Terryl and Fiona Givens and the Argument for a Hidden God

In The God Who Weeps, Terryl and Fiona Givens say:

“For most of us, at least, there is neither a choir of heavenly heralds proving God exists, nor a laboratory of science equipment proving He doesn’t. Rather, we find a persuasive body of evidence on both sides of life’s competing propositions. Only in the case of us mortals, there is something to tip the scale. There is something to predispose us to a life of faith or a life of disbelief. There is a heart that, in these conditions of equilibrium and balance, equally “enticed by the one or the other,” is truly free to choose belief or skepticism, faith or faithlessness. […] There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief, in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore the more deliberate, and laden with personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at out heads.” (p. 4-5)

This is a version of the ‘hidden God’ argument, which – as far as I can tell – comes from Pascal. If God were omnipotent and omnibenevolent, why wouldn’t he make the evidence for His existence stronger? One answer is the kind of idea given above by the Givens’. I.e., because evidence for God isn’t overwhelming, belief in His existence becomes a more real choice, and this in turn is some sort of good. Therefore, debatable evidence is compatible with omnipotence and omnibenevolence.

There are at least three problems with this argument for a hidden God. 1. The evidence for God seems to change from time to time and place to place. If it is important to have some sort of equilibrium of evidence, why does the amount of evidence seem to change? 2. The current evidence for God, upon inquiry, doesn’t seem to be 50-50, say, nor is it clear why we would think it is. There is, however, a significant and robust amount of evidence for certain aspects of the Christian God. 3. The debate in the Gospels, say, isn’t about whether God exists. Rather, it is about the specific character of God and, more specifically, whether Jesus of Nazareth is the chosen one of God. Applied to the above quotation, the question regarding ‘faith’ isn’t primarily about whether God exists, but rather about whether one chooses to enter into a loving (in the sense of agape) relationship with God.

1. The evidence for God seems to change from time to time and place to place.

The most obvious way to show this is to show that rates of belief in God, and more specifically something like the Christian God, have varied from time to time and place to place. For example, if you believe evolutionary theory makes anything like a Christian God explanatorily superfluous or unlikely, then that’s a significant mark against theism. If, however, your understanding of the evidence for evolutionary theory doesn’t preclude  – and perhaps supports – something like a Christian God, then your assessment will be different. The rise in atheism in the 20th and 21st centuries seems to obviously have something to do with things like evolutionary theory typically conceived.

2. The current evidence for God doesn’t seem to be in equilibrium, i.e., 50-50.

Evidence for aspects of something like the Christian God is fairly robust – for example, the evidence for one significant aspect is what William James termed ‘formidable’ (A Pluralistic Universe, Lecture VIII). This requires understanding just what the evidentiary bases of Christianity are – for example, there are many (probably hundreds of millions of) examples of coordination or guidance which suggest something like the Christian God. It might turn out that these cases aren’t really evidence for God, but it’s important to at least know where the evidence is. The case, upon investigation, actually may turn out to be somewhat similar to “a choir of heavenly heralds” proclaiming God exists. Perhaps all the heralds are incorrect, but it is at least prima facie evidence warranting investigation. If one hasn’t investigated the evidence, how can one conclude the case is in equilibrium?

Similarly, consider the Gospels themselves. When Thomas says he won’t believe that Jesus has been bodily resurrected until he sees Jesus himself and then puts his fingers in his wounds, Jesus then appears to Thomas and invites him to inspect the wounds. This is not symptomatic of a God who wants to keep things in doubt at least as far as Thomas and the other disciples go.

Of course, there are very few propositions where one is compelled to believe them – perhaps basic mathematics or basic logical truths (although even there, there are some who say they don’t think there is objective truth, and so on). For example, in a Gospel account when Jesus raises someone from the dead, the priests say he works by the power of the devil. So, one can reframe any event to fit some theory, but this can come at a cost – it often is ‘theoretically expensive’, where you have to make other suppositions that detract from the plausibility of the overall interpretation. So, of course one can explain away evidence, but this is not the same as saying that the evidence is in ‘equilibrium’.

One can discern which way the balance of evidence goes as far as one can tell. If the evidence is, say, 60-40 in favour of something like a Christian God, then one has warrant for believing in it. Of course one then has to move beyond the evidence and make a decision, but, as noted above, that is the case with almost every proposition.

3. The question regarding ‘faith’ isn’t primarily about whether God exists, but rather about whether one chooses to enter into a loving (in the sense of agape) relationship with God.

I think this is the more important one. Virtually nowhere in the Gospels is God’s existence in question – that is assumed. Rather, it is the identity of Jesus of Nazareth (is he the chosen one of God or not?).

Similarly, what is important when it comes to decisions vis a vis God isn’t belief that God exists, but rather aspects of our relationship with God.

Consider an analogy. I am a Father, and I love my children. What I want is for them to trust my guidance (because I love them and am wise) and love me. Would it make sense for me to hide my existence from them, so that it was debatable? The relevant question (applied to a Christian context) is whether they will love me back, and I can’t compel that by demonstrating I exist, or that I am wise, or even by demonstrating that I love them. However, I would do things that make it reasonable to trust me – not that intend to make it debatable.

So, even if God is not hidden, the relevant choice still remains, and it in turn is not compelled by His existence. In summary, the hidden God argument a) doesn’t fit the evidence (it isn’t 50-50, and most all propositions require moving beyond the evidence), and b) is superfluous – even if God is intentionally hidden, it doesn’t address the relevant question in Christianity, which is not whether God exists but rather whether one will choose to love God.

One thought on “Terryl and Fiona Givens and the Argument for a Hidden God

  1. Pingback: The evidential status of an invisible God | Making Sense of Christianity

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