Ed Farley and the Present/Absent God

Ed Farley made it hard to rest easy with a simplistic faith in God. He embodied for me the phrase “God is God, and I am not.” He also made it hard to rest easy with a simplistic unbelief in God. He wrote in his book, “Divine Empathy: A Theology of God:”

“The task of setting forth the way God arises into belief-ful conviction faces the same problem that confronts any and all language that would concern itself with God. Every available term sounds too strong. One hesitates to claim ‘knowledge’ of God or ‘experience’ of God. One hesitates to say that God is simply ‘present’ or that a ‘revelation’ of God has taken place…To say God is present only reminds us that God is ever absent…To say that we experience or know God only reminds us of the vast difference between what we in fact do experience and know and the way we relate to God.”

Dr. Farley introduced me to the poet Wendell Berry, whom he quoted frequently, including this prayer/poem:

“That we do not know you

is your perfection

and our hope. The darkness

keeps us near you.”

Ed Farley is not often lumped together with those who are called “Reformed” theologians, but he was consummately Reformed in the way he absolutely refused to allow God to be minimized or contained in any doctrine (including Reformed doctrine) or ideology, no matter how popular. The reality of God is a problem for faith and for people of faith, because the subject continually slips our grasp and will not allow us to capture God, but only be captured (Dr. Farley would say “founded”) by God.

This refusal included the doctrines and ideologies that inform what Farley called “genuine atheism.” He wrote, “An act of denial, rejection, or the withholding of belief is never merely general or contentless. Like belief it requires a referent. Here the atheist is in the same situation as the believer.”

God simply is. In the end, believers and unbelievers are in the same boat regarding the God who simply is. They cannot capture this God. They cannot dismiss this God. They can only approximate in both their beliefs and their rejections the God who will forever elude.

Dr. Farley’s teaching opened a world to me, and in my current Doctor of Ministry studies I find myself coming back to his work again and again. He has enriched my ministry and given me language for my own experience of the God to whom I long to keep near.

I think Dr. Farley was in many ways ahead of his time. One of the best things that can be said about him in the public arena is that none of the so-called “new atheists” ever deign to deal with his work. If they ever did, their straw-man arguments and inadequate images of God would be exposed as the secular idols they are. Farley didn’t mind exposing idols – his, mine, the church’s, the nation’s, and yes, the atheists.

He also sang bass in his Presbyterian church choir for decades, was a favorite high school Sunday school teacher, and a committed participant in the ministries of his congregation and his presbytery. The fact he knew he would never know all of God there was to know did not stop him from faithfully acknowledging God’s continually “coming forth as God” (another of his frequent lines) to him. It seems he knew it is only when the idols are cleared away that the human heart is ready to welcome the God who comes to us.

Dr. Farley died on Saturday. May he experience what Paul proclaimed, “Then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

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