Friday, December 02, 2005

Some Thoughts on Divine Suffering

Theology historically has wrestled with how to talk about God and suffering. This is not so much a question of theodicy: how can a good God allow suffering and evil? I mean the questions surrounding God, the cross, and the ongoing relation between God and the world.

The question can be put succinctly: does God suffer?

(First off, let me say that I have no doubt there are many better versed in the history of this debate than myself, and they have doubtlessly sorted through the issues better than I will. Nevertheless, onwards I plunge.)

The traditional answer in the earliest church tended to affirm divine apatheia, (a Greek word from which we get 'apathy', an association which might be counterproductive in this case) the idea that God does not suffer. This was because the nature of divinity is such as to be untouched by such vagaries of our mundane life. Or to put it another way: suffering is proper to that which is finite or incomplete -- one suffers with an injury, or a loss, or a frustration; one does not suffer with health or wholeness or satisfaction. And God is perfectly healthy, whole, and complete in God's self,and therefore free from suffering.

The question arises, then: did not the Son suffer when Jesus died on the cross? Or is the suffering of Jesus only apparent and not actual (the heresy ofdocetism)? Or did the Son hold Jesus at arm's length in his death, so that the hypostatic union was only apparent and not actual? Or shall we say (along with Von Balthasar) that perhaps it is supremely in Jesus' death, in Holy Saturday, that God was present with Jesus? But if it is something like the latter, then how can it be said that God does not suffer?

A more recent answer has claimed that God does suffer. This is associated with, among others, the work of Jurgen Moltmann. It has the benefit of doing justice to bits of Scripture that the traditional answer did not, and it maintained the hypostatic union intact. And to the extent that the earlier position uncritically appropriated neo-Platonism and imposed it over God -- and I'm not entirely convinced that it did so** -- this is a helpful development. Moreover, this can be quite pastorally helpful, to understand that God does not stand at some remove from our suffering and pain and problems, but is quite near to us, suffering along with us.

Nevertheless, this poses some pointed questions as well: are we to think of God primarily in terms of sympathy and availability, or does God do something too? What are we to make of God's wisdom and power? What are we to make of the divine nature -- does God suffer because God is incomplete, or is this suffering merely willingly taken on?

It is always my intention to fairly and accurately present the perspectives that I quote in Gower Street, and I confess that I have not done so to this point. These two perspectives demand more detail and nuance, although they are broadly accurate as presented.

I present them only to contextualise some of my thinking on this issue.

It seems to me that the challenge for us is to imagine God's suffering analogously, to see talk about God's suffering as an analogy. (It is good to keep in mind that any analogy is characterised more by dissimilarity than similarity.) That is to say, on the cross (at least -- I set to one side for now other talk about God suffering) God truly experiences suffering, and that this at least can be said. Yet God must experience such suffering in a radically different way than we do. First off, when we experience suffering, it is almost necessarily connected with concerns to preserve one's self, or with efforts to chart a new way forward. We have a prepossession towards ourselves and escaping suffering. But there is no such connection in God. In Jesus Christ, God willingly took up suffering, and while Jesus is not portrayed as racing to gladly embrace the pain of the cross, he is willing. There is no casting about to escape at whatever cost must be paid. God experiences suffering without being overwhelmed or lost in it.

This is suffering, but it is suffering differently than we know it. Yet it is not less than suffering, as if God cannot or will not enter, or only wishes to dip in his toe to the pool of terrestrial suffering. Rather, in God's power and wisdom, God is able fully to enter suffering, to be supremely present to the pain and loss without concern for self-preservation. It is not less than suffering, but complete suffering, true suffering which God experiences as God, willingly.

And yet also in God's power and wisdom, there is more than suffering. There is also abounding grace, overflowing joy, and steadfast love. And these are not extinguished in suffering.

The main move that I am trying to make here is a dialectical one, to affirm divine suffering of a sort, while also drawing on the best of the ancient tradition of apatheia, which respects the mystery and profound difference of God, and to do all of this while maintaining a Chalcedonian Christology and painting a beautiful and challenging portrait of the Blessed Trinity.

I admit this is only the weakest of starts on this count, but as Pilate said, eo scribsit, id scribsit.

* I think this way of parsing out omnipotence is unsatisfactory, but I shall have to explore this intuition another time.

** Obviously, this needs a lot more fleshing out. While clearly the earlier thinkers -- I have in mind, e.g., Augustine or the Cappadocians -- were formed by neo-Platonic habits of thought, I do not think that their work is clearly or unambiguously only that, as if they were unable to think clearly about the concepts they were using, or modify them to better render their subject. They certainly cannot be written off on this count. Nevertheless, neither am I convinced that the only proper way to do Christian theology is to first be formed in neo-Platonism.


Blogger Gaunilo said...


This is such a difficult question. A year or two ago I would have happily gone along with Moltmann et al and ascribed suffering and pathos to God in the name of overthrowing the God of the philosophers. Indeed, Moltmann's notion that the cross is an event in the very center of triune being of God is a brilliant thinking of the profoundly trinitarian meaning of the crucifixion.

And yet. What Moltmann has always failed to explain, by my lights, is just how taking suffering into God's being makes it redemptive, rather than valorizes or eternally reifