Thursday, May 05, 2022

The Rascal Flatts response to Divine Hiddenness

This is a more explicitly philosophical expansion on some remarks in my previous post. This post is intended more for those interested in philosophy of religion. I want to stress that what I say here belongs to the realm of speculative theology, though some aspects of it (such as the proposition that God is not obligated to give the beatific vision to everyone from conception) seem intuitively obvious.

I had a recent conversation in which I brought out the ideas contained here and was asked if I'd ever written anything on them. I said no, except for the post "Pain and the Silence of Man," which is more "existential" in nature. Asked if anyone else has done so, I said that I'm not aware of any article or book in the philosophy of religion that has done so, though it seems that there must be someone who has written something much like this, since these topics have been written about so much over years and indeed centuries.

The objection I'm answering here goes approximately like this: 

If God is perfectly good, then communion and a relationship with him is the highest good for rational creatures. If God is perfectly good, then he would desire that greatest good at all times for such creatures. Yet there are people who would not resist God if he were revealed to them, who live in ignorance of him. And there are people who already know God somewhat who are left without experiences that would draw them still closer to him, at times when they could benefit from those experiences. This absence of further, personal, individualized divine revelation is evidence against the goodness of God.

I am not footnoting this objection, since I don't claim to have researched the literature, but those who are into philosophy of religion will recognize it as a version of the argument against theism (or against the existence of a good God) from divine hiddenness.

The fact that some people live and die in contexts where they never hear of the true God is an illustration of the issue. The fact that some Christians (me, for example) suffer during "dark nights" when we could be encouraged by some direct experience of God such as an audible voice, but don't receive it, is also an illustration.

Some version of "soft" inclusivism (without the necessity for universalism) or even Molinism is the beginning of an answer to "what about those who have never heard." If we are otherwise evidentially convinced of the justice of God, we can have reasonable hope that God reveals himself, possibly at death, to those who have had no other access to knowledge of him and who, God knows, will respond positively to that revelation and accept the true God and Jesus Christ. The occurrence of Christian dreams as an apparent praeparatio evangelica is even some evidence for the proposition that God uses extraordinary means to bring salvation to those who have not naturally heard of him.

But the person pressing the divine hiddenness argument may respond by saying that his concern rather is that God left that person for years without the knowledge of himself, maybe even for the person's whole lifetime, so that the person "missed out" on the good of the knowledge of God during those years, and that this is incompatible with the goodness of God, since he should want a relationship with his creatures at all times. (All of their times, that is, if God himself is outside of time, which I believe to be the case.)

It seems to me that, taken to its logical conclusion, this objection would require that God not defer in any way to the natural circumstances, the chances and changes, of anyone's life, since these lead to differential levels of knowledge of himself at different stages, but should give everyone the beatific vision from the earliest moment of existence. One might protest that the objection can be qualified so that it concerns only those rational beings at times when they are "capable" of a relationship with God, but that seems a dubious qualification. Suppose that some mentally disabled people lack that capacity through no fault of their own all their lives? If we are saying that a good God "would" give a miraculous revelation of himself to the isolated person who has never heard of him, so that that person could know him and have a relationship with him, and that a good God "would" provide more sensible revelations of himself to non-resistant believers such as myself, then why not demand that a good God work a miracle so that those who are otherwise mentally incapacitated become capable of the knowledge of himself, throughout their earthly lives? Or if one wants to qualify it (though this seems rather arbitrary), the objection would still seem to mean that from, say, age 4 or 5 onward, God should grant everyone immediate knowledge and experience of himself by supernatural means.

Let us suppose that a specific virtuous pagan who (God knows) will accept a revelation of God does receive that special revelation at death, accepts it, and thus enters into eternal bliss and the beatific vision--perfect sinlessness, knowledge of God, and communion with God. The ultimate "personal relationship." That eternity with God makes the years of that person's life seem very short in comparison. If we nonetheless hold as an objection to God's goodness that he did not make such a revelation sooner, then it seems that we are saying that even this comparatively short mortal life is somehow "too long" for a good God to leave anyone without a strong, experiential relationship with himself.

In Romans 1 Paul says that even the heathen have some knowledge of God as Creator, but this objection would say that that knowledge is too little to demonstrate divine goodness. And if it is extended to include the absence of personal experience on the part of Christians such as myself (e.g., the lack of a reassuring voice or "sense of presence" in times of pain), then apparently the claim is that a good God would give a great deal of self-revelation to all non-resistant people at any times in their lives when they could benefit from it. It is hard to see how one could consistently stop short of saying that God must give something akin to the beatific vision, at the very least a mystical, even theologically accurate and contentful, sense of his presence, to everyone whom he knows will be non-resistant, from a very early point in their lives.

Someone pressing the objection might say that this attempted reductio is unsuccessful and that all that he is asking by intuition is something far less than that, though I would say that at that point we are impugning the love of God on the basis of some fairly shaky line-drawing about what God would do if he were truly good. To name some degree of personal relationship that God is obligated to give everyone who won't resist it, in this life, seems to me (to put it mildly) not evidentially strong as an anti-theistic argument.

(It should go without saying, but I will say it in case it doesn't go without saying: I'm assuming throughout this discussion that there is a crucial difference between God's not intervening, using extraordinary means, to bring about a personal relationship with himself by extraordinary means and his intervening, using extraordinary means, to prevent a relationship with himself. Similarly, there is a crucial difference between God's permitting one man to murder another, and sovereignly bringing some greater good out of that permitted sin, and his forcing one man to murder another, in order to bring about some higher good. I am not claiming or granting that God deliberately, miraculously blocks non-resistant people from being in a relationship with him, nor as far as I know do we have any evidence whatsoever that he does so. Verses in Scripture about God's hardening someone's heart, as in the case of Pharaoh, seem to refer to those who were previously resistant.)

