The Hiddenness of God, Part 1

Nov 06, 2019

The hiddenness of God is a perennial question, particularly in apologetics circles. Though the issue is frequently explored in philosophical terms, Scripture has a great deal to say on the matter but it frames it in surprising ways. In this series, we’ll explore God’s hiddenness under three headings: mystery, foolishness, and expectation. This episode focuses on the category of mystery and argues for a more holistic understanding of the word.

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Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome to the Vital Signs podcast. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister, and thank you so much for tuning in today. We are going to begin a three-part series on the Hiddenness of God. This is an incredibly important topic, especially in our contemporary world where we're so concerned with a level of certainty when it comes to our convictions.

We've got November coming up on the horizon. Are you ready? I know I'm not. But in many ways, this has to do a little bit...This is part of the fallout that we're experiencing because of the widespread failure in many of our institutions and the corruption that we're seeing. There's a real shaking of confidence in many of our traditional institutions. And of course a lot of ink has been spilled, digital ink these days, on the topic of millennials and the dwindling faith in institutions, the classic institutions of church, marriage, and government, and many of these traditional institutions which have in the past been seen and pretty much taken for granted as bulwarks, that is no longer the case.

In the face of this dwindling confidence, I think the subject of the hiddenness of God hits us with renewed force. And so, I would like to devote three episodes to the hiddenness of God. There's been a lot of exploration of this topic, actually. And if you’re an enthusiastic apologetics junkie, if you're really interested in apologetics, or if you find yourself reading a lot of the books, a lot of the literature, you'll know that there's a lot that's been said on the subject of the hiddenness of God.

Blaise Pascal has many of the classic statements about the hiddenness of God, and people have taken those cues and kind of run with them. But some of what I have to say I think in the series is going to sound a little bit different. And I'm not trying to be controversial or unique. I really want to take my major cues though from scripture here rather than philosophy textbooks.

Of course, philosophy will inform a lot of what I'm saying, but the major thrust of this, I want to look at really what the Bible has to say, because after all, if we are talking about the Christian God, we want to know what His word says about it, the light that this sheds on the subject. And so, if you're curious, if you're a Christian, or if you're somebody who's maybe not so sure, you're more curious, I think, and I hope that this will give you a lot of food for thought.

I want to explore the topic of the hiddenness of God under three headings, mystery, foolishness and expectation. Now, I have a feeling that already this is starting to sound a little strange, mystery, foolishness, and expectation. But I think that these are three very important categories.

This will not be the last word on the subject. The hiddenness of God is incredibly rich. I have many colleagues here who have given talks on the hiddenness of God. This is a really inexhaustible subject, so I'm certainly not going to solve everything here and put a neat bow on it. Not at all. What I really aim to do, my aim is pretty modest. I just want to get us thinking more deeply about the subject of the hiddenness of God.

I want us to do so in biblical terms, not because I want to Christianize you immediately or anything like that, but because if we want to think about the Christian God, it makes sense to think about this subject of His hiddenness in Christian terms. So that's a little bit of the reasoning behind it. Without further ado, let's dive right in and let's begin with mystery.

We'll talk about mystery this week. Next week we'll talk about foolishness, and then in the final week, we'll talk about expectation. But let's talk about mystery. Now, mystery is one of those words that can be quite weasley. Most of us have been in conversations, or if you're a nerdy type like me and you tend to talk about deep philosophical subjects that involve the existence of God, the meaning of life, ultimate significance, all of these sorts of major big-picture considerations that are usually just limited to freshmen dorm rooms and then you forget about them forever, if you're like that, if you're like me and you still talk about this stuff, then you probably have that friend, or maybe you are that friend. Maybe you've been this person where if you're backed into a corner, you just resort to the word mystery and say, "Well, it's just a mystery, man. I mean it's just really mysterious, and I don't want to be painted with too broad a brush, or I don't want to be painted into a corner. It's a mystery.

