The theology of God’s absence, part 2March 2, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
I once read a quote, which might have been from Mark Twain, that went something like this: “The Bible is the most genial book ever written. It never disagrees with the person reading it.” And it’s true. You never hear a believer say, “I believe such and such, even though it’s flatly contradicted by what the Bible means to say, when properly interpreted.” Everyone has whatever interpretation seems right in his or her own eyes.
This is also a consequence of God’s failure to show up in real life. Because God does not show up to give us an objective standard against which to measure which interpretations are correct (and which are incorrect), the question of “what the Bible really means” boils down to one man’s word against another’s. There are some who will appeal to grammar and linguistic principles, and others who will appeal to Tradition, but the final determination, the final standard, inevitably boils down to a question of “Does this seem right in my own eyes?”
It’s no coincidence that when Martin Luther promoted the concept of sola Scriptura, the number of doctrinal divisions within the Church skyrocketed. When every man is free to follow whatever interpretation seems right in his own eyes, you end up with as many differences in interpretation as there are differences in the interpreters. (Not, of course, that the Church was exactly free of divisions even before the Reformation.) That is, paradoxically, one of the things that makes Christianity so popular: it is easily adaptable to being whatever you believe it ought to be, due to the lack of objectively-real standards against which to measure right or wrong doctrine.
The problem with having such a flexible system of interpretation is that it inevitably leads to inconsistencies, especially when compared against the perfect self-consistency of real world truth. For example, when I say that it’s an Undeniable Fact that God fails to show up in real life, and that this is inconsistent with what Jesus tells us are God’s nature and motives, it’s easy to accuse me of simply having an improper interpretation of what Jesus said. And likewise, it’s easy to imagine an interpretation in which Jesus’ words imply that God should not be showing up in real life. Too easy, in fact.
The inconsistency comes in when we look at the question of why believers need an interpretation that implies some compelling reason for God’s absence. If God did show up in real life, there would not be any problem at all with the fact that my interpretation of Jesus’ words implies that we ought to expect Him to do so. The reason believers object to my interpretation is because they cannot deny the fact that He fails to do so. If God really did show up in real life, nothing I’ve said about Him being a loving, involved, wise, nurturing and saving Father, would pose an obstacle to Christian faith. The conflict consists entirely of God’s undeniable failure to show up.
This is why I can call it an Undeniable Fact. We are talking about the Christian God, which means that Christians ought to know something about Him, because if they don’t, then they’ve got no real-world basis for the things they say about Him. But if Christians know that God does not show up in real life, to the point that they object to any interpretation of Jesus’ teachings that implies He ought to be showing up, then they don’t have any real-world basis for what they say about Him.
Oh, sure, God “shows up” in the fantasies, intuitions, and superstitions of men. He “shows up” in the ancient legends and stories of the past. But when we compare those stories against the infallible standard of real-world truth, we find inconsistencies, such as the fact that even believers cannot deny that God fails to show up in real life. We have no objective support for believing in Him. And that means we have no option but to blindly trust whatever men tell us about Him, despite the inconsistencies. And that happens to be the definition of gullibility, not of faith.
A genuine God would know this. A God Who cared about our eternal destiny would do something so that we weren’t forced to rely on mere gullibility for our salvation. A loving Heavenly Father would show up just to spend time with us, just out of sheer love. After all, He’s already omnipresent, so where else would He go?
God’s absence has a tremendous impact on Christian theology. You can’t explore the least aspects of the theology of God’s present-day behavior without bumping into some accommodation that has to be made due to His consistent and universal failure to show up in real life. Even Christians can’t deny it without overthrowing large chunks of their theology. You can try to deny it. You just can’t succeed. Because God really doesn’t show up in real life.