Christianity and Literature: Covertly Public, Overtly Private

How is it that religiously based writers address the public and/or retain a private vision? Marty’s 1997 presentation to the Conference on Christianity and Literature at the Modern Language Association was published in Christianity and Literature, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Spring 1998).


This article is based upon an address to the Conference on Christianity and Literature at the Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association in Toronto on 29 December 1997. The invitation asked me to comment on the public/private distinction that I make as Director of the Public Religion Project and to accent the “cultural context,” which fits my History of Culture faculty assignment and three decades of writing Context, a newsletter relating religion to culture. I was to inform it theologically, which a divinity professor is supposed to be able to do, and to show some curiosity about the literary theme, as my decades-long stint as literary editor at The Christian Century should poise me to do. Under it all my limiting job description matches a badge provided me at a conference in Tübingen, where the hosts handed out identifications marked “Theologian of History,” “Theological Historian,” and “Historical Theologian.” Mine read simply, “Historical Historian.” —MEM


The Public Religion Project directors, staff, advisers, and consultants live by few absolutes. But one survives: no one is to whine about how secular the culture is or how secular elites ban spiritual, religious, godly, or specifically Christian discourse.

The culture may be as the whiners describe it, if viewed from some partial perspectives. Many in its elites may do such banning for a variety of reasons. Further, one notes an instinctive response by reviewers or critics to breakthrough expressions of Christian commitments in contemporary literature. Surprised, they take note of these expressions in, say, the works of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden among the poets; the novels of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and John Updike; and literary criticism by Northrop Frye and others.

Conversely, they are often equally surprised to find the putatively rare, exceptional, non-Christian or anti-Christian expressions in literature from the “age of faith,” Christendom. One thinks of the fuss made over ever more discoveries of romantic and profane poetry of medieval times, poetry of the sort revivified in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana or prose to be revisited in The Decameron.

Of course, there have been vast cultural changes surrounding literary endeavors in the West. How does one best address the situation? First, “secular” is not always the most accurate designation for cultures such as ours. Were it not such a neologistic barbarism, I would prefer to speak of a “religiosecular” culture. What is coming to be called “implicit religion” coexists with billions of manifestations of “explicit religion” (see Bailey). In such a culture most people appear to be religious in many of the ways that people historically have been seen as religious. Sometimes they display more intensity about faith than majorities may have manifested in those Ages of Faith. Meanwhile the same religious contemporaries, in other modes of their existence and habits of life, are secular in the ways that the secular has come to be regarded in ordinary speech. Misname a culture, and one will misidentify strategies for relating to it.

A second reason for not whining is this: it is extremely rare for anyone to change ways of thinking and acting in response to the whiners, except to decide to turn away from them. Add to this the awareness that energies put into complaining drain off others that might be put more creatively toward other uses—toward accurate diagnosis and finding more appropriate ways of dealing with the late-modern situations of faith and culture.

How one regards these explanations will have something to do with the strategies of response chosen by those who care about literature as it relates to Christian faith and the culture at large. Whenever a set of people feels excluded, they do well to organize, agitate, be sure they have something to say, seat themselves at the metaphorical table, and speak even as they hear. Whether and when they should do all that or how they might do it effectively is not on the present agenda. This endeavor instead is a theologically colored effort at understanding.


The Absence of God as a Character in Literature

There are other more profound, perhaps integral, reasons why religion and Christianity are not as prominent in Western literature today as they apparently were in the days of Christendom and the first centuries after it stopped being legally privileged in many Western nations. One of these reasons has to do with the disguise that religion wears. It is in public but usually covertly so in literature of any depth. Faith does make its occasional and, note well, best-selling appearances in overt Christian guises. These would please some evangelical or catholic-minded Christian witnesses who are aware that overt expression rarely has literary quality. When the Christian message arrives unmediated and gets stated overtly, unsubtly, and hence unartistically, the sender who is quickened to deal with questions of genre might profitably keep in mind a word about art, in this case popular art: as Hollywood’s legendary Sam Goldwyn said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

If explicit God-messages come undisguised, they usually appear in what Jan Blodgett calls “evangelical genre fiction” or its Catholic genre counterparts. She reviews scores of novels that seem designed to offend every serious critic. Even there, however, she notes a growing diffidence about rendering God too explicitly, especially among those who aim at art. At the end of her review of almost sixty books by authors such as Calvin Miller and Janette Oke, Blodgett comments:

God appears in these novels in various guises. Most often, the authors present a compassionate and loving figure, but images of a wrathful judge are also present. Only a few novels, principally Biblical novels, present God as an actual character interacting in the lives of humans. More often, God is the recipient of prayers and the grantor of moments of peace. In much the same spirit, Jesus Christ is offered appeals and thanks but rarely appears as a physical character. . . . Characters tend to center their faith on either God the father or Christ with the expectation, not of being called to service, but of being accorded comfort and emotional well-being. (155)

God’s guises and disguises in Catholic fiction appear as mediated through both the Incarnation in Jesus Christ and through sacramental understandings of the world and its workings, again under a hidden God. For others a generalized appeal to transcendence or the fantastic makes it possible for them to deal with theological themes without presenting God “as an actual character interacting in the lives of humans.”

A contemporary novelist who has mulled over this topic in persistent and sophisticated ways is Frederick Buechner, who, significantly, had theological training and is an ordained minister. I will cull several examples of Buechner commentary from a study of “Buechner’s Concrete Evidence of the Transcendent” by Heidi N. Sjostrom.

If God speaks to us at all other than through such official channels as the Bible and the church, then I think that he speaks to us largely through what happens to us. . . . God speaks to us [in] always an incarnate word—a word spelled out to us not alphabetically, in syllables, but enigmatically, in events.

