The purpose of this symposium is to explore the profound mystery of God's presence and absence. It arises from a core concern of the John Templeton Foundation—the possibility of learning more about "a God who would be known but dwells as non-being beyond the realm of our conception." Our approach is through the perspectives of two major religious traditions, the Indian and the Christian. In both traditions, people believe they derive "spiritual information" from God, and yet they know perfectly well that God is not present with them in the immediate sense that humans are present to each other. But how can God be both absent (if, as it is often put, God is not an object like a universe, still less an object in a universe) and yet also present (often with the physical closeness of a human lover)?
The conundrum lies at the very heart of Indian and Christian ways of worship. For example, viraha bhakti ("absence devotion") and apophatic theology are supremely important in their respective traditions. Both have produced prayer and poetry of the highest order, as they articulate (rather than solve) the epistemological problem of how to recognize that which can never satisfy the ordinary demands for perceptual evidence but requires "spiritual sight." In India, Jains and Buddhists, in their emergence and continuing history, have drawn attention to the absence of God with entirely different consequences. Indeed, the importance of spiritual truth informing (i.e. forming in human lives in such a way that those lives are transformed) has been, and still is, paramount for all religions. But much of that spiritual information comes from a resource or resources that are not open to immediate observation. How, then, can it be genuinely informative—or at least informative in a way that those outside the traditions can assess and take seriously? Are there insights to be gained from natural and behavioral sciences that will help us to understand this profoundly important
part of the human spiritual quest? How extensive is this sense of absence among human beings, and how important is it in the human search for spiritual and
Thirteen theologians, scholars in religious studies, philosophers, and scientists are gathered at Trinity College, Cambridge, under the aegis of the Templeton Foundation, to consider absence as an invitation. Amongst some Christians, that invitation has been interpreted as a call to come, through contemplation or action, further and deeper into God's presence—to seek Christ in the Eucharist and look for Him, as one contemporary theologian writes, "in other places of brokenness" throughout the world. Or, in a Hindu context, it is an invitation to think more intensely about the paradox of experiencing a world without God, even turned away from God, while at the same time remembering God's gracious intent to be nearby—to rediscover God where God seems not to be. Amongst some scientists, the invitation has been read as a challenge to push further and deeper into the universe itself. The perspectives of the symposium participants differ but their shared conviction is that we can learn something from the varied ways in which people in both science and religion have engaged with the hidden and the open.