The Problem of the Problem of Silence V

The last in this exhaustingly-long series. I promise.

One last time, the Problem of Silence:

  1. If there exists a loving, fatherly God, then he would pursue communion with his human creatures.
  2. If a loving, fatherly God were to pursue communion with his human creatures, then he would make himself present or at least available to (all or most of) his human creatures (or at least those who do not oppose finding him and/or who earnestly seek him).
  3. But God is not thus present or available to (all or most of) his human creatures; plenty of us who don’t oppose finding God and/or who earnestly seek him do not, in fact, find him.
  4. Thus, there does not exist a loving, fatherly God.

Thus far we have considered some reasons for agreeing with these premises; some reasons for disagreeing with premise (3); and some reasons for disagreeing with premise (2). (“Some” being the key word here — we have hardly scratched the surface of this perennial Problem.) In the previous post, I said that the usual objections to premise (2) come in the form of reasons for why it would be good, or better, for God to remain “silent” or “hidden” to (all or most of) his human creatures. And I suggested that all of the usual candidates for such reasons fail in that they each suffer from the same potential reformation of the Problem: “Alright,” the Problem will say to the objector, “suppose God is generally hidden and silent for such-and-such reason; Why, then, is God silent in regards to his silence? That is, if God is silent because it forces us to seek him, or seek him better, or because it makes us more virtuous in some way, then wouldn’t we at least expect Him to make it known to us that there is a good reason out there for his silence?”

I concluded the last post by pointing out the obvious: This reformulation of the Problem cannot be made if the reason God is, in general, silent or hidden to many or most of us, is a reason why God would also be silent as to his silence — and silent as to the silence as to his silence, … and so forth. I said that the usual reasons put forth as to why God might be silent  do not have this virtue; they do not also explain God’s silence as to his silence. What I want to put forth in this post is a different reason for God’s silence that does have this virtue.

This reason is not original with me. I know that at least Michael Rea – a Catholic philosopher out of Notre Dame – has argued for it as well(though his arguments are very different from mine):

But to object… [along the lines of premise (2)]… is to fail to take seriously the idea that God might have a genuine, robust personality and that it might be deeply good for God to live out his own personality. One odd feature of much contemporary philosophy of religion is that it seems to portray God as having a “personality” that is almost entirely empty, allowing his behavior to be almost exhaustively determined by facts about how it would be best for others for an omnipotent being to behave. But why should we think of God like this? God is supposed to be a person not only of unsurpassable love and goodness but of unsurpassable beauty. Could God really be that sort of person if he’s nothing more than a cosmic, others-oriented, utility-maximizing machine? On that way of thinking, God—the being who is supposed to be a person par excellence—ends up having no real self. So, as I see it, silence of the sort we experience from God might just flow out of who God is, and it might be deeply good for God to live out his personality.

The reason for God’s silence might not be some good for you or me, but it might be some good for God — some good that, though it may cause us pain, is so valuable that our pain does not constitute God acting contrary to his love. The fact that we so often overlook this possibility, says Rea, has to do with our understanding of God being radically impoverished. We have taken the biblical analogy of a father, he would say, and have stuffed God inside of it; we neglect the fact that he is also presented to us in Scripture as being radically “other”, as being “transcendent” in addition to being “imminent”, as possessing a form far beyond our conceptual grasp.

God is as alien and “wholly other” from us as it is possible for another person to be. So isn’t it almost ridiculous to think that we would have any idea what divine silence would indicate?…It helps, in this vein, to be reminded of a fact about God… The fact about God is that the most enigmatic, eccentric, and complicated people we might ever encounter in literature or in real life are, by comparison with God, utterly familiar and mundane.

What I want to add to Rea’s suggestion (beyond noting that it does not fall pray to the reformulations of the Problem that plague the other “silence theodicies”) is this: Under a (Jewish-Christian) biblical picture of God and cosmos, Rea’s suggestion is not only possible, it is highly plausible. If one looks beyond the biblical analogy of father and considered the totality of what the Biblical writers have to say about God, one finds that the God articulated in Scripture is presented, not only as transcendent and “wholly other”, but also as one who is silent, and whose silence belongs to that part of him that is beyond our conceptual grasp. I find it difficult to make a strong case for premise (2) on the basis of the biblical concept of God, when the biblical concept of God is, in fact, formed by passages where the faithful cry out in their experience of the silence of God:

O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God! (Ps. 83:1)

Silence is clearly ascribed to God’s modus operandi in Scripture. What’s more, Scripture never paints this silence as one that is, or even can be, intelligible to us. In fact, quite the opposite. The entire book of Job, for instance, paints a picture of a God who is silent and whose silence we are silly and downright arrogant to purport to fully understand. Why are we silly and arrogant to purport to understand God’s silence? Because he is so “wholly other”. I recommend the last five chapters of Job especially; it makes this point in a most rhetorically powerful way.

A closing thought. If the biblical text presents a concept of God that undermines the Problem of Silence, then the Problem seems to lose a lot of its attractiveness as a compelling argument if the God under the microscope in the God of the Jewish or Christian Bible. I do not mean to suggest that the Problem loses all of its force: confusion and puzzlement are unlikely to go anywhere (though they may lessen in force); and one might still reject God on the basis of the Problem under the assumption that there seem no divine provisions whatsoever for entering into relationship with God despite his silence, or under the assumption that the biblical notion of God is internally (within the text) inconsistent, or some such thing… But I do take it that, under the usual assumptions of the Problem, the argument does not seem a very good one — at least, as I said, when it comes to inserting the biblical God into the “God slot” in the premises.