The meaning of existence, it's a great mystery and you can't put it into any kind of neat little box. What this always reminds me of was when I was in high school. Like so many high schoolers in the suburbs, I was a shy kind of awkward kid. So I picked up an instrument hoping that this would help me to build a bridge with others, probably girls especially. So I played in a band. We played music and I always dreaded the question, "What kind of music do you play?" Because I didn't want to be categorized and painted into a corner. So I would always sort of take that mystery with, "Well, you can't really put us into any kind of box. We've got funk elements, we draw a little bit on metal, and there's some progressive stuff there too, and maybe a little Beatles in there," and on and on and on. And it's not really what people were asking in the first place.

So mystery falls into this category a little bit. When you want to be evasive, you can revert to the word mystery. I think in some ways the word paradox functions similarly. Well, it's just paradoxical. What do you mean by that? I want clarity. Well, you'll be happy to know, I think you actually can use the word mystery in a full-bodied and clear sense. But we have to recover it a little bit. And part of that recovery will involve understanding what we mean by mystery, really in biblical terms.

And so, when we talk about mystery, there are three features that are really essential here if we want to recover a more holistic understanding of mystery, namely that it is irreducible, that it is personal, and that it exceeds our understanding. So mystery in the biblical sense, if we're applying it to God, and I'll amplify this here in a second, it is irreducible, personal, and exceeding.

Let's start with the irreducible feature here. There's a scene that illustrates this quite well in C.S. Lewis's, Chronicles of Narnia. And the particular book I have in mind here is Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Now, in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the characters come across somebody named Ramandu. Apologies if I'm mispronouncing this, if there's any persnickety Lewis scholars listening.

But Ramandu, they come across this wise old Sage-like character named Ramandu. And Ramandu we are given to know was formally an actual star. He was a star in the heavens, blazing brilliantly and brightly. And Eustace, one of the characters, there's a remarkable little exchange. It's funny, these are children's books. They are ostensibly children's books, but you revisit them of course in later years and you find that there's so much very sophisticated wisdom packed into all of these books. And here's one example of that.

Eustace says to Ramandu, "Oh, so you're a former star, right? Okay. So, in our world, that is the world outside of Narnia, in our world, a star is a giant ball of flaming gas. And Ramandu gently reprimands him and says, "Even in your world, that is what a star is made of, not what a star is.” This is a really powerful critique actually, of a tendency in our age that is just so widespread. And that is the tendency that we have to believe that an explanation exhausts something. So if I can break something into its constituent parts, then I have effectively explained it away. That offers me a comprehensive explanation.

But does it really? When we look at the world around us, when people talk about the world and they say that there's a mystery to existence, that's not evasive. That in essence is the mystery of, you might say, isness or the givenness of things. The very fact that anything exists at all is spectacular. Why? Because where did it all come from? There are all sorts of massive questions that pop up here. One of the big ones is why is there something rather than nothing. But this gets at that irreducible nature of the isness of reality.

Where did it come from? Yes, there are many parts of the physical world. The parts of the physical world can be measured. We can take them apart. We can break them into their constituent parts. And yet that doesn't explain them away. That just explains processes, and we can look at mechanisms, and we can look at different laws. But again, those are ways of us understanding the order of what exists. But they don't tell us really the central mystery of where did it come from and what actually is it?

Let me give you another example that I think will bring this into sharper focus, I hope. The theologian, Hans Boersma tells a really interesting story about a field trip that he went on with a group of Christian high school students to an exhibit called the bodies exhibit. You may be aware of the bodies exhibit. It was a fairly popular exhibit. It's not been without its controversies, but essentially where human bodies that have been donated to science are on display in special casings and special sort of display areas. It's basically turns human beings into a museum exhibit. And you can see all the different parts of the human body, how they work. And this is seen is very educational, very interesting, very enlightening.

Boersma was really pretty appalled by it, and he was surprised that everybody in the group thought... They had no scruples about it. They thought it was great. They considered it a celebration of creation. But he thought it actually was the opposite, and here's why. Because these bodies on display in all of these different cases, all these nerve endings, all these different organs, what that does is it just plays into the reductionistic mindset of our era where we basically think we can break something into its constituent parts and we've explained it away.

