Enduring Divine Absence: The Challenge of Modern Atheism – A Review

In this slender volume, Joseph Minich (Ph.D. student at the University of Dallas) attempts to answer some of the deepest questions of human existence. With his honesty, his probing questioning, his wide reading, and his ability to plunge beneath superficial answers, he provides a helpful source of reflection for fellow pilgrims. He admits he has not “arrived,” and admits he still struggles with issues of faith, doubt, and disbelief. But there is hope here—for those who take the time to work through Minich’s patient analysis.

Minich steers clear of trite answers. On the contrary, Minich takes a leisurely stroll through a wide range of philosophical, theological, and cultural questions, all to get at the questions behind The Question, and the assumptions behind The Assumption. Which question and which assumption? Whether God exists, and That God does not exist.

In Enduring Absence: The Challenge of Modern Atheism, Minich addresses the “problem of the temptation of atheism” (1). He does not attempt to prove theism true, or to confute atheism absolutely. Rather, he is most interested in “why those who are not atheists can still nevertheless understand why it is that atheism might be plausible to someone” (1).

Minich recounts how the questions of a young lady, heard on the radio, hit him in the gut. The young lady was attending a Jr. High atheist/agnostic camp and asked why God didn’t just reveal himself daily from heaven, to remove all doubts of his existence. Minich, a seminary student at the time, was jarred and deeply affected. He suspects that many of us are actually deeply troubled by this question as well. He asks, “why does divine absence bother us precisely in relationship to this question (of God’s existence)?” (3).

Sometimes the pain from the troubles and crises of our life do sometime seem to scream in deafening silence. We wonder whether God hears us. Minich wants to be like the Psalmist (think of Psalm 88!) and “give utterance” to belief God is most difficult. But he doesn’t stop there. He probes deeply into the underlying reasons about why this seems to be a uniquely modern problem.

He points out that people in the past took it more or less for granted that God existed, despite their existential pain or personal struggles. Here he relies on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. What is it about the modern, secular age, that makes the “temptation of atheism” so palpable for many, if not most, of us?

For me, this is a profoundly personal question. I taught for many years in a large and widely-respected classical Christian school. Many of our students graduated with a robust and vibrant faith. However, many—far too many—left our halls and the veneer of Christianity behind them. Despite being exposed to some of the greatest thinkers of the Christian tradition, despite having years of Bible classes and Bible verse memorization, these students still felt the pull of disbelief more strongly. Perhaps not many were actually atheists, but for too many the Christian faith was simply irrelevant to their lives. Divine absence was their reality. They were practically agnostic. Reading Minich’s extended essay helped me to understand my students a little better.

The book has three main sections. First, in “Modernity and Divine Absence,” Minich address the “basic phenomenon,” which is the issue of “presence” in the modern era. Philosophers like Steiner, Scruton, and Taylor have dwelt on this topic, but Minich notes an unmistakable “fragility” about the whole enterprise, whether explicitly Christian or not (11).

As he explains: “But there is a sense in the modern discussions that ‘at stake’ are whole systems, and this means that not only is the center vulnerable, but the whole structure can feel like a delicate house of cards wherein the foundational card is not so much protected by all the cards around it as rendered exponentially more vulnerable for having so many areas of exposure” (11).

Minich illustrates the phenomenon of “divine absence” in films like Higher Ground, The Grey, and Melancholia. But these aren’t just depressing—they exemplify the “aesthetic and existential appeal” of modern atheism (14). To see the pointless nature of existence, and to still see a harsh and terrible beauty in the universe requires “honesty and bravery” (15). Minich wants us to appreciate the aesthetic appeal of such a vision. In his reading, this is “more than just the shallow stereotype of ‘being able to do whatever I want’” (15). Modern atheism’s “fundamental ethic, at its best, is one of honesty and a commitment to affirm life in the most basic fashion” (15-16). John Lennon’s classic song, Imagine, is a perfect example. Minich points out that this “a-religion is itself irreducibly religious in sentiment” (16).

Many people believe that atheism is the correct interpretation and go about their merry way (19). On the other hand, many believers tend to dismiss the aesthetic power of atheism and simply reduce “all of these atheist temptations and conversions to a problem of the mind or of the will” (21). Minich details several limitations of this view, and then lays the groundwork for an alternative to atheism.

The middle section, “The Silencing of God,” is a succinct, yet substantive, treatment of the intricacies of metaphysics, causality, and the philosophical considerations at play in discussions about the existence of God. Minich does a good job at identifying the key philosophical issues involved, and is clearly well read on these topics.

The average reader may find their head swimming at times—due to the heady nature of the material and the deep conversation Minich maintains with multiple philosophers and thinkers. But, the trek is worth it, and Minch closes with some real gems in this section.

Minich’s main point is that atheism can seem persuasive, even to believers, “because our tacit sense of reality has been shaped (though not entirely so, and this is important) by modern technological culture” (25).