Transcendent as God is—of another quality entirely from the world that he transcends—he nonetheless makes himself known to the world.

God acts in history and in your and my brief histories, not as the puppeteer who … works the strings but rather as the great director who no matter what role fate casts us in conveys to us … how we can play those roles in a way to enrich and ennoble and hallow the whole vast drama of things.

[On his personal experience of suffering:] Though God was nowhere to be clearly seen, nowhere to be clearly heard, I had to be near him.

[God is] often more conspicuous by his absence than by his presence, and his absence is much of what we labor under and are heavy-laden by. (129, 130,133-34, 141, 149)

The discerning reader of late-modern literature soon learns to pick up the signals by which writers of faith, or at the edges of faith, are “overtly private” but not inarticulate about the transcendent. They are public figures addressing a readership that is itself a public or a set of publics, but they rarely speak up explicitly out of or for the Christian community, or at least from its depths. An acceptance of the public/private polarity marks their world and their expressions. The exposure of their public aspect in many cases demonstrates that they find little room for God’s presence, even if they are, in private, believers in that presence. They perceive that no single Christian- based symbol system overarches or undergirds today’s culture as it is said to have done in Christendom. Being blunt, then, about faith, God, and Jesus Christ in his divine hypostasis would mean that they would be misreading the cultural mixing of media of expression. They and their colleagues would lose all ability to be comprehensible in public or credible in the literary-critical world.

My interest is in writers who deal with realistic genres, since in them is the test of how God is handled in ordinary lives. Some writers tend more readily to express themselves in disguised forms such as parable or fantasy, with metaphors and images erupting out of the context of Christian faith. The problem for many readers is that metaphoric, hyperbolic, fantastic, and even grotesque “anything goes” modes do little for readers who use literature to relate to the world of sensation around them. They find the authors adopting idiosyncratic modes of expression, employing voices hard to translate to the lived world. For the rest, how can one account for their “covert” ways of addressing the overt themes of faith in the West today?


A Thesis about the Absence of God

My thesis is simple, to be fleshed out in several observations and propositions. In the West, where most religions—including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are theistic and even monotheistic, the first and final question or core issue that comes up has to do with the unseen actor, God. This witness differentiates the faith of “peoples of the book”—of scripted, scriptured, and scriptural people—from those contemporaries who define themselves as “spiritual, not religious,” and who do not seek or find communities of faith where responses to theistic symbols are shared. We shall see later that there are also differentiations of approach among the theisms.

Add to that contention the discernment that most of the “covertly public, overtly private” writers and critics intuitively apprehend a writer’s version of what theologians call “the problem of God.” They accurately grasp the difficulty that the syllable and reality behind the symbol “God” creates for so many in our time. They know that while being “overtly public” about God, the ground and focus of faith, they may not lose their audience among some of the pious. But they would be misreading the culture and contributing to their own inability to produce art if they engaged in efforts to witness to God as certifiable agent in their plots and poetry.

Those who complain that “the spiritual” and “the religious” do not get attention in most serious literary circles tend to confuse categories. Given the broad definitions of spirituality in our time, one can find it present in most of the great literature, including a-theistic sorts. Given the equally broad definitions of “religion,” one has little difficulty in finding that as well in contemporary literature, even if only in negative references to the fading but enduring institutional power of the church and synagogue or to the repressiveness of religious elders, to “bad faith,” and the like. The New Age sections of bookstores, whose works are aimed at reasonably well-off, reasonably well educated cohorts, demonstrate that the spiritual if not the religious is not neglected. A glance at such sections, alongside others marked “Occult,” “Metaphysical,” “Holistic,” “Ancient,” and the like will lead to a conclusion that “God,” the subject and object of Christian faith and other theisms, is at issue.

To speak of misreading a culture might imply that there is an approved and proper way to read it. Such a claim can be a hazard in times often called and characterized as postmodern. But if there is no agreed upon or even privileged reading of the culture, it is true that some readings raise more difficulties for the artist who would communicate in it.

Some questions will help frame the issue. Why can God be familiar in our culture whenever the pollster comes by? Survey research in every decade finds 90% of the citizenry believing in some sort of God. Then why is God so unfamiliar in the formal literature, art, and intellectual production within the same culture? Why can 71% of the people tell the interviewer, as they did in 1997, that they never doubt the existence of God but then keep God precincts and even light years away from making appearances in serious literature? Why can so many millions lift voices in praise and witness to God in public congregations and private chambers, when so few of them have any ambition or skill to translate their modes of faith when they write, paint, or compose? What is it about the witness to and discernment of God that seems to characterize art in our culture in peculiar ways? Are there precedents for this “Absent God ” reading of the culture and for the aforementioned styles of writing about it? We can assay a beginning to some answers. Here the “historical historian” enters the scene.

First, we may profitably deal with comparable ways in which not only modern artists but also, not infrequently, theologians address “the problem of God” in writing and in cultural expression. This effort begins with confronting their mutual reading of the signs of the presence and absence of God in the world of their perception. What has become problematic in our time is the search for an effective language about the presence. Forget once more, for now, the appearance of God in fantasy and fantastic literature as we deal with the kinds already described as realistic, which means those that depict encounters under the canopy of immanence that makes for human history.


An Analogy in Historical Cause and Effect

An analogous situation from the world of history writing may be helpful. Many Christian historians have pondered and sought the ways in which they might speak about witness to the activity of God in history. As Christians, they evidently believe that God is somehow acting in history. But the act of writing a constructive narrative, demonstrating an interest in the meaning of sequences, causes, and some forms of explanations, seems to admit no way of letting the historian bring God on stage as was done confidently when providential his tory ruled or did not seem alien.

