How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1)

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Why does God not show himself and solve all of the world’s problems? Why is God silent in the face of our suffering? This question parallels the problem of evil, asking why God allows bad things to happen. However, while relevant, the question is much larger than this. Why does scripture itself need interpretation, sometimes without clear answers as to what happened and what to do in the future? How do we arbitrate between different viewpoints, both in everyday life and in other faith and philosophical traditions? Why do we not have a clear roadmap for our private spiritual journey? There are not easy answers, but there are approaches we can take to discern them.

We can of course recognize standard problem of evil defenses. For example, God might allow evil so we can exercise free will, and for full human flourishing might have to limit himself in some way. He could always force obedience, but prefers personal relationships with free beings instead. Creation itself can still remain good, but evil arises when outside agents warp God’s plan. There are other potential answers and theodicies to consider, but I will leave an in depth problem of evil discussion to other sources.

We also must take into account the scope and realm wherein different virtues can interact. We might imagine that there is one and only one right way to resolve a situation, and that anything outside of God’s preferred opinion is “evil”. However, while God might arbitrate one way, there still might be other ways of resolving a situation that are also acceptable.

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For example, what would be the best way of dividing a bag of candy among a group of children? We could give everybody a little sample of everything, or if the kids have favorite candies, give one kid all the Starburst and another all Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Perhaps one kid just had a really bad day and it would be best to give all or almost all of the candy to him. We can ask God what he prefers, and God might weigh the potential virtues and come to a decision. But the choices on their own are apples and oranges (literally if apple and orange flavored candies). Any decision in a way is thus “correct”.

Tying this back to the original question, if God was available and not hidden, we could just ask God in all cases what he would do in this situation. Once God gives his opinion, then that opinion as the most omniscient is the one man should follow. Yet we lose the diversity of potential options available to us about how to conduct human affairs. Life is a lot more on rails, even for cases where the available choices are not strictly between good and evil. St. Paul suggested that we would be judging angels. Let’s not take away our agency.

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We can see God’s potential preference for free will and complex decisions in scripture. Christians might prefer something more like traditional understandings of the Koran or Torah, where God from on high in his own words issues all commands that should be followed. This option is available to Christians also, if one takes a more fundamentalist interpretation. Yet God is hidden in other contexts, such as when addressing evil and when arbitrating between virtues. Why would we expect anything different with scripture?

There are a range of approaches when interpreting scripture. One might think it is just between those who believe what the Bible says and those who don’t. Yet there is a whole range of Biblical interpretation to consider, from flat earth and geocentric views of the universe to a given passage just being what people felt was true at the time. Few fundamentalists believe in flat earth theories, or that the sun orbits around the earth. Yet, this would be the literal interpretation of some passages, one perhaps shared by those writing the passages and those later opposing Copernicus and Galileo. One could also start at the other extreme and use the Bible as a jumping off point for existing beliefs one already has. In short, wisdom in interpretation is not always obvious.

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Given that we have the Bible, along with its range of interpretations, what might we discern about the necessity of God’s hiddenness? Whatever our preferred interpretation, we have a book in the Bible containing traditions spanning thousands of years. We must recognize that God manifests his plans over time, and not just at one particular moment. He doesn’t always give clear answers and constant rules that are consistent from Mt. Sinai to the Sermon on the Mount. For example, Jewish law in its own way both is and is not still valid. Christians must continually interpret it in light of what we expect from God’s coming kingdom. We must continually use our free will to bring his purposes to fruition, in dialog with God, with the Biblical examples of Israel and the early church in our mind. God might hide and occlude himself to make this building and growth possible.

One charge against God is that we might guess wrong as we arbitrate between different theological and philosophical viewpoints. The Pharisees and the Inquisition seemed to do what was right from one perspective. Should not the Jewish nationalism running through the Old Testament be paramount, especially after the Maccabean revolt? Should not all heresy be stamped out for spiritual health? However we are judged, for present purposes finding the right choice is unfortunately a consequence of any complex real world system. Would we truly be better off as a simpler computer program or automaton executing the one choice given?

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Apparently not, as God’s nature might reflect something about developing wisdom in free beings. First, it does seem that we are free in some non-fatalistic way. If our will was not in any sense free, then God could do what he wants and we would be along for the ride. Yet how can God guide us to make the correct choices with our free will?

If somehow free, for us to make wise choices paralleling God’s choices, God cannot tell us what to choose ahead of time. God must remain hidden. Parents might use carrots and sticks to force a child to obey while the child develops good character. However, when the child grows up, parents want the child to use wisdom tied to this character to choose the correct choice on their own, independent of any rewards and punishments.

In sum, there are many reasons for God to remain hidden. These include problem of evil talking points, such as the need to maintain free will. God also may want us to avoid a life on rails. We could choose between many different valid choices, all of which are in some way “good”. We also might need to develop other attributes on our spiritual journey, such as wisdom, with God’s hiddenness a prerequisite. Whatever the reasons, God is at least consistent, as we see similar patterns in scripture and in permitting complex situations where it is easy to make the wrong choice. We have to have faith that God knows what he is doing.

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Speculative Theologian