Enduring Divine Absence: Joseph Minich’s Work
Have you ever suspected you have tricked yourself into believing Christian claims? Or have you ever been burrowed down with a crippling sense of grief or bewilderment at God’s inability to show up when you needed him most?
Those considerations always remind me of a certain story. A story embedded in my memory. The story of Richard the Bible college student who walked away from God. In Disappointment With God, Philip Yancey spells out the experience of young Richard, an experience that mirrors many of my own questions, tears and agonies. Richard and I share much.
Richard, the Bible college student who could write a publication quality book on Job, discloses 6 months later to Yancey that he no longer believes what he wrote. In agony, Richard had begged God to show himself. In liberation, he ended up burning his theological textbooks and walking away from God. A God who by virtue of his silence was determined not to have existed in the first place.
He says, “Finally, at four o’ clock in the morning, I came to my senses. Nothing had happened. God had not responded. Why continue torturing myself? Why not just forget God and get on with life, like most of the rest of the world?”
Similarly, a friend and I have shared countless coffee conversations wrestling, not with the intellectual arguments for God, but with our own innate desperation—we were not walking away from Christ, but it seemed he was slipping away from us.
“Why, Lord, Do You Hide Your Face?”
What should we make of those coffee conversations? Joseph Minich, author of Enduring Divine Absence, suggests, “that our real challenge is existential and imaginative—a felt absence of God that is more visceral in our modern world than for most generations’ past, and the sense that if God cannot be sensed, He cannot be there. Why are we so haunted and disoriented today by this sense of God’s absence? And how can we learn to sustain and strengthen our faith in the face of it?”
It’s this phenomenon of us experiencing God as “silent,” and our resultant inclination to conclude his nonexistence, that Joseph Minich’s work Enduring Divine Absence explores. Minich opens his book with a confession. A confession at being taken aback by a clever 12-year-old at agnostic camp who posed the same question as Richard, the Bible college student.
Here is Minich’s version of the young girl’s question: “You know, God could totally get rid of all atheism if he’d just show up. I mean, think of it. How hard would it be for the Almighty to peel back the clouds every day at 3pm for ‘God time’ and say, “Hey, guys. Here I am. See ya” If he did that? No atheism. So why doesn’t he if we’re supposed to believe in him?”
Now, immediately many Christians respond either with excellent counter arguments or (the slightly lazier, albeit not entirely untrue) reasons: “It’s because she’s sinful” or “It’s because she’s trusting her feelings.” But it is likely that Richard, the agnostic tween, myself, and my friend know the arguments and counters reasonably well.
And herein lies Minich’s genius. His inquiry is not predominantly focused on the philosophical or intellectual validity of the Christian faith. It is less that there isn’t any reasonable answer and more that at a gut level we quietly think: “That 12-year-old has a point you know.”
In Minich’s words: “Why does it sometimes feel like it takes great effort to believe things about reality that are supposed to be obvious—as though we’re holding onto it by an act of will rather than by a passive sense of its obviousness.”
Said another way: “How is it possible that we can both (a) think we have compelling reasons to believe in God; and (b) even find atheism incoherent or obviously false in many ways; and yet (c) still feel it to be a living option?”
It is this dissonance that Minich unpacks. It seems that even when I hold to the Christian profession, my life reflects God’s absence back to me. Why is it plausible to interpret my life and the world without God in it, as though ‘God is not there’?
By A Pilgrim For Pilgrims
Minich writes about this from both his own experience and for his young son who is instinctively hesitant regarding Christian claims. It is a book by a Christian who seeks to constantly reflect on why he holds to his beliefs, and it is for Christians who are trying to contest the personal dissonance they know is alive and well within them.
For those who do not wrestle with these experiences this book will do one of two things. Firstly, it will helpfully map out the pathway some of your Christian family travel. Second, it might surface unresolved questions you have tucked away for fear of exploration. Either way, I encourage you to read it. And as an aside, the word doubt is too small a word for the experience. And “doubt” has also garnered a reputation amongst some as a Christian status symbol. Perhaps then it is better to say the book seeks to aid those who, periodically or perennially, because of various factors, endure a bewildering loss of footing when it comes to what is a sure and sound in relation to God.
