The Presence in the Absence

Since I’ve started the topic of mystical knowledge of God, I thought to repost this from 2010. I was reminded of it by a wonderful reflection by Jan Bear on OCN  – an enjoyable read.

There is a strange aspect to the presence of God in the world around us. That aspect is His apparent absence. I read with fascination (because I am no philosopher, much less a scientist) the discussions surrounding “intelligent design” and the like. I gather that everybody agrees that the universe is just marvelous and wonderfully put together (I can’t think of a better universe). But then begins the parting of ways as one sees God everywhere and another sees Him nowhere. Reason surely need not deny Him, though reason does not seem forced to acknowledge Him. I have spent most of my life around these arguments – one place or another. I can stand in either place and see both presence and absence.

But as the years have gone by, I have come to see something I never saw before – the Presence within the Absence. I don’t mean to sound too mystical here – only that I see in the hiddenness of God a revelation of His love. The Creator of us all draws us towards Himself and knowledge of Him, with hints and intimations, with seen and yet unseen signs.

The strange deniability that He leaves us is the space in which love is born. Love cannot be forced, cannot be demanded. It must come as gift, born of a willingness to give. To give God trust that what I see is indeed evidence of the wisdom in which He made all things is also a space – one which God fills with Himself and the echo, the Yes, that the universe shouts back to us.

It is where I grow weary of the arguments – not because they need not be made – but because it becomes hard to hear the silence in the noise of our own voices – a silence that invites us to hear the sound of the voice of God that rumbles all around us.

There’s more to say – but not now.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





42 responses to “The Presence in the Absence”

  1. […] Christianity☦Nothing But Orthodoxy☦ var pulltime = 'Thu, 19 Apr 2012 14:49:25 +0000';1) The Presence in the Absence fatherstephen on […]

  2. David Dickens Avatar

    There’s a phrase from St Nikolai’s prayers about how we are like fish in the water, so surrounded by God that we cannot see Him. That in some sense we need Him to pull away from us in order that we may be able to see Him. I don’t know if that thought is along the same lines as your post, but such an absence does create an awareness of His presence. At least, this is where I come to rest.

  3. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Another beautiful post, right down to the misty photo and the last sentence. Well done, sir.

  4. sergieyes Avatar

    Father bless! Dear in Christ Fr.Stephen, I respectfully touch your feet. How is this post,in any sense, different from Apophatic Theology? The latter means,basically, the fact that God is so different that every term applied is flat WRONG. For example,if we all agree, as I suppose many do, that God is Love, in Apophatic theology, that is so wrong that it is just as well to say that God is Hate. Meaning not that we are a sect that worships the negative, but God never fits our small nomenclature and our small intellects.
    I mean no disrespect and I have followed the thread “Crying Stones” with very great absorption. Therefore I wish to understand, how has the Church read “The Presence in the Absence.”” Left to my own devices,i would read into it the Shunyata of the Buddhists (Shunyata indicates the putative “Void” of Buddhism), or the
    Brahmajyoti of Hinduism (Brahmajyoti indicates Great Light). No,I will not ride upon these heresies (splintered visions): please let us know in some sense about the Church’s reading.
    Robb thurston

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Apophatic theology is among the most common approaches used in the writing of many of the Church fathers. So, this is not different. The “Void” of Buddhism is, significantly different, I think.

    First off, my sense of “absence” is purely “my sense.” God is clearly everywhere present and filling all things, including my private sense of emptiness. My posting suggests nothing more than that we not run from such a sense (many American Christians run from one “experience” to another as though they were following God). There are many things to be learned by staying put and paying attention even to the “absence.”

    The Desert Fathers say: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

    As to the matter of the meaning of Apophatic theology – yes, it is true that since God is utterly transcendent, that our words fail. Though, even though our word “love” cannot possibly capture what we mean by “God is love,” it is clear that it is not a matter of indifference to say “God is hate.” Words do have meaning and content, even if God transcends them.

