The Hiddenness of the Ever-present God

Having completed the liturgical year with the celebration of Christ the King and looking forward the First Sunday of Advent, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the need to break from the “ordinary”, the sense of routine which can often accompany our spiritual life and religious practice. This regularity no doubt has its place. It provides order and carries us through the highs and lows of enthusiasm, tragedy and monotony. But, it can also obscure.

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God has not called us to be Christian for the sake of attending mass, saying the rosary, reading scripture or even doing good works. Rather, these are all important means to human fulfillment, the life of the blessed, towards which we are genuinely called. As Christ constantly reminds the scribes and Pharisees people were not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for people. In the midst of routine, and the struggle to fit our spiritual life into what remains of the day when our work and family obligations are completed, it is easy to lose sight of the grandeur of an authentic Christian life. Advent reminds us that we are called to be saints. We are called to make a home for the transcendent God here on earth, here in our hearts.

The theological vision of Pulitzer Prize winning writer Annie Dillard often highlights this paradoxical tension between divine hiddenness and the expansive awe-inspiring power of God. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she reflects on Pascal’s pessimistic phrase Deus Absconditus that describes God’s creating the universe only to turn away from it. Dillard asks rhetorically: “Is this what happened? Was the sense of it there, and God absconded with it, ate it, like a wolf who disappears around the edge of the house with the Thanksgiving turkey?”

In our lonelier moments we might, no doubt, be tempted to think this could be the case. But, she presents an alternative thesis: “It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and so subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem.” It seems to me that much of our life wavers between these two visions of God, and it is all too easy to fall into believing, if only implicitly, Deus absconditus, God has left the building, all the while carrying on the external trappings of our prayer, our ministry, our good works…

In her later collection Teaching a Stone to Talk, Dillard returns to this notion in a provocative way. In one of her most quotable passages she writes:

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.

This hidden God lies just below the surface, and even a glimpse of him can unleash dangerous and unforeseeable forces. C.S. Lewis captures the same notion in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when he describes the lion Aslan, who is presented as a figure of Christ: “He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion”.

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How often do we try to tame God’s action in our life? If we truly heard what we profess in the Creed and lived out what we read in the Gospel, how different would our lives, and indeed our world, be? As Dillard continues:

It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.

Reading this passage always reminds me of my own conversion. As an atheist in grad school I became fascinated with the thought of St. Augustine. Eventually I realized I knew nothing about his life as a Bishop. I had no experience of the Church that gave the genuine context to his thought. To remedy this deficiency I asked a friend and colleague who I knew was Catholic if I might tag along with him for mass sometime. Experiencing the liturgy for the first time was quite moving, so the next week I looked up the Church nearest to my apartment and went on my own.

As I was leaving after the celebration I happened to pass by a priest in the lobby greeting parishioners and when we shook hands, without any prior intention of doing so, I found myself saying, “Can I talk to you sometime about joining the Church?” To this he gave an answer I will never forget: “The forms are over there.” From the expression on my face he quickly realized I meant something deeper than how to sign up in the parish and get tax receipts. He paused in a moment of prayer and we arranged to start meeting to discuss how I could become Catholic.

This was a moment in which God awoke, drawing me to a place from which I could never return.  Yet, it is just a small example of the way God can burst into one’s life and unleash profound grace when one opens up to the possibility that new and unexpected things can and should happen.  But it also reminds us how these tremendous moments in one can be seen as utterly ordinary from another perspective.  In a paradoxical way God’s presence can’t be separated too much from his absence; they tend to be a package deal.  It is a matter of our own habitual outlook and disposition, a matter of keeping an alert awareness to the fact that the supernatural is more real and powerful than the comfortable and familiar world of what comes naturally.

The Incarnation did not shrink the divine to human scale, rather it elevated Christ’s human nature through a unique union with a Divine Person, the Son. The time of Advent will be well spent if we draw closer to him, making a deliberate effort to cultivate a more supernatural perspective. If we look beyond our routine and expect that Christ can and will enter into the fabric of our lives and world, moving them in new and wonderful ways, he just might begin to do so.

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Teaching One’s Convictions

Finding consensus on anything beyond the obvious is a difficult task in today’s world. In fact, even on matters that one might take to be obvious it can be a challenge. Nowhere is this difficulty more present than among professors, particularly in the liberal arts. Jacques Maritain once quipped that agreement is so rare among philosophers and theologians that it is only by a rare miracle that one even agrees with oneself on these matters.

Curiously, one area where professors do seem to agree quite widely is in the conviction that they should not reveal their own personal views to their students on the subjects that they teach. Over the years I’ve heard many colleagues take pride in the fact that their students could not figure out what views they held on the topics they presented in class. In fact, this seems to be a pedagogical approach that is largely taken for granted in the humanities and social sciences.

