Presence…God has to be present in order to influence change. If God were not present – absent – our experience of life would be radically different.
Strangely, presence and absence can be equally difficult to recognize, as sensing what they feel like is also elusive. That makes this an even more difficult reflection.
We cannot always feel the presence of something or someone even when we know they are in close proximity, and predicting what their absence will feel like is nearly impossible. Describing presence and absence requires our awareness to begin with, and then acuity of perception that registers emotional and physical response to that presence or absence.
No one that I know of is constantly aware of God’s presence.
People whose spirituality seems credible to me, trust in God’s presence most of the time but have a sensation of that presence only occasionally – sometimes rarely. Conversely, many of those same people with a pervasive spiritual awareness also describe enduring periods of God’s
absence. Their trust in God allows them to frame such unholy moments as a spiritual tunnel or dark night of the soul, and they believe these experiences to be only momentary and utterly about the deadening of their own receptors rather the suspension of God’s presence.
If God left the scene completely, once and for all, what would life for humans be like? Would it be any different than it is now?
This is where I need to apologize to my friends and family who are atheists. The lens through which I experience life includes the ever-presence of God; I also assume that you experience the benefits of God’s presence without knowing it. So I apologize to atheists because knowing what I know, this may seem condescending or arrogant.
Truly, I do not mean I know something that you don’t, in the usual kind of Christian evangelical way. Rather, I mean it in the sense that radio waves, microwaves, infrared, ultraviolet, and gamma rays surround us without our routine awareness, and that God is present in the field around us as well. The presence of the holy, whether we live in awareness of it or not, influences our experience and alters our capacity for living. This is an experiential leap that changes the field of vision between believers and nonbelievers but it need not include any kind of moral or value judgment.
I mention that distinction because if we say God’s presence is influential and that God’s absence would alter life as we know it, then we have to accept that God’s presence also utterly influences the experience of everyone regardless of his or her personal awareness of God. Those who live life without an awareness of God nonetheless have their experience of life dramatically altered because of God’s presence. If this is true, it is also true that if God fled the scene then everyone’s experience of life would be radically changed – no one, and nothing, would be unaffected.
So what would happen if God left? Whether it was out of anger, frustration, or disinterest, what would change about life as we know it? (I not even certain that God can leave the scene, but that is another ineffable question).
What came to mind for me was J. K. Rowling’s description of “Dementors” in her Harry Potter series. I know it is a hazardous strategy to use an example from fantasy when describing a spiritual reality, but then those who view God and spirituality as fantasy have dismissed this already.
“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles (non-magical people) feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself — soul-less and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life…You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you’ll have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no . . . anything. There’s no chance at all of recovery. You’ll just — exist. As an empty shell. And your soul is gone forever . . . lost.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Life without the presence of God would, I predict but cannot prove, be an empty-feeling existence. I’m not sure whether we would still experience pleasure but I feel certain we would not experience joy.
The absence of God would remove unknown and unforeseen elements in the field around us that would remove warmth generated between people who not only love each other but also are devoted to one another. Like that sappy old movie, “It’s a wonderful life,” there is no way for us to know or predict all of the consequences to existence if the pervasive presence of God was suddenly removed.
We may not feel God at any given moment. We may not perceive the presence of God in the field around us. But I suspect that if God was truly absent we would be sunken, sullen creatures gnawing on scraps and clinging to existence with survival the only purpose and meaning. We all know supremely narcissistic people; now imagine if that were the only kind of people that existed? Perhaps that is the best image for what happens if God walks away.
Yes, the consequences of human evil are with us everywhere – probably no more so today than yesterday but current technology is inflating our awareness of it and the actual hazards of it. The presence of God does not take away death, mayhem, or human evil and yet the pervasive influence of God’s presence in our midst makes possible both hope and our step by step remediation of evil.