    It is also true that the God who cannot be known, makes Himself known in Christ Jesus, the God/Man. Thus the meaning of the word love is (accurately) Christ God.

  6. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    If God is ultimately beyond being, and transcends every concept and word so that He can best be “understood” by way of discerning what He is not, then how exactly is man in His image and likeness?

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    First, it should be recognized that human beings have a transcendent quality (appropriate to our status as creatures). We, too, must be approached “fearfully and wonderfully,” for that is how we are made. We are far too reductionist when it comes to each other. The Elder Sophrony (The Priestmonk Sophrony Sakharov) of St. John’s in Essex, of blessed memory, wrote a great deal about the nature of personhood. He was an Athonite trained elder, a disciple of St. Silouan. His treatment of personhood is very much in a transcendental direction. Reading him has kept me from speaking too easily about such categories as person.

    We can know the transcendent God because He makes Himself known to us, most especially in the person of Jesus Christ, the God/Man. But this does not really become clear until Christ. The muslim understanding of Allah, from what I’ve read, does not seem to have anything we would call “personal” about it. It is Christ alone who reveals the personhood of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

    It is in Christ that we come to know the personhood of God. We know the Father only through the Son, and the Spirit does not speak of the things concerning Himself but only of the Son. Thus it is the person of Christ that makes the entire concept of person (and its reality) known. It is not by analogy to human persons, either. The concept of humans as persons doesn’t arise until the articulations within Christian theology.

  8. sergieyes Avatar

    “The muslim understanding of Allah, from what I’ve read, does not seem to have anything we would call “personal” about it. ” This is a very accurate statement. The teachers in the Muslim Universities in Asia, whom I questioned concerning a personal God, stated their doctrine is that Allah is impersonal. Thus akin to Buddhism and some sects of Hindus.

  9. Andrew Avatar

    Sergieyes, if I may.

    The Lord himself says, simply, that whose who seek shall find (M 7:7) and those who do unto the least of his, do so to him (M 25:34-40). I leave you with this little quote from the Orient:

    We are in the mulk (lit: kingdom) of Sulayman, which the evil ones denied, and even turned into blasphemy, But we can ignore blasphemy, ridicule and contempt, for we are on the threshold of Realities, and a little perfume from the garden of the Holy One has already gladdened our nostrils.

    (Abdullah Yusuf Ali, 1934)

  10. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    “Holy One” indeed. Islam is the dark, twisted twin of our faith.

    Where we teach God is communion, it teaches God is solitary.

    Where we teach love of enemies, it teaches hatred of enemies.

    Where we teach dying for God, it teaches killing for God.

    Where we teach that God is person, it teaches that God is beyond personality.

    Where we teach that God has come among men, it teaches that God is utterly transcendent.

    Where we teach tender mercy, it teaches harsh justice.

    Where we teach that God calls us to be His children, it teaches that God calls us to be His slaves.

    Where we teach the mysticism of marriage, it teaches the mysticism of sadomasochism.

    Where we teach that holiness comes from loving submission, it teaches that holiness comes from abject servitude.

    Where we teach the Spirit, it teaches the letter.

    Where we teach peace, it teaches war.

    Where we teach God as the reasonable Logos, it teaches God as crafty trickster.

    Where we teach God is love, it teaches that God is

    Where we teach a God who is dependable, it teaches a God that is capricious and arbitrary.

    Where we teach that God hates death, it teaches that God takes pleasure in punishment.

    And on and on I could go.

    I believe that Mohammad was visited by an angel. But it sure wasn’t the glorious and wonderful Gabriel. It was the Other Guy.

    Pray for our brothers who live in lands dominated by this scourge.

    As Saint John Damascene wrote, Islam is a “people-deceiving cult … the forerunner of the Antichrist … idolators and worshipers of the morning star.”

    It is telling that Mary is pictured in Revelation standing with the moon, that ultimate symbol of Islam, beneath her feet.

  11. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    “Thus akin to Buddhism and some sects of Hindus.”

    Speaking of Buddhism, I just learned that we Orthodox and Catholics honor Buddha as a saint.

    This is fitting. Buddhism stands head and shoulders above the other pagan cults by virtue of its ethical excellence. Many of the Buddha’s teachings are quite similar to those of Christ, though they hardly suit his bleak metaphysics and cosmology.

  12. sergieyes Avatar

    I am very glad Philip Jude has presented his statement. The Eastern Roman Empire, as well as the Orthodoxy present a target which has received many filthy aspersions in the West,first from Catholics, then Protestants and the Enlightenment. I lived in Asia and experienced Islamic culture,and am always aware that Orthodoxy was severely maligned in the West. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Having presented the Ishmaelites (Muslims),
    the forum may be open to specifics. Many thanks.

  13. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    A very interesting article on contact between (Nestorian) Christianity and Buddhism in 6-8th century China.

    “The Holy One of great wisdom is equal to pure emptiness itself and cannot be taken into view,” wrote Alopen, the most famous missionary. Relevant to this post, no?

    I have long been interested in this clash of cultures. The what-if’s make me dizzy. Imagine if Christianity had gained a foothold in east Asia?

    Always surprised that the so called “Jesus Sutras,” the works of Alopen and other Nestorian missionaries to China, aren’t of more interest in the west, especially in this ecumenical age.

  14. Karen Avatar

    PJ, this is indeed the impression I get from much of Islamic practice and teaching as well. Yet, let us not forget that our brothers and sisters in Islam are also made in God’s image and may still hear that still small Voice speaking in their hearts what is true (even through those snippets of truth hidden in their own writings). Islam also has a mystical sect that is much different than the militant version we are used to seeing everywhere now, and it seems to me there are true insights (with which the Christian could very much agree) in such writings as those by the poet, Rumi, for instance. I mention these things because, generally speaking, if we are wanting to reach others with the truth of Christ, usually it is more fruitful to build a relationship starting with common ground. (I am talking about individual interpersonal relationships with neighbors here–not nation to nation diplomacy, although I believe there to be the potential for fruitful applications of this principle there as well.)

    A curious thing I have noticed, however, is that those Christians with whom I am acquainted who are the most adamant about emphasizing the aspect of Islam your comment highlights (and please understand I accept your comment as largely true) are also among those who would also make a point to emphasize the “justice” (in the Penal Substitution sense) of the Christian God–to the point that Who they understand God to be seems to my Orthodox sensibilities in some respects to be more akin to what Muslims understand by “Allah” than the God I see revealed in the face of Christ in the Gospels and in the Liturgy of the Orthodox Church! I only know you from your comments here, so take my observation for what it’s worth. The others I know who fall into this category are relatives I know well.

  15. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    Wise observations. I have said that truly reformed (that is, Calvinistic) theology is often more Islamic than Christian. This goes way beyond a certain theory of the atonement: think Calvinism’s resistance to sacraments, icons and statues, high ecclesiology, and so on. It seems deeply uncomfortable with the incarnation in more ways than one. Then there’s its voluntarism, its emphasis on the will of God, which they inherited from William of Ockham and Duns Scotus, who inherited it in turn from the Muslims of Andalusia, particularly Averroes.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    To all,
    Just a note as “moderator.” The comments on Glory to God for All Things are open primarily for conversation about the post or conversations within those conversations. It is not a forum where someone may suggest a topic for others to discuss. There are such forums but this is not one (though it is one of the most-read Orthodox blogs). Part of the success of Glory to God is the character of this format. I keep it generally safe for those who have questions or observations – including those whose questions and observations may not have yet had much contact with Orthodoxy. Thus I’m less concerned to fix everybody’s statements so long as they adhere to a standard of kindness, meekness and generosity that I want to characterize our conversations. Of course, it’s a “private” blog, in the sense that it belongs to me, and that I alone post and moderate the conversation, and even get the last word. 🙂

    I do this as an Orthodox priest, with the blessing of my Metropolitan and my bishop. I see the blog as a safe place for us all. I first started it with a realization that almost everywhere I ventured I found argument and occasional bullying.