This, argues Hans Boersma, is a very debased way to look at human beings, to see them as nothing more than bodies on display in some exhibit, that this really amounts to a huge robbing of the dignity but also of the mystery of a human being. Because we all know the vast and massive difference between a human being and a corpse, a human being, and a body that's being displayed. Obviously the life is gone. Something vital is missing, no pun intended.

What we're seeing here, we're seeing parts and we're seeing different...The working parts. We're seeing the anatomy, but we're not seeing personality. All of those essential features that animate that body are now absent. And so, here again, we see this...I think that distinction from Ramandu comes into crystal focus. We can look at these displays in the exhibit and we could look at all of these different organs and we could say, "Yes, this, these are clearly constituents of a body, but this is not what a person is.”

This little inventory right here, this morbid inventory, does not offer an exhaustive explanation. The basic conviction that life, we, and this world are more than the sum of our parts, is wrapped up with this understanding of mystery as well, that there's more going on than meets the eye. It's not just an empty, hollow, physical spectacle. There's more going on than meets the eye here.

That's one of the essential features of mystery, is that there's an irreducible side to it. Yes, we can understand how the human body works and it's really important. That's given us massive medical advances. It's given us all these breakthroughs. But we must not make the mistake of thinking human beings are just nothing more than bodies in motion. We do know what that is, of course. We see it all the time. It's called objectification, and it's a huge problem in our culture.

Pornography. This is the engine driving pornography. What is one of the central tenants that keeps pornography in motion? It's that you have to dehumanize. Can you imagine a pornographic video, for instance, that began with pictures of its stars from their childhoods or that began with information that actually clued you into their personalities, what their favorite food was, that they loved dogs or cats, and what their aspirations and their dreams were, pictures of them as a little boy, or as a little girl, that would be absolutely detrimental to the project. Why? Because it would humanize them, and it won't work unless they're dehumanized.

So much of what we do revolves around converting everything into just mere scenery, including people. This reductionism is so rampant. That's why Hans Boersma is responding to something that apparently has all the prestige of being an educational outing, but actually plays right into this tendency. We're doing it time and time again. So many of us are just like Eustace. We just think stars are nothing more than balls of flaming gas, and that human beings are nothing more than just sort of flesh envelopes filled with organs. We're not. There's more to us.

This is part of what's central to mystery. It is irreducible. And of course, if we turn to scripture, the picture is that creation. Everything exists because God brought it into existence. So God created from nothing. He brought it all into existence. So the sheer exuberance, the sheer isness this of life, the givenness things is a testament to a miraculous act, a primal, miraculous act on the part of the living God.

That's why scripture, for instance, I think, very, very sensibly in the book of Romans, for instance, Paul tells us that there's this natural sense in which the created order testifies to the existence of God. It has this sense to it, and I think all of us feel it in the sense...Even those of us who completely would put ourselves at a very large distance from the church just in the sense that there's more to life than meets the eye. There's more going on here than just mere hollow sort of scenery and machinery at work. So mystery is irreducible, but mystery is also personal.

When we're talking about the living God in scripture, He's personal. So that changes the dynamic of the relationship. How? I want to use one word here that will really, I think, push some buttons risk. I'm drawing my thinking a little bit here from the famous museologist and theologian, Lesslie Newbigin.

Newbigin himself, this is from his book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Newbigin himself is building a lot and drawing quite a bit from the philosopher, Michael Polanyi. That's a lot of names at you right there. But this is Newbigin's thought.