British philosopher of history Michael Oakeshott, himself a professed if rather diffident Christian, responds to what we might call “the rules of the game” in history writing. Characteristically (for our time), Oakeshott first reminds readers that history is the name we give the product of the historian. In doing so, the philosopher builds a bridge to the literary artists, who know very well that they are doing nothing but constructing a version of reality according to their choosing. Oakeshott writes: “History is the historian’s experience. It is ‘made’ by nobody save the historian; to write history is the only way of making it.” Then written history is “a world, and a world of ideas” (Experience 99). Not all would agree with Oakeshott or his senior colleague R. G. Collingwood in their “idealistic” understanding of this act. Curiously and coincidentally, however, postmodernists who stress “the social construction of reality” would be at ease with them on this point, though on different grounds. Agree or not, here one need only note that to the degree that all historians as artists and scientists “make” history when they write it, they are in that act close to the novelist and poet who wish to deal with the human condition.

What does the maker, the writer, the constructor, do with God in history? It is profitable to quote at some length:

Whatever there is to be said for the view that God works directly in the world, he cannot be supposed to work directly in the world for history—the world of historical experience—without destroying that world altogether. “God in history” is, then, a contradiction, a meaningless phrase. Wherever else God is, he is not in history, for if he were there would no longer be any history. Where in history he is taken to be a cause, nothing has been said and nothing remains to be said. And this, among other reasons, is why we must deny to the ancient Hebrews any proper historical consciousness. “God in history” indicates an incursion of the practical past into the historical past, an incursion which brings only chaos. Nor is it possible to bring God into history by a back door. Polybius, for example, thinks it permissible for an historian to impute an historical event directly to the gods whenever he can discover for it no other cause. But an event without a cause (other than God) is not in any sense an historical event. It may belong to “what really happened” (whatever that may mean), but it certainly does not belong to history. (Experience 129)

The clause “wherever else God is” is Oakeshott’s way of not ruling out God but ruling God out from empirical, documentable, certifiable historical judgments about agency in constructed history. This is the history whose stuff is also the raw material for the writer of fiction and poetry. God, to the believer, “is” or at least maybe present in other modes of experience than in reporting or in the writing of fiction. Examples of this would be the presence in faith to the believer, in prayer and praise to the worshiper, or in the presuppositions and conclusions of scholastic theologians. God “is,” therefore, in in the experience of most people about whom the historian, novelist, and poet write. But God is not “in” history.

Many of the major Christian philosophers of history—for instance, Sir Herbert Butterfield—who write for workaday historians (as opposed to philosophers of religion who use history as an illustration of some of their problems and solutions), when asked about what their Christian faith means in their written productions, rarely suggest that they can in any way construct a producing of God on stage, as it were. They speak only about making sense of empirically certifiable doctrines such as “original sin” or the introduction of motifs such as “judgment,” of throwing light on various “understandings of the nature of time,” and similar themes—but not of finding God in history.

This way of writing is, of course, a major departure from most of the Christian historical writing of the past, beginning with the evangelist Luke or the pioneer Eusebius, on through medieval, Catholic, Protestant Reformation, and earlier modern apologetic historians. They all regularly employed the doctrine of or the witness to Providence as an instrument for interpreting history. Thus many Protestants wrote that God had waited to produce the Reformation until the printing press was invented or that the “discovery” of the New World was waiting until there were Reformed Christians to settle its northern continent. Historians in such schools knew what side God was on in the prosecution of wars. But ours is not an epoch in which such employments of Providence—as opposed to some sort of belief in Providence—are effective or appear to be authentic in history.


The Literary Career of God as a Character

Something similar has gone on in the literary world. God is present as the main actor in the classic epics of Western Christendom. Witness this character in Dante Alighieri and John Milton. Though such a God appears to be fading from William Shakespeare, there is a late reappearance in William Blake. In the United States, God as Providence—the main if behind-the-scenes actor in history, the chief agent in practical affairs, and the prime character in literature—can be found from the colonial period to the generation of George Bancroft. Suddenly, however, God becomes problematic in the world of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. “The” God dissolves in Ralph Waldo Emerson, replaced by the senses in Walt Whitman and by consciousness in Henry David Thoreau. In this transit we are seeing what Max Weber called Entzauberung, the disenchantment of the world, insofar as enchantment meant that the sacred and the transcendent had been recognized as located in or derived from God.

What has emerged is a very different cultural scene than the one that had frequently been present within Christendom, when its privileged (if not dominating) symbol systems issuing from and ending in God as presence were so manifest.

This disappearance of God as the explicit presence among the cast of characters in modern writing, especially fiction, becomes clear in any scan of topically arranged bibliographies that deal explicitly with literature of interest to the religious in general and Christians in particular. Thus in the reference work Religion in Contemporary Fiction: Criticism From 1945 to the Present, only two of the 1029 articles cited are categorized under “God.” One is an article by C. I. Glicksberg on “The God of Fiction,” and another is J. Killinger’s “The Absence of God in Modern Literature.” Not much Presence there! Under “Death of God” we find that four of the five articles are by the same two critics, and one of those articles is cited in the earlier “God” listing. This is not to say that God never shows up in essays on particular authors, but when it comes to isolatable categories of motifs—Apocalypse, Celebration, Christ, Death, Evil, Faith, or Fall—God is a slight entry.

On this scene many moderns within post-Christendom have followed the Nietzschean way and proclaimed that “God is dead!” From Oakeshott’s angle such utterances are as uncertifiable and absurd to the historian as are announcements that “God is alive and demonstrably at work in Rwanda and Burundi, in the Bosnian leaders or Saddam Hussein.”

Though formal philosophical atheism remains the position of the few, say the polltakers, practical atheism can be credibly observed, perhaps among majorities, as a corollary effect of ordinary ways of living in our time. The formal modes of atheism are confidently expressed by relatively few literary artists. More writers may be indifferent to God, puzzled or annoyed by God as the absent actor, but they find terms other than antitheistic ones to depict the contemporary world.

Having acknowledged a call to study Christianity in the contexts of the religious impulses through the modern world, I have long been tracking the alternatives to simple atheism in the culture. To sample from early on in this project, let me cite some references, collated from my Varieties of Unbelief, that impressed me in 1964 and impress me still. Consider this statement by one of the most notable Catholic theologians of the time, Karl Rahner, S. J.:

The world has become an entity rounded off in itself, which is neither actually open at certain points where it merges into God, nor undergoes at certain observable points the causal impact (ursaechlichen Stoss) of God (if we disregard for the moment the supernatural dispensation of salvation); but it points to God as its presupposition only as a whole, and even not so obviously. Today man realizes that this is so, having gradually acquired a scientific concept of the world that is just as profane as the world itself, which is not God. (qtd. in Marty 49-50)

The “scientific concept of the world” for Rahner serves as a code word for a web of alterations in the world view. Another Jesuit, William F. Lynch, who was much devoted to the literary imagination, also did not speak of the death of God but of absence in the form of distance: “There never was a time when the mind was more affected by the terrible remoteness of God. For many he has never seemed less immanent.” A third Jesuit, John Courtney Murray, dealt as did Oakeshott with the world of explanation: “One would have to say that the modern godless man is characterized by his will to understand and explain the world without God.” This may have led to the absence of “the God of explanation,” yet it did imply true change and originality. This “godless man who is typical of the postmodern era is … [without] prototype in history; he is a new phenomenon” (qtd. in Marty 49-50).

In the world of religious studies, Mircea Eliade used Weber’s language of Entzauberung to come up with an anthropological judgment: “Modern man’s originality, his newness in comparison with traditional societies, lies precisely in his wish to live in a basically desacralized cosmos.” In the subsequent third of the century, the recovery of “the spiritual” and “spirituality” (also among literary elites throughout much of our culture) might well have caused Eliade to observe their originality. He might have detected a wish to sense the presence in novel terms, but not in any that would have produced God as the demonstrable center of a recovered sacralized cosmos. Meanwhile, using other metaphors, thinkers such as Martin Buber spoke of this as “an epoch of homelessness,” with God representing agency at “home” in other epochs (qtd. in Marty 49, 58).

Like theologians on the order of the Jesuits mentioned above, artists—including believing artists—intuit, observe, and think about human history with God being unavailable in the public consciousness for purposes of explanation. This realization, more than any secular elite conspiracies, is responsible for the tendency of so many writers to speak of God in “covertly public” ways, which means that they might when writing testify in language of absence more than presence. Hence it is, I am contending, that so many speak of God in “overtly private” ways.


Absence as Deus Absconditus

Before I illustrate this turn in literature, it is useful to demonstrate that the covert witness is not a modem or postmodern invention but that it has a long precedence in Christian history. This contention could be supported by reference to any number of schools of thought and spiritual endeavors. The Greek Orthodox would allude to what is called the apophatic way. Roman Catholic thinkers speak of the via negativa as an appropriate instrument or route. A Protestant, and in particular a Lutheran, would draw on figures such as Martin Luther and his party of Catholic reform in the sixteenth century. It deserves to be explored as an option, a mode, in historical and literary expression where Christian discernments are sought today.

The reference in what follows will be to deus absconditus, a motif that has not disappeared from Christian writing or theology today. Note, for instance, that a recent collection of talks by writers of faith begins with the following epigraph to a conversation with novelist Doris Betts, a statement that is salted with irony at the end: “I have never found life, faith, or art really so neat. I continue to outlive many days surveying this world with the suspicion that Deus has really absconded. With the funds” (Brown 3).

God “absconded.” To develop this by dwelling on what will appear to be a negative way (via negativa) will frustrate those who confuse the language of worship or witness with the intuitions of the artist or the empirical tests and expressions of the historian. Some of the offended may point to forms of both Catholic and evangelical writing of fiction, poetry, and drama in which God is made readily available as a certifiable and direct character on stage—though little of this writing passes for literary art, no matter how high the level of its sales. The more profound and probably more lasting Catholic and Protestant novelists and poets alike have been reluctant to bring God into history as the explanatory element or into literature as the deus ex machina.

In the discourse of medieval and early modern theology, the notion of God “absconding” is somewhat different from the implications of the term today as exemplified in Betts’s wit. The Oxford English Dictionary recalls an etymology for “abscond” that illuminates our context: “f. abs off, + condere to put together, to stow.” Thus it means “to hide away, to conceal (anything).” But the dictionary marks that usage “obs. or arch.” Another use of “abscond” is “to hide oneself, to retire from the public view: generally used of persons in debt, or criminals eluding the law . . . ; to go away hurriedly and secretly.” Betts has fun with that set of connotations, and it would not be hard to identify a cast of ironic and sardonic writers who see God’s disappearance in such “guilty” terms as she describes. But all we need here is the more neutral reference that would be relevant for usage by thinkers such as Luther or in the OED itself: “ppl.a. form.” God is then “concealed, hidden away; secluded, secret.”


