Since the Newtown killings, much public conversation -- between friends, in sermons, through social networks and blogs, and even in the mainstream media -- has centered on God.
Although the murders prompted many questions regarding the existence of God, why God allows such things and the problem of evil, one question stands out sharply from the rest: Where was God on that dreadful morning?
Generally, the answers fall into one of two camps. The first, proposed by many clergy, insists that God was present in the horror. The second, pronounced most starkly by Gov. Mike Huckabee, says that God was not there, "banished" as it were, by human sin. There is a raging argument on Facebook and on religion, spirituality and theology blogs between those who insist that God is with us and those insisting God has left us. Is God the Immanuel ("God-with-us") of Advent or the Judging God of violent apocalypse?
Answer 1: God Was Present.
For believers, this is the most comforting answer, and one with considerable biblical and theological merit. God is everywhere at all times and in all places. No human action or activity can limit, exile or destroy the God's mercy. As the Bible says, "Nothing can separate us from the love of God" (Romans 8:38). Thus, God was in the tears and fears of the children, comforting and holding them even as they suffered and died. God was -- and is -- with the grieving parents. And, most especially, God was in the heroic actions of those who stood up to the shooter. God was present in the teachers, the principal, the police and the first responders. God is in all and through all. Even in the worst of events, God still shows purposeful love and accomplishes divine will.
Answer 2: God Was Absent.
Even for some theists, the idea that God was present in the Sandy Hook School raises profound difficulties. If God was there, why didn't God stop the shooter? Why did God stand idly by while 20 babies were killed? The notion that God was present makes God uncaring at best, a monster at worst. Who wants to worship such a God? God must not have been there because an all-powerful God would have done something. Therefore, God was was not at Sandy Hook. God was absent. Of course, this raises the uncomfortable question as to why God was not there. Thus, some Christians, like Mike Huckabee, claim God was absent on account of human sin. We rejected God, so God abandons us to that sin -- until we repent and return to God and accept Jesus Christ as savior.
Thus, the debate continues. The God-was-present people are horrified by Mike Huckabee's remarks; the God-was-absent people are calling for Americans to repent and welcome both God and guns back to public schools.
But what about the rest of us? Those who reject the dueling answers and who are genuinely wrestling with God over the tragedy at Newtown?
I do not think that God was present in that Sandy Hook classroom -- anymore than I think that God was an active presence in the bombing of innocent civilians in any war, in the flames of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, with the genocide in Dafur, or at the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Yes, I am a theist. Yet, with the deep honesty, I can admit that intentional acts of human cruelty challenge theism to its core. I am convinced that we talk about God at such times because any good and loving theist needs to talk him- or herself back to belief when body counts mount. To have the tender and kind heart that theism insists is the character of faith places one in the philosophically awkward situation of wondering if theism itself might be based on a malevolent divinity instead of a loving one. Our atheist friends have a genuine point.
To say that I do not think God was present, however, is not to say that God was absent in the way that some Christians have depicted. God may not have been in the broken soul of the shooter, the bullets, the wailing and the fear, but human sin and evil do not cause God abandon our schools, towns, culture or world. Gov. Huckabee's attribution of God's absence on the separation of church and state is, frankly, ridiculous. To remove prayer and Bible reading from public school curriculum does not mean that God has forsaken schools or school children. God may have not been there, but God was not absent on account of Democrats, gay people or secularization.
A Different Possibility: God Was Hidden.
There is an odd verse in the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah 45:15, "Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior."
Throughout history, theologians have wrestled with the idea of a "hidden God" from this text. Based on it, and other biblical stories of temptation and darkness, there developed a long tradition from the ancient church to Thomas Aquinas through Martin Luther, passed on by the French philosopher Pascal, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and to modern "Death of God" and process theologians that ruminate on God incomplete or inaccessible. As Jesus himself cried out at the Cross, "My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?" Indeed, Christian thinkers actually coined a Latin term for God's absence, Deus Absconditus.
When we think of an absent God, we might think of an AWOL deity, of a God who conveniently escapes complications with human sin and suffering. Yet, the very idea of "absconditus" emphasizes God's "away-ness," as if aspects of the Divine are purposefully not revealed in the world, kept at a far distance. What would the world be like if everyone, everywhere claimed to have full knowledge of God? If there is a God, is there some aspect of that God reserved from human understanding? What room is there in the human soul for the God unknown?
And that's my answer: God was beyond Newtown, the God of lament, of loss, of anguish, the God hidden away.
As answers go, the hidden God will not completely satisfy and can never get to questions of motive. Isn't that the point? Somewhere, deep in our souls, we know we cannot know. The hidden God, I think, is the only God that makes any sense of Newtown: One neither and both present and absent; One in the hands of rescuers but not the hands that wielded the guns; One in the midst of murdered but not the act of murder. This is the God who is in all places and nowhere.
St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373), revered by Eastern Orthodox Christians, described the hidden God thus:
Lord, Your symbols are everywhere,
yet You are hidden from everywhere.
Though Your symbol is on high,
yet height does not perceive that You are;
though Your symbol is in the depth,
it does not comprehend who You are;
though Your symbol is in the sea,
You are hidden from the sea;
though Your symbol is on dry land,
it is not aware what You are.
Blessed is the Hidden One shining out!
Perhaps we might add: "Your symbol is love; though human hearts break."
The God Hidden is oddly discomforting yet somehow touches some truth of human experience -- we do not know where God is in the midst of evil. This is the answer of agnostic theology, the doubter's prayer, a possibility for those of us who are less than sure. I do not think many pundits will be talking about Deus Absconditus in the coming days, but I suspect this God is the one weeping for the children of Newtown.