“When we are looking at something like a slide in a laboratory, or when we're examining the data that we're confronted with about scientific laws or the ways in which the world works, the processes, all of that, we can have this on our own terms and it feels...We've got a high level of control because after all, we've gathered all the facts and we can make predictions. In many ways, if you study the classic aspirations of many scientists who want the elusive theory of everything, the theory that will supposedly provide us with a complete transcript of reality, one of the hopes is that we can just harness more and more control because our predictive powers will become so strong that we will be able to actually call things. And already, our predictive powers are incredibly strong. We've just seen so much of the devastation of this latest Hurricane Dorian and all that it's done. And yet it's incredible that we can track these storms these days. And that also, by the way, to hop back to that earlier point about these reductionistic tendencies of our age. On the one hand, these capacities are incredible and they actually can help us to save lives. They can help us to get evacuation started cause we can chart the course of a storm. But also, they tend to give us this illusion of control because we think, "Aha, we can track the storm now, and we have this control. Weather patterns are a really interesting case in point because we've got a level of control just enough to give us an illusion of more control than we actually have. But in the end, we can't actually arrest the path of a storm, and we can't stop its trajectory. It's going to wreak the havoc it's going to wreak. So we could watch it and we have some level of control. And that tends to...These kinds of instances used to be called acts of God. And of course, act of God, was partly it was, it morphed a little bit into a euphemism. But essentially what it meant was it's beyond human control. But now more and more we still think that eventually we're going to get to the place where we can harness the scientific powers and the science enterprise so strongly that we can actually control everything, perhaps even control weather patterns. It sounds kind of scifi, but if you actually pore over the literature of many of the people who are at the forefront of progressive, scientific lines of thought, transhumanism, post-humanism, these things, they generate names like nobody's business. But the hope is more and more control, more and more control on the part of humans and bringing everything under sway, but everything on our own terms. But personal knowledge always involves risk. Relationships always involve risk.”

That's what Lesslie Newbigin's insight is here. Relationships are, there's spontaneous elements, and it can't simply be on your own terms. When you look at your close friendships, when you look at your spouse, when you look at family members, you know that this is the case.

If you try to have people only on your own terms, you will have no...You'll be a very lonely person. I talked years ago now on an earlier episode of the Vital Signs podcast about the me without compromise mindset that our culture often instills. Now the terminology that's often used here is self-care. You do you. You just be yourself. And if people can't accept it, then tough luck. So that leads to a mindset I call “Me Without Compromise.” But if everybody's “me without compromise,” then nobody can actually really sustain a real relationship.

But again, relationship involves risk, and the living God is not some impersonal force, not some impersonal entity. He is actually personal and relational. And that means there's risk involved. That means our relationship makes real demands on you. And of course if you look at scripture, true self-sacrifice is required. But again, if we look at the larger picture, we are never asked to do anything that our Lord has not already done.

Already. The ultimate sacrifice has been carried out for us. If Christianity is true, Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins and Rose on the third day. And therefore we are called to take up our cross and follow him. There is a cost to any relationship, and there's a cost to following Christ. It will put you at odds with the world around you. I'm foreshadowing a little bit here on what the foolishness section is going to look like of the series because if you're a Christian, you're living in a manner that is incomprehensible to the world outside the church.

So much of what you do will appear weak and fragile, and it'll appear very, very strange for those who are just after earthly power. The reformer, Martin Luther, calls the Way of the Cross. The way of the cross is incomprehensible to those outside the church because it looks like just weakness. It looks like giving up in some ways, but it's really to rest in the ultimate victory of Christ.

But again, a relationship involves risk and we are so risk averse these days. We want everything on our own terms. There's a marvelous section. Once again, boy, am I ever meeting my C.S. Lewis quota here. I happen to believe that C.S, Lewis is wonderful and so over quoted. and here I am adding to the problem. But what can you do? In C.S Lewis's book, Miracles, not his best book by the way, but a good book. There is a wonderful section where he talks about...And I won't give, it to you in his precise wording, although just take my word for it. His precise wording is way, way better than mine here.

But he talks about how most of us are open. We're amenable to the idea of some ambiguous, higher power, some life force, some impersonal force. Because after all, we can have that on our own terms. That doesn't interfere...Lewis talks a lot about it before he was a Christian and right on the cusp of becoming a Christian, he'd loathed the word interfere. He didn't want anything to interfere with his life, his plans.

