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Rabbi Alan Lurie

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Why Does God Hide?

Posted: 09/13/10 06:50 PM ET

Bertrand Russell, the great British philosopher, logician, social activist, and outspoken critic of religion and faith, when asked what he would say if he met his maker after death, famously answered, "God, you gave us insufficient evidence."

This notion, that God's presence is hidden, is a significant dilemma for many, and for some is clear proof that God does not exist. Why, one asks, would the creator of the Universe be so difficult to spot? Surely if such a creator exists, there would be obvious evidence. And why wouldn't this creator, in order to silence disbelievers and recruit more faithful, simply appear on the White House lawn, announce his presence, and miraculously end all war, hunger, and disease? For some, this hidden presence is evidence that even if a creator deity does exist, such a being is not worth worshiping. What kind of a god, who religious people say loves us, would stand by as horrible atrocities happen, and silently allow us to suffer? Such a god is either not all-powerful, not all-knowing, or certainly not completely benevolent. Many site the Holocaust, for example, as clear proof of God's impotence or indifference

The question of God's hidden presence is not new, and has been an essential theological question for at least 2,000 years. The Bible itself continuously wrestles with this question, and God's apparent capriciousness is the theme of the Book of Job. Of course a simple answer is to say, "The reason for the struggle is that there obviously is no god. Let go of this idea and the struggle disappears." OK, that's a perfectly fine response. What matters most, after all, is what we do -- the amount of positive impact that our lives have on the world -- not what we believe or don't believe. Bertrand Russell himself was a great man who dedicated his life to helping humanity move toward a future of peace. In this way, his disbelief in the existence of God is the expression of his intellectual rigor and his desire to free people from superstition and division.

For those who do struggle with the question of God's elusiveness, though, I'd like to present several responses that may allow you to view this from a different perspective:

1) A Misunderstanding of the Nature of God

The notion that God can "appear" as a visible entity demonstrates a belief in the nature of God as a being, separate from ourselves, and living somewhere "out there": a person, perhaps like ourselves, only much, much bigger, smarter, etc. If this is our vision of God, then we will certainly be frustrated at "his" hiding. This image of God, though, is frankly a childish one that we must all agree does not exist. The great theologians, mystics, and spiritual guides have all recognized that what we call "God" is not a limited being. What, then, is God? Well, not to be evasive, but this is not a simple answer that can be written in a short blog, and whatever I write will be inaccurate, misunderstood, and radically incomplete. I can say this, though: God's presence is experienced, not quantified, measured, or recorded. The first step, then, is to let go of a literal vision of God, and to begin to know that the search for God is more akin to the search for love and connection than the search for a graviton or Big Foot.

2) A Misunderstanding of the Nature of Religion

I recently listened to an interview with Richard Dawkins, in which he states, "Religion proposes one answer to why things are as they are. Science proposes another. They cannot both be right." This statement presents the assumption that the purpose of religion is to address the same questions as science, and that God is a hypothesis to answer such scientific questions as "How did the Earth form?", "What causes disease?", and "Where does lightening come from?" This assumption, though, is a category mistake. Religion is not an archaic science any more than paintings are archaic photography. Religion is a compilation of humanity's yearning to find meaning and purpose, to document the encounter with the Divine realm, and to help facilitative such encounters for others. God is not found in the doctrine of religion. Rather, religion is an institution that seeks to find God. This is not a whitewash of religion, and does not ignore the obvious fact that many do look to religion to answer scientific questions and see science as a threat. This, instead, is a declaration that the true purpose of religion is to help us recognize that we are more than our momentary desires, our fleeting thoughts, and our painful sense of separation from each other and nature.

3) A Misunderstanding of the Means to Experience God's Presence

Russell's statement assumes that evidence for God should be immediately obvious to anyone. Is this a reasonable assumption, though? Everything in our lives that is profound and meaningful begins with our conscious desire to seek, and requires sustained effort. We don't expect to go to the gym once and come home in great shape for the rest of our lives (or to sit on our sofa, eat Snickers bars, and remain fit and trim), or to sleep through school and never open the textbooks and yet miraculously absorb the material. And those of us who are married and have children know the vast amount of deliberate and constant attention that we must exert in order to make these relationships flourish (and what happens when we don't). We only grow when we take the first step and commit to the effort. The experience of God requires deliberate and sustained effort, as well. That is why all religious and spiritual traditions teach us to meditate, pray, practice gratitude, and seek God's presence on a regular, deliberate basis. There are some fortunate people who seem to be more open to experiencing God than others, just as there are some people who are naturally empathetic, more sensitive to art, music, or poetry than others. Whether through inclination, luck, grace, or as a result of life experiences, for these people God is not hidden but is the most real experience of their lives. For the rest of us, our ego, which acts from the need for protection and survival, tends to resist experiencing God's presence (although it often loves latching on to the controlling aspects of doctrinaire religion) because this requires that we acknowledge that there is a higher power than ourselves and our minds. This realization can feel like a death, and the ego's main function is to fight death.

4) A Misunderstanding of the Proof

There have been many attempts to "prove" the existence of God, including the Ontological Proof, which states that God's existence can be proven through the very notion of the idea of such existence; the Cosmological Proof, which states that the Universe must have a First Cause or Prime Mover to set all in motion; and the Teleological Proof, which sees God's presence in the fine-tuned design in nature. Few people, I suspect, are truly convinced by any of these "proofs," and all have been rigorously challenged. The theologians who postulated these proofs, though, have generally been individuals who have intensely felt God's presence, and then have attempted to create a reasoned roadmap for others. Unfortunately, this is like trying to get someone to feel the ecstatic emotion of a Beethoven symphony through an analysis of its structure, or to recreate the bliss of sexual union through an anatomical diagram. Of course I run the same risk here, but that is the limitation of words.

As I said at the beginning, what we believe matters much less than what we do. Of course, what we believe shapes and drives what we do, and so belief and action work together. My attempt here, therefore, is to help break down some conceptual limitations in order to possibly create an opening into which one can begin to experience a deeper sense of the world and oneself.