    I mention all this as the conversation has turned, in its course, to topics of other religions. I do not wish this site to be a place to blast Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism for their errors. There are places that do that very well and I’ll let that be their ministry. I do not try to do everything that is possible or everything that is necessary on Glory to God – only those things God has called me to do.

    I would respectfully request that the conversation drop the problems of other religions, Christ alone is the Truth, enough said.

    It’s a possible topic – but not the topic at hand or one that I wish to moderate.

  17. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    “Islam also has a mystical sect that is much different than the militant version we are used to seeing everywhere now, and it seems to me there are true insights (with which the Christian could very much agree) in such writings as those by the poet, Rumi, for instance.”

    These mystics tend to be Sufis. My theory is that they are the spiritual children of those eastern, specifically Syriac Christians — the Syriac Christians were great mystics (Isaac, Ephraim, etc.) — who converted to Islam but could not abandon a strong sense of a loving God. Their devotion to saints, their communal meals (resembling the agape ‘love feasts,’ which persisted into the sixth and seventh centuries), and their firm commitment to Jesus strengthen this suspicion.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    Philip Jude and Karen,
    Someone quoted Fr. Thomas Hopko as saying that Sola Scriptura was derived from Islam and that he could demonstrate it (academically) but I’ve never had the chance to question him personally on the topic. My reasoning on it is much the same as your’s Philip Jude’s. It would not surprise me that facing Muslim arguments that used Sola Scriptura, Western apologists would adopt a similar position viz. the Christian Scriptures without realizing they were giving away the farm.

  19. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Indeed. Islam places an enormous emphasis on the integrity of the Quran. This is why they are so confused by and dismissive of the New Testament. A certain amount of discrepancy is inherent to the very structure of Christian Scripture, seeing as how it contains four Gospels, one of which is mystagogical/theological. it would make sense that Christians theologians felt pressured to hold themselves to the Islamic standard in order to maintain the validity of their truth claims. Especially at the height of Muslim encroachment. Intriguing theory.

  20. Andrew Avatar

    PJ et al. if I may:

    On another note, I believe Mother Theresa exememplary treatment of adherents to other faiths is worth reflecting upon, as is Pope Benedict’s pontifical message to Hindus on the feast of Diwali.

    I am sure the good Lord will be equally generous to the Hindus and the Muslims when he makes his pronouncement from the dread judgement seat.

    The dividing lines do get blurred in heaven (but not apparently, in hell).

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am uncomfortable with the Pope’s ecumenism, it seems to go further than I would, as generous and kind as I would want to be. I could not, for instance, bid someone well on a pagan feast day, though I would have no difficulties bidding someone Jewish well on their feasts (they are in a far different position). There is an ecumenism (spoken of particularly by St. Justin Popovich of Serbia) within secular Europe that is a religious manifestation of increasing secularization. Were I am Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Jew, I would fear such ecumenism as much as should any Orthodox Christian.

  22. Andrew Avatar

    Father, if I may:

    Who knows for instance, whether the massacre of Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim innocents in the Balkans could have been averted, had the pure words of the blessed Patriarch Pavel, been allowed to eclipse the eloquent bubbling stream that was Milosevic?

    I do not believe we may reduce such an initiative to a secular -ism, particularly as it emanated from the Bishop of Rome.

    I apologise in advance if anything in the above offends!

  23. easton Avatar

    forgive my ignorance, but jews do not believe christ is the son of god…why are they excused, if everything begins and ends with christ?