But let's come at this whole thing from a different angle, suggested in the title of this post. There is a song by Rascal Flatts called "Bless the Broken Road." The idea of it is that the speaker is in a sense thankful even for the strange and convoluted ways by which he came to union with his earthly beloved: "God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you."

The previous post mused on the venerable Christian teaching that suffering is used by God in some mysterious way for the greater good of the one who suffers. I emphasized there the difficulty of expressing what that "greater good" is and the importance of not being glib about it, and I sincerely hope that this more philosophical post is not in any way violating that caution. But in addition to several biblical verses mentioned there asserting the soul-making value of suffering, consider the statement in Ephesians 2:10 that we are God's workmanship.

To answer to the objection I'm considering here, we should ponder the value of individual diversity in the overall divine economy--the "whole thing" that is all of history and creation, which God is making here in time. (While being, I would argue, outside of time himself.) Each one of us undergoes a certain life, which includes joys and sorrows, our own choices as to how to respond, human interactions, including those by which some of us come to know theological truths and to desire consciously to have a relationship with God. These diverse means include proclamation of the gospel by friends, parents, missionaries, preachers, etc., down to the smallest moments when we are struck, in those things that come our way, with a sense of beauty or the transcendent. Clearly God uses the "chances and changes of this mortal life" to bring souls to himself. In some cases the way is longer than others, and more years of this little life pass before one hears of God. Or perhaps the person is sinfully resistant at first and later softens. There are as many ways of God with man as there are individual men.

Now suppose just for a moment that the specificity of your own life contributes, if you ultimately accept God, love him, and acquiesce in his sovereignty, to your specific niche in the glory of creation, which you will understand and enjoy as perfectly as it is in your nature to do, in heaven. This specific "way of getting there" includes the panoply of joys and sorrows, the fact that you learned of Christ in this way rather than that way, the years when you wandered in exile, physical suffering and physical bliss, agony and the forgiveness of sins, friendships and betrayals, the specifics of your culture, and more. All of these things that contribute to the "total you," that four-dimensional space-time being, God sees whole, all at once, and he turns them to his own glory and also, if you are saved and not damned, to your joy and glory as a finite being. 

The demand that God be "in personal relationship" fully with everyone at all times in all lives on this earth flattens this diversity and would (arguably) prevent us from becoming those unique beings with whom the various niches of rational creation, praising God, are filled. For our differences are not only differences of essence but also of historical contingency. As the angelic beings say in the long vision scene at the end of Perelandra, each one is in a sense the center--the humans are the center, the Perelandrans are the center, the cherubim are the center. Each one has its infinite worth; let no man say it nay. So the adult convert who wandered long in the land of the prodigals and ate of the husks until he came to himself has his unique place in the heavenly choir, where he continually praises God for what God forgave, as does the little child who loved Jesus early and died young. So too does the pagan, if there be any such, to whom the true God reveals himself in a flash of knowledge after a life groping in the darkness of animism. So does the Christian who begged God for a miraculous sign, or for healing, or for a voice in the night, and did not receive it. That "not receiving," in the wisdom of God, becomes a part of what makes that person who he ultimately is, to the glory of God. 

If we reject that process and are damned, hell (I suspect) is a great leveler. You demanded equality? Be careful what you ask for. Heaven is full of shining differences and special glories. God works individually with each one, through the true story that is history, in which we freely, causally participate, until he closes the book.

It is possible that I am wrong in some part of what I have said here, but this theodicy, or  part of a theodicy, has for a long time seemed to me importantly true as far as it goes. It is, at a minimum, conceivable that it should be true. It is a "greater good" on which we can get some sort of grasp, of which we can catch a glimmer. And that, I tend to think, is quite sufficient to answer the objection in question, especially when combined with the evidence for the Christian metaphysics and the Christian revelation that teaches us, explicitly, that God is the great Potter, the great Author, and that eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, all the things that God is now preparing for those who love him. It seems to me entirely plausible that those who see him face to face live forever to bless the broken road that led them to that end.


PaoloP said...

I understand this is a philosophical post, but you say nothing about the state of humanity under sin, as if that had no import on the fact that we have (no more) evidence of God's presence. But is this not what Jesus has come to save us from? And let's consider that the way of salvation brought by Christ, the Cross, does *not* eliminate the consequences of sin in this earthly life, not even for the great saints: notwithstanding the most extraordinary mystical experience, they have always to taste - also and much more than us - the absence and even the wrath of God (vicariously).
Philosophy cannot avoid to talk about the evil in the world, but almost any time it does so in connection with the (problem of) divinity, it presuppose a situation where the relation with God is unimpeded and so it's God the one who appears to fail; instead, the conscience of practically all human religions talk about man (and or the devil) as the one who goes astray; in this context, justice and mercy are inextricably connected.

Lydia McGrew said...

Well, actually, I do mention prodigals and the forgiveness of sins. I certainly didn't mean to deny that there are those who "would" have more of an experience of God's presence were it not for their own sin or sinfulness.

The objection I'm answering though is often referred to as the problem of non-culpable non-belief. So I'm trying to answer the question of why God doesn't manifest himself more to those who don't seem to be blocking that manifestation by sin. I don't think we should assume that it is always a matter of one's fault that one isn't having a stronger or clearer religious experience.