God Behind the Veil
I was sitting expectantly in the doctor's office, waiting for the results of some tests. I had convinced myself that there was nothing wrong. At worst, it was a hernia; at best, a pulled muscle. The doctor finally entered, and he gave me the news: "I am sorry to tell you, we have found a large mass by your right kidney, and it looks cancerous."
My stomach sank, my world spun, and I cried out to Jesus. Some further tests determined that I had a rare and deadly cancer for which there is no known treatment.
As a husband, a father of two young children, and a theologian, the news confronted me with the fact that life would change drastically. What would it be like for my kids to grow up without their dad? How would my wife handle all of this? Why would God allow this to happen to me, and where was God in the midst of this turmoil? As Christians, we all feel the gravity of life bearing down, and we all meet with trying circumstances that force such questions upon us.
Questions about God's presence—and apparent absence—hearken back to what Christians have traditionally called God's transcendence and immanence. Or, to use more biblical language, his apparent "veiled-ness" and "unveiled-ness."
Theologian G. R. Lewis writes of God's transcendence and immanence this way:
As transcendent, God is uniquely other than everything in creation. God's distinctness from the being of the world has been implied in . . . discussions of God's attributes metaphysically, intellectually, ethically, emotionally, and existentially. God is "hidden" relationally because [he is] so great in all these other ways. God's being is eternal, the world's temporal. God's knowledge is total, human knowledge incomplete.
Lewis explains God's "otherness" through a series of comparisons between the finite (human history and humans in general) and the infinite (God's eternal nature and interior life). In other words, what we humans are not, God is. In his infinite life, God is above and beyond all that we are as finite beings.
Near and Far
But if God is transcendent—if his ways are unknowably above our own—how can we know him? Within the Christian tradition, several voices have spoken to this dilemma. A medieval Roman Catholic theologian, William of Ockham (1285–1349), is known for positing a "dualism" in God. By this, he meant that there are two ways to think of God and his presence among us. Ockham argued that God behaves one way in his "transcendent" life and another way in his "immanent" life (his activity in human history, primarily through the Incarnation). If God seems remote and secretive, that's because he can act differently "way above yonder" than how he acts in revealing himself in Christ.
The problem with Ockham's perspective is that it severs God's transcendent life from his immanent life. As a result, Jesus Christ might not seem like the same God who has always lived in eternity. Dualistic thinking dissolves any necessary relation between the "veiled" God and the "unveiled" God in Christ. This introduces an element of anxiety for those who seek to know God: If God's revelation in Christ does not truly represent God's eternal nature, then sending Christ could have been an arbitrary gesture. God might well have reached out to humanity in a very different manner—or not reached out to humanity at all. And at any point in the future, he might act in an infinite number of unpredictable ways. If God's activity in revealed time doesn't reflect his eternal nature, we cannot be sure of Jesus' words to doubting Thomas: "If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him" (John 14:7).