Christian Preference on the Hiddenness of an Accessible God

The classic reference to all this in the not always consistent Luther is to the Augustinian Order’s debates at Heidelberg in April 1518. Luther presented theses, focusing on 19 and 20:

19. The man who looks upon the invisible things of God as they are perceived in created things does not deserve to be called a theologian. (Non ille dignus theologus dicitur, qui invisibilia Dei per ea, quae facta sunt, intellecta conspicit.)

20. The man who perceives the visible rearward parts of God as seen in suffering and the cross does, however, deserve to be called a theologian. (Sed quia visibilia et posteriora Dei per passiones et crucem conspecta intelligit.)

The reference to the “rearward parts of God,” sometimes translated the “hind parts,” the “posterior,” and even the “buttocks” of God (to recall the earthiness of the Hebrew) is to Exodus 33:23. Moses had wanted to see God face to face, but God allowed only a view of the divine rear. Or, in the Vulgate, videbis posteriora mea, faciem autem meam videre non poteris. Luther delighted in paradox. How does one make sense of a concealed revelation? asks a modern ponderer of precisely this theme. The revelation of the posteriora Dei is addressed to faith, not to historical inquiry and not easily to any literary expression that is devoted to the empirical world. Luther liked to pick up on Isaiah’s dictum: “Truly you are a hidden God!” (45:15).

The modern commentator Alister E. McGrath tries to rein in those who make too much of Luther’s usage. He argues that they tend to expand it beyond Luther’s intentions. Part of McGrath’s reluctance to follow where Luther on occasion led stems from his horror at the destabilization that can come along with Luther’s further reaches. He notes two uses, the first of which is paradoxical enough on its own terms. This is a witness to the deus absconditus who is hidden in the divine revelation. This kind of absence could refer to God’s being hidden in nature’s larvae Dei, the masks of God: in the bread and wine of the sacraments, in the preaching of divine weakness and suffering, and in the foolishness of the cross. There it is that—one must get used to paradox—deus absconditus = deus revelatus.

The second and rarer usage, yet one that appeals to many in our time, turns up in Luther’s debate with Erasmus in De Servo Arbitrio on the bondage of the will. Note McGrath’s elaborative stepping back:

Deus absconditus is [also] the God who is hidden behind his revelation. . . . Luther argues that, in addition to the Deus revelatus, we must recognize that there are certain aspects of God’s being which will always remain hidden from us. The Deus absconditus is thus understood as the God who will forever remain unknown to us, a mysterious and sinister being whose intentions remain concealed from us. This understanding of Deus absconditus is closely linked to the riddle of divine predestination, where faith is forced to concede the existence (occulta) and will of God. (165-66)

McGrath notes that in such a case the comparatively simple equation (in the absconditus = revelatus paradox) is left behind. The scandal of the distinction between the God who is known through self-revelation (Deus revelatus} and the one who is permanently hidden from us (Deus absconditus) remains. This, says McGrath, is a fact that creates serious tension, if it does not represent pure opposition to the first form of hiddenness or absence. By 1525, for Luther, “God wills many things which he does not disclose in his Word, and there is every reason to suppose that the hidden and inscrutable will of God may stand in contradiction to his revealed will” (166).

Why the undertone of horror in McGrath? He wants to like Luther, to stay with him, but what can he make of this disjunction?

This argument inevitably makes theology an irrelevancy, if any statements which can be made on the basis of divine revelation may be refuted by appealing to a hidden and inscrutable God, who will probably contradict that of the revealed God…. [Luther’s] dilemma is his own creation, and his failure to resolve it in De Servo Arbitrio is an indictment of his abandonment of his own principle: Crux sola est nostra theologia. (166-67)

We can leave it to the theologians to address the question of how the two uses of deus absconditus can coexist and what the second might do to theology. What is evident is that many late writers of Christian orientation, no doubt without their having read the apophatics or the upholders of the via negativa, have gravitated to such a view by intuition or artistic gift. Postmodernist Christians might even see in the witness to Absence a charter for their postmodernity! Such an approach may, of course, issue in instability and relativity in Christian discourse. But that is not all that there is to be said about it.

It is not hard to see, in any case, why such a witness can serve as a trigger for the imagination among authors. Oakeshott saw poetry as a mode of experience effective sub specie imaginationis (Rationalism 496). In our context the concept of deus absconditus would charter a literary imagination that ponders the world in which faith is complicated by the intuition of God’s absence, silence, eclipse, distance— but never of God’s death.

One can write historical fiction, for example, on biblical themes and borrow scriptural language of God’s presence in agency on the historical and literary scene, filling the plot with miracles. In such instances the result usually and safely amounts to a kind of “theme and variations,” following precedents that the great composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach employed when they elaborated on biblical texts in the cantatas, or similar to what Rembrandt did with the plot of the Prodigal Son or the depiction of a miracle, as when the resurrected Christ becomes graphic in the breaking of the bread at Emmaus.

Direct intrusions of the transcendent appear within the biblical canon as God revelatus and certifiable in the resurrection from the dead, in the eyes of those who had known only God absconditus among the dead an hour before or a few biblical lines earlier (see Luke 24:13- 35). Thus the elaborating novelist who deals with this theme does not add incredibility in any form that was not already latent and familiar in an ancient, “inspired,” and canonical text. But let her deal with the workings of God as actor and agent in the postcanonical, especially the recent, world and the scandalous character of such a characterization of events would be distracting to art and the reader. One thinks of instances such as the resurrection in Carl Dreyer ‘s great film Ordet, The Word, as an example of the scandal.


