The Hiddenness of God

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Michael C. Rea
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Michael Rea's book The Hiddenness of God is a worthwhile addition to the bustling literature on evil and divine hiddenness. Rea characterizes the fundamental problem of hiddenness as God violating our expectations. People expect God to relate to humanity in a certain way, and God does not. Previously, many (or perhaps most) authors (i.e., Paul  Moser, The Elusive God (New York: Cambridge, 2009) have argued that God has a good reason to hide or reveal. Rea takes a slightly different path in arguing God "hides" because God is intrinsically transcendent

The substance of the book begins in chapter 2, which describes the problem. While Rea focuses on John Schellenberg's famous version of the hiddenness argument, he does discuss several other contemporary variations. Rea eloquently summarizes the overall argument: 

We expect certain things of God in light of what we know about God and in light of a wide range of background assumptions about the world—about the nature of love and goodness, various human needs and the ways in which they can normally be met in a world like ours, and so on. But God does not deliver on our expectations; so, we are conflicted: Is something wrong with our expectations? (26)

In chapters 3 and 4, Rea lays out the doctrine of divine transcendence. Specifically, he argues that this doctrine should be understood on a spectrum. On the "lightest end" it merely means that God is "different from creatures" in the sense that God is immaterial or uncreated (42). This view essentially argues that God is different from us but not wholly incomprehensible. However, on the "darkest end of the spectrum" transcendence is an "absolute otherness" (42). God's properties and descriptions ("including the predicate ‘exists’") are purely analogical (42). One can quickly see the applicability of this doctrine to the problem of divine hiddenness. However, this latter notion has apparent deficiencies, probably most notably its distinctiveness from the Christian tradition (i.e., were any of Jesus' teachings meaningfully true?).

In this spectrum, Rea establishes the middle ground, effectively saying divine transcendence is entailing that any non-revealed properties of God-which (generally speaking) are properties primarily known from natural theology- is in some sense analogical. The upshot of this view entails a principle Rea calls Humility About Expectations (HAE)HAE argues that if there is some non-revealed property x, from which we believe we can make predictions, then is analogically true. HAE seems to be enough to curb the expectation premise of the problem of divine hiddenness. For example, the claim "God is good" is analogically true. If we have some reason to doubt that God is acting in conformity with divine goodness, it merely means that God "does not strictly conform to [our] concept of goodness . . . it does not support the more general claim that "God is good" does not express a truth" (49).  

If HAE and Rea’s middle-ground transcendence view are all sound, the hiddenness argument has no shot of being successful because the most it could prove is that our concepts of these non-revealed properties are wrong (but not that God does not exist).

At this point in the argument, readers are likely to feel tricked. In this regard, Rea's defense is not unlike the skeptical theist reply to the problem of evil. Rea does an excellent job at the end of chapter 3, by acknowledging the reader's likely skepticism about his approach, saying that this defense is not going to be emotionally "satisfying" (63). 

In chapter 5, Rea attempts a new defense against the problem at hand. The hiddenness argument can be simplified to argue that (1) If God exists, he would not be "hidden;" but (2) God is "hidden;" therefore (3) God likely does not exist. Rea, in his transcendence defense, objects to the first premise. For the majority of chapters 5 through 9, Rea attempts to object (or at least weaken the confidence in) the second premise. To do this, he needs to show ways in which God loves people who experience hiddenness.

In chapters 6 and 7, Rea argues God is far more present with us than we realize. For example, within the church, it is believed that God (in some sense) dwells in believers, sacraments, and perhaps individual places. But even in these cases, according to Rea, "we have to learn to see the phenomena as loci of God's presence" (134, emphasis original). This insight leads Rea to argue that God is similarly posturing toward everyone (through various means); however, people's own psychological and cognitive backgrounds largely influence the amount they can experience God. 

In chapters 8 and 9, Rea focuses on people who do not have the ideal access to a relationship with God, particularly those who have undergone suffering, religious trauma, or are outside of access to revealed materials. Second, in chapter 9 he argues that those who have gone through trauma, or have some other experiential obstacle to religious experience, can always try to relate to God via the suffering of God incarnate.

I suspect this book will be a staple in the literature of the hiddenness problem. Rea’s transcendence defense, like the skeptical theist defense, is formidable. His argument about how God relates to people more than they think is going to be more controversial and probably selectively successful with people who already hold certain dispositions. As I mentioned before, I think anyone personally or academically interested in the problem of divine hiddenness should read this book. It is well written, multidisciplinary, and compelling.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ben Whittington is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham.

Date of Review: 
November 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael C. Rea is a Professorial Fellow at the Logos Institute for Analytic & Exegetical Theology at the University of St Andrews, as well as 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 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, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Russia, China, and Iran.


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