  24. Karen Avatar

    All, thank you for the comments. I don’t know when I would have time, but it would be interesting to research the historic connections and apparent “cross pollination” between the various expressions of Christian and Muslim faith. My observation is the Puritan and Calvinist-influenced worship spaces of some Protestants are even more stark (and impersonal–if that is possible) than those of Muslims, which at least tend to have domes reminiscent of Orthodox temples and rich and ornate decoration, providing a sometimes quite exquisite abstract beauty.

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    Easton, out of respect for the fact that their feasts were established by God. I believe Christ is the fulfillment and essential meaning of those feasts (which they would not believe, of course), but I would and do hold those feasts in respect.

  26. sergieyes Avatar

    Our Orthodox religion is older than 2,000 years by a great deal. Jesus Christ, the Angel of the Lord,is all over the Septuagint Bible, as is the Theotokos. Protestant Old Testaments are somewhat abridged in the number of books they present, and also many passages are shifted to lessen the impact of our God Jesus Christ.Masoretic manuscripts were edited at the Jewish Council of Jamnia when the Pharisees established their canon-rules of what was in the Bible, conduct, etc.

  27. Brian Avatar

    For what it’s worth, I once had occasion to visit a Jewish Synagogue. It was not at all what I expected. The Scriptures readings, the singing, the liturgy – all testified to Christ so incredibly clearly. I felt as though I could have showed them an icon or read a few words from the Gospel, and they would have recognized their Messiah.

  28. Andrew Avatar

    Yes Father, that’s a good point. Interestingly, there is at least one ancientyet still living tradition in rabbinical Judaism that does acknowledge Jesus the son.

    For one reason or another, Judaism has largely left it up to the individual to work out the identity of their messiah. This has led to some interesting theories about what role such a figure might play in world history.

    Nonetheless, God’s magificient plan for the salvation of all, rolls on relentlessly. The inner witness was irrepressible. To use your earlier metaphor, the purchaser of the farm made an offer too good to refuse!

  29. sergieyes Avatar

    “Karen Says: April 21, 2012 at 3:30 pm
    All, thank you for the comments. I don’t know when I would have time, but it would be interesting to research the historic connections and apparent “cross pollination” between the various expressions of Christian and Muslim faith. ”
    See: Armstrong, Karen (1993). A History of God. Ballatine Books. ISBN 0345384563.. Youtube videos has some programs featuring Karen Armstrong.

  30. Karen Avatar

    Thanks, Sergieyes.

  31. Andrew Avatar

    Tres magnificique.

  32. sergieyes Avatar

    “Andrew Says: …, there is at least one ancient yet still living tradition in rabbinical Judaism that does acknowledge Jesus the son.”
    Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a very Orthodox Jew is a descendant of Orthodox Jewish masters,and maintains there is a place within the Mercy of Adonai for the Incarnation and God/Man. Basically, in his tradition, there is an unbridgeable gulf between pagans and Jews such that Jews will forever and irredeemably be endangered by the guilt experienced by pagans. America was established under Jesus’will, by Christian refugees who made a firewall of separation between Church and State and this provided a city of refuge for Jews. Thus America and Jesus are righteous in his estimation. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May those who love You (God) be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.” – Psalm 122:6-7.

  33. Andrew Avatar

    Thank you Sergieyes.

  34. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    “See: Armstrong, Karen (1993). A History of God. Ballatine Books. ISBN 0345384563.. Youtube videos has some programs featuring Karen Armstrong.”

    This is a terrible book, I’m afraid to say. Armstrong is a liberal modernist, a member of the Jesus Seminar. She betrayed her religious vows. Her works on Islam are laughable. Anyone who takes Scripture with a modicum of seriousness is a “fundamentalist” to her eye. Do not waste your money.

