Philosophy Phriday: Ants and the Hiddenness of God

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the fifteenth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Michael Rea.

Ants and the Hiddenness of God

If God loves us, why doesn’t God openly communicate with us?  This question resonates with a lot of people. My first clue as to the depth of its impact came in college, when a friend of mine broke down in tears over it.  “I have served God my entire life,” she said, “and God is supposed to be my heavenly father. So why can’t he, just once, whisper ‘I love you’?”

An ant’s search for God. Image: Andrea Lucky/Myrmecos

The hiddenness of God—the paucity of clear, rationally compelling evidence for God’s existence and the widespread absence of vivid, unambiguous experiential access to God’s presence and to communication from God—is one of the most existentially significant sources of doubt, spiritual struggle, and loss of faith among religious believers. Unsurprisingly, it is also touted as providing an important part of the rational foundation for agnosticism and atheism. At the close of the 19th century, in a book entitled The Silence of God, Robert Anderson gave voice to the problem in this way:

It is no novel experience with men that Heaven should be silent. But what is new and strange and startling is that the silence should be so absolute and prolonged; that through all the changing vicissitudes of the Church’s history for nearly two thousand years that silence should have remained unbroken. This it is which tries faith, and hardens unfaith into open infidelity.1

By the close of the 20th Century, the problem of divine hiddenness was fast becoming one of the two most widely discussed philosophical objections against belief in God.

In light of all this, and in light of my own experience of God’s hiddenness, I was initially surprised when I began speaking to non-academic audiences about the hiddenness problem and encountered people for whom it simply did not arise. One woman, after hearing my presentation of the problem, incredulously exclaimed, “What do you mean? God is talking all the time?” From her point of view, communication from God was constantly ready at hand—in the beauty of a sunrise, in the provision of rain and harvest, and in a myriad other natural objects and events.

The idea that the natural world is a vehicle for divine communication has roots in the Hebrew Bible. “Go to the ant, you lazybones,” writes the author of Proverbs; “consider its ways, and be wise.”1 Commenting on this verse, Christine Roy Yoder writes, “A hallmark of the wisdom tradition is the belief that the natural world is revelatory.”2 One need only look at the world through the right sort of lens. This view also finds expression in the writings of Patristic and Medieval theologians, particularly on the topic of the ‘spiritual senses’; and it is making an important resurgence in the contemporary literature on religious experience. Philosophers and theologians like Mark Wynn, Sameer Yadav, and David Brown have each, in their own ways, been arguing for a conception of our perceptual engagement with the natural world according to which the values, intentions, actions, and presence of God are readily discernible by those who have learned to be receptive to such things.

How does one learn to experience the presence of God? Both Mark Wynn and Sameer Yadav employ the analogy of a scientist learning to “see” the activity of sub-atomic particles by observing their macroscopic effects—vapor trails in cloud chambers, for example. One might also point to the way in which one might learn to see anatomical features in ultrasound scans or X-rays, or the way in which one’s background beliefs or anxieties might (rightly or wrongly) transform ordinary crackling noises in the house or in the woods into the sound of an intruder, or an approaching bear. In each case, the cognition of the experiencer—her beliefs, fears, desires, and so on—somehow impacts her experience of the relevant stimulus, thus enabling her to see or hear (or spontaneously, non-inferentially take herself to see or hear) something more than what a person bringing different beliefs, fears, and so on to the table might see or hear. If there is indeed a bear approaching camp, the anxious person might literally hear the bear whereas his non-anxious companion might hear only crackling sounds.

X-rayed ants… in space? In thought. Photo: Benjamin Blanchard

Developing the analogy, then, we might say that, just as images on an ultrasound screen or crackling sounds in the woods are vehicles for the presentation of human anatomical features or the sounds of an approaching bear to observers experiencing these stimuli through the right cognitive filter, so too the natural world is a vehicle for the presentation of God’s presence or activity to observers experiencing it through the right cognitive filters. From a perspective of faith, looking at the world through a lens that casts it as an arena of ubiquitous divine presence, activity, and communication, one can quite literally perceive God at work in the world, assuming there is indeed a God who is at work in the world in ways that match up appropriately with one’s experiences. One can then say with the Psalmist that the heavens declare the glory of God and proclaim God’s handiwork; and one can see in the ways of the ant not just a homey allegory for a certain kind of secular wisdom but a natural-world revelation of some aspect of the wisdom of God.

Do our myrmecological musings here provide us with a solution to the problem of divine hiddenness? I wish that they did; but, in the end, I think that too many questions linger. To be sure, if the views I have been referencing here are correct, then certain kinds of experiences of God are much more widely available than the philosophical literature on divine hiddenness has hitherto acknowledged. And this fact does go some distance toward addressing certain aspects of the problem of God’s hiddenness. But, even so, we are still left wondering why divine love does not move God in the direction of making God’s existence and love for humanity much more obvious, undeniably obvious, especially to those of us who are longing and seeking for experiences of God that are more vivid and tangible than a cognitively shaped vision of divine wisdom or glory in our experience of perfectly natural phenomena.   What more can be said in response to questions like this? Alas, the answer is too large for a blog; but interested readers can find more from me on these topics in the videos on divine hiddenness linked on my website.

1 The Silence of God (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1897), 62-63.
2Scripture quotation from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3Proverbs (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 73.

ReaMichael Rea is the Rev. John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame, where he has taught since 2001. He is also a Professorial Fellow at the Logos Institute for Analytic & Exegetical Theology at the University of St. Andrews. He is has written or edited more than ten books and thirty articles in metaphysics and the philosophy of religion, and has given numerous lectures in the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Russia, China, and Iran, including the 2017 Gifford Lectures at the University of St. Andrews.