This also means that the Problem is not an insurmountable “problem” for the Christian. The doubt that often (and rationally, I think) accompanies the Christian’s recognition of God’s silence is not one that need corrode one’s faith. A strong grasp on the complexities and nuances of the biblical portrait of God, conjoined with sustained meditation and reflection on the relevant passages, should allow the Christian to integrate, alongside his doubt, things like hope and trust. Doubt, hope, and trust are all perfectly reasonable and healthy things — when well balanced and proportioned.

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3 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Todd

    Todd - September 23, 2013, 7:57 pm

    Isn’t at least part of the point of the Incarnation for God to “downstep” himself in such a way as to close the ontological gap between him and us? In this way, by entering human history as one of us, he ceases to be “wholly other” and takes on, indeed, a personality that we can glimpse in the pages of scripture. Maybe that’s still too silent, though. It’s difficult to enter into a relationship with a person who is merely described.

    It’s perhaps noteworthy that although Job finally hears from God, he doesn’t get an explanation. What he has had to endure remains utterly opaque to him. God may not have been silent to Job, but he wasn’t exactly open either.

    Thanks for this series of essays. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  2. Profile photo of D.J. Clark

    D.J. Clark - September 23, 2013, 11:12 pm

    @ Todd,

    I think you’re right regarding the Incarnation — at least in some sense. It is true that God closed the “ontological gap” in Jesus. Though, it might be worth mentioning that this closure is made not simply by God making himself more available to us epistemically: the closure in not simply a mental one for us: God also enters into the uniquely human brand of suffering, he becomes affectively accessible in new ways, he institutes the Church as a new means of participation in his life, and so forth. So whether we take “wholly other” in an epistemic or a metaphysical sense, God is made less “wholly other” in that event we call the Incarnation.

    So perhaps “WHOLLY other” is not the best way to phrase the situation. Perhaps, “really, really other” is better. For although Jesus reveals God in a profound way, the Incarnation is far from being anything like a comprehensive revealing. What is revealed, above all, is the depth and nature of God’s love, the development and wonder of God’s plan to redeeming his creation, and the nature of the Way of God’s Kingdom; the New Testament in no way suggests that Jesus came to reveal the totality of God’s personality. When it comes to the particular issue at hand – the strange silence of God – the Incarnation does not appear to offer us any more of an explanation — all it offers us is a strengthened reassurance that, whatever the explanation, it is one that is consistent with God loving dearly his creatures. The Incarnation, in this way, is valuable in terms of coping with the experience of divine silence, even if unhelpful in terms of explaining the experience of divine silence.

    I was struck by this sentence of yours: “It’s difficult to enter into a relationship with a person who is merely described.” This may be a bit off-topic, but it is worth mentioning that part of our experience of silence — or our interpretation of just how silent God is during some experience — has to do with the sort of “relationship” we expect with Jesus, or God. I think the Problem of Silence has packed a greater punch for, esp. Evangelicals, in part because the relationship they expect with Jesus (or God) is one that is very much like the relationship one has in an intimate, human relationship. It is a relationship full of regular communication, felt affection, and shared activity. Your statement that it is difficult to “enter into relationship with a person who is merely described” reminded me of this view. What sort of intimate relationship would it be with a fellow human, for instance, if our only communication was through, on one end, an old book, and on the other, prayer? Not much of one; and if we expect our relationship with God to be like an intimate human relationship, this is troubling. In fact, in my experience, the troubling nature of these unfulfilled expectation very often inclines us in one of two ways: either we doubt God and the reality of a relationship with him, or else we find divine communication and affection and activity “behind every bush”. A problem of unfulfilled expectations, or else a sort of bad faith.

    Of course, perhaps the problem isn’t God, or our hope for relationship with God. Perhaps the problem is, again, our concept of God — or, more precisely, our concept of the sort of relationship we can expect with God in this life. Perhaps, on this issue, one should lean more towards a more Eastern Orthodox view; perhaps, for instance, communion does not always require communication. Not to say that one shouldn’t seek out divine communication or affection or activity, but maybe one needn’t fall into despair or deception when one seeks and does not find divine communication or affection or activity. Perhaps we have over-personalized and over-familiarized the biblical notion of “relationship with God”?

    Finally, right on with your Job comment. You put the point much better than I.

  3. Profile photo of Todd

    Todd - September 24, 2013, 7:20 am

    A great line from Peter O’Toole in The Ruling Class: “When did I realize I was God? Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized I was talking to myself.” I saw that film when it was released in 1972. I was 19 and I still remember that line. I was already an atheist at that point, but that line somehow made it official. It was a mere 40 years later that I became what I am now, a “recovering atheist” and half-baked Christian, but that line still sums up my experience of prayer. So I’m the last person to say anything about communication with God. I’m no Evangelical, so I have no idea what their expectations may be.

    But my comment that it’s difficult to enter into a relationship with a person who is merely described may be too glib. I remember reading that when Joseph Girzone’s first Joshua book was published, he started getting mail from people who found faith from reading that book, saying they finally felt that they knew Jesus as a person. I’m not sure what to make of that. Is Girzone’s Joshua a fictional character, or is he Jesus reaching out through the creative imagination of Girzone? Some people (not only children) have found a kind of relationship with C.S. Lewis’s Aslan. To others, the moral and spiritual universe of Tolkien’s Middle Earth is utterly real in its claim upon their hearts. Even when I was at the zenith of my atheism, Lewis’s The Great Divorce seemed shatteringly real to me, not as an afterlife travelogue but as a revelation of how it is possible to choose damnation.

    Holly Ordway has a lot to say about this sort of thing, under the heading of “literary apologetics,” but I’m not sure that apologetics is the right rubric. I think “revelation” is closer to the mark. And all revelation is communication. I don’t think God tells authors what to write, but I think he moves them in a way that lets the rest of us feel his presence in their words. Maybe he’s not so silent.

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