  35. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Philip Jude,

    Glad you’re feeling better! (wink)

  36. sergieyes Avatar

    “Philip Jude Says: This (History of God)) is a terrible book, I’m afraid to say.etc.” Rabbi Lapin also has a darkness. Thus we can understand why the honorable Fr. Stephen is hesitant to ally himself with Pope Benedict XVI’s oecumenism. Herein lie dragons.
    “Father Stephen Says:
    Andrew,I am uncomfortable with the Pope’s ecumenism, it seems to go further than I would…”

  37. Andrew Avatar

    Sergieyes if I may:

    The overriding theme of Mrs Armstrong’s message — that the Abrahamic monotheistic faiths are unified in their common comprehension of compassion is entirely consistent with Jesus’ rendition of the last (incarnational) judgment (Mt 25:34-45). There is much to ponder in her work.

    On the other hand, it would be to our own benefit if we could ultimately display at least one iota of the saving graces outlined by PBXVI in Deus caritas est.

  38. markbasil Avatar

    Christ is risen!

    Dear Andrew;
    many years ago I found Ms. Armstrong’s book on my uncle’s bookshelf. I started reading it and found it so disturbing, so threatenning to my (still intellectually young) Christian faith that I could not continue.
    I think it’s a book to be *very* careful with.
    That said, your bringing it up has inspired me to read it again. I expect there will be nuggets of truth and petit insights around the margins– I expect there is no light to be found in her “overarching thesis.”

    The only holy unity is in Christ. Yes He is the way, truth, and light. Yes practitioners of other religions and atheists too certianly experience and manifest goodness (common to our godlike nature and hunger for communion). However this is different from what I believe Ms. Armstrong is suggesting.
    I do not think she has Christian unity in mind.
    All of humanity was united in the tower of Babel as well.

    Perhas we can have a private conversation about this book, when I do get to reading it (warning: I’m a slow reader!).
    please email me if you’re interested at: man or they [all one word] at gmail dot com.

    -Mark Basil

    (PS my uncle who owned the book has fallen away from Christian Orthodoxy- now something of a suffering deist)

  39. fatherstephen Avatar

    I agree with Mark Basil’s take on the book. I would not encourage anyone to spend money on it. There’s no particularly new information, just a thesis which is hopeful, “Can’t we just get along?” Which, though noble, is not accurate with regard to the faiths she addresses. Christianity does not view itself as an “Abrahamic” faith, nor, for that matter, does Judaism (they would more accurately be described as ‘Mosaic’). Only Islam uses the notion of “Abrahamic,” but that was particularly an effort at early proselyting efforts towards Judaism, that quickly went sour. B’hai also claims Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and a lot of other religious figures – which does not make them Abrahamic in the least. They, too, believe in compassion. The heart of Christianity is Christ, and we are compassionate for very Christic reasons. But we do not trade in Christ for compassion. As well-intentioned as Ms. Armstrong’s work may be, it only has a market in a secular world where religious differences are already seen as silly. In that sense, I find her work profoundly disrespectful of Christian understanding. As a Christian I would say, “In obedience to the commandments of Christ, let’s not kill each other.” To that I can be faithful. What a Jew or a Muslim might do is up to them – of that I will be respectful, praying that what they do does not include killing each other or us. It is deeply debateable whether Christianity and Islam share the same God. Of this, I am more than doubtful. I would expect a Muslim to be doubtful of the Trinity as well. But, there is no God but the Trinity, one in essence and undivided.

  40. Andrew Avatar

    Father / Mark Basil,

    Thank you for comments, much appreciated — In truth, I have to admit that I have not read any of Karen Armstrong’s books. The little I have read or followed (in the visual media) I have found to be not in the least bit offensive.

    On the other hand, she claims that she has been the target of much hate mail (one letter even included excrement).

    This, to me, outweighed all theological arguments.

    Indeed He is Risen!

  41. Karen Avatar

    Yes, I put Karen Armstrong in the same category as Elaine Pagels.

    Father, do you have any other sources to recommend for looking at the historical developments under discussion in this thread?

  42. fatherstephen Avatar

    Pagels and Armstrong – that works for me. I’ve not come up with any good ones. What I know is by putting together bits and pieces from a variety of sources. The topic is out there but one single source is hard to find.

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