The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery

Bob Bates —

friedman_bookOne of the most provocative books I’ve read that deals with religion is Richard Elliot Friedman’s The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery (1995). Subsequent editions of the book are entitled The Hidden Face of God. Friedman is a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature, holding multiple degrees, and is currently Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia. In this book, his vast and specific knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament (OT), is displayed impressively, but wholly in a positive fashion. By this I mean he is exclusively selective in drawing from the divinely righteous, grand, and noble aspects of Yahweh, the Hebrew deity of the OT. In doing so, he ignores any mention of Yahweh’s darker, wrathful side, which is well documented in the OT’s passages that depict Yahweh as commanding and directing the savagely ruthless slaughters of men, women, and children, with no mercy whatsoever, and the burning of cities and destruction of livestock and crops.

I attribute descriptions and depictions of Yahweh as coming from the “writers” of OT scripture in their attempts to express understandings of their relationship to their God and other peoples and their place in the world. Friedman’s expressed perspective, at least in this book, works only with the black and white literal scriptural presentation of God. Whether or not he accepts this OT God as the genuine Creator of the universe, he does not say, though it is abundantly clear he attributes creation and its wonders to a God. On half a dozen occasions or so throughout the book, he does use phraseology that offers options to his reader like “Take this as literal, take it as metaphor or myth, but take it to contemplate seriously for its implications.”

Friedman’s undeviating focus is on tracing the diminishing presence in scripture of God (Yahweh) from beginning to end of the OT. He then continues to note how the New Testament God—presumably the same God, but now interpreted differently by non-Jews—also tends to fade in prominence following the Resurrection when, in effect, Jesus has taken on the role of God as man on earth. With Jesus’s ascension, his disciples and subsequent believers then carry on with their understanding of what God and Jesus as divine beings are all about. Extending history into the late second millennium, Friedman calls this long span the “first mystery”—one of three in Friedman’s scheme—the “hiding of the face of God.”

Friedman repetitively emphasizes that as one sequentially follows the entirety of Biblical Scripture, what occurs is a gradual but very discernible “dis-appearance” of God’s presence and influence. In effect, God has “hidden his face” from humankind. What Friedman terms the divine-human balance has shifted from an effectively total God in the beginning and early books of the OT, to a moderately diminishing deity, and finally in the last four books of the OT to a remarkable absence, with humans having asserted their independence in ways that tend to not need God in the living of their lives. Friedman asserts that after the immediacy of the time of Jesus, especially with the organizational structure and institutionalization of the Church from the second to fourth centuries and thereafter, the balance becomes essentially overwhelmingly tipped toward humans operating as if they had full control and responsibility for their lives, with God relegated to a past age.

Friedman’s “second mystery” is expressed in nineteenth century philosopher-writer Friedrich Nietzsche’s terminology of the late 1800s as “the death of God.” This phrase is meant to cite the religious and moral decline of Western Civilization by the nineteenth century, essentially due to the widespread absence of an influence of God in society, which Nietzsche sees as resulting in moral “chaos” in which “all is permitted” (that is, ambiguity of moral standards such that there are seemingly no limits to immorality).

Nietzsche also terms this as “madness” and strongly states that the legacy of this era is insecurity, fear, moral characterological rootlessness, and deep spiritual crisis because now “humans are left on their own, responsible for their own fate” and are badly floundering. For Friedman, this point demonstrates the total shift of God-to-man imbalance; in effect, his main theme of gradual to complete disappearance of God in conjunction with humans becoming more assertive toward, challenging of, and eventually independent from God’s initial OT presence and authoritative commandments.

Friedman’s “third mystery” consists of and delivers the potential solution to this universal crisis, hopefully resolving the split from God’s presence. He calls this section of his book “Big Bang and Kabbalah,” recognizing both as mysteries in themselves, but with unique and relevant commonalities that offer hope for healing the progressively broken, spiritually purposeful elements of creation.

Kabbalah is the ancient Jewish tradition of mysticism that uses esoteric methods, including ciphers, to interpret the Bible. To Friedman, cosmological discoveries about the matter, energy, and dynamics of the universe and mystical features of the Kabbalah suggest realities that open the cosmic door for humans to step through and experientially grasp profound implications about the cosmos and God. He presents the basics of Kabbalah in its twelfth-to-current century elements and spiritual principles as merging into recent astrophysical insights that view the Big Bang as representing “God” as First Cause in the processes of an inexplicably-created universe unfolding into the entire cosmos. To science, the Big Bang was a breaking of an initial Unity, exploding into energies and particles that have evolved over 13.8 billion years into our present universe. To Kabbalists, this “shattering of God’s unity” is precisely what represents the ultimate challenge to humanity: through human actions we must to work toward healing our broken world, to make it whole once more. Within this context, Friedman sees Kabbalah, science, and Biblical lessons dating back to Genesis as harmonious. Inherent in all this are knowledge and lessons that can and should be applied to reestablish in our minds, hearts, and lives the vibrant, living God and within this grand whole a recognition of opportunities to work toward healing our spiritual and physical worlds in our own time.

Friedman’s final eight words concluding his book are “the universe is the hidden face of God.” And crucially, in light of this, in our present time, if we are to begin to heal our broken world, we must regain—and ingrain—our sense of genuine awe for the created universe.

