Thursday, December 20, 2012

Nagging Question

Dorothy Butler Bass has written this fine column for the Huff Post that I commend to you. In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, she explores the two most common "answers" proposed to the "Where was God?" when such senseless things happen: 1) God was present in and with the sufferers, in and with the acts of compassion and courage, etc., in a loving and co-suffering presence. 2) God was absent as an expression of divine judgement for human sin.

Interestingly, unlike a number of liberal-progressive religious folk, Bass doesn't lightly dismiss option 2. Indeed, one finds biblical precedents for both conceptions -- in the prophets and the psalms, for example.
But her response is to pose a third alternative, proposing that God was not (exactly) present or (exactly) absent at the Newtown tragedy. Rather, God was "hidden." She evokes the classic theological tradition of the "hidden God" (Deus absconditus). It is an appeal to the mystery that permeates all of life and to the salutary notion that we human beings don't have "answers" for everything that happens -- perhaps we have explanations, ultimately, for very little.

A number of my former peers at Chicago have worked on the "hidden God" tradition with such scholars as Bernard McGinn, David Tracy, Susan Schreiner and Jean-Luc Marion. Luther and Calvin were strong proponents of a form of the hidden God argument -- Luther, for example, invoking the notion that divine providence is inscrutable in the face of such events as the advances of the Turkish empire (sorry, I don't know the appropriate textual references).

But my question for Bass (and other proponents of the hidden God notion) goes along these lines: My hunch, on the face of it, would be that the figures like Luther and Calvin would understand the Deus absconditus dialectically: They had no qualms about affirming divine presence and judgment as well.

But what of the contemporary theological interpreter? Why has it become increasingly difficult for many contemporary Christian thinkers -- I'm speaking in generalities here, not necessarily with Prof. Bass in view -- to articulate or even affirm, in any clear sense, notions of God as present in direct acts of providence or as withdrawn in judgment of sin and evil? I'm not just being rhetorical: I'd be interested to get some feedback on this question.

In other words, in our contemporary context (name it "postmodern," "late-modern," "postliberal" or whatever you prefer), what is the advantage of espousing a view of God as "hidden" over a plain, old-fashioned, consistent and more Occamite agnosticism? Is there a future for contemporary theology qua theology -- as something more than ethics, political theory or "religious studies" (whatever that is)?

How is the Deus absconditus superior to the God who simply is not there, just because....just because he just isn't?