An Invitation to the Space of God’s Hiddenness
The question of God’s hiddenness is simultaneously the question of God’s presence—not only of where but also of how God shows God’s self. And, this question of presence is a question of not only how God shows God’s self but indeed if God shows God’s self. In Marius Timmann Mjaaland’s The Hidden God: Luther, Philosophy and Political Theology, he offers a careful phenomenological reading of what happens in the event of God’s hiddenness, with special reference to the textuality of Luther’s thought. Beyond his close reading of Luther, Mjaaland also offers a genealogy of the hidden God in modern philosophical and political thought. In so doing, Mjaaland delves into the space where the hidden God transgresses its theological space into the space where the hidden God holds the power to restructure “the world as it appears to ‘us’” (44). This might sound extravagant for some, but for those who read Luther in one hand and the poststructuralists in the other, it sounds right on cue. The artistry of this work, in particular, lies in its ability to go deeply into the conceptual trace of the hidden God in modern political and social thought, beyond the surface of the simple exposition of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation. This helps show what happens in the spacing of the hidden God, how it affects thought and reorders the world.
In his 1973 article, “To the Unknown God: Luther and Calvin on the Hiddenness of God,” the reformed theologian B. A. Gerrish articulated the two forms of God’s hiddenness in Luther. The first form is explicated in theses 20 and 21 of the Heidelberg Disputation, in which Luther argues that God reveals God’s self in the suffering of the cross rather than the pomp and circumstances of glory. Mjaaland joins many commentators in noting the power of this form of the Deus Absconditus, and the evocative “transvaluation of values” that it puts into motion. But there is a second form of God’s Hiddenness. The second form of God’s Hiddenness is primarily laid out in Luther’s De Servo Arbitrio (“Bondage of the Will”), in Luther’s debate with Erasmus. From The Bondage of the Will, Luther writes, “God does many things that God does not disclose in God’s word; God wills many things that God does not disclose God’s self as willing in God’s word” (Luther, 140). In this second form of God’s hiddenness, God remains hidden beyond God’s revelation, or more precisely, hidden beyond human attempts to comprehend God’s self. Mjaaland correctly points out that many interpreters of God’s hiddenness simply disregard this sense of God’s Hiddenness; Mjaaland quotes Jüngel’s claim that this sense of the Deus Absconditus is “irrelevant” (13–14). Gerrish himself claims that it is an “embarrassment” to many a theologian. An important contribution of The Hidden God addresses this very point—Mjaaland offers an astute philosophical reading of this second form of God’s hiddenness, which bears great fruit for readers of Luther. This second form of God’s hiddenness, that God lies beyond human thought (and thus domestication), is a trace of the deconstruction of the human logos that attempts to know God and know God fully. While Luther’s assertion that God reveals God’s self in weakness challenges the logos of the marketplace, Luther’s claim that God hides beyond God’s revelation challenges the logos of the dominant metaphysics of his time. Mjaaland writes that “the criticism of metaphysics is an effort at redefining the concept of reality, and in that respect it is itself metaphysical” (44). In a detailed reading of these moves within Luther’s own thought, Mjaaland boldly articulates the theological and political significance of the hidden God for today’s world.
Before summarizing the responses from our four distinguished theologians, I want to be explicit about the liberationist possibilities of Mjaaland’s work. This work is valuable in what it offers those of us who are interested in the questions of political and cultural representation. Although some might dismiss “representation” as nothing more than a buzzword, or see it thrown around casually online, the idea of representation is crucial to the ways in which cultural and political narratives shape the ways in which we inhabit and live-into the world. So often the dominant narratives we hear are those that are produced only by those who have the means to do so. And so it becomes vitally important to lift up perspectives or voices of those who inhabit the margins of our society, and to hear—to really hear—those voices that transgress the status quo. Time and time again Mjaaland writes that the hidden God “opens up [discursive] space” that challenges the dominant narratives of self and society. These are the very dominant narratives that condition and silence the lives of “the other,” that deny them representation. It is my hope, then, that The Hidden God might be seen as a resource that opens up space for the other.
Dr. Robert Saler commences our symposium with questions about the materiality of Mjaaland’s discourse in the Hidden God. Saler insightfully asks, “To what extent is Mjaaland’s Luther embodied and not simply textual?” By way of answering this question, Saler explores two fundamental issues of Mjaaland’s work. First, Saler asks about the embodied social and political dimensions of God’s hiddenness. As Saler reminds us, Derrida’s poststructuralist analysis often concretely addressed structures of power and justice, especially later in his career. Turning to Mjaaland, then, Saler asks about the embodied dimensions of The Hidden God. Second, Saler addresses Mjaaland’s articulation of the “pre-theological space” in The Hidden God, which raises fundamental questions about the task of theology. On Mjaaland’s framing of theology in the Hidden God, how are we to understand the logos of a God who subverts the category of logos itself?
Mjaaland helpfully shows that Luther’s framing of the hidden God opens up grammatological space into question of metaphysics, and thereby provides a space for self-criticism. Looking at the allure of “fundamentalism” and the scope of its grip of modern day Protestantism, Dr. Martinson asks where this critical space went in the history of Protestant thought. Martinson helpfully writes, “The Lutheran and protestant traditions have in themselves often turned into sheer sectarian fundamentalist traditions.” The question, then, becomes about the material consequences about the space that is opened up by the hiddenness of God. In particular, Martinson wonders about the anthropological dimensions of this critical space. What material difference does différence make?
Dr. Kirsi Stjerna provides a helpful overview of Mjaaland’s The Hidden God. In her essay, Stjerna underlines the political nature of Luther’s theology and reads The Hidden God as a commendation of Luther’s political theology. What might be more helpful in Stjerna’s essay, in my reading, is her own appraisal of the core of The Hidden God. She writes:
Mjaaland leads readers of Luther into the deep waters of metaphysical thought that promises to demolish the confessionally-built dams and inspires truth-seeking that goes beyond the often stifling church language and Luther-slogans. Many of them have become too “comfortable,” which has caused us to become too complacent to understand truly their deeper meaning. (my italics)
I, too, found Mjaaland’s deconstructive analysis to be an important component of his argument. So often, we become “too comfortable” in our communities and churches that we fail to apprehend the transgressive nature of Luther’s articulation of the gospel. Stjerna continues with a recommendation that Mjaaland’s work ought to pay more attention to the contextual dimensions of both Martin Luther and those with whom Mjaaland converses in The Hidden God. Finally, Stjerna suggests that Mjaaland engage with the work of feminist theologians, many of whose articulations and readings of Luther dovetail with Mjaaland’s own work.
Jayne Svenungsson concludes the symposium with the suggestion that The Hidden God or something very much like it is the book Derrida would have written about Luther—a significant endorsement in itself. She believes, however, that The Hidden God represents how the early Derrida would have read Luther, in contrast to the late Derrida. The early Derrida was far more interested in the spatial rather than the temporal. The late Derrida, on the other hand, awaited the justice à venir, the justice that is “to come,” which is registered temporally. A reading of Luther that is more attuned to the temporal dimensions of Derrida’s thought, Svenungsson argues, would have more to say about the question of human subjectivity. Although Mjaaland touches upon this issue, Svenungsson would have liked to see it developed to connect human subjectivity “to a different imaginary register,” away from “the economy of death” and toward “life, hope, and promise.”
Gerrish, B. A. “‘To the Unknown God’: Luther and Calvin on the Hiddenness of God.” Journal of Religion 53.3 (1973) 263–92.
Luther, Martin. Bondage of the Will. Luther’s Works 33. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972.