The Absence of God

God himself, as God, does not appear in the world or in human experience.  He is not the kind of being that can be present as a thing in the world.  And yet, despite this necessary absence, he is believed to be that which gives the definitive sense to everything that does appear in the world and in experience.  We first learn about the Christian God in the course of Christian living.  We hear about him through preaching, we address him in prayer, and we attempt to respond to him in our actions; however, we approach him as one who will always be absent to us while we remain in something we now must call “our present state.”

Robert Sokolowski

Last February I preached on a text from Isaiah, using this quote about the necessary absence of God.  The sermon made a distinction between what is immediately present and what is indirectly present.  The creation is immediately present to us — the Creator is not.  I went on to say there are certain ways we encounter traces of God, ways God is indirectly present to us.  That sermon generated more responses than anything I’ve preached in a while, and it must be because I departed from the usual banalities about the presence of God and took seriously the absence of God.

The Bible affirms God’s presence.  “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Ex. 33:14)  The Bible also names God Deus Absconditus, the Hidden God (Is. 45:15).  We hold both in tension.  I am speaking less lately about the presence of God because our ordinary experience is of the absence of God.  Mystical experience is different, but most of us are not mystics.  It is actually freeing not to need to have dramatic experiences of the divine presence, grateful simply for the traces of God found in nature, in human love and in religion.

Quaker writers have been teaching me about the practice of silence, which they see as a kind of sacrament of the presence of God.  I am more inclined, though, to see silence as a sacrament of the absence of God.  In the emptiness of silence I turn my attention to the Hidden God, whom I walk with by faith and not by sight.

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9 Responses to The Absence of God

  1. Ken says:

    I think your approach is good and fits your context.

    In the PCUSA I experienced the absence of God. In the Roman Catholic Church I experienced his presence, the presence of Jesus. I imagine your context in the Methodist church is like that of the PCUSA. So it is important to acknowledge the experience of the absence of God, as you have done, whatever it means, wherever it leads.

    Recently reading Simone Weil, in discussion involving the words “absence of God” I came across this: God “loves not as I love but as an emerald is green.” Like so much of her expression, it leaves me meditating. “As an emerald is green” takes me into John’s vision in Revelation 4:3. I find the presence of God in her writing.

  2. Chris says:

    Sokolowski is a Catholic theologian. I think by absence he is referring to something other than what we happen to feel in a certain place. God’s very nature makes Him absent to our senses and incomprehensible to our minds, even though He is always present to us. He is hidden. What you are talking about has more to do with emotions, at least in part. The PCUSA hurt you with the hatreds and bigotries you encountered, and that hurt makes it impossible to sense God’s (hidden) presence there. It’s very understandable.

  3. Ken says:

    Actually, I was not thinking of emotions, not mine, not others, nor of the numerous cruel ministers I encountered in the PCUSA, nor of its leftist bigotries and hatreds.

    I was thinking of that absence of God associated with reformed theology that numerous writers have described. Annie Dillard, and Alfred Kazin are two that come to mind immediately. It is an absence that I have experienced in the PCUSA having nothing to do with what you imagined, before my encounters with cruelty there. In addition, I was thinking of the absence of God associated with modernity that other writers have described. One thinks immediately of Nietzsche, but also contemporaries such as Charles Taylor and Peter Berger, for example. I was thinking that such experiences may be behind the numerous responses to your sermon, even if that is not what you were talking about – or maybe it was just a great sermon (I don’t mean to discount that possibility.)

    Simone Weil, although not baptized, was, I think, Roman Catholic in her faith. Her discussion of this absence is probably something like that of Sololowski and like that in your sermon.

    The PCUSA is enriched by your membership, as is the Methodist church.

  4. Chris says:

    I am not aware of the “absence of God associated with Reformed theology.” Earlier this year I read Calvin’s 1541 Institutes, and the absence of God was not a theme he stressed. If anything, for Calvin God’s pervasive presence is everywhere. Maybe this is more a theme in contemporary Reformed thought. But then, I am far from an expert on Reformed thought, and I have noticed the word Reformed means different things to different people.

    The more I think about this absence, the more I see it is not absence in an absolute sense. It is absence relative to us and our human limitations. God is always present to us, but God by His very nature is absent to our senses and our ordinary experience. Much in the same way I can stand next to a dung beetle, and I am absent to it and to its perceptions, unless I squash it. So in this sense, the absence I am contemplating is not an existential despair kind of absence… it more simply built into the reality of things.

    Funny you should be reading Simone Weil. I am just finishing Diogenes Allen’s Three Outsiders. Weil is the third outsider, after Pascal and Kierkegaard. I would commend this book to anyone. Allen has a way of simplifying and clarifying the complex ideas of these three writers.

  5. Ken says:

    Luther wrote about it.

    I will look for the book by Allen. Weil is not easy to read in a conventional sense, but her prose contains many sentences that cause us to pause and meditate.

  6. Jill Archer says:

    Interesting. I have been contemplating this idea of a personal Jesus. I wonder if it is inaccurate that God speaks to us as we would speak to us as a friend or if God is creator and infinite, and therefore God, but not the touchy feely God who works out all our crisis.

  7. Chris says:

    These are complicated matters, Jill. I’m still trying to reconcile the necessary absence of God with a healthy doctrine of divine providence, which I also believe. God is hidden, but God also guides us. Scripture teaches both truths. Still working on it. Thanks for your comment.

  8. Timothy says:

    Simone Weil had a framework for talking about this absence (which is the basis for her whole theology, really) in a really helpful way for me:

    “Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.”

  9. Chris says:

    Timothy, this is a beautiful image. Thank you.

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