The “Hiding” God

Over Christmas, I reread John Paul II’s Interview with Vittorio Messori, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. I had forgotten what a remarkable book this is. The pope is frank, honest, intelligent, and, yes, soul-stirring. The book is a good review of the whole of faith and reason, a theme John Paul II later developed in Fides et Ratio. But I was particularly struck by the chapter entitled, “If God Exists, Why Is He Hiding?”

In previous chapters, the pope made a persuasive case for the existence of God – “Does   God Really Exist” and “‘Proof’: Is It Still Valid?” What struck me about Pope Wojtyla’s response was something I had seen in one of Msgr. Robert Sokolowski’s essays, namely, that the real problem with God is not His existence but His Incarnation. People are rather comfortable with a “hidden God.” What makes them nervous is when He makes Himself quite clear, especially when they do not want to hear it or live by it.

Descartes defined existence and thought together. For Aquinas, however, it is existence that comes first and limits or defines thought. God was rather a mystery. “If He were not Mystery,” the pope remarks, “there would be no need for Revelation, or, more precisely, there would be no need for God to reveal himself.” By his own intellect, man cannot know the fullness of God, only that He exists.

Many think that God’s whole existence should be obvious to any human mind, no matter how dull. Such a proposition brings God down to the level of the human intellect. It makes man to be God. In such a case, God would no longer be God. The God that exists rather shows to intelligent creatures what He wants them to know about Himself. But God does reveal Himself directly by becoming man. He does this in His own way. “[He] became man in His son and was born of the Virgin. It is precisely in this birth, and then through the Passion, the Cross, and the Resurrection that the self-revelation of God in the history of man reached its zenith, the revelation of the invisible God in the visible humanity of Christ.”

         Christ Blessing by Giovanni Bellini, c. 1500

The Apostles wanted Christ to show them the Father. Christ told them that He did show them: “The Father and I are one.” This almost seems to be exactly what contemporary man wants. “But this immediacy is not the knowledge of God ‘face to face,’ the knowledge of God as God.”

At this point, John Paul II wonders what more could God have done to make Himself known to us? “In truth it seems that He has gone as far as possible. He could not go further. In a certain sense, God has gone too far.” This sentence particularly struck me. God revealed too much of Himself to us!

Why suspect this? Because Christ, the Son of Man, became a “stumbling block” to Jews and “foolishness” to others. This reaction happened when God came out of hiding: “He (Christ) called God His Father, because He (Christ) revealed Him so openly in Himself. The impression was that it was too much.” This is a novel thought. We object to God not because He is hidden but because He is light, intelligible in His very dealing with us.

The problem of God, we moderns think, is His existence. But in fact the major problem lies elsewhere. Almost all people in history have believed in God’s existence. Even atheists who deny it try to prove a negative. They always end up with their own “proof” that God does not exist, which proof is uncomfortably itself a divine claim on their part.

Man could not accept God’s revelation in Christ. “This protest has precise names – first it is called the Synagogue, and then Islam. Neither can accept a God who is so human.” The inner life of God and His concern for us had to remain hidden. The Incarnation was the dangerous thing. By revealing too much of Himself in his Mystery “He was not mindful of the fact that such an unveiling would in a certain way obscure Him in the eyes of man, because man is not capable of withstanding an excess of the Mystery.” Man does not want to be overwhelmed by the Mystery.

But the “hiding” God went ahead and revealed Himself in Christ. Only in Christ could He insure that the divine plan for each of us could be achieved, the plan to see God face-to-face. How paradoxical then is John Paul II. God revealed too much of Himself! Best He should remain in hiding. This is the objection to God more and more defining our era. His Word, His Son, became man, suffered, died, was buried, and rose again.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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