The American Instance of Deus Absconditus

Various cultures display differing repertoires of options and experiences. In the culture of America’s political public religion, a turning point in reflection on God as hidden in and then behind revelation was evident in President Abraham Lincoln. This was manifest in his second inaugural speech in 1865, as noted by Alfred Kazin in his recent historical visiting of our theme in God and the American Writer. At the beginning of the Civil War, notes Kazin, both North and South “still”—this is late Christendom, or Evangelicaldom—used the Bible as an essential resource of interpretation. “Everything so long festering in the American heart over the need to believe that God does intervene in history—everything that was to be threatened after the is war by the idea of nature as a self- operating mechanism—now flamed out with all the passion of war itself,” writes Kazin. There were then displayed “loyalties that North and South believed to have the sanex tion of the Almighty Father, Creator of the Universe” (132). Kazin sees the 1860s rather precisely as a watershed. In the United States “the age of belief reaches its culmination in the second inaugural, if but with a subtlety and humility that make words from a war president on this public occasion all the more astonishing” (133).

After reviewing the course of the war, during which both sides claimed knowledge of and support from an intervening God, Kazin writes of Lincoln’s own review:

Suddenly we move from the surprise and havoc of war to what—in 1865—was still central to any invocation of God—God as the one true judge, who alone makes the final judgment. [Lincoln declared:] “Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.”

Kazin continues, “Like all honest men on the subject who value their any freedom from orthodoxy, Lincoln had had his doubts about the very existence of God. But he was now president of the United States in the most terrifying crisis” (134). Lincoln had a burden to carry and share. But in the last sentence of the paragraph just quoted, the God of whom Lincoln spoke as being “still” existent and living “still” as a judge “had his own purposes.”

In this turn one can see a latter-day political expression of something like the notice by Luther that God, deus absconditus, is hidden both in and behind the revelation. In effect, this God also has his own purposes. The clergy in both North and South had been supremely confident that deus revelatus was intervening in history on their side and that they could and should proclaim that. But no one other than historians reads them or draws inspiration from them today, as they do read and draw upon Lincoln.

What use is a deus absconditus to the warrior? The same deus is a subject of great wonder to the literary artist. Kazin almost stares in wonder himself at this political mixture of faith and agnosticism evident in the wartime president. Lincoln at the end exemplified the “covertly public, overtly private” approach to God. “Religion was to ‘him a matter of the most intensely private conviction. Did he suspect that a wholly political religion would yet become everything to many Americans?” (141). They kept wanting to take God captive for their own purposes. But “the Almighty has his own purposes.” (101)

In another generation or two after Lincoln, a period in which leaders in American high culture were moved, in Kazin’s terms, to see “the idea of nature as a self-operating mechanism,” the cultural accent shifted. By the time of the classic public philosophers at and after the turn of the century, even Lincoln’s still judging but remote and almost inscrutable God generally was replaced by nothing but religion itself. Religion, and its currently code-named surrogate spirituality, have had it easier in American literary culture than has God.

Kazin quotes Alfred North Whitehead on this turn to religion, which he finds not to be a difficult subject for the poet, novelist, or dramatist: “Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.” William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience anticipates that Whiteheadian theme: “As the Son became far more real than the Father, so ‘religion’ is forever real, especially to those for whom ‘God’ is not. As things go nowadays, you might almost say that ‘religion’ as a subject of the most intense personal interest has replaced ‘God,’ which after all is or is not a matter of objective existence and truth—or so it used to be” (qtd. in Kazin 175).

As a point of interest, Kazin follows the God trail four more times: through Mark Twain, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and William Faulkner. For Twain an indictable God disappears in a dream (192-93). Eliot is a recherche-minded racist who glories in the Church more than God and whose Trinity at the end of Four Quartets gives pleasure for its “ravishing lines” but not for “the supposed coming together of the Trinity” (213). And in Frost’s work Kazin leads us to see that “the central character in the celestial drama is not God but Job, who has suffered too long (and meaninglessly). We are Job.” God either is, or He has absconded. Yet all three writers ponder the themes and roles or that the scrutable and intervening God in history had once played; “they remain covertly public and overtly private in their reflection.”

Faulkner is most interesting on our theme. Kazin sees him as the greatest among the Southern writers for the way he dealt with the major theological themes, afflicted as “a man of grace” in the eyes of his wife and Kazin:

Because I think of religion as the most intimate expression of the human heart, as the most secret of personal confessions, where we admit to ourselves alone our fears and our losses, our sense of holy dread and our awe before the unflagging power of a universe that regards us as indeed of “no account,” I find it hard to think of Faulkner confiding in a personal God. (236)

“I don’t think it can be said of Faulkner,” Kazin goes on to say, “what Tolstoy said to Maxim Gorky: ‘God is the name of my desire.’ That is not the way really good American writers today think or talk about religion, if they ever do” (237). Yet Faulkner treated the South with its dominating religion in such a way that it was rendered epic. He dealt with a people that considered itself the elect of the very God that Faulkner did not find ways to acknowledge. “Where with us [Americans] is God the content and not just the message?” asks Kazin on the third-to-the-last page (257).

By the 1940s, as Joseph Warren Beach demonstrates, “unfaith” had become a major theme. W. H. Auden’s benighted pilgrim in “The Quest,” says Beach, “vainly calls on ‘Uncreated Nothing’ to set him free. On God himself the pilgrim will not call. For ‘The Nameless is what no free people mention; / Successful men know better than to try / To see the face of their absconded God.'” In The Age of Anxiety the neurotics mourn not for the dead God but for “Our lost dad, / Our colossal father” (344).