The work is based on Minich’s PhD, and it is written in 5 sections across 94 pages. Between the enriching introductory and concluding reflections (chapters 1 and 5) the book considers: (2) modernity and divine absence; (3) the silencing of God; (4) and seeking finding and being found.
One thing I appreciate about Minich is how diligent he is with his terminology. He chooses words wisely. He works hard to re-orientate common understanding on various topics including something as fundamental as how we understand cause and effect. This is one trait of his I love. Sloppy language frames reality poorly. As Hauerwas has said: “You can only act or refrain from acting according to what you can see, and you can only see what you’ve been taught to say.”
For those less familiar with detailed historical and philosophical work (there is your homework!), chapter 4 alone is worth the price of the book. In it (“seeking, finding and being found”) Minich lays out a Christian response to tackle the impulse to wander away. He winsomely identifies that Christians with the challenges of our time must work to rightly “orientate” ourselves to God. This chapter brings home a critical insight of Minich’s thesis. That we experience being a human person today very differently to previous generations. And then, how the act of remembrance can alter us as we face the world around us.
Within chapter 4, Minich offers “three spheres of activity” that provide a roadmap for orienting ourselves toward God:
- Considering our intellectual reasons
- The community of God
- Spiritual disciplines
The first sphere, considering our intellectual reasons, is the default disposition of anyone who wrestles heavily with understanding reality coherently. It is the call to review—through new eyes—the reasons we believe. This reminds, refreshes, and deepens one’s faith.
For others, spheres 2 and 3 will be more of a battlefield when fighting a sense of divine absence. Yet the rhythms of the Christian life deeply shape our relationship to God. Maintaining life within the church community can be exceptionally difficult, and outright ridiculous, to someone in the throes of spiritual turmoil. I remember once standing in a church service physically unable to bring myself to sing because I was so worn out by whether any of it was true or not.
Welcome to spiritual warfare.
And retreat from community, as painful as gathering might be, is not optional in the fight. Minich’s words’ rightly sting: “We cannot despise brothers and sisters in Christ who live in the same world that we do and whose attunement to it often far exceeds our own distorted calibration.”
The third sphere, spiritual disciplines, can equally be lost on us. But it is as essential as ever. What we enact shapes what we perceive as real. It is a fight for aligning will and affection. Mental assent must marry physical enactment even, especially, when it feels empty. These spiritual disciplines are rhythms of life that enable us to grasp what is real despite what many alternative voices tell us.
In the final section of Chapter 4, Minich gives three propositions we are to mull over while enduring Divine absence. These are: God is, God is for me in Christ, and human beings are guilty of sin before God. As a quick aside, when we speak of remembering, it is not merely information ‘recall’. No, remembering is the disposition of lived memory meditated upon.
The propositions are simple yet critical. They are also inexhaustible. It is after all the plain truths prayerfully considered and impressed upon by the Spirit which alleviate much agony.
From start to end, Minich offers perspective, personal insight, profound reflection and a helpful re-framing of thought and life. Questions still loom, there are complexities unresolved, but Minich gives a robust paradigm of approach.
“In That Day I Will Respond,” Declares The Lord
I read this book toward the tail end of years of enduring divine absence myself. Some of my friends remain in the thick of this storm, others may one day battle this storm.
In my own life, I am grateful that the psalmists are ready to sit alongside us in the wilderness and cry out: “Why Lord do you reject me and hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:14), and still more grateful that the psalmist and his friends think it absurd to make the jump from a seemingly silent God to no God at all.
I am indebted to Joseph Minich. He is a faithful brother who took the time to explain to me why the psalmist and I see the world so differently and why my heart runs so easily to the conclusion that God is not there. For the time he has taken to explain to me why I am so often a fool and offering another way (Psalm 14:1).
And to the Supreme One who has been lavishly merciful to me: “Lord, to whom else shall I go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).