Saturday, December 21, 2013

Prayer and Deus Absconditus (PrayerLife)

Sterling State Park (Lake Erie)
I talked recently with a friend who shared with me that God's presence seems to have withdrawn from them. As they told me they felt like crying. 

This person is a Jesus-follower who, for many years, has lived in a near-constant experiential sense of God-with-them. Now, God seems to be far from them. They know intellectually that God is with them, but currently lack experiential reality of this. 

What can we make of this? Here are some of my thoughts, which are not all directly related to this one person's spiritual desert.

  • That God is with his followers is a truth that is not necessarily related to one's experience of God-with-us. For example, I know that my wife Linda always loves me. Her love for me is constant, as is mine for her. But I do not always experience her love for me. The lack of such experience does not cause me to doubt that she loves me, and loves me now. I think the same of God. I have had many experiences with God. I've also had many times when I lacked God-experience. While I often want more God-experience than I have, this does not cause me to wonder why I don't feel God as powerfully as I have at other times.
  • None of us experience pure, unfiltered, face-to-face God-experience. All our God-encounters are "see-through-a-glass darkly" events. Yes, some claim more immediate (= unmediated) God-encounters. My own belief is that even purported unmediated God-encounters (such as certain Christian mystics report, Meister Eckhart among them) are still mediated events. Some are more so than others. God-experiences are more or less proximal. I am not expecting full-blown unmediated face-to-face God moments, and thus am not disappointed at the lack of them.
  • The Psalms contain Deus absconditus moments (the "hidden God"; God as experientially hidden from us). Ps. 10 complains of God's hiding - "Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?" Ps. 30:7 expresses sadness that, after a time when the psalmist felt secure, he then felt God went into hiding: "When I felt secure, I said, 'I will never be shaken.' O Lord, when you favored me, you made my mountain stand firm; but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.'" Ps. 44 expresses outright ticked-offness at God's hiding, suggesting that God is morally irresponsible: "Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?" Part of the noetic framework of Judaeo-Christian theism is experiencing the absence of God.
  • My personal history (43 years) of brief and extended times of sensing God's presence makes me confident that God is with me and near me and dwells within me even when I am not experientially aware of this. Even when I do not feel God I know God is near me, even within me, by his Spirit. I do not find myself doubting this. Indeed, this is more of a reality today than ever.
  • John 20:29 may be instructive here. Jesus says, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are they who, not seeing, believe." This implies that Jesus-followers who believe even without perceptual experience of him have something, perhaps an existential certitude, that needs no empirical proof of the reality of God-with-them and God-for-them. Jesus applauds this kind of faith and trust.
  • I am thinking of Henri Nouwen's distinction of a "ministry of presence" and a "ministry of absence." Persons who engage in redemptive activity know that there is a time to be with people and a time to not be with people. The difference between the two is a matter of discernment. Sometimes, even often, the best thing for a person we are helping is to not be with them. Perhaps this is also how it is with our Redeemer God and us, with God knowing the difference. This may be related to the soul-making theodicy of Michael Murphy (via John Hick) in his "Deus Absconditus." (In Howard-Snyder and Moser, Divine Hiddenness)
  • The "hidden God moment" par excellence is surely Jesus' cry of "Why have you forsaken me?" Uttered from the cross, it expresses (I think) a total absence of God as a result of bearing this world's sins. Sin makes a separation from relationship with God; Jesus' experience of abandonment was absolute. Sometimes, therefore, our sin causally effects, in a negative way, our sense of God's presence.
  • Is "experiencing God" equivalent to "feeling God?" I think not. I see "experiencing God" as the broader class within which "feeling God" is a subset. Thus one may experience God without feeling God (the relationship being assymetrical). This is a broad sense of "knowing" that includes yet is more than "feeling." In this regard I am interested in two sources I am currently reading: 1) the work of Paul Moser, especially his idea of "filial knowledge" found in "Cognitive Idolatry and Divine Hiding" (In Divine Hiddenness), and The Evidence for God (esp. Ch. 4 - "Personifying Evidence for God"); and 2) James K.A. Smith's Pentecostal epistemology in his brilliant Thinking in Tongues.
When you are a Jesus-follower and are suffering, or are in need of rescue, you want God to come out of hiding and show up. At such times the feeling-absence of God seems painful. Yet if "knowledge" is more than feeling, then you can know God is with you in the absence of feeling. That, too, can be an experience if we understand that experience is not reducible to feeling simpliciter.

Therefore, pray anyway.