A lesser poet, Hugh Chisholm, did less mourning and showed only nostalgia, as in The Prodigal Never Returns:

But we’ve rubbed out the Devil with wisecracks
and healthy ribaldry,
And God and His angels
Litter the parlors of spinsters, the holes of priests, and the old curiosity shops
With velvet debris.
And in “The Park at Evening” Chisholm wonders about the future of society:
The old component parts will stick together a decade or so, but O where are the few
rapt intrepid molecules of faith
that moved the Himalayas of our past,
that wired the winds for sound and sowed the stars
with apes and angels? (qtd. in Beach 345)

Significantly, however, in this poem “we’ve” rubbed out God; it was not God who absconded, who chose to remain hidden.

Writers of prose under the Christian aegis often take up the problem of God as absent. In his recent short story “The Expert on God” John L’Heureux writes of a priest who doubts but remains a priest and administers last rites to a boy dying after an automobile accident. The crucial moment could be replicated in innumerable stories in what one might call the “Georges Bernanos mode” of Catholic fiction:

[The priest] began to pray aloud, which struck him as foolish: to be holding a dying boy in his arms and reciting rote prayers about our father in heaven, about holy Mary, mother of God. What could he do? What could he say at such a moment? What would God do at such a moment, if there were a God? “Well, do it,” he said aloud, and heard the fury in his voice. “Say something.” But there was silence from heaven.

His doubts became certainty and he said, “It doesn’t matter,” but it did matter and he knew it. What could anyone say to this crushed, dying thing, he wondered. What would God say if he cared as much as I? (59; my emphasis)

Bernanos, in whose mode so many write, had argued that “the world is becoming less and less Christian, but the fact is that Christ was not given to the world; He was given to us for the world, and it is from our hearts that God withdraws His presence; it is in us that this de-Christianization is taking place” (qtd. in Reinhardt 109). Yet, as Bernanos wrote of the withdrawn presence, he was convinced that “God sees and judges. The experienced certitude which He sees and judges has upheld me all my life.” But the French novelist also wrote in a “dark light”: “It is not true, no it is not true that faith is security, at least not in the human sense of the word. Faith cannot be compared with those evidences of which the ‘two times two equals four’ presents the most common form” (qtd. in Reinhardt 111). So God remains absconditus, withdrawn, even though Bernanos wrote from faith and began with God—and then concentrated on the meaning of the Incarnation, the “hind parts” of God.

Kurt F. Reinhardt gathered a garland of such wreaths laid at the door of the absent God, as witnessed to by writers of faith or writers who struggled over faith. “He Whom we are called to love is absent,” wrote Simone Weil, and the human condition matches Christ’s cry of abandonment and forsakenness on the cross (qtd. in Reinhardt 33).

“Lord, I have never been able as yet to penetrate to your Majesty,” said Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. “But a God Who allows himself to be reached and moved by man, is no longer God. For the first time I have discovered that the greatness of prayer consists precisely in the fact that one does not obtain an answer” (qtd. in Reinhardt 33-34). And in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed the elder Verkhovensky comments, “The nations and peoples of the world are moved by a gal force whose origin is unknown and inexplicable. . . . The philosophers call it the esthetic principle; the peoples call it the moral principle; I call it simply the search for God” (qtd. in Reinhardt 44). Not God, but the search for God. Not known and explicable, but the opposite.

Among critics George Steiner has pressed the theme of presence and absence most consistently in recent years. Much criticized by secular critics who found something disingenuous in his witness to a transcendence that had no content or to an incarnation that had no substance, Steiner did point to the fact that the absence of God in literature did not mean the triumph of the purely secular.

… Politically, morally perhaps, little, very little in this twentieth century, one of the cruellest, most wasteful of hope in human record, gives motive for anything but a lucid “forgetting about” God.

In recent art and thought, it is not a forgetting which is instrumental, but a negative theism, a peculiarly vivid sense of God’s absence or, to be precise, of His recession. The “other” has withdrawn from the incarnate, leaving either uncertain secular spoors or an emptiness which echoes still with the vibrance of departure. Our aesthetic forms explore the void, the blank freedom which come of the retraction (Deus absconditus) of the messianic and the divine….

What I affirm is the intuition that where God’s presence is no longer a tenable supposition and where His absence is no longer a felt, indeed overwhelming weight, certain dimensions of thought and creativity are no longer attainable….

The density of God’s absence, the edge of presence in that absence, is no empty dialectical twist. The phenomenology is elementary: it is like the recession from us of one whom we have loved or sought to love or of one before whom we have dwelt in fear. The distancing is, then, charged with the pressures of a nearness out of reach, of a remembrance torn at the edges. (228-30)

Is this far from the plot of major Catholic theological endeavor in our time? Fergus Kerr comments on an essay written by theologian Karl Rahner in honor ofYves Congar in 1974, “The Hiddenness of God.” Rahner begins by objecting to the call of “theoretical understanding” in dealing with the “incomprehensibility” of God. In the development of that essay, Rahner unfolds a view of human dignity that is by no means slighted but is even enhanced in the realization of deus absconditus. Writes Kerr:

The conception of knowledge and truth at work in the discussion is based on a model of knowledge in which objects are “penetrated and mastered.” To say that God is “incomprehensible” is to say that our knowledge of God remains deficient, even in heavenly beatitude— “God is, unfortunately, always incomprehensible!”—as if we almost but not quite have the cognitive reach to “entirely or exhaustively grasp God.” (181)

[Rahner argues that] if knowing is pictured, not as “seeing through” an object, but as “a possible openness to the mystery,” we should be able to see ourselves not in terms of “the dominant, absolute subject,” but as “the one whose being is bestowed upon him by the mystery.” Indeed, “the essential human capacity for truth” is unfolded and established by the “overwhelming mystery” which is now revealed as the “hidden God.” (182)

Kerr concludes by quoting Rahner:

