An Absent God
Traveling about, I visit a variety of (mostly mainline Protestant) churches.
I hear the clergy — we clergy — say often (as if repetition would make it so), “God loves you.” And again, “God loves you so much!” One more time: “God really, really loves you!“
I get why we say that. We believe that God is love and that God does care about each of us. Moreover, we know that many of us struggle to believe that we are loved or lovable. Hence, “God loves you.” Say it again louder!
However, I sometimes wonder — in the presence of all these well-intentioned and earnest assertions — if the Shakespearian “thou dost protest too much” might apply.
That is, for many — and for all of us at times — daily and lived experience is not of God’s presence and love, but rather of God’s absence, of God’s hiddenness. “Truly,” writes the prophet Isaiah, “thou art a God who hidest thyself.”
Where, after all, was God when a madman opened fire at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, or a lost young man unpacked an AR-15 at an elementary school Newtown, Connecticut, or a another fellow started shooting the prayer group at Mother Emmanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina?
These are the questions, as Fleming Rutledge points out in a fine article, “Why Does God Hide?” in the September 12, 2018 issue of The Christian Century, of the Bible itself. God’s own people, in the Psalms, in the books of various prophets, and in the gospels ask, “Where is God?” “Why does God hide?” “My God, my God, why hast thou abandoned me?” “Why do the evil prosper?” Biblical questions all.
Faith cannot be credible if it does not allow, and ask, these questions.
Another pastor friend, Matt Fitzgerald, of St. Paul’s UCC in Chicago wrote in a piece titled, “Atheists Could Be Onto Something,”
“These days it’s often that ache that brings people to church. Many of our guests don’t have faith; they have an ache that Church makes worse by insisting that God is present.
“When church says God is here, but life proclaims the opposite, Christianity rings hollow. When Church says God is here, but our historical moment proclaims the opposite, Christianity becomes indistinguishable from wishful thinking. If what we have to say is shallow, we can’t blame the world for giving us an equally shallow dismissal.
“Imagine a Church bold enough to risk speaking a truth millions of contemporary people feel. ‘Good morning! God is not with us. All we have is Her absence. Let us grab ahold of it together.'”
And yet, in these times, in every time, when we insist on God’s universal presence and ubiquitous love, we risk as Matt says “making it worse.” Better to tell the truth, the truth of a hidden God.
Writes Fleming Rutledge,
“The fact that God hides himself in the midst of revealing himself is paradoxically a testimony to his reality. Presence-in-absence is the theme of his self-disclosure. God isn’t hidden because we are to stupid to find him, or too lazy, or not ‘spiritual’ enough. He hides himself for his own reasons, and he reveals himself for his own reasons. If that were not so, God would not be God; God would be nothing more than a projection of our own religious ideas and wishes.”
Rutledge closes her essay with a story, a story for an earlier time and a story for our own time.
“Toward the end of World War II, during the liberation of Europe, Allied troops found a crudely written inscription on the walls of a basement in Cologne, Germany, by someone who was hiding from the Nazi Gestapo. Here’s what it said:
‘I believe in the sun even when it is not shining,
I believe in love even when feeling it not,
I believe in God even when God is silent.'”
Faith is, at least sometimes, and perhaps in this time, is an act of defiance. It is the assertion that, “I believe in God even when God is silent.”
So let the church, and the clergy, tell the truth. The truth of God’s presence in absence, the truth of a hidden God and of people who persist in faith when it is an ache, an impossible possibility. There is a cross at the center of this faith.