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Thursday, June 16, 2016

God is Hiding

Sometimes I find things I had not expected and I delight in that.  Recently, I was reading a book for some ideas that could supplement my own thoughts for a chapter in a book I was writing.  The book I was reading was fairly heavy.  It was talking about theology, epistemology (question about how we know things), etc.  I read a great deal of this kind of material in graduate school, but I read less of it today.  The level at which I teach does not move in those arenas.  They are important, but not relevant in every situation.

I enjoyed following the close argument and watching the author negotiate the nuances involved in the development of his argument.  Even though he was operating at a sophisticated level, there were lessons for all of us who operate at street level.  He was clear about what he thought and was explaining it as clearly as he could.  He was aware that people can have different opinions and he respected that.  He was not insinuating that he was always right.

Since much of what he was talking about was God, I appreciated his careful, non-judgmental approach.  We could do better in our world if more people took that perspective.  And then it happened.  His writing turned to one of the people I most admire, the late Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Heschel was a European Jew who was under severe threat by Hitler and the Nazi treatment of Jews.

He fled that scene and finally wound up teaching at the Jewish Seminary in New York City.  Heschel was a first rate theologian---fully capable of the sophisticated work and the earlier book I was reading.  But Heschel also had another touch.  He had a mystical sense to him.  The God he studied was the same living God Heschel met and worshipped in the synagogue on Sabbath.  Heschel tried to talk about the God who lives in our hearts as much as in the heads of theologians.

All my sense of Heschel came rushing back when the book I was reading quoted Heschel.  Since Heschel was writing in the mid-20th century, his language still uses almost exclusively male language.  But his language is powerful to me, as witnessed by the quotation that jumped out when I read it.

I will share the quotation and then make some comments.  In his book, Man’s Quest for God, Heschel says, “Religion is what a man does with the presence of God.  And the spirit of God is present whenever we are willing to accept it.  True, God is hiding His face in our time, but He is hiding because we are evading Him.” (MQG, xiv)  There must be a thousand definitions of religion.  Everyone who believes in God has to have some view or definition of religion.  Most of us have never been asked what is our definition, but it would be fun to see the range of definitions.

I like Heschel’s perspective.  He says religion is what people do with the presence of God.  Even this simple definition contains some profound presuppositions.  For example, it assumes that God is present.  I agree.  And this is a basic difference between believers and non-believers.  For the non-believer, God is not present.  In fact, for that person God does not exist. With that statement I have just added a bit of nuance to our discussion

It is one thing to say that God is present.  To say that means God could also be absent.  God can exist, but choose to be absent.  It is a different matter altogether if God does not exist.  All this anticipates the remainder of Heschel’s quotation.  After defining religion, Heschel says God is present whenever we are willing to accept it.  In an odd way this makes God’s presence dependent upon me and you.  If we want God to be present, God will be present.  This does not mean we create God, but it does mean we make it possible for ourselves to experience the presence of God.

And then, Heschel makes a final move.  He suggests that God is hiding in our current time.  Again, I think he is correct.  Of course, God is not hiding from everyone.  Many folks do know and appreciate God’s presence.  But for many more, God is not present.  God seems to be hiding.  But notice Heschel’s reason for saying this.  God is hiding because we are evading God.

I wonder if we can’t add that we are evading and avoiding God.  We do this when we put ourselves front and center---when only our own ego-agenda matters.  This is a helpful way to see some of the foibles of our own time.  God is hidden and we are not even looking.  In fact, for the most part many are happy God is absent God would only makes us uncomfortable or mess up our agendas.  I can hear relief when, in effect, folks say, “Thank God, God is here!”

I am thankful to Heschel for helping me see and appreciate the God who wants to be present.  I want to open my eyes and see.

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