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There are certainly some excellent pragmatic reasons in favour of such a method. Most importantly a professor who shares his personal convictions on the topics being taught risks undermining students’ efforts to think through the subject for themselves. Once the professor has pronounced judgment on a position or interpretation, students may understandably be reluctant to take up a competing point of view. This would, indeed, undermine one of the most important goals of a liberal arts education. Moreover, it may raise questions of fairness in the mind of students. Those who disagree with the professor’s preferred approach and do poorly may well wonder if bias played a role in determining their grade.

While I certainly respect my many colleagues in academe who take this approach to teaching, it is one that I have always been uncomfortable with. Instead, I tend to think that students have a right to their professors’ personal synthesis of the material they teach. While I don’t want to underestimate the risks of teaching in view of one’s own philosophical and theological judgment, I think the risks of not doing this are likely much greater.

In subjects such as philosophy, theology, history, sociology and so forth students are expected not only to master a certain amount of content, they are also expected to analyze and assess it. This means that their professors expect them to judge the cogency of the arguments and evidence put forward for the various views under consideration. How then does the professor who withholds his or her personal assessment from students teach this?

Clearly, simply teaching “content” without any assessment is not viable. A philosophy professor just can’t teach Plato and Aristotle, and then move on to the Sceptics and Stoics, reciting what they said without ever making assessments of their arguments, if for no other reason than what they say is often criticism of competing viewpoints alive in the intellectual culture. Nor is this a peculiarity of philosophers, who admittedly provide us with an unusually argumentative body of work. Historians, sociologist, literary critics and others all take issue with the work of their peers and present competing explanations that students have to grapple with.

It is also curious that most professors who take the position that they should withhold their personal views from their students, nevertheless, do not take this to mean that they shouldn’t point out the more significant and obvious weaknesses in the arguments they teach. I don’t imagine that even the most impersonal professor thinks that while teaching St. Anselm’s controversial argument for the existence of God that he is obliged to make no mention of the widely accepted criticisms of it. Of course, such professors might protest that these criticisms are not their own, but those of Gaunilo, Aquinas, Kant, etc. Indeed, but why stop there with these objections and not look at attempts to refute these objections made by various scholars as well? Perhaps there is no time given the rigours of the undergraduate curriculum, but it is more likely that the real issue is that extending the debate indefinitely in this way would not yield fruit, because the argument is generally thought to be unpersuasive.

The professor who hides her or his personal judgment on the topics under discussion as a matter of principle has a limited number of options. First, to present arguments without any assessment at all, which, as I have said, would be to abdicate an essential part of the task of any discipline or, second, to present arguments along with objections, but without giving a judgment about the success or failure of either, which inadvertently gives priority to the objections and makes the discipline appear to be nothing other than a studied of failed theories.

The only remaining alternative would appear to be to present arguments and provide objections only when they appear cogent, following out the argument to what the faculty member sees as the logical conclusion. But then the teacher is just refraining from sharing the personal judgment, which has nonetheless already been argued for, that the view in question is right or wrong. However, in this case withholding one’s personal opinions is rather artificial, for the professor’s personal judgments are fully operative here; they just aren’t explicitly spoken.

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This points to the most significant concern I have with the notion of holding back one’s own personal judgment in teaching. Such a pedagogy poses a significant risk of making the entire process appear to the student like an intellectual game. One theory after another is articulated and defended, but only to be knocked down by a set of objections. No theory is ever found to be cogent, for no positive assessment that flows from the professor’s own personal judgment is allowed to enter into the discourse. This seems to me to be not only a recipe for scepticism or relativism, but to undermine the very intellectual life about which faculty in the humanities and social sciences are rightly so passionate.

A professor of mathematics or physics could hardly expect to keep her or his job while professing not to know the truth of the subject he or she is commissioned to teach. Yet, a professor of humanities or the social sciences is thought to be a fanatical extremist if he or she claims knowledge of the subject. As the great historian of philosophy Etienne Gilson once noted “The only dogmatic tenet still held s valid in such philosophical circles is that, if a philosopher feels reasonably sure of being right, then it is a sure thing that he is wrong.”

This prejudice is by no means restricted to philosophy alone, but can be found throughout the social sciences and humanities. While in such disciplines it is certainly the case that the truth is only arrived at progressively and in varying degrees, unlike the truths of arithmetic that can be discovered definitively, certainly progress can be made in them as well. But this progress can’t occur without risk and personal commitment. The professor who holds back from sharing his or her personal judgment about the subject takes a matter that calls for personal engagement and turns it into a merely logical or descriptive exercise. These are important parts of the academic process to be sure, but they can hardly claim to exhaust it.

A preferable alternative to pedagogical neutrality, I would suggest, is to simply accept that a bias free classroom is a utopian impossibility. Since there will inevitably be different points of view when teaching the liberal arts, it is far better if the perspectives of all, including (indeed especially) the instructor, be explicitly stated. This should, of course, be accompanied with a sincere indication that the point of a liberal education is surely not just to agree with the judgments of the professor, but to master the modes of reasoning of the disciplines studied in order to make one’s own judgments and to engage intelligently with the range of views on offer in the discipline. This, I would suggest, is an approach which is more intellectually honest and likely to better serve the aim of a liberal arts education than feigned neutrality.