In his book, Eclipse of God, Martin Buber points out that a solar eclipse is something that concerns the relation of our eyes to the Sun, rather than a movement or changing of the Sun itself. Although an eclipse appears to impact the Sun, in fact it has no influence on it at all. Seen from the perspective of Earth, a solar eclipse is caused by the Moon moving between the Earth and the Sun and therefore blocking all or some of the Sun from Earth’s view. Similarly, an “eclipse of God” occurs not because God moves away from our sight, but rather because objects, ideas, and idols insert themselves into our viewpoint, obscuring our capacity to view God in all his fullness.
We now understand that after a short period of time the Sun reappears at the end of an eclipse, as the Moon moves out of its path. But our understanding has not always been this advanced. Primitive beliefs viewed an eclipse as an apocalyptic event. As the darkness came upon the people in the middle of the day, and as they saw the Sun disappearing and felt the cold breezes starting to surround them, their limited understanding caused them to believe that the Sun had died and the world was ending. Although this is an inaccurate scientific interpretation of a solar eclipse, there is metaphorical significance in suggesting that a world that has lost connection to its radiant Sun (God) is a world that is ending, and that it is a dark and precarious place.
The eclipse (or concealment of God) is therefore a powerful twenty- first-century metaphor because it explains so much about the struggle we face to know God. The eminent philosopher Charles Taylor talks about the secular West as being trapped in what he calls “the immanent frame”— meaning that we find ourselves enclosed (framed) within a view of the world that locks out the possibility of transcendence. Our awareness of God is therefore obscured and eclipsed, and we find ourselves cut off from the enchanted, theistic, sacramental worldview that has been lost in the last 500 years or so.
The process by which we arrived at this unfortunate state has been considerably analyzed by some of our greatest thinkers.4 In summary, it is the net result of the confluence of cultural and intellectual forces that have been growing for the last 500 or so years and have snowballed in the middle to late twentieth century.5 Rather than pointing creation toward their Source, a host of influences, including ideologies, events, idols, and people, are in fact obscuring a culture’s awareness and perception of God.
And this fading of God from human consciousness has been catastrophic. Benjamin Mann, a one-time atheist, now a Catholic priest, laments:
God’s eclipse means the loss of an infinite horizon, and its replacement with a purely finite sphere: in which our freedom has no higher goal or reference point, principled values are indistinct from mere preferences, and technical ability becomes the criterion of truth.
Man was never meant to live in such a world; he cannot make sense of it, or make sense of himself within it. Yet this—despite the persistent personal faith of a great many individuals—is the kind of world in which we increasingly live our common life.
The crisis of the modern world is not primarily its moral disorientation— which is serious, but largely symptomatic. Nor is it the loss of specific, traditional religious faith—which is also alarming, but is really one part of a greater whole. The crisis of the modern world is the “eclipse of God.”
The issue is not just a loss of traditional religious faith and a declining church but a more profound loss of our whole sense of transcendence, our spiritual instincts, and our consciousness of the divine. It is a growing blindness and deafness to the Eternal, and we find ourselves tragically limited to the horizon of this finite world, such that we “no longer grasp the ‘transcendent’ character of [our] ‘existence as man.’” People (both in the church and out of it) increasingly lack the plausibility structures to make sense of faith in God, or their place in the world. Seminal British missiologist John V. Taylor names those who reduce every vertical to a horizontal, all language to the literal meaning of words, and all relation with God to a relation with others, as “contemporary flat earthers.”
This loss of a sense of the divine can be traced to numerous cultural forces prevalent in our day, such as:
- the ever-present secularism as a dominant worldview that eliminates religious expression (Charles Taylor’s “immanent frame”)
- the philosophical atheism that has dominated the arts and science over the last 120 years
- the specializing tendencies of scientific methods that reduce a total vision in order to study the parts
- the rampant materialism that has very effectively supplanted the role of religion
- the anti-religious bias of psychology and the social sciences
- the pervasiveness of capitalism and the associated market forces that inevitably reduce people to economic units of consumption
- the domination of depersonalizing technique and data, and
- the polarizing political propaganda that we are subjected to every day.
It’s no wonder people can’t seem to find God—so many things have moved in to obscure our vision.
As a result of the coalition of these and other forces, we now see the world as an object to be categorized and consumed—a significant move away from the premodern perception, which considered the world to be the realm of the sacred. In many ways, it is this shift in perspective that has destroyed the opportunity for intimacy with an eternal, ever-present God. God is still here (he never moved); it is we who have lost our sense of spiritual attunement. God is revealing himself to us but our senses are blunted, and we no longer have the eyes to see him. God is speaking to us but we have lost the ears to hear him and lack the language to respond. When an animal can only hear certain ranges of sound, or a person is color blind, it is not that the sound or the color is absent, but that there is an inability to perceive. So it is with the silence and speech of God: we can no longer “see” (recognize) or “hear” (respond to) God. We have little in terms of common language or concept within which to frame a true knowledge of God. The real problem at this moment in history is that God is “disappearing” from the human horizon. Consequently, the light that comes from him is dimming, and humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly destructive effects.