Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


June 2, 2003

Why does God stay hidden? Why doesn't God reveal himself so concretely and physically that no one could doubt his existence?

I like Karl Rahner's perspective on this. God isn't hidden, he says, we just don't have the eyes to see God because our eyes aren't attuned to that kind of reality: "We are just discovering today that one cannot picture God to oneself in an image that has been carved out of the wood of the world. This experience is not the genesis of atheism, but the discovery that the world is not God."

We struggle with doubt because we can't picture God's existence, imagine God's reality or feel God's presence in our normal ways. At a certain point, our minds, imaginations and hearts simply run out of gas, out of room, out of feeling and leave us dry, unable to nail down the reality of God the way we're used to nailing down most everything else.

Why is that? Rahner's insight provides a clue: We struggle with faith because the world is not God and we can't walk around the landscape of spirit in the same way as we stroll around in this world. Why not? Precisely because God and the other world are spirit and we are being invited into a reality whose hugeness is beyond conception, whose silence is beyond language, and whose reality is beyond the physical and all that we can see, touch, taste, smell and feel in the normal way. God is life, light, love, energy, vastness, and simplicity beyond our categories.

Thus, it's easy to have doubts about God's existence, and not just if we are young and still over-enthralled by the reality of this world, its stunning beauty, the promises it dangles before us, and its overpowering physical character. In a world where the physical defines everything, it can be difficult to believe in anything else.

The classical mystics speak of two "dark nights of the soul" – two painful, purifying periods of life we must all undergo. The first of these it calls "the night of the senses." This darkness, they tell us, refers to a period of painful trial which helps purify our motivation so as to make us less selfish. But these same mystics assure us that, during this first dark night, we are given consolation in our faith. God feels near. The feeling is like that of taking a bitter-tasting medicine that we know will make us better.

The second night, "the night of the spirit" is much more "the test" to which the Lord's Prayer refers. What happens here is that God seemingly disappears. All our old securities in faith dissolve and all efforts to reground ourselves through former faith-practices come up dry. God seems unreal to our heads and hearts, even as, in the depth of our being, something else is happening which belies what's happening on the surface – namely, even as our thoughts and feelings about God seem empty, we are, in our more important decisions and values, riveting ourselves ever more firmly to God and the other world. Such are the dynamics of faith. Sometimes what feels like doubt and atheism is the beginning of real belief.

Nicholas Lash, professor of Divinity at Cambridge, once made this comment about our struggle: "We need do no more than notice that most of our contemporaries still find it `obvious' that atheism is not only possible, but widespread and that, both intellectually and ethically, it has much to commend it. This view might be plausible if being an atheist were a matter of not believing that there exists `a person without a body' who is `eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything' and is `the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe.'

"If, however, by `God' we mean the mystery, announced in Christ, breathing all things out of nothing into peace, then all things have to do with God in every move and fragment of their being, whether they notice this and suppose it to be so or not.

"Atheism, if it means deciding not to have anything to do with God, is thus self-contradictory and, if successful, self-destructive."