Finding the hidden God

When Pascal wrote down the contents of his final revelation, from the night of Nov. 23, 1654, nearly the first sentence was this: “‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Joseph,” not of philosophers and scholars.” One way to think about the God of the philosophers is to think that He is the God about whose positive properties one can argue and, generally speaking, the God whom one can come to know through reason. In short, the God of the philosophers is the God towards whose existence the traditional scholastic arguments are directed. If that is what Pascal means by the God of the philosophers, then this first line of his revelation seems to suggest that the God of the Old Testament is not like that. In some sense, in other words, we cannot know about him positively. Instead, God is essentially (at least at times) a hidden God. The idea of a hidden God occurs explicitly in various places throughout the Pensées.

Philosophers reading Pascal tend not to pay too much attention to this aspect of his work, as far as I can tell. Whenever I see philosophers talk about Pascal they give a quick presentation of the wager, point out that the argument is susceptible to a variety of criticisms, and then move on. Maybe I just haven’t been reading the interesting folks. But the notion of the hidden God seems crucial to me in Pascal.

I don’t claim this as any great news. I suspect that even if philosophers aren’t paying attention to this aspect of Pascal’s work, 17th century French historians and literary scholars are very familiar with it. When a friend of mine in that area asked recently what I found interesting about Pascal, and I told her that I thought his notion of a hidden God was important, she just laughed. “That’s like saying that the thing you find most interesting in Plato,” she said, “is this fascinating character called Socrates.” Still, I haven’t found any interesting discussions of the hidden God in Pascal. I have some ideas about what might be going on here, and am in particular interested in two relations: first between God’s hiddenness in Pascal and Luther’s theology of the cross, and second between both of these and the necessary withdrawal of being in Heidegger. (The relation between all of these and apophatic theology more generally is a bigger topic.) But I won’t try to say more about any of that here. What I’d really like, instead, is suggestions about interesting things to read in the area. Anyone???


About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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23 Responses to Finding the hidden God

  1. Charlie says:

    I wish I could help. Two things came to my mind. Nehamas’ notion that the art we love is the art we really don’t understand, and Schopenhauer’s mysticism with apophatic dimensions. Fascinating question/topic, I look forward to suggestions…thanks for making my life more interesting

    • j. says:

      i’ve been rereading schopenhauer lately quite fruitfully after a recent re-read of ‘being and time’, and after a lot of reading of cavell at the points where he sidles up most closely to heideggerian interests, and the extent to which it seems possible to read ‘will’ as a schopenhauerian term for the withdrawing (ground) of being is surprising me. or, if you like, ‘will’ as the bottomless pit in which the world hides. since so much about his thought seems like an inversion of much of traditional metaphysics i assume that a lot of it involves twists on pre-enlightenment or pre-kantian thinkers (including religious ones) i’m just not familiar with. his favorite scholastic to quote, if that is any indication, seems to be suarez. perhaps the general impression i’m getting, though, is more due to the fact that for schopenhauer ‘will’ occupies a systematic position akin to the philosophers’ god in the systems of philosophers with gods, except that (to some extent) its different character as a concept leads schopenhauer not to venture to make the kinds of claims about it which would make it sound like a philosophers’ god.

  2. dmf says:

    have you read Jack Caputo’s Demythologizing Heidegger or Crisis of Faith by Stanley Hopper?

    • dmf says:

      also check out The Good Life in the Scientific Revolution by Matthew Jones for an understanding of Pascal on human reason and the cultivation of virtue.

  3. Albert Borgmann says:

    The parlance of the “hidden God” reflects different kinds of the concealment of divinity. An unhelpful version is the complement to the mystic experience of God’s immediate presence, the painful and desperate experience of how unreachable that experience normally is. Such misery can become self-centered and all but self-destructive in its complaints, and not only for mystics, but also for a young black like Obama who saw nothing but racism in contemporary culture, even in the pleasures the culture had left for young African-Americans, “the humor, the song, the behind-the-back pass.” As the young Obama (in Dreams) began to suspect, “at best, these things were a refuge; at worst, a trap. Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat.”
    Thomas Merton’s reflections, going from Seeds of Contemplation to Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, are recent example of the move from the mystic raging for God’s direct presence to a more patient consideration of the everyday concealments and epiphanies of the divine, the phenomena that ATS has examined in provocative ways.
    Today’s paradigmatic concealment of divinity is as hidden to mystic impatience as it is to the meticulous analyses of metaphysical reason. On a standard reading, Pascal represents the worst of two approaches, the mystic of the revelation, recorded on that piece of parchment, and the Bayesian of the wager. Heidegger suggests that the first reading may be mistaken, and Bas van Fraassen that the second may be as well.
    Though Heidegger does not mention Pascal by name, he clearly recalls his insight. Toward the end of “The Onto-Theo-Logical Constitution of Metaphysics,” Heidegger says that Causa sui “is the appropriate name for the God of philosophy.” Heidegger continues: “To this God, humans can neither pray nor sacrifice. Before the Causa sui humans can neither quietly bend their knees, nor can they make music or dance before this God.” For Heidegger, at any rate, Pascal’s revelation is the prompt for a new kind of thought. Van Fraassen, in The Empirical Stance, is even more disdainful of analytic reason, when turned on Pascal, than Heidegger was of metaphysics when it turns on God. Van Fraassen shows that Pascal’s discussion of the wager is not an early form of risk and benefit calculation, but a demonstration of the limits of rational analysis.
    Heidegger’s new kind of thinking and van Fraassen’s open-minded empirical stance are congenial, it seems to me, with Bert’s and Sean’s kind of phenomenology. That sort of thoughtful turn to God has been noted as well by Obama (in Audacity): “It was because of these newfound understandings—that religious commitment did not require me to suspend critical thinking, disengage from the battle for economic and social justice, or otherwise retreat from the world that I knew and loved—that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ one day and be baptized. It came about as a choice and not an epiphany; the questions I had did not magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.”
    Pascal may well be the pivotal figure who, when considered phenomenologically, can help propel the enterprise that was launched so well in ATS.

