Abraham and Sarah’s Hidden God – Vere Deus Absconditus
(“You are a God who hides himself” – Isaiah 45:15)
Why does God put Moses in the cleft of the rock, and cover him with his hand, while His glory passes so that his “face will not be seen” (Exodus 33:23)? What does the book of Isaiah mean by Vere tu es Deus absconditus? Why does God call Abram and Sarai out from their home to a place unknown, that God then does not describe? Is there perhaps something about the ‘faith’ we think we know that cannot be known so that room is made for patience within the unknown; within the different; within the ‘other’; “within the shadow,” as puts James Russell Lowell? Is the victory and the certainty of ‘knowing’ not distinguishable from the truth and grace hung on the cross for our sakes? Is Pascal’s hypothesis then, seen through the filter of God within the unknowns, just more unreachable imperatives? Consider Pascal’s summation, “so that it appears… in those who shun it [God's grace], that it is lust, not reason, makes them shun it” (Pensées, 585, 564)
Over the last few days, Sharon and I saw the worsening fate of a Great Blue Heron, which, perhaps confused by the rapidly changing seasons, refused to believe that the fish visible under the thin layer of ice that covers our little lake, were no longer accessible to its sharp bill. It walked up and down from morning till night. The gloom of darkness did not sway its resolve; it continued its pacing as the midnight hour neared, and as our concerns grew. Phone calls to the wildlife rescue society did little to allay our fears for its safety. At the beginning of the freeze, it tried to chase down the seagulls who were more adept at catching the sluggish fish; but now, seven days since, it has not eaten anything, but still stands guard over the inaccessible dead fish visible as bright orange specks slightly below the frozen surface. (FOR FULL GALLERY OF THIS EVENT SEE: http://www.defleuriot.com/photo/heron-in-need/)
The restlessness of our heron, as it might apply to humankind as well, may perhaps clarify an aspect of this “hiddenness” of God. Pascal does rightly say that the ”hiddenness” of God sets God apart from other so-called gods (who cannot make a similar claim – see also 1 Corinthians 8)! Humility suggests that to see is itself nothing to brag of, as if this were entirely/only a human ability. Here Stanley Grenz writes that the human “openness to the world” is born of general revelation, and may be characterized by the human attribute that “we are never completely satisfied in the present” (1994:131). This means also that we are each seeded with the desire to go beyond what we presently know, as surely Abram and Sarai must have felt. It is of this very restlessness that Augustine spoke of to indicate an inner compulsion to flourishing – a kind of divine signature that signifies the divine ‘mark’ which graces every human. This is an inherent possibility. Put another way, it is a latently activated hope. We might describe it also as a two-fold understanding of knowing which stirs us toward what we do not yet know. Or, we might call this a kind of facilitation of contact, the possibility of a relational connection (an analogia relationis—Moltmann) which also waits to be confirmed by some ‘other’ encounter. Taylor calls these kinds of influences implicit goods, either life or constitutive (1989:3-24). This acknowledgment exposes to some extent Pascal’s low-anthropology and chiding, since what makes it real is the I-Thou relationship by which both parties are actually and really engaged. It cannot either only be reasoned or only faithed into being, and the grey in-between shades of unknowns must be left both to the I-Thou encounter to activate, and to the human restlessness, as it were. This is not a judgment of God or of humans, but simply an acknowledgment of things that no one can judge, that must thus be allowed space as the Spirit works ‘for all’. Consider thus the ‘unknowns’ that Abraham lived in before God approached him. The ‘as yet unknowns’ viewed this way leans more graciously for me toward the divine heart who turns the orthodoxic scriptural imperatives to promises replicating the divine grace.
Might the truth not then be more of the need for both faith and patience as the scriptures teach (Hb 6). If this scripture is believed then one cannot exist without the other. Faith in God is not born in a vacuum, but may already be preceded by patience’s unseen activity, or as Arnold Gehlen describes, by an implicit sense in our finitude, of “infinite dependence” (see Grenz 1994:132). Or even also, as an ’as yet unknown’ stirring by the Spirit whom, we are told, moved over the unformed waters to bring light. In this sense, we might say that there is a kind of ‘patience’ (whatever that is) that must already live and precede ‘faith’ as we know it. For instance, Lewis wrote of ‘humility’ as a characteristic that must precede faith if one is ever to have faith in God! I do not say this to lessen the wonder of an I-Thou encounter with God, but to highlight the fact that humans, as also Abram and Sarai, may not have been aware of the extent of God’s love at work on their behalf until he appeared to them so that they might know that where faith and patience are both present, the already meets with the not yet, and what is manifest does not exclude what is latent (Moltmann, 2000:266). Far from advocating an outright universalism, this idea expresses a deeper consciousness and love for God within what a human might call ‘the unknowns’, the ‘hidden,’ or what is ‘different,’ and in what we may not yet understand. We might describe it as a pneumatological-christological panentheism.
All states consist either of what has already happened and of the potential of what will still happen. Here the story takes a new plane – one that, depending on what we choose to think about the ‘not yet’ or unknowns, may crack open the door to the possibility of hope in the future for all through the Spirit of Christ. Perhaps, we may find an increased anticipation, as we contemplate this possibility. What might we now even already be growing in, such as in our awareness of the graciousness of a creator? Can anyone claim to understand how we each could suddenly turn from the mindset of inevitable fate, to one that considers this possibility? Did Abram know? What did Abram know? Perhaps, simply, we may notice the face of those previously ‘unknown’ and unnoticed by us. A sudden change of heart toward neighbour or enemy may unwittingly have touched the face of God himself, and ‘caught’ his ‘attention.’ The unknowns can become the teachers of the knowns for us on our journeys from restlessness, and our companion may be the Spirit of God. The call to faith resides only in faith’s inseparable relationship to patience, and hence together they, as the scriptures teach, fulfill the divine path for the sake of showing and maintaining the love of God (Hb 6). The first (faith) is birthed of a theology from above, but the second (patience) of a theology from below – can one do without the other? Does our history of dominance not show that arrogance and despair linger where one lives without the other? However, might faith not lay claim to kataphatic victory and certainty so that loving others does not need a reason, and patience yield to the apophasis of the cross that though it is “never much loved” (Moltmann), it enables in Christ a love that does not disappoint?
As regards our Heron, hunger a few days later did eventually swerve it from its present sadness, and carried it to warmer waters hopefully with the strength to migrate. Here, for it, the logic of the need for provision and the reason within to survive, may prevail in the end over the foolishness of seeking and desiring for what cannot satisfy its inherent will to live. Thus it too, though merely a bird, displays a restlessness; a will to live that compels a response to what it has to learn of what is previously unknown to it. As the Genesis narrative indicates, humankind has this, and more – the divine breath – the nefesh or divine possibility of relationship with God so that it might live not only for itself but for the other in a faith and patience that reflects the divine agape. This ‘breath’ is the awakening ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart. Its sign is the stirring of a love for God that radicalizes a love for others.
© Copyright. Victory Fields
(The conclusions, or opinions expressed within this article are entirely those of the author of this article. It is not our intention to suggest either that the authors/writers quoted, in any way agree with what we have written, or that we are expressing their full view on any of the subjects covered)
 The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (Philadelphia Fortress Press, 1974), 3.