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Editor’s Note: This article is the second part of a two-part series on why God hides. Read part one here

By the dawn of the twenty-first century, theology and science had begun to work together to unravel some of the deepest mysteries of existence. Resources from numerous academic disciplines were brought to bear on perplexing questions from the past. Today, philosophers such as Adam Green at the University of Oklahoma pursue an interdisciplinary approach to the question of God’s hiddennessone that is informed not just by the insights of philosophy and theology, but also from concepts and empirical findings from the cognitive science of religion, psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience. Green describes his own approach to the problem of divine hiddenness as one “where Justin Barrett meets Charles Taylor.” In other words, Green is pointing out that both the cognitive science of religion and the history of Western secularism have as much to say about this problem as philosophy does.

Is God Even Interested in Us?

Existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard contended that humanity’s relationship with God is an affair of the heart more than a matter of the mind, and the religious pilgrimage is like a passionate love affair that cannot be reduced to a set of mathematical certainties. If perceiving God is more like romance than calculus, then perhaps the real question behind the problem of divine hiddenness is whether or not God is actually interested in having a relationship with us. As philosopher Adam Green says, the “issue of hiddenness only really arises when we posit the existence of a personal God who is interested in us.” 

Divine hiddenness is not a problem for the God of deism or for the concept of an impersonal divine force. Such a God would not care to be experienced or participate in a relationship with sentient creatures. The problem of divine hiddenness is only a problem for a type of God who wants to make himself known to the creatures that he created. With this in mind, Green reframes the question of God’s perceived hiddenness as an “experiential” and interpersonal problem.

Green points out that if God is a personal being, then one should expect that relating to God would be more like interacting with a person than with an inanimate object. Thus, religious experience is not so much like observing an apple as it is like experiencing the presence of a person. Because the experience of God is akin to experiencing a person, Green is keen to clarify precisely how we cognitively accomplish this. Scientific research has shown that when we experience another person, we engage in a kind of pattern perception. 

For example, the pattern of a person’s movements tell us something about what they are thinking. This is analogous to how one can figure out the line of a melody from just a few notes. The way the notes are patterned allows one to discern a melody. In a similar way, says Green, discerning the interpersonal patterns of God can be “akin to having a musical ear,” or alternatively, having received the background training to recognize a particular melody from background noise.

In a similar way that an infant learns to recognize his mother, or how we can get a sense of what another person is doing and feeling by the patterns expressed on their face, humans can—with the relevant background knowledge and experience—learn to develop “shared attention” or “joint attention” with God.

When two humans focus on each other—a capacity which develops very early, by about two months of age—they are engaged in an act of attending to another person, as when lovers stare into each other’s eyes. When two people share attention with a third entity or person then “the center of attention is something other than each other,” and a significant aspect of the experience is that it is feeling that is shared together, “such as when two people watch a sunset together.”

This type of shared attention, which emerges between nine and twelve months, involves the process of making a connection with another person and “then having the aperture of that connection widen more and more until one is able to experience the wider world together.” When religious communities worship God, they employ this type of shared attention and as they commune together, participants learn from each other to discern the patterns of God’s presence.

A God of love is a personal being who interacts with us. Using insights from research psychology, Green argues that trust and proper background knowledge are vital for shared attention with God to progress to deeper and deeper levels. In the same way that mistrust between two people sours a relationship, a person’s mistrust of God will impair the prospect of shared attention with God, and the distrustful person will have a hard time entering into the jointness of experiences with God and with other humans who trust God.

With both human relationships and with God, a certain kind of faith is necessary to build a history of trustful interactions. As Green explains, “each stage of shared attention is hobbled when trust is damaged…We are all hidden from each other until we are received with open hands.”

For someone –such as an atheist—who has never experienced the presence of God, “It could be that God is available to be experienced…but that the experience of God is left undeveloped in no small part because that development is blocked by the atheist’s background beliefs.” The reason one might miss the presence in the pattern, says Green, “can be as subtle as being shaped by a cultural and personal context” that leaves one in an interpersonally unresponsive position where one is not enabled “to pick up on the way that God’s presence [is] manifested in the day-to-day business of life.” 

Green explains that our culture, social context, historical context, and degree of deep encounters with nature can dramatically shape the “patterns of Divine manifestation are available.” According to Green, “The place you stand determines your religious imagination and whether you experience God as absent or present.” In other words, says Green, “the problem is us.”

Our relationships with our neighbors also deeply impact our relationship with God, and anything that poisons or disrupts “the fraternal harmony of humankind should have a like effect on relating to the divine.” In Green’s shared attention model of understanding God’s personal presence, “not all experiences are equal…and deeper experiences of God are built through a history of interaction.” In the same way that intimate relationships between persons must be cultivated—not created by fiat—one’s relationship with God must be planted in receptive soil and nurtured through trust over time.