Over the last few years, I’ve been encountering more and more people who, even though they find the case for God’s existence and Christ’s resurrection compelling, can’t seem to shake the sense that it’s all a lie. It all feels implausible to them even though they can’t exactly put their finger on why. Lingering doubts despite being intellectually and aesthetically persuaded or at least compelled pose a different problem than the rational challenges I studied to combat in my theological education.
Joseph Minich, Reformed Theological Seminary graduate and Ph.D. candidate in humanities at the University of North Texas, addresses this newer challenge to Christian faith in his little book Enduring Divine Absence: The Challenge of Modern Atheism. As he puts it, the book “attempts to address the problem of the temptation to atheism.” It’s not meant to refute atheism but to explore “why those who are not atheists can still nevertheless understand why it is that atheism might be plausible to someone.” In other words, Minich seeks to explain why those of us who are intellectually convinced of God’s existence still struggle with doubts rooted in a sense that God is not real.
Because God’s being and activity isn’t immediately obvious to us moderns, faith takes great effort to maintain and often seems to be slipping away. Many of us have wondered, “If we’re supposed to believe in God, then why doesn’t he just show up and prove he exists?” Minich aims to address why we experience faith in Christ this way and to offer a way forward. The book is short but dense, complex but simple in it’s basic but important insight. Hopefully that my readers can benefit from Minich’s work without having to wade through the book, I’ll offer a brief overview and then summarize the diagnosis and counsel offered. That said, I highly recommend it to those willing and able to follow his engagement with thinkers such as Aristotle, Dawkins, and Cartwright.
A Brief Outline
The book has 5 brief chapters. The introduction describes the nature of modern belief, suggesting that the plausibility of theism is contested resulting in a faith that is merely one option among many, several of which pull on us.
In chapter 2, Minich dives deeper into the main problem the book seeks to address: God’s absence is felt to be a problem and atheism appeals to us because it feels noble to accept the meaningless of the cosmos while affirming life and wondering in awe at the vastness, beauty, and complexity of nature. He outlines a few common but, in his estimation, wrong explanations for this phenomenon—that atheism is true or that this experience is due to a distorted will or bad thinking—in order to set up the next chapter in which he provides his own.
In chapter 3, we get another explanation for why a person can find atheism philosophically and intellectually incoherent while still feeling it to be compelling. In what is clearly the most challenging chapter intellectually, Minich gives a brief argument for the existence of God and then proceeds to explain why this doesn’t solve the problem of divine absence. He then outlines how people have shifted in the last 400 years in our understanding of causality, comparing Aristotle’s classic fourfold notion to modern science’s outlook featuring sequence, observation, predictability, and verifiability. These perspectives are not actually at odds with one another, but over the course of the Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and the material boom of the 1960’s, our control over nature has increased so rapidly that Aristotle’s notion of causality has been reduced if not ignored. That may seem technical and abstract, but it sets up his conclusion which sits is at the very heart of his diagnosis of the original question of the book, which I’ll outline below.
What then can we do? He answers in chapter 4, proposing doctrines and practices to which we must cling to live faithfully and with confidence.
The conclusion of this short book provides a second answer to the question of God’s absence which doesn’t solve the problem but helps us understand it better: dependent creatures made to grow into wise and mature bearers of God’s image are structured to experience absence and presence in order to develop. Just as children develop through the presence and absence of their parents, with both reinforcing the way the other affects us, God’s absence and presence play the same role. We were made to grow into maturity in the Garden of Eden where God would walk with humanity and then leave for a time. In other words, humanity was created in history to grow into the people he created us to be. So while divine absence feels like a problem, it shouldn’t surprise us and it makes sense considering who God is and how he made us.
The Main Insights
The strength of this book rests in its diagnosis of our feeling of doubt and its counsel regarding how to address this feeling.
So why do we who think Christianity is true still feel like it might not be?
Minich argues that the technology that shapes our experience in the modern world forms us in a posture of control over nature and an orientation of pragmatism regarding what is real.
The modern technological order tacitly communicates to us, day in and day out, that reality,(the sort that actually concerns us), belongs to the order of the manipulable, that it is subject, in principle, to human agency…we have been shaped to relate to the cosmos practically and therefore to imagine and be concerned with the cosmos only in its visible dimensions, or with that dimension with which human agency can, in principle, interfere. As such, any aspect of reality which does not manifest itself as “visible,” as part of the realm of the manipulable, is perceived to be non-existent…To put it bluntly, the world is a “world for me.” I do not find myself in a big, mysterious world suffused with agencies to which I am subject and around which I must learn to navigate. I find myself in a world almost entirely tool-i-fied, a world of my own subjective agency before an increasingly silent cosmos. And a silent cosmos echoes no ultimate Speaker. (57-59)
That’s the heart of his explanation. We experience the world in a fundamentally different way than pre-modern people. Our sensibilities have been trained to feel that only that which we can attempt to shape and control by applying scientific and technological knowledge is real.
So what can we do about this technological formation?
Returning to the question raised in the introduction, “Why doesn’t God make Himself obvious and erase all atheism?,” Minich answers: “Because God is only interested in His revelation being clear enough for the purposes He has in revealing Himself. That is to say, God’s revelation is about God’s rather than man’s goals.” Because our modern experience is suffused with the illusion of control that causes us to forget our dependence on the God who is there, this answer doesn’t feel right to us. So Minich argues we must train, exercise, and discipline ourselves in a willful remembering. He offers three practices and three doctrines to do just that.
- We must go over our reasoning for why Christianity is true again and again so we do not remain vulnerable to the modern experience which makes atheism such a draw.
- We must embed our lives in the community of the local church.
- We must take up the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, worship, fasting, etc.
- The Doctrine of God: God is pure act.
- The Doctrine of Christ: God is for me, in Christ.
- The Doctrine of Sin: Human beings, made in God’s image, are guilty of sin before God.
Minich has helpful things to say about the practices he recommends, but you really have to read chapter 4 to get the full weight of significance to the doctrine he calls us to willfully remember.
Despite the challenge of this material, I highly recommend this book. While reading it won’t remove our feelings of doubt, it can provide resources for a more grounded faith by making sense of our experience and directing us toward needed practices and doctrines.