Contra Schellenberg, it would be a mistake to think that the insistence on God’s ineffability and unknowability is in flagrant contradiction to speaking about God. Theological language is irreducibly cataphatic (positive) and apophatic (negative). Nonetheless, the apophatic way, the via negativa, always takes precedence, but to speak of apophatic language in the truest sense is not to say God is known by negative language, but rather that we must transcend language altogether.
Since it is the Cause of all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regards to beings, and, more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmation, since it surpasses all being. Now we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion.
– Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology 100B-C
To know the world is to know it as caused, dependent, finite, limited, measured, and so on. But coming to that insight alone is to encounter the uncaused, absolute, infinite, unlimited, unmeasured. One can only do the former, that is, know reality qua finitude, if one somehow is in touch with the standard that judges it as such. Once we have rallied the full weight of creation to speak about God, we must understand that it points beyond itself, it speaks indeed; but its speech necessarily fails. Thus, the language manifests the hidden, but it manifests it as hidden. To know something as finite is simultaneously to see it as pointing to the infinite, but I cannot get beyond the finite to the infinite, I can only encounter the infinite in the finite, and I cannot reduce one to the other. To negate the negation, to successfully engage in the apophatic, is to hold the positive and negative language in a consistent tension to keep the mind from complacency in the created or lower God to the created. I must encounter God in creation by knowing the world as created. In short, God is the source of all genera, but is himself not a genus.
God is not essence, understood as either general or particular, even if he is principle; nor is he potency understood as either general or particular, even if he is means; he is not act, understood as either general or particular, even if he is end of essential movement discerned in potency. But he is a principle of being who is creative of essence and beyond essence, a ground who is creative of power but beyond power, the active and eternal condition of every act, and to speak briefly, the Creator of every essence, power, and act, as well as every beginning, middle, and end.
– Maximus the Confessor, Chapters on Knowledge I.4
In Aristotelian language, God is not a mix of potency and act, but neither is he one or the other absolutely. He is the condition of the possibility of all things. As condition, he is prior to them; yet as their very possibility, the power of their power, all things inevitably reflect his superabundant life. This dynamic is enshrined in Christian Orthodoxy; it cannot be conceived of as anything less than dogma:
The Divinity, then, is limitless and incomprehensible, and this His limitlessness and incomprehensibility is all that can be understood about Him. All that we state affirmatively about God does not show His nature, but only what relates to His nature.
– John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith I.4
I must be clear, this vision is not peculiar to the Greek East, just take two examples from the two pillars of the Latin tradition:
Have I said anything, solemnly uttered anything that is worthy of God? On the contrary, all I feel I have done is to wish to say something; but if I have said anything, it is not what I wished to say. How do I know this? I know it because God is inexpressible […] this battle of words should be avoided by keeping silent, rather than resolved by the use of speech. And yet, while nothing really worthy of God can be said about him, he has accepted the homage of human voices, and has wishes to rejoice in praising him with our words.
– Augustine of Hippo, On Teaching Christianity I.6
And even in that strenuous scholasticism that the East typically laments, we find a total commitment to God’s transcendence and ineffability:
Now, because we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not.
– Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia Q. 3, preface
Notice the context of what Augustine has said (and even the context of Thomas’s Summa). It is the context of praise. The apophatic is not merely intellectualized faith, something akin to ‘the God of the philosophers’, a scholastic maxim, or the privileged view of analytic ‘theologians.’ It is enshrined in the powerful principle of lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of belief); it is the inheritance and experience of every baptized Christian, which is embodied in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Consider, the liturgy begins with a recognition of God’s transcendence and ineffability as the faithful gather together to begin—to use Dionysian language—their ascent toward the synaxis of the noetic altar:
O Lord our God, whose power is incomparable, whose glory is incomprehensible, whose mercy is immeasurable, and whose love for mankind is inexpressible…
– Prayer of the First Antiphon
From there plunging into ever-deepening layers of hiddenness and manifestation, reaching a heightened pitch at the Anaphora:
It is meet and right to hymn thee, to bless thee, to praise thee, to give thanks to thee, and to worship thee in every place of thy dominion, for thou are God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing, and eternally the same…
– The Holy Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom
And here we arrive at the apophatic core: the Eucharist. Indeed, the Eucharist is not simply presence, immanence, and manifestation; it is simultaneously absence, transcendence, and hiddenness. Martin V. Nemoianu, a philosopher and professor at Loyola Marymount University, has made precisely this argument in the context of the problem of divine hiddenness by drawing on a most unlikely ally, Blaise Pascal. Nemoianu’s explanation is worth quoting in full:
Turning then to a broader consideration of the question, Pascal writes that the history of the world can be understood as the history of God entering ever more deeply into the particulars of nature and human experience (OC II, pp. 30–31). Seen from one side, God’s action may be understood as progressive concealment. God hides himself first of all in nature itself. He then veils himself in the words of scripture, and once more beneath the literal meaning of those words, in the mystical sense of the text. In time he hides himself within the visible human nature of Christ. Finally and most fully, he conceals himself beneath the homely species of the Eucharist.Pascal is quite in earnest when he refers to the divine entry into human history as hiding. “All things,” he says, “are veils which cover God” (OC II, p. 31), and he claims, strikingly, that God was easier to discern before the Incarnation, under the veil of nature generally, than afterward. Indeed, God’s presence in the species of the Eucharist is “the strangest and most obscure” concealment of all (OC II, p. 30).
And yet, Pascal argues that, taken from another side, God’s intentional hiding is progressive self-disclosure. Under each veil of natural and historical particulars, he is found by some. Past the appearances of the natural world, he is discovered by pagans, who, as St. Paul puts it, recognize an invisible God through visible nature. Beneath the words of scripture, in its literal sense, he is found by all the Jews, and, beneath this, in its mystical sense, by a smaller group. At the Incarnation, hidden in the human nature of Christ, God is found by all Christians. Lastly, concealed by the sacramental veil, he is recognized by all Catholics in the Eucharist.[xii]
If Nemoianu is right, which I believe he is, then reasonable non-belief does not occur, and so S3 is false. God’s existence is demonstrable from the things he has made, and the history of religious adherence (of all stripes), as well as the philosophical and theological reflection of over two millennia, make that fact abundantly clear; non-belief is an anomaly of the modern world. The atheist lacks the democracy of history and experience on their side. In which case, the burden of proof most certainly falls to them.
Further, the claim that a perfectly loving God would not allow such non-belief to occur is likewise false. For what we see in the problem of Divine hiddenness is precisely a demand for God to conform to human expectations and desires. It is an idolatrous demand on the part of humanity, not a failure of God to perfectly love his creation. To say so is to refuse to paint God as an obstinate protector of his fragile personality, as if he could do otherwise than he does. In brief, it is metaphysically impossible for God to be otherwise than he is, and that necessity is not imposed upon God as something external to God, but is the perfect freedom of the source of all being as the summum bonum.
Here we arrive at where I began. Schellenberg says that one way that God could manifest himself to all his creatures in order to combat non-belief, and fulfill the obligations of perfect love (which seeks explicit reciprocal relationships) is through a kind of religious experience. However, the religious experience he has in mind does not accord with the theological tradition, nor, as we can see, is it even possible: if you comprehend it, it is not God. To repeat, God is not some discrete object of experience. While it is true that there are different kinds of ‘extraordinary’ experiences available to us, and the scriptures are full of the experiences of angelic beings and other facets of reality beyond the material, these are experiences that come with proper receptivity and holiness. In other words, they are there for us whenever we become properly receptive to the Divine. Religious experience, in fact religion as such, is about attunement to reality and not about the arbitrary interventions of a massive being or attempts to coax that massive being into satisfying our will. To quote Maximus the Confessor: “voluntary movement, either in accord with the will and word of God or against the will and word of God, prepared each person to hear the divine voice” (Ambiguum 7.3 1085C). And just to demonstrate that this view is not unique to Christianity:
How then, since we possess such great things, do we not apprehend them[?] […] it is necessary, then, if there is to be apprehension of the things that are thus present, to turn that which apprehends inward, and pay attention to what is there. Just as, if someone waiting for a voice that he wants to hear, turning away from other voices, should arouse his ear toward the best of things heard, when it comes; so too, here, dismissing sensible sounds except as far as necessary, we must keep the soul’s power of apprehension pure and ready to hear the voices from above.
– Plotinus, Ennead V.1.12, 1-20
We do not need extraordinary religious experience to experience God, for the greatest religious experience is open to all through the levels of reality God has gifted to us through nature, scripture, incarnation, and eucharist. We must engage God as God has revealed himself. To encounter those realities in truth is to understand that Divine hiddenness is not a problem, it is the very context of the believer’s experience of God. It is a basic dogma of Orthodoxy. God reveals himself as hidden, and each revelation is a deepening of that hiddenness, not an annihilation of it. If you desire to encounter God, then enter a church. God is there in the nature encompassing the building and in the very matter of its foundations and its walls. God is there in the mystical reading of the scriptures. God is there in the hymns, the feasts and the fasts. God is there on the altar. He courses through the flesh and sinews of the communicants being formed in his likeness. He is declared in the radiant splendor of the halos encompassing the saints in the iconography. Yet, even there, amidst it all, you will encounter darkness. In fact, you are invited to know only darkness…
Taste and see that the Lord is good.
[i] The gist of the difference between a theodicy and a defense is that the former intends to provide the reasons God has for X, while the latter tries to consider possible reasons God might have for X.
[ii] Schellenberg has since reformulated his argument in terms of modality. For the argument’s development, see Schellenberg (1993, 1996, 2005, 2007, 2016) below. I’ve focused on the argument found in (1993), but as formulated by Michael Rea in Rea (2016). Rea, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, is perhaps one of the few major analytic philosophers attempting to argue from the historical tradition, to greater and lesser degrees of success. I would devote more attention to that fact if only time and space would allow.
J.L. Schellenberg (1993) Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press).
—(1996) ‘Response to Howard-Snyder,’ Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 26, 455-462
—(2005) ‘The hiddenness argument revisited’ Religious Studies, 41, 287-303
—(2007) The Wisdom to Doubt (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press).
—(2016) ‘Divine hiddenness and human philosophy,’ in Hidden Divinity and Religious Belief: New Perspectives (Cambridge University Press), 13-32.
Michael C. Rea (2009) ‘Narrative, Liturgy, and the Hiddenness of God’ in Metaphysics and God: Essays in Honor of Eleanore Stump (NY: Routledge).
—(2011) ‘Deus Absconditus,’ in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology (Stamdford CT: Cengage Learning), 369-392.
—(2016) ‘Hiddenness and transcendence,’ in Hidden Divinity and Religious Belief: New Perspectives (Cambridge University Press), 211-225.
[iii] McBrayer 142; Justin P. McBrayer & Philip Swenson (2012) ‘Scepticism about the argument from divine hiddenness,’ Religious Studies, 48, 129-150
[iv] ibid. 132-134
[v] ibid. 134-135
[vi] ibid. 135-138
[vii] ibid. 139-140
[viii] ibid. 141-142
[ix] ibid. 145
[x] ibid. 148
[xi] Schellenberg (1993), 46
[xii] Martin V. Nemoianu, ‘Pascal on Divine Hiddenness’ in the International Philosophical Quarterly vol. 55. No. 3, Issue 219 (September 2015) p. 341
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Alexander Earl currently teaches Theology and History at a college-preparatory school in Santa Monica, California. He holds a Masters of Arts in Religion and Philosophical Theology from Yale Divinity School.