The Hidden Omnipresence of the One Lord
March 1, 2016
In the first of this series, and last time, I set out to explore Professor Katherine Sonderegger's Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Doctrine of God.
Having established the meaning of the fundamental and perfect Oneness of God, she next turns to the Omnipresence of God. In successive chapters, she will explore the other 'omnis' - the Omnipotence, and then, the Omniscience of God.
But the Omnipresence of God, as Sonderegger points out, is linked to his Hiddenness. God, the one God, is not represented by images, nor worshipped through idols that human beings can see. If there is one conviction that is basic to Israel's faith it is this. On the contrary: the God of Israel is hidden from view. He is invisible. He is certainly heard; but he is not seen.
This does not mean a simple declaration of what God is not, as in the tradition of the via negativa. Rather, God's hiddenness is revealed to Israel. He is manifest precisely as hidden.
Nevertheless, 'it is a striking fact that God cannot be seen in the cosmos' (p. 52). This may be seen as the ultimate image problem of course, if he is to be known by creatures who have been given eyes. But it is actually entirely consonant with his Omnipresence: 'He is everywhere present through His cosmos, not locally, but rather harmoniously, equally, generously, and lavishly in all places, at once, as the Invisible One.' (p. 52)
Of course, the modern world demands that God be visible, and laughs rather bitterly when he is not displayed before it like some specimen. But Sonderegger offers in this place a rather nuanced argument: it is actually the fact that we can operate in the world by means of a 'methodological atheism' that testifies to God's invisible omnipresence: 'The hidden and free Lord is present to His cosmos in the worldliness and secularity of the intellect' (p. 57). It is only with our eyes opened by Holy Scripture that we can see God in his hiddenness. The failure of natural theology to discover him is not surprising, since he is not an object or a principle lurking in the structure of created things. In fact, this is his gift to us, claims Sonderegger - that our senses are immersed in the creation.
Is this too negative about the possibility of a natural theology? In the current apologetic environment I don't want to concede as much to the atheist as this. David Bentley Hart's work has given me a great deal more courage on this front. However, what Sonderegger does is show how the hiddenness of God is not an embarrassment, but completely commensurate with who a God like him must be. If there is a singular God who is the fount of all being, and omnipresent to the creation, then he must be hidden in it - or, he is very close to being it. And that would be idolatry, or paganism.
The secret and invisible aspect of God's deity is found through the Scriptures. At Sinai, God appears concealed in smoke and fire. The temple itself was a grand act of visible concealment, a gesture of invisible presence. God is in heaven - a place that our human eyes of flesh cannot see, except by being given a vision.
Sonderegger's reading of those passages which turn our gaze to the heavens as the place where God dwells - in Isaiah, for example - is that by these we are not to understand God as being absent on earth and present only in heaven, but rather that in heaven his invisible presence with his creatures is made visible.
Not as a critical reviewer, but as a worshipping Christian, I found these observations enriching. God's hiddenness does not equate either to his absence nor his unknowability. He is present, everywhere: as we read in Jeremiah:
Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord. (Jer 23:23-24)