    • Thanks so much for this, Albert. I agree that if the hidden-ness Pascal refers to is to be interesting at all, it cannot be akin to the phenomenon of not now having a mystical experience of God’s complete and direct presence. Indeed, one of the interesting things about Pascal’s revelation, it seems to me, is precisely that it wasn’t a direct and positive presentation of divinity. Instead, it seems to have been a recognition that one way of being present is by being hidden. That’s why I think it might well be akin to Heidegger’s account of the necessary withdrawal of being. The background practices are present by way of withdrawing, and it is only when they are present in this way that they can serve as the ground to anything. And I think you are exactly right to point out that a version of that is present in the phenomena ATS is focused on too. In general these phenomena fall under the heading of an openness to being drawn by whatever (appropriate) demands the situation places upon you. But this kind of openness to the demands, or sacred forces, of the situation is precisely a way of those forces being present by having authority over you, not by way of your recognizing them as forces that have authority over you. That will give them a logical structure that makes it impossible to study them positively, by direct apprehension. Instead, you have to let them show themselves as they are in themselves – apophainestai ta phainomena – and that means in this case one must let them show themselves in their hidden-ness.

      I note, briefly, that apophainesthai, the Greek word that means something like “showing forth,” and which Heidegger sees at the root of phenomenology, is often cited as one of the roots for the word “apophatic” in apophatic theology. Most people seem to emphasize the other word, apophanai, as the relevant root. Apophanai means to speak (phanai) against (apo), or to deny or negate. It can often look like “showing forth” is the opposite of denying or negating, so it must seem odd that apophainesthai could be what one has in mind. But if one of the ways the phenomena can show themselves is precisely by withdrawing or hiding, and if it is essential that they show themselves in that way in order to be as they are themselves, then these two notions may in the most fundamental cases come together. I suspect, though I don’t really understand it very well, that this would be the opposite of the kind of “saturated phenomena” that Marion talks about, phenomena that are so overwhelming that they overflow the intentional act. This seems to be on the mystical axis that sees the hidden-ness of divinity in the absence of such an overflowing presence. But it still sees presence and absence as the opposites of one another, and has no space for what Merleau-Ponty calls positive indeterminacy, and what we have been calling the presence by way of being absent or withdrawing.

      One thing this abstract way of talking may cover up is my appreciation for your focus on the everyday cases. But I agree with you that those are precisely the place to look for this kind of phenomenon. That only through committed and skillful action – even masterful action – in the world does one manage to experience the withdrawal of being in the sense one does when the situation comes to have (appropriate) authority over you and guide you to act. I imagine that Pascal recognizes something like this when he says that only through engaging in the relevant rituals will one come to see the world in the way the believer does. Presumably this is a way of recognizing immediately and being drawn by what the world requires, an openness that one achieves only through having cultivated a certain ritual skill that reveals meanings in the world. I’m fascinated, and didn’t know, that van Fraassen writes about the Wager in a way that reflects something like this, and want to look it up. I’ve come across a recent essay by Dan Garber on the Wager, and its aftermath, that seems to me to intend to undermine such a view, and it would be interesting to set them against one another.

      • dmf says:

        Sean, I think that Pascal’s Jansenist deus absconditus is exactly the kind of Biblical mystical/revelatory withdrawing of a Marion-like Presence that you don’t want it to be, which is why I have been suggesting Caputo as an alternative reading of the Augustine-Eckhart-Luther-Kierkegaard-Heidegger-Derrida (and I would add Critchley) genealogy of being-called.
        The only difference that I can see with this line of thinking and ATS is that there will be a Pascalian/Kierkegaardian failure of mastery, as relates to ethics, that will remind us of our all-too-human limits (as Critchley points out in his Levinasian critique of Heidegger/Authenticity).
        Lingis is also vital here.

  4. Charles Blattberg says:

    Start with the Bible.

  5. Britt Z says:

    I’m reading Francois Laruelle’s “Philosophies of Difference: A Critical Introduction to Non-Philosophy.” I have a feeling he’s going to be the next big thing from France. It’s the first careful, well-written critique I’ve read on the likes of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Deleuze, and Derrida, putting Badiou and Zizek to shame. Highly recommended!