The mystery is self-evident. That it is unattainable has already been said. Existentially, and for a theory of knowledge, it is at once a menace to man and his blessed peace. It can make him chafe and protest, because it compels him to leave the tiny house of his ostensibly clear self-possession, to advance into the trackless spaces, even in the night. It forces upon him the dilemma of either throwing himself into the uncharted, unending adventure where he commits himself to the infinite, or—despairing at the thought and so embittered—of taking shelter in the suffocating den of his own finite perspicacity. (184)

In such a paragraph one can anticipate the plot of the better Christian writing of our time. The theme is witnessed to by philosopher Emanuel Levinas:

God … reveals himself as a trace, not as an ontological presence…. The God of the Bible cannot be defined or proved by means of logical predictions and attributions. Even the superlatives of wisdom, power, and causality advanced by medieval ontology are inadequate to the absolute otherness of God. It is not by superlatives that we can think of God, but by trying to identify the particular interhuman events which open towards transcendence and reveal the traces where God has passed, (qtd. in Carey 286)

Shades of Moses emerging from the rock in Exodus; of Luther witnessing to the “hind parts” of God that represent the Presence available to the historian and the writer; of Lincoln’s saying that “the Almighty has his own purposes.”

Our tracings of the “covertly public, overtly private” witness to God have thrown the issue back less to the consciousness of the individual writer and more to cultural turns taken in recent centuries, particularly the one in which God begins to be witnessed as absence more than presence. To some we may seem not to have come up with much. It should be rather obvious that for various reasons Catholic, Protestant, and evangelical writers within the Christian fold have themselves experienced the absence, eclipse, or silence—though not the death—of God. They no longer treat God as a character in their plots, as Dante and Milton and Blake could and did.

I would contend, however, that the tracing of this change is worthwhile: it is worthwhile to note the very ecumenical catholicity voiced on global scales by writers who, on the central question of faith in God, have an instinct to deal with deus absconditus while televangelists and their audiences, survivors of plane crashes who talk about “their personal angel,” professional athletes when they win games, deal with this quest in profound ways that some folk expression fails to do. (But one should listen carefully to the struggles by ordinary people who do come up with extraordinary theodicies at the time disaster.)

This observation about absence goes a long way toward explaining why devotion to “the spiritual” and “the religious” is often undetected by those who, under the cultural surface, are looking for artistic witness to God, the God who remains hidden in and beyond incarnation and sacrament, both in the revelation and behind it, and thus remains free.

I have argued that complaints about the absence of spiritual or religious motifs in contemporary novels, poetry, and essays often the mark. This apparent void is regularly attributed to the bad faith of secular cultural elites or the timidity of writers who are of Christian orientation. Instead, we might do better to explore how both Christians and “searchers” without commitment have discerned the possibilities within our “epoch of homelessness” and “the absence of God.” They have chosen to witness in ways that counter and even deny the scholastic, propositional, or pious approaches in which God is a “visible,” certifiable agent in the plot. They stand in the tradition, as old as the Book of Exodus, of the via negativa, of the reformers such as Luther and a cloud of witnesses including Blaise Pascal who also searched. They do so not in the face of God but, content by force or desire with the vision of “the hind parts,” often do affirm. Thus they may be “covert” in public about their witness and exposition but “overt” in their private responses, where art is born, to the deus absconditus, the hidden God, who addresses their private world, their inmost hearts.

A postscript is in order. I have developed this thesis by ruling out “pop evangelical” and Catholic writings; by slighting the intrusions of the transcendent in science fiction or fantastic and grotesque Christian literature; by restricting the inquiries to what Buber has called the “epoch of homelessness” that succeeds biblical periods and the Age of Faith, when Presence and Providence were available as they are not today. If there has been a variety of epochs, each of which sets some cultural terms that provide a context for literature, who is to say that there cannot be more and other in the future? But speculation about that belongs to the agenda of the “prophetic prophet” and not the “historical historian.”

Works Cited

Bailey, Edward I. Implicit Religion in Contemporary Society. Amsterdam: Kok Pharos, 1997.

Beach, Joseph Warren. Obsessive Images: Symbolism in Poetry of the 1930s and 1940s. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1960.

Blodgett, Jan. Protestant Evangelical Literary Culture and Contemporary Society. Westport: Greenwood, 1997.

Boyd, George N., and Lois A. Boyd. Religion in Contemporary Fiction: Criticism from 1945 to the Present. San Antonio: Trinity UP, 1973.

Brown, W. Dale. Of Fiction and Faith: Twelve American Writers Talk about Their Vision and Work. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1997.

Carey, Phyllis, cd. Wagering on Transcendence: The Search for Meaning in Literature. Kansas City: Sheed, 1997.

Kazin, Alfred. God and the American Writer. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Kerr. Fergus. Immortal Longings: Versions of Transcending Humanity. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.

L’Heureux. John. “The Expert on God.” A Celestial Omnibus: Short Fiction on Faith. Ed. J. P. Maney and Tom Hazuka. Boston: Beacon, 1997. 57-60.

Marty, Martin E. Varieties of Unbelief. New York: Holt, 1964.

McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross. Oxford: Blackwell, 1985.

Oakeshott, Michael. Experience and Its Modes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933. ———. Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. Indianapolis: Liberty, 1991.

Reinhardt, Kurt F. The Theological Novel of Modem Europe: An Analysis Masterpieces by Eight Authors. New York: Ungar. 1969.

Sjostrom, Heidi N. “Buechner’s Concrete Evidence of the Transcendent.” Wagering on Transcendence: The Search for Meaning in Literature. Ed. Phyllis Carey. Kansas City: Sheed, 1997. 129-53.

Steiner, George. Real Presences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.


Scroll to Top