If God has an essential attribute, it has to be absence. God is absent. I imagine that you might respond to this claim by saying, “No, God is present. Presence is God’s defining characteristic.” When I say that God is absent, I am not saying that God is non-existent or that you never experience God’s presence in your life. I am only saying that the context that gives God’s presence its power in your life is a context defined by God’s absence. Furthermore, I want to suggest that you already know this and probably even agree with it.
When I was in college, I embraced philosophical atheism because I thought the atheist philosophers had better arguments and that the theistic philosophers were grasping at straws in order to justify a belief they wanted or needed to keep. In those days, I suggested that an atheistic alternative is necessary in order for faith to exist. Put another way, for any supernatural or miraculous claim, there has to be a natural or non-miraculous explanation in order for faith to exist. Otherwise, a belief in a miraculous claim is not an expression of faith, but an assertion of fact. Some religious people tend to talk this way about their faith, “It is a fact that Jesus was raised from the dead.” But even within these circles, the resurrection of Jesus occupies a different place in their language than “2+2=4” or “the sun rises in the morning.” I think that even the most committed fundamentalist would have to admit that people, including fundamentalists, accept the latter two examples in ways that they do not accept the religious claim.
It is because religious claims are different from factual claims that brings God’s absence into focus. I would suggest that the very idea of revelation, so important in the history of Christian thought, is a response to God’s absence. If God were present no one could claim to speak for God and no one could claim a unique channel of communication with the divine. The very notion of inspired scripture or orthodox belief is based on the assumption that God is not present to speak for Godself. Prayer, as it is popularly conceived, is also predicated on the idea that God is absent. If God were present, prayer would not be our form of communication. I think that our entire religious way of conceiving God, even God’s presence, is constituted on the fact that God is absent.
If God is absent, God is also silent. When you scream into the whirlwind like Job, you get silence. After all, that is the effect of what God said to Job in the story. What God said to Job could have been communicated with silence but that would have hindered the desired dramatic effect of the scene, and it is a drama, not history. When Jesus calls from the cross, he is met with silence. How else would we expect God to respond? If God responded with presence and voice then everything we think about God or faith would disappear.
This brings me to the final piece of evidence that God’s fundamental attribute is absence or silence. That piece of evidence is present in eschatological or apocalyptic hope in the Last Judgment. The idea that God will come into history at some point in the future and speak judgments on human beings only makes sense if God is not doing those things in the present. If God is here now, then there is no need for God to come in the future. If God is speaking judgment now then there is no need for God to speak judgment in the future.
I realize that some progressive Christians will respond that they do not believe that God is literally coming at a future time to make judgments. They will say that they believe God is always and already present. Again, this is a religious attitude that only makes sense as a “religious” attitude if there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. If God were present we would not need progressive Christianity to proclaim it. There are scriptural and traditional examples of God’s presence being presented as absence. In addition to Job and Jesus, there is Elijah’s experience in 1 Kings 19:12 and the psalmist’s anguish in Psalm 13. Christian mysticism, when it does not lapse into a confused religious version of skepticism, also expresses God’s absence through the idea of dis-satisfaction. The only concept of God that satisfies the conditions of faith is a conception that is satisfied with dis-satisfaction. To be completely satisfied with one’s concept of God is to insist that God is present and vocal in ways that leave no room for dis-satisfaction. Of course scripture and tradition are also replete with stories that supposedly demonstrate God’s presence in ways that would seem to eradicate absence. I cannot help but think that this is because human beings are notoriously unhappy with dis-satisfaction. Not only is this craving for satisfaction a basic misunderstanding of faithfulness, it is the traditional definition of and the continual motivation for idolatry.