  6. I suggest anyone interested (as I am) in fideism, Pascal, and Christian imaginative discourse to read Blanford Parker’s “Triumph of Augustan Poetics.” Though it is a work on 18th Century Poetry, its discussion on the four poles of Christian Imagination, which include a discussion on fideism, Pascal, and poetry. It was and continues to be clarifying for my own thinking about the hidden god and our need to keep hiding him. The rhetoric of mysticism of the kind you suggest is not the background against which Pascal is posing the now hidden god resembles the rhetoric of fideism, though the two have very different histories. Separating the two for discussion is tough and requires care.

    I myself view Herman Melville as a fideist in the tradition of Pascal but only in a “soft” form and only towards the end of his life (see his long poem “Clarel” written in 1876).

  7. Charlie says:

    I think the 64k question is whether this root withdrawal of being/submission/hidden-ness can fairly be construed as revelatory. I thought there was a parallel today reading Rorty on pragmatism overcoming the more fundamental irrationalist label where, citing James: “If this life be not a real fight in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which we may withdraw at will….It feels like a fight.” The view that our culture has not changed beyond the Ages of Faith and Enlightenment but we are having the discussion hangs together for me. When Rorty points to changing lives by having the conversation I think it drops us into the ATS project. (And not having a theory/grounding, to Sean’s point, opens us to apprehend directly.). I think the grand irony is the detractors we discussed in earlier threads, who can not bear calling Federer’s unconscious grace sacred, won’t lure back a non-philosophical, temporal god. The “masterful” distinction in particular was useful for me, as it reflects how something can be both present/active and hidden.

  8. Albert Borgmann says:

    Deus absconditus will be buried more deeply, it looks like. Or so you have to conclude from Wills’s response to Bert and Sean’s letter in the NYRB. Apparently Wills would rather be a philologist and doxographer than a Christian. To the friendly and thought-provoking invitation of ATS to rethink what I took to be his deepest convictions, he responded once and then again with a retreat to the comfort of of textual and historical minutiae. He was provoked, to be sure, but he didn’t show up.

  9. Pingback: NYRB Exchange | All Things Shining

  10. Kelly Dean Jolley says:

    Lord, Your symbols are everywhere,
    yet You are hidden from everywhere.
    Though Your symbol is on hight,
    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!

    St. Ephrem the Syrian

  11. Jacob says:

    The standard “Pascalian” philosopher would have to be Lucien Goldmann, I would suggest his “Le dieu caché ; étude sur la vision tragique dans les Pensées de Pascal et dans le théâtre de Racine”, also available en anglais.

  12. Mark O. says:

    Read Jung’s Red Book… Is God hidden or are the Gods abundant? In a polytheistic reality is not the singular God hidden or only truly perceived relative to the other Gods?? If the Gods co-exist in opposites, then how speareth the great white whale? Jung’s polytheistic Red Book and its “7 Sermons to the Dead” are entirely in rhythm and rhyme with “All Thing’s Shining” in my opinion… and yet Jung stands upon the shoulders of those who have gone before… he draws and credits the Gnostic Basilides… whose works have largely been lost (to date).

    Jung considered Moby Dick THE great American novel… and to my understanding thought that its full meaning was yet to be revealed… circa the life & times of Jung… ending 1961…

    The German speaking Jung was a thorough student of Nietzsche in his life… yet to Jung the God(s) were not dead or hidden…. but abundant. But beware of Abraxas… did you not also write of “change” in All Things Shining? Change is THE guarantee of life… and so we must respect but not worship Abraxas… as Jung experienced the mighty Abraxas upon his break from Freud.

    I recommend reading Jung’s Red Book including the Gnostic 7 Sermons to the Dead… just my opinion… not that it matters… other opinions will differ… one must chose what shines by the light of day (or moonshine) from one’s perspective of the world at is appears at that point in time in which one exists… if that…:)

  13. Mark O. says:

    …also perhaps Jungian… find your soul and you will find the Gods… it is merely one’s soul that remains hidden… the Gods are there… and I suspect Siddartha, Jesus, etc. found their souls at a much younger age than many… well, one might conclude that for most people the soul always remains hidden… because the soul is hidden along the road less traveled

    p.s. THANK YOU for your wonderful gift to humanity… i.e. “All Things Shining”… yet I still seek to avoid “a shiner”:)

  14. Arbie says:

    Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

  15. Maria-Elena says:

    There’s an Islamic hadith that says: “I was a Hidden Treasure and I Loved to be Known, so I created the Universes”.

  16. L. Leavenworth says:

    I have read your article about the notion of the Hidden God. I felt it is important to respond with utmost clarity.
    The human race has questioned God’s existence for aeons. Whether or not, we are still drawn to believe that there is a underlying TRUTH. In our time today it is hard with all the chaos and confusion to determine which theory leads us to the answer. Learn this, each religion are patterns and full of parables of wisdom by observing the reality before us. For example, “It’s raining cat and dogs”, the easiest type of parable, which means it’s raining really hard from a massive storm. So in that case, the Hidden God is very simple. Meaning the Mystery of God. Its just another pattern of information to help us seek the truth of God.

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