The Unseen Presence
Advanced technology has permitted astronomers to record for the first time the impact of comet fragments on the planet Jupiter. At the cosmic level, astronomers also have been able to observe supernovae (exploding stars), pulsars, quasars and galaxies as well as gamma, x-ray, light and radio-wave radiation from the far reaches of the universe. At the submicroscopic level, physicists can observe the presence and action of single molecules, atoms, and even subatomic particles and radiation.
However, much of our universe cannot be observed. At the cosmic level, “dark matter” constitutes over 90 percent of the universe. Yet, while astronomers can confidently confirm its presence and actions, it cannot be seen. Moreover, at the submicroscopic level, scientists recognize the presence and roles of what are called “virtual particles.” These include “gluons,” which exchange between quarks in the nuclei of atoms; “virtual photons” or particles of light, which exchange between atomic nuclei and orbiting electrons; and “gravitons,” which exchange between every material body in the universe. Not only are scientists unable to observe virtual particles; they also are unable to see the “quantum vacuum” from which they arise. Yet, through their presence and action, virtual particles make possible the continued existence and relationship of all observable material objects. Without this unobservable “virtual reality,” neither the universe nor we could exist or be seen.
Our universe is a marvelous metaphor for the presence of the Risen Christ. While Christ is now unseen, we know that he is risen and present. Furthermore, we know that his presence is the precondition for our emerging humanity and for the truly human world that he has promised.
The Assurance of God’s Presence
The Old Testament records the story of Moses’ tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro, in the wilderness of Sinai (Exodus 3: 1 – 4:17). One day Moses turned aside to see a bush that, while on fire, was not consumed. As he neared the burning bush, the voice of the unseen Yahweh addressed him and, in the course of their conversation, disclosed his names. In the original Hebrew, one of his names was declared to be simply “I Shall Be There.”1 Yahweh is there. Though unseen, Yahweh is the God who is present.
In the subsequent history of Judaism, the prophets declared that Yahweh was there — that he was present. Then, in the fullness of time, Yahweh disclosed his presence as the incarnate Christ (Matthew 1:23; Galatians 4:4). As Jesus of Nazareth, he walked the dusty trails of Palestine as an itinerant Jewish peasant philosopher and healer. Everyone who wished could see and hear him. However, the establishment were enraged by the radical egalitarian (human equality) nature of his life and teachings. In their predatory fury they rejected his presence and put him to death. But the grave could not hold him. Christ is risen! And in accordance with his promise, he is present to all the world — to all mankind (male and female).
Although now we cannot see him, we can know that Christ is with us always (Matthew 28:20). The continued survival of humanity in the face of the vagaries of nature and the predatory drives of instinctual beings testifies to his protective presence. The universal human awareness of transcendent (God-related) reality and the universal self-consciousness2 of mankind also are striking evidences that the risen One is with us.
The Purpose of God’s Presence
Man is a predatory animal. He lives in a predatory world that is governed by predatory instincts and drives.3 Man cannot deliver himself from predation, nor can he fundamentally change his predatory world. Only the Creator can do this. Christ therefore longs to transform our predatory world into a truly human world. He longs to transform our animal race into a fully human race — a race governed in freedom and loving commitment, with universal responsibility and meaning.
With this goal foremost, Christ’s unseen presence is with us. This presence is no predatory “immediacy” (absorbing the “other” or being absorbed by the “other”) to deprive humans of their identity, individuality and freedom. Rather, Christ’s presence is an “intermediatorial”4 presence. That is, it mediates man’s existential world5 of human relationships — with God, with the world, with each other, and with ourselves. This presence provides a creative counterweight to man’s predatory instincts and drives. It gives man the opportunity to respond by freely choosing and accepting a new world of human personhood.
The Unseen Presence
If the risen Christ is present to transform the world and man into his own likeness, why is he unseen? This question has long frustrated mankind and led to bizarre answers. However, there are cogent reasons for the Risen Christ’s unobservable presence with mankind:
1. If the Risen Christ were now to “return” by being visibly present as the incarnate historical Jesus, he again would be relentlessly pursued, rejected and destroyed by the predatory establishment.
2. If the Risen Christ were now to “return” by being observably present as a glorified presence, he would unavoidably be regarded as a great aggressor and predator.6 Because of man’s inherent predatory/prey nature, Christ would merely provoke feigned submission and surrender without mankind’s transformation to a transcendent humanity.
3. The continued intervention of the Risen Christ in human history must be consistent with the creative emergence of equality, freedom and responsibility. Therefore, the nature of his presence must not be construed as either intimidation or imposition.
4. The Risen One already has taken the historical initiative by granting all mankind the awareness of transcendence and by conferring self-consciousness on all humanity.7 In order to preserve human freedom and responsibility, Christ now invites man’s response to his offer of true, transcendent personhood. If mankind wishes to occupy 2,000 years in exploring all imaginable predatory religious options — such as possessing the “other,” being absorbed by the “other,” or achieving autonomous (self-contained) “freedom” from the “other”8 — so be it. The ultimate failure of such efforts will only make the truly human solution more enduring.
5. Just as human personhood itself cannot be commanded, so its creative initiation cannot be commanded. Personhood can exist only where there is a free response of decision, action, responsibility and commitment. Its emergence must therefore exclude both the preemptive and the premature appearance of the Risen Christ, for predatory man would inescapably view such a glorious appearing as dominating command. Thus, personhood must emerge unconsciously through the unseen presence of the One whom Viktor Frankl called “the unconscious God.”9
6. The presence of the unseen Christ is essential to restore mankind’s awareness of Christ’s historic message as well as his Person. The historical Jesus of Nazareth did not focus attention on himself. He focused on his mission. That mission was to anticipate a radical egalitarianism (human equality) through proclamation (word) and demonstration (life). Tragically, soon after his resurrection and ascension, the Proclaimer became the Proclaimed.10 The proclamations of the historical Jesus on human equality and freedom were lost in speculation on his exalted Person and position. Even the apostle Paul declared that he no longer knew “Christ after the flesh” (2 Corinthians 5:16). The transcendent, egalitarian truths of Christ’s life and teachings were quickly abandoned for renewed domestication (subjugation) and predation (domination).11 James sought to establish the hierarchical priority of an institutional church in Jerusalem as a sect of Judaism. The early church fathers sought to ally Christianity with the hierarchical philosophy of Platonism and Neoplatonism. The later church fathers sought to consolidate the aggressive supremacy of Christianity in the imperial courts of the Roman Empire. Within 300 years of his resurrection, the humanity that the historical Jesus exemplified had been domesticated and consumed by predatory institutions that proceeded to slander and libel every principle he had sought to create and foster. Now, nearly 2,000 years later, predatory Christianity stands exposed as the total negation of the Risen One.
Though unseen, the Risen Christ has been and remains present with all mankind. His presence is not one of predatory “animal” possession (“God in us”) or being possessed (“us in God”). It does not involve the mystical divinization of man, in which one supposedly achieves autonomous (self-contained) “freedom” from the “other.” No, in the “human” dimension Christ mediates his presence with us in history. That is, he reaches us through our neighbors. We reach him through each other. We reach each other and our own objective selves through him. This “intermediatorial” presence involves Christ’s mediation of preparatory “human” will, faith, trust, hope and love to mankind.
If man is to become and remain free, the mediatorial presence of the Risen One must not be intrusive, invasive, preemptive or overpowering. If Christ is to create human personhood — which cannot be commanded but must be free to decide and act responsibly — then it is essential for his presence to be unobtrusive. At this time, therefore, Christ’s unseen presence is most appropriate.
The present global crisis is the result of the forced estrangement of the risen and transcendent Christ from the radical human equality that he historically espoused. In place of this truth, mankind has erected — ostensibly in Christ’s name — predatory institutions and programs. Then, in order to achieve a hollow and fictitious autonomy (self-contained existence), man has proceeded to divorce himself from his entire “existential world” — a relational world that only exists in the presence of oneself, the earthly environment, others, and God. Thus the advancing collapse of civilization.
In this crisis the one who ages ago was known by the name, “I Shall Be There,” is indeed here. Though unseen, he is the God who is present. He now invites mankind’s unconditional faith. Let us respond in faith, hope and self-giving love, as we anticipate the disclosure of his visible presence — his Parousia12 — in glory. “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:21).
- See Martin Buber, “The Eclipse of God,” in Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, eds., The Great Ideas Today: 1967 (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1967), p. 339. (go back)
- See T. J. J. Altizer, “Replies: The Self-Realization of Death,” chap. 6 in R. P. Scharlemann, ed., Theology at the End of the Century (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1990), p. 131: “Now nothing is more important in that history than the historical advent of self-consciousness, a self-consciousness that apparently did not actually or fully exist until the advent of Christianity.” (go back)
- See “Mankind Between Two Worlds,” Outlook (Prequel 1994.8). (go back)
- See “The End of Human Alienation,” Outlook (Prequel 1994.7). (go back)
- The term “existential world” literally means “world in the face of God” or “world in God’s presence.” (go back)
- For example, see Revelation 14:14-20. (go back)
- See Altizer, “Replies.” (go back)
- See “End of Human Alienation.” (go back)
- See Viktor E. Frankl, The Unconscious God: Psychotherapy and Theology (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975). (go back)
- See Orlando Patterson, Freedom, vol. 1, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1991). (go back)
- See “Mankind Between Two Worlds.” (go back)
- The Greek word parousia, translated, means both “presence” and “coming.” See Wikipedia — The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Parousia,” at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parousia: “Parousia . . . is an ancient Greek word meaning presence, arrival, or official visit.” (go back)
This article was originally published October 1994 under the Quest imprint.