Immanuel and the Immigrants: Thoughts on the Absence of God in Western Society

Anyone who’s been reading my recent musings on theology must have noticed how I struggle creatively with the idea of atheism. Especially now that we are at that time of the year that we ponder the birth of Christ whose coming announced divine presence physically, I wonder how God with us, Immanuel, lines up with the widespread experience of God’s absence.

On the one hand, I don’t want to be an atheist as I don’t think it does justice to my experience of the world. On the other hand, I believe that atheists make a very important claim in saying that God doesn’t exist. It has an authentic and honest ring to it.

The Radical Claim of Atheism

Atheism’s claim is indeed a radical one that draws attention to the immense amounts of suffering in the world and exhibits a profound distaste for supernatural, i.e. metaphysical, constructions. Atheists suggest there is no need of a God anymore to do stuff for us, like saving us, giving us eternal life, or providing for our needs (which God seems notoriously bad at, anyway).

Any good theologian wants to take this voice seriously because it addresses a widespread problem in religion in the West. Atheists often claim the non-existence of God, not because they’re so much smarter than believers, but because they think a world with so much suffering in it is a powerful argument against a divine being. It almost seems as if their claim that God doesn’t exist is made on behalf of God; just so God does not have to bear the responsibility of the suffering of the world.

The claim of God’s absence in our culture is therefore of monumental importance. It should not be glossed over. And so in an attempt to integrate my own theology of the cross with atheism I came up with an idea. Perhaps this is precisely how God reveals God’s self today: in absence. All that is left for God to say to us in a world that doesn’t need a god, is to say nothing. Silence. Absence. To the point that the idea of God is pointless.

Divine Absence As Western Phenomenon

But something did not work for me. The Protestant tradition that I take my cues from, insists that God’s revelation means that God is present. Tangibly so. If absence, how presence? If there is revelation, how can its essence be a void? I still couldn’t make that work for myself, conceptually. If God is revealed in absence, I still want to ask: Where is the body?

Then I realized that God is indeed gone from the West. God has been pushed out already long ago, whether it was from a secular Europe or from an all too religious America. Whether it was America’s settler colonialism with its attendant genocide and slavery or Europe’s rapacious colonialism with its attendant destructive idea of cultural progress or the exploitative imperialism of both, no room was found for the God of the Christian faith.

No matter how much this God was enshrined in “Urbi et Orbi,” “God bless the Queen,” or “In God, we trust,” God had left the empires of the West to their own devices of religious expression. The first and second world wars that came in the wake of this departure left a continent shaken as to its own capacity to do unfathomable evil and exposed the failure of a providential God to prevent the extermination of millions of people.

Atheism was a breath of fresh air, willing to name the truth: There is no God. The God, whom we knew in the encounter with Christ, was not present in empires. The sun had set over the West. We finally realized it had become dark. However, as a typical product of a secular age and progeny of a once Christianized culture, atheists spoke only from their limited vantage point and addressed only the demise of their own culture. They understood absence as nonexistence and interpreted the death of God as the last word.

The Immigrant As the Coming of God

The truth, however, is that God is actually trying to return to our Western societies, both to secular Europe with its managerial objectivity and to imperial America with its religious nationalism, cults that both take shelter under the wings of the almighty Mammon, more popularly called capitalism. There they render their services obliquely and invisibly as though capitalism is not a religion. God, however, does not return under a banner of something that is more powerful than the Western superpowers. No weaponry, no money! God comes in weakness.

God comes to us in the form of a pregnant mother at the end of her strength. She comes in a boat, she climbs the fence, she shows up on your Facebook feed and insists you listen to her. She is black and she is brown. She belongs to the downtrodden of the earth who are exploited by the very powers that keep the empires of the West alive.

Immanuel is the undocumented immigrant.

There is not just a metaphorical analogy between Mary and today’s refugee; no, the refugee is the manifestation of the searching God who wants to find that which is irreparably broken and lost. The lost of the earth embody the searching God. The homeless of this earth represent the God who builds a home among the suffering. The analogy is one of being. The Roman Catholic analogia entis is subverted and comes from the bottom up, from the slums and the gutters of this world. Ecce homo! Behold the man, behold your God!

Immanuel, the undocumented immigrant, is the answer to the question that atheism left behind and puts a question to the gods enshrined in Western self-sufficiency and economic hegemony. The undocumented immigrant, the refugee, knocks on our border so as to awaken compassion–essentially a Christocentric mode of existence–in order to help us face our own lostness. The refugee is here to save us from the very instruments by which we have created her.

God in the Margin of Society

At the backside of the prophetic truth of the absence of God, we find that God still wants to be with us. All we need to do is look the undocumented immigrant in the eye, open the gate to our home, and provide a place in our stable. The immigrant is our Immanuel if we’re willing to recognize her for what she is, namely, the enfleshed invitation of God to become otherwise than what we’ve learned to be: those who close the door to the neighbor in a futile attempt at self-preservation.

This is what the theology of the cross is all about: Revelation is not in a book; it is in the encounter with the given God in Christ. We get no more from this God than the self-giving that manifests at the cross on behalf of a world captivated in greed. This kind of God can only come to self-expression in the one place God is welcomed and needed: in the margin, among the wretched of the earth. There is no other God that will ever be given and no other way God will come to us.

We find Immanuel in the eyes of the immigrant.

. . .

Image: “Holy Family” by Kelly Latimore

Josh de Keijzer, Ph.D. Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, USA. Bonhoeffer scholar. Currently living in the Netherlands.

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