In response to a question posed by my friend at Comparative Religion, I have been reflecting on the so-called “hidden-ness” of God. The idea as posed by my friend is, “Why does God often seem absent or hidden from this world?”
It’s something I’ve thought about a lot in my life! During some difficult times in my life I prayed long and hard for God to just show Himself to me, or give me some kind of indicator that I’m not wasting my time. And yet the “confirmations” of God’s presence seemed to come at different – seemingly random – times.
But then I also began to reflect on what it means to hide, and what it means to be detected.
Humans have a built-in agent detection system. It is advantageous for us to detect patterns in nature that correspond to the activity of other personal agents. Therefore, we have this detection system – whether it is learned or built-in is not quite important to the discussion at hand (likely it is a bit of both).
So if I see a random assortment of rocks on a hike, I am unlikely to think that a human was responsible for the placement of the rocks. However, if the rocks were arranged to resemble the word “HELP” I would certainly think a human was responsible – and needs help! This is due to the placement of the rocks in a pattern that corresponds to letters that humans use. Certainly the rocks could have fallen that way by chance, but the likelihood of that seems incredibly small. But then again, a seemingly “random” arrangement of rocks also has a very small likelihood of being arranged in precisely that way, but it only trips our agent detection mechanism if it corresponds to a pattern we’ve been reinforced to pay attention to in the past.
Now I think that one major problem with the idea that God is “hidden” is that we might actually be saying that God doesn’t behave in a way that corresponds to our agent detection mechanism. If God were some kind of super-human, then we might be able to predict the sorts of things He would do – He might “design” things, or “intervene” in human affairs, or we might conceive of God as a “tinkerer” in evolution such that He is required to step in and push matter around and resolve hangups so the process goes smoothly (and arrives at the destination that He desires). We might wonder why He doesn’t “speak” to us, or “save” children from natural disasters, and whether he is moral or immoral by our own standards.
However, if the Classical Theists were right, then this is the wrong way to think about God completely. God is not a super-human or an “intelligent designer” in the sense that He is a personal agent like us who interacts with the world the same as we do (on a greater scale). Sure, it might be necessary to refer to God’s actions in a sort of shorthand – and the Bible will talk about God speaking, willing, acting, intervening, etc. But this is nothing but an anthropomorphic shorthand. If the Classical Theists were right, God sustains the world, creates it moment-by-moment, etc. like a musician plays a song on a violin. He might “improvise” a few bars – these would be perceived as miracles by us – but this is not the same as “intervening” in a song that would otherwise play by itself. According to Aquinas, God performs actions that are analogous to human speaking, willing, intervening, saving, acting, etc., but not the same.
In human parlance, to “hide” would be to obscure the normal patterns or clues that people leave behind in order to escape detection. But the God of Classical Theism wouldn’t “hide” in this way, because as we’ve seen there are no such patterns to detect in the first place.
Thus, if this is God’s relation to the world, He is not hidden or distant at all – rather He is intimately connected with it at all times as He creates it moment-by-moment. He is not like a super-agent within the system who tinkers or leaves “clues” as to His existence – and so He is not going to leave the same kinds of patterns as a person that we know. We would have to detach from our normal agent detection mechanisms and think of God as a being in a class of His own. This means thinking at a higher level of abstraction and noting the nature of being and change in the world, rather than clues that correspond to some previously reinforced pattern we have seen before.