Although some have suggested that the rise of unbelief is tied to modern man’s increasing ability to predict natural phenomena, Minich suggests a further explanation of the tectonic shift that has resulted in the growth (and aesthetic appeal) of unbelief. In his view, “the real key to the progressive change and sense of things that has shifted in the West in the last 500 years is a change in the human ability to control these alleged agencies, rather than just to predict them” (52).

Minich then argues that the development of modern technology has had a “causal effect on the plausibility of materialism” (53). This case is persuasive, and deserves careful reading by everyone on both sides of this issue. This is, as he states, the “hinge” of his entire argument:

The modern technological order tacitly communicates to us, day in and day out, that reality (the sort that actually concerns us), belongs to the order of the manipulable, that it is subject, in principle, to human agency (57).

Because of this totally dominate technological order, we have a natural disposition to thinking as materialists. In other words, “Inasmuch, then, as materiality is practically that ‘as which’ we perceive the real, it is natural for us to feel as though anything else is superfluous,” (58).

Because many of us also live in wealthy and developed nations, we are suffused in a reality that is air-conditioned, controlled, and awash in materiality:

To put it bluntly, the world is a “world for me.” I do not find myself in a big, mysterious world suffused with agencies to which I am subject and around which I must learn to navigate. I find myself in a world almost entirely tool-i-fied, a world of my own subjective agency before an increasingly silent cosmos. And a silent cosmos echoes no ultimate Speaker (59-60).

But Minich also insists that this technologically-mediated reality is common to us all—to both “metaphysicians and materialists.” So, because we both have this shared background, he asks how talking about this more explicitly might move the debate forward (62).

The fourth section (“Seeking, Finding, and Being Found”) presents the challenge—and the opportunity—for Christian believers in the midst of this technocratic and materialistic milieu. Minich proposes that the key is intentionally remembering God, as exemplified in the Psalms, where the writer struggles in the midst of his circumstances, and his culture, to remember God and his faithfulness (66-67). Further, “This kind of remembering is an act of will” (67).

Minich helpfully compares this to lust and sexual attraction. Most of us struggle, at some level, to resist our sexual attractions and urges. As we do this intentionally, our desires are shaped, and virtuous habits are formed and strengthened. We remember what God made us for, and what he is calling us to be. In many ways, this is similar to the struggle that many face with the difficulties of belief.

Minich lays out three “spheres of activity” where this struggle to remember takes place. First, in the realms of our own intellects, we must (more than in the past, perhaps) rehearse and remind ourselves of why we believe what we believe. Secondly, we must remember the importance of the local church in this process. Minich urges his readers not to abandon the church, but to remember that God uses other people to minister to us. Thirdly, Minich commends the spiritual disciplines. Although our minds may be more susceptible to doubt, our bodily rhythms, practices and liturgies form us at the deepest levels and “actually reorients our more tacit sensibility” (71).

Minich also proposes three “acts of remembrance” to aid and guide us in this journey:

First, God is actus purus or pure act.

Second, God is pro me, or for me, in Christ.

Third, human beings, made in God’s image, are guilty of sin before God (72).

Minich’s explication of these three points is profound, helpful, and worth the price of the book. As a Christian, Minich ultimately presents Jesus Christ as the Answer:

Christ is the presence of God to answer all divine absence. “Where are you? Where are you? Where are you? The answer to this is a cross, a resurrection, a Spirit, forgiven sins, renewed life, and real eternal hope. No person has an answer to the problem of evil. But only the Christian message has a definitive answer to what the problem is not (77).

Minich’s final section (“Concluding Reflections”) contains many helpful points. One of the most helpful relates to the dynamic of “presence” and “absence.” He traces this theme in Scripture, and notes the pattern of God himself drawing near, and then suddenly becoming “absent” to his people. “Absence” makes “presence” more meaningful. We can all relate to this on a human level—the absence of a spouse or loved one makes our reunion that much more glorious.

On the level of ultimate reality, it appears that this is part of God’s ultimate designs for reality:

God desires His contingent creatures to know this. And so He does not just create beatitude, but history—a history which involves a dialectic of comings and goings, presences and absences, our failures and His successes, precisely so that we will develop and be cultivated into the sorts of people He has made us to be (89).

To end this review, besides highly recommending this book, it is fitting to let Minich have the final word:

And indeed, when we listen to creation and we listen to God’s speech in Scripture, it is discovered that we are not ultimately the seeker, but that we are being sought, that we can answer back, that He has stirred an unrest in us which opens up all of reality in its plenitude and beauty, and which, despite tragedy, is most fundamentally good (93).

Gregory Soderberg is Academic Dean at LAMP Seminary RDU, a Proctor with the BibleMesh Institute, and a Ph.D. candidate in historical theology at the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam.