Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The God That Hides Himself

In a piece called The mystery of faith that is baffling but beyond doubt in Saturday's Times (behind a paywall, sadly), the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, Geoffrey Rowell wrote about something that does indeed baffle; what is the justification for belief?

Natural theology looks to establish good reason for belief in a god, and revealed theology looks to persuade toward a particular flavour. Neither is successful in their project, often by their own proponent's admission. William Lane Craig, for example, who runs a website called reasonablefaith.com only believes because a 'radiant' girl told him that god loved him, not because he was persuaded by the arguments.

The believer is on the horns of a dilemma: if you have reason to believe, why should you be rewarded with eternal life - you're just doing what any reasonable person should do. On the other hand, if you don't have reason to believe, well, you shouldn't, and you won't be rewarded with eternal life! Either way, I don't see why belief with or without evidence deserves eternal life.

Rowell grabs this dilemma by both horns, and gets gored by both:
The biblical writers recognised that the God who makes himself known is at the same time a hidden God - as the prophet Isaiah exclaims, "Truly thou art a god who hidest thyself!"
Great; hidden but 'seen', somehow. This is the common refrain of the believer who wants to privilege his perception over non-believers'.

In Elijah's flight, God reveals himself in "a still small voice", or the "sound of thin silence":
It is this silence, almost the absence of God, which is the presence of God which awes Elijah into worship.
When almost absence is equated to presence, then we know we're skating on thin ice, not thin silence.
Centuries later the poet, R.S. Thomas, would speak of God's "absence which is his presence".
Now we seem to be getting into straight apophaticism. He then quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins as writing in a letter:
You do not mean by mystery what a Catholic does. You mean an interesting uncertainty... But a Catholic by mystery means an incomprehensible certainty.
I think we're familiar with the Catholic certainty supposedly delivered by 'divine light'

But this is hand-waving; if the certainty is incomprehensible, it is unjustified. If something is absent, it is not present. If it's hidden, it cannot be seen. If something is baffling, it cannot be beyond doubt. Embracing contradictions like these will simply result in absurdities. We are all allowed our own private absurdities, but it's time we grew up as a society and banished them from respectable public fora.


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