Albert Einstein said, “The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought … the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” Cosmologist Alan Sandage—a colleague of Edwin Hubble who, in 1929 scientifically established that the universe is expanding—added, “The world is incredible! Just the fact that we are here, that the atoms of our bodies were once part of stars! They say I’m on some sort of a religious quest, looking for God, but God Is the way it’s put together.” It is scientific fact that the atoms that formed from the Big Bang eventually formed the millions of billions of stars in the universe, and that debris from the destructive implosions of stars spread to other regions of the universe, some of which formed the composition of planet Earth as well as our human bodies. Astrophysicists have observed that “we are stardust.” Friedman would say we are divine stardust!

This viewpoint establishes that we are intimately integrated with the very composition of the universe. In this vein, the astrophysics principle of “entanglement” expresses the scientific reality that once a relationship is mutually shared, it exists into perpetuity—an eternal bond of sorts! Thus, as science writer Timothy Ferris observes, in terms of such quantum physics realities “we are … unavoidably entangled in that which we study,” including all of the world and life around us.

Friedman notes that this is “closest to the point I am developing here,” and further cites Ferris in his posing of the question of “why does science work?” Ferris conjectures, “Perhaps it is because our brains [and minds] evolved through the workings of natural law that they somehow resonate with natural law.” Physicist Paul Davies also asks, “Does the spectacular progress of our science … point to a deep and meaningful resonance between the human mind and the underlying organization of the natural world?”

Friedman observes, “What both Big Bang and Kabbalah tell us is that, whatever has been going on in the universe since the explosion of origin, it is not just out there in the distance; it is here in us.” Friedman continues, “Since there is a residue of divine manifestation in each human, the deeds which we perform play a crucial part in the cosmos … [that] has implications for the destiny of the world … [as well as implying] the possibility of a reunion with God.”

To tie together Friedman’s three mysteries, I wrote in the margin of my copy on p. 256: So, within three earth millennia, humans’ sensitivity to our cosmic resonance connection has produced in our consciousness the awareness and need to apply our full capacities as human beings acting in combination with scientific positive potential to actively and literally transform the whole of our shared earth.

This is what physicist and esteemed systems theorist Ervin Laszlo’s book Quantum Shift in the Global Brain: How the New Scientific Reality Can Change Us and Our World (2008) is all about. Such an awareness and attitude contains the potential solution to the crises presented in Friedman’s second mystery, a genuine motivation and basis for all of us to take concerted, committed actions in harmony with the divine resonances of the universe. This would, indeed, be a living cosmic morality.

To mirror Friedman, in his emphasizing crucial points—take it literally or take it metaphorically, but take it to heart—the universe has given us the precious gift of life, and this universe is the face of God.

It must be candidly emphasized that we do not live our lives just for ourselves. The foregoing content surely points to the deeper reality that we, in awe of and in reverence for the created universe of which we are an integral functioning part, must recognize and act upon daily opportunities to express our responsibility to bit-by-bit transform our wounded world back toward its originally intended divine unity. What an urgently needed, timely legacy our efforts could be for future generations.

4 thoughts on “The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery

  1. Thanks for this! The book sounds interesting and thought-provoking. I’m adding both Friedman’s and Laszlo’s books to my list. I’m assuming you’ve also read Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God”. It’s been a while since I read that, but I remember the same theme of God starting out as a walk-among-us physical presence and evolving into the distant non-physical, maybe-even-non-“being” that we think of today.

    Another very old book that focuses more on the evolution of the human brain (and what it can perceive and process with that brain) than specifically on how humanity perceived God is Julian Jaynes’ “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” I don’t know how the science in that book (written in the late 1970s, if I recall) has stood up against the advances in neurology since it was written, but my guess is that the picture it paints of humanity’s evolving consciousness is still a fascinating one.

    Finally, have you checked out David Bentley Hart’s “The Experience of God”? I found it to be a deeply satisfying exploration of the thoroughly modern and thoroughly ancient immanent and transcendent ground of all being. That is, a “god’ that does not require us to imagine any appearance at all.

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  2. Glad you found the piece stimulating, Karen.

    In 2005 I started exploring the relationship(s) between science & religion. There are many solid books readily available on this fascinating topic, as you are probably well aware. Jaynes was courageous in nudging orthodoxy in several fields. The lasting question for me is From what source was this seemingly independently functioning right brain receiving communications? Once the corpus callosum bridged the hemispheres, the messages became a rarity, as left-brain cognition emerged (oversimplification).

    Karen Armstrong is a welcome contributor to the wider religious field, though at times (in her shorter books) I feel she occasionally tends to gloss over needed depth & extended detail. As a systems theorist of close to a half-century, Laszlo has arrived at a “theory of everything” that is fascinating, as it is grounded in the most advanced findings ranging from macro astrophysics to micro quantum physics. Starting in the ’70s, increasingly writers offered perceptions of the unity permeating the cosmos, discerning that since ancient times people have been tuned into such deeper realities and contemporary science is uncovering commonalities. Such views are crucial for us now to become aware of, as the state of life & interrelated & interdependent systems on our shared planet are in dire straits on many fronts. Friedman addresses this continuum.

    As to a functional identity of God, see Ron Berger’s summary/review of “America’s Four Gods.” The ways in which different people describe & attempt to define God prompt more questions than answers. The concepts of Creation and deity are ineffable & unknowable; nonetheless, we live in the same natural realities. It sounds like David Bentley Hart’s book deals with this. The crucial issue remains a very personalized one: How will we choose to live our lives?


  3. Follow-up question for you, Karen (or anybody). Would you say that neither “consciousness” (in its deepest meaning), or “mind,” or “God” are defineable? Some say that none of these exists without the human brain, that all stems from the wiring & complex interactions within the brain.


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