A popular argument against the existence of God is what some call divine hiddenness: “If God exists, why doesn’t he make his existence more obvious, such that it could not be doubted?” But what atheists take to be a strike against God may prove just the opposite, and in fact the very pattern of human flourishing.

In a recent article in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Travis Dumsday summarizes the objection from divine hiddenness in this way:

On standard theisms, God supposedly loves us, and so desires our ultimate well-being. But that ultimate well-being necessarily involves having a positive relationship with God, and in order to have such a relationship one must first believe that God exists. So if God really existed and really loved us, he would make sure that all of us believed in him. Yet the world is full of rational persons who blamelessly fail to believe in God. Consequently, one must give up some aspect of standard theism, and the aspect it is most sensible to drop is the very idea that God exists.

The argument attempts to reveal the incongruousness of an omnipotent God, the universal offer of salvation, and the experience of men and women who seem completely content to choose otherwise (than God and salvation). Perhaps God is not omnipotent, the offer is not universal, or the offer is just plain weak. In the spirit of “Go Big or Go Home,” many are content to drop the God piece altogether. If salvation is as important as it’s made out to be, presumably God would orient reality so as make salvation universally available, and yet, to all appearances he does not. Therefore he doesn’t exist.

Dumsday goes on to dismantle what he sees as reductive reasoning in the argument. His refutation turns on what he perceives as the correspondence between the disclosure of revelation and human anthropology. The one, he argues, is addressed to the other.

Revelation is not addressed to mere minds—disembodied brains of the Madeline L’Engle sort—but to embodied persons. Thus, as is true of all efficacious communication, the communicator takes into account the audience and shapes his message accordingly. When speaking to children we often assume their height by crouching or kneeling. We speak deliberately (and often shout for some reason) to non-native English speakers. We address bosses with deference and humility. So too of God’s revelation.

In standard theisms, God addresses us as embodied souls that come to the knowledge of truth in stages. In this gradual approach, the supernatural is no mere piggy-backer but is bound sacramentally with the matter and form of the communication. While the notion of hypnotic or purely rational revelation may make the occasional guest appearance in Biblical literature (2 Cor. 12:2), it seems that the normal mode of revelation is through a transmission of fully human breadth which spans the range of prophetic callings to miraculous healings (Ex. 3:1-22, Isa. 6:6-9, Mark 8:22-26).

So, rather than proving a strike against God’s goodness, the economy of revelation (progressive and incarnational) is tailor-made for human maturation. Add to this that proof for God’s existence, which the Catholic Church teaches is available to reason, is difficult, protracted, and admits the admixture of error, and the deep reasonableness of God’s designs appear all the more wise. His revelation is prepared for. It is pedagogical. It is progressive. In short, while divine hiddenness is usually invoked as proving God’s non-existence, I think it more suitably functions as a proof of the fittingness of revelation. 

More on: Religion

Articles by Gregory Pine, O.P.

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