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Psalm 77 declares “You are the God who works wonders; You display Your strength among the peoples…but Your footprints were unseen.” From the time of the Psalmist to the present day, both believers and skeptics have tried to make sense of God’s hiddenness. At the heart of the philosophical problem of God’s hiddenness are the questions of whether a perfectly loving God would create humans that are naturally prone to nonbelief, and whether there are any good reasons why God isn’t more obvious. 

Philosopher John Schellenberg summarizes the argument from Divine hiddenness like this:

  1. If there is a God, he is perfectly loving.
  2. If a perfectly loving God exists, there are no nonresistant nonbelievers.
  3. There are and often have been nonresistant nonbelievers.
  4. No perfectly loving God exists.
  5. There is no God.

Are We Born Believers?

Despite such philosophical challenges, researchers in the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) have discovered that humans are “born believers.” In other words, belief in God and many other aspects of religion are cognitively natural and very easy to acquire with minimal cultural input. Cognitive scientist Robert McCauley explains that acquiring religious beliefs and practices is akin to learning to walk or to speak in one’s native tongue. “While there is some cultural input involved,” says CSR researcher Helen De Cruz, “children typically do not need systematic education and practice to learn about religious beliefs.”

With regard to the problem of Divine hiddenness, CSR researchers have found that there may be good reasons—from the perspective of a loving God—for God to keep a certain degree of distance. Studies have shown that just knowing that God may exist encourages persons to choose to be more altruistic, caring, and generous. “These findings,” explains De Cruz, “provide some support for the epistemic distance reply” to the Divine hiddenness problem, “as they indicate that priming God concepts makes people more likely to behave morally.” CSR evidence, says De Cruz is likewise in line with the idea that if God’s existence were to become more obviously known, then a number of these positive dimensions of moral behavior would decline. 

If belief in God is natural, then why does atheism emerge?

According to Cognitive Scientist Justin Barrett, atheism takes a lot of hard mental work and cultural effort. “Widespread conscious rejection of the supernatural,” says Barrett, “appears to require either special cultural conditions …cognitive effort, or a good degree of cultural scaffolding.” The maintenance of atheism typically requires “special cognitive resources or special institutions.”

Building on Barrett’s approach that “atheism requires some hard cognitive work” psychologist Will Gervais argues that “the same pathways that encourage religious beliefs, if altered or disrupted, yield disbelief instead.” While it is true, explains Gervais, that “religious beliefs make good intuitive fits for human brains” there are also many paths towards atheism. “Religion has a head start over atheism,” but, says Gervais, “this does not necessarily imply that all atheism is psychologically superficial.”

Seeing Clearly

Belief in God and/or the spiritual world has been the norm through most of history. A completely materialist view of reality has only gained traction recently, as humans have amassed unprecedented amounts of wealth and power. Could it be, as philosopher Paul Moser writes,

it is not God who is hiding from us, but rather we are hiding from God?

Monks on Mount Athos, a mountain in Greece that is sacred to Orthodox Christians, do not seem to struggle with the problem of divine silence. Their lives are filled with profound experiences of Divine presence and grace. A critic might respond that these monks are deluding themselves. But that simply begs the question—which group sees reality more clearly?

Skeptical theist philosophers Justin McBrayer and Philip Swenson “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.” McBrayer and Swenson contend that each side of the divine hiddenness debate wrongly assumes “that we can know too much.” Regardless of one’s own stance, we could all benefit from more intellectual humility.

Absence as Presence

Does the absence of God necessarily indicate God’s inactivity and lack of agency? Recent developments in an area of science known as Teleodynamics would indicate otherwise. Spearheading the advance of Teleodynamics, neuroscientist and biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon has developed a biological and psychological understanding of absence as a genuine mode of being. Deacon suggests that the type of organization that is intrinsic to biological life and consciousness should be thought of principally in terms of what is not there. For Deacon “Absences can beget…as in the origin of life and the origin of mental experience.” 

Deacon points out that many absences in the history of the universe and the evolution of life and consciousness are constitutive absences—like the hole or empty space at the hub of the wheel, which allows the wheel to properly function by creating space for the axle upon which it turns. Absential features, says Deacon, are the “defining property of life and mind” and they are absolutely necessary for their development. For Deacon, such absences are the key to all goal-oriented and purpose-driven realities, and he wonders “to what extent these constraints apply even to the essential nature of God, or perhaps to the inconceivability of God?”

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

What is love? It seems that positive definitions of love’s essence always fail. The New Testament defines love primarily by what love is not. Love is not envious, not boastful, not proud. It does not dishonor others, is not self-serving, and is not easily angered. Love does not hold grudges or keep a record of wrongs and it does not delight in evil. Love is what emerges from the negative space when selfishness, control, hatred, slander, pride, and envy are purged from interpersonal dynamics.

This view of love is a common scriptural theme. The path of love is the way of self-negation and loving one’s neighbor entails the emptying of one’s own interests. Love is a discipline which demands that whoever shall seek to save one’s self must first lose or negate the self. In this way, absence is the defining property of understanding God as love. To say that God is love is to affirm that there is an essential self-negation at the sacred core of God’s being. 

Knowing the Unknown God

The righteously loving God of Abraham is the God who is both revealed and hidden. The Apostle Paul defines God’s essence in terms of negation. God is “immortal” and “dwells in unapproachable light”. God is “invisible”, “unsearchable”, “untraceable” and “incorruptible”. In speaking of God in terms of perpetual negation, Paul echoes a centuries-old Jewish longing for God that will accept no proxies, avatars, or idols. For Paul all affirmative theological contemplations must ultimately be sacrificed at the altar to the “unknown God” who is revealed only through the veil of divine incarnation. 

Paul’s experience of knowing the unknown God echoes throughout history. “Various and diverse strands of patristic, medieval, and modern theology,” explains philosopher Michael Rea, “emphasize different aspects of God’s hiddennessfrom the idea of divine darkness that stretches from the writings of Philo and Gregory of Nyssa on through the medieval spokesmen and spokeswomen for the Dionysian mystical tradition, to the Sanjuanist idea of the ‘dark night of the soul’ as a vital stage in a person’s spiritual development, to the Deus absconditus in Lutheran theology.” While “Divine hiddenness in one form or another looms large in these theologies,” says Rea, “God’s love and existence remain unchallenged.” 

In the Christian and Jewish traditions God’s hiddenness is part of the very definition of God. While this may not philosophically entail that God’s absence is positive evidence for the existence of the God, it does suggest that this conception of God is at least consistent with the world that we live in. As Charity Anderson affirms, the fact that “that God’s existence is not more obvious, does not alone secure the conclusion that divine hiddenness is evidence against God.” If God wills to be found only by those who sincerely seek him, then God’s hiddenness is a necessary precondition. As Blaise Pascal reflects: God is hidden only “from those who flee him with all their heart.”