Well, that's all of us. We live in a customized world where we can have everything on our own terms. We have dating apps that mislead us, by the way, mislead us totally into thinking that we can have human beings completely on our own terms. We can't. It doesn't work. Yes, hookup culture is true. You can have one-night stand after one-night stand, but it won't be fulfilling, and you can't have the person in their entirety. You can't, not on those terms because you're dehumanizing them and you're just using them for self-gratification. And because of that, the person won't give themselves entirely to you, and we're still so darn lonely.

We still think we can have all this stuff on our own terms. We have dating apps that make us think we can have relationships on our own terms. We have weather apps that make us think that we're in control. We're not. We are finite and contingent and dependent creatures. So we need to remember that. But it's so hard. Everything around us misleads us into thinking the opposite.

But relationship always involves risk, and we need to remember that we need to recover that sense of risk. We need to remember that human relationships actually, there's so much more going on than just what we think we can have on our own terms. And Lewis reminds us of that here because he talks about, there comes a point...That is his phrase there. There comes a point where if you've been playing with religion, if you've been flirting with spirituality on your own terms, what happens where, and I think that his images of... If you've got a fishing line in the water and something pulls on that line, and all of a sudden, "Oh no, what if there's something here on the other end?” What if there's something here on the other end that is terribly alive?

Whoa, no, what if it's worse? What if it turns out that you haven't been pursuing something, but instead it's been pursuing you relentlessly, ruthlessly in love. What if the living God is coming after you and it means everything has to change? I remember so well. I think I've used this example already, but it was, I remember one night...My wife and I have just had our second child, a little girl.

I remember one night, not long before she was born, lying in bed and Heather taking my hand and saying, "Oh wow, she is really moving tonight," and just placing it on her belly and just feeling this vigorous kicking just this really...And it was a moment of just wonder and sheer terror because it was just one of those moments where, okay, there's not just some impersonal swelling in the belly. These are not just empty physical symptoms. There is something in here that is alive, filled with real life, something, someone that will come into this world and make real demands of me. There's a real life at stake here.

That's a microcosm of the living God, the personal living God. That's one of the great threats in our age of Christianity, that this is not some impersonal life force. You cannot have God on your own terms. You cannot have God on your own terms. He is alive and He made you. If Christianity is true, He actually knit you in your mother's womb. He knows not only what you're made of, He knows your parts and he knows what you actually are. He knows who you are. You actually don't know who you are. We have all these proliferation of personality tests and different measuring techniques, and they can be helpful. They can help us in our relationships. That can help us to learn a little bit more about ourselves, but He knows who you are in the deepest sense.

That's powerful and that is terrifying. So now we come to the final feature of mystery, and that is that it exceeds our understanding. We're back in that kind of murky, evasive territory again. So let me provide a very...I will try to make it a very careful explanation here. I'm going to use a phrase here that I think captures it, and then I'll explore it a little bit.

A mystery in the biblical sense is neither solved nor inscrutable. A mystery in the biblical sense is neither solved nor inscrutable. What on earth does that mean? Let me try to explain. The incarnation is what theologians call Jesus's incarnation, the incarnation of Christ. So Jesus is fully God and fully man, very God and very man. And this has caused no end of huge speculation and cognitive dissonance because it's just so mind-blowing. How can the living God become a human being and how can He, the living God be fully human and fully man?

Many of the ancient heresies, the proliferation of these ancient heresies, a lot of them hinge on Christ's identity, and a lot of people...So many of them will emphasize Jesus's humanity at the expense of his divinity. Or conversely, they'll emphasize his divinity at the expense of his humanity. And so much of that, by the way, is to try to solve the mystery.

It's an interesting note to remember that heresy, people who promulgate heresy are not people who are pernicious and evil and wicked in their hearts and want to just sow confusion. Actually, what they're trying to do is clear up confusion half the time. They're trying to smooth away all the rough edges and solve. So I can talk to you about Jesus's incarnation, and there are wonderful books on the subject. And if you look at the church fathers, there are wonderful books on Jesus's incarnation. You can look at Athanasius all the way to the present. There are theologians writing beautifully and clearly and lucidly about Jesus being very God and very man, and yet nobody can ever fully wrap their mind around it. It's neither solved nor inscrutable.

It can be known, but it exceeds our understanding. Do you see that? So mystery in this sense is not something that is completely inscrutable and elusive and just beyond our knowledge. It's not some agnostic territory that is highly, highly speculative. It can be known, but its depths can never be fully plumbed. Now, again, this makes sense because on the Christian view, we serve the living God and He is infinite.

If He could be comprehensively understood by a human mind that would undermine His divinity. He is infinite and He made us. He is our maker. Therefore, it's not that He's inscrutable. In fact, just the reverse. He has revealed himself to decisively to us in His word. And the word, we're told in John's gospel was made flesh.

When I say a word, by the way, the primary...A lot of people are probably thinking the Bible. No. The primary way in which God reveals himself to us is through Jesus Christ, the Living Word. And so, He reveals himself to us decisively and we can know Christ and Christ pursues us, reveals himself to us, but we can never exhaust Christ. He is inexhaustible. And it's that inexhaustible feature that makes the term mystery so appropriate here.

So, looking for some sort of God particle, looking for some sort of way to understand God completely and definitively and comprehensively so that we can just sort of have him filed away in one of our research journals betrays a complete misunderstanding of the nature of His identity and the ways in which He reveals himself to us.

By the way, also the ways in which we know our world because it's true. We can know all of these impersonal facts about the world, but all of our knowledge is personal. It's all relational because we are all persons. This was one of the fundamental insights of Michael Polanyi in his Magnum Opus, personal knowledge. Pola was himself a scientist. He was a chemist. But he pointed out that the idea that we have some disembodied objective realm where we can screen off all those personal qualities that kind of muddy the waters of our thinking and our understanding is pure fantasy. Every scientist who gives us research, all of it, these are all persons.

And so, the relational aspect, that's an inextricable part of how we know anything. And so we can't have God on our own terms. I think really in essence, that's one of the big issues most people have today. It's not necessarily voiced. And sometimes it's couched in philosophical camouflage. Well, I wish God would be more obvious. I wish He would write His name clearly in the sky.

But don't you see, even if God...What would He need to write in the sky? In what language would it need to be in? And what phrase would it need to be, and tell me how we wouldn't explain that away. We find ways of explaining everything away. Well, it's a mere physical phenomenon. Oh well. We love to see ourselves reflected in everything. That's just a deeply human...That's a form of projection that's very, very common and we see it all the time in psychology. We would find a way to explain it away, no, we can't have God on our own terms. We want God on our own terms. I think that's the big question behind the question of the hiddenness of God. Why won't God reveal himself to me on my own terms?

The infuriating answer is that He really has, what are your terms? They're human terms. And how did God reveal Himself? In human form. He has actually revealed Himself to you in your terms, in our terms. He took on flesh and he came to this world, revealed himself to us, shows us how to live, goes to the cross, dies and rises to save us. He has revealed himself decisively to us on our own terms, and that is magnificent kindness and grace and compassion, and that is something we cannot wrap our minds around fully.

We can have levels of understanding. We can gain our knowledge, we can grow in our, in our spiritual knowledge, and we can grow as Christians and become more mature in the faith, but we cannot exhaust the living God. If we could, he wouldn't be God. And so, thanks for hanging with me.

I'm aware that this has been wide-ranging in some ways and has run the risk sometimes of getting a little bit abstract, but I hope that this has been clarifying and actually helpful to you as we've explored the hiddenness of God under the first topic here of mystery.

Next week we will talk about foolishness. That's another surprising feature and the terminology there is I think a little bit interesting. I hope that that will be deeply helpful to you as well. But thank you for tuning in. This has been Vital Signs, a podcast exploring signs of life in today's culture. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister, and I'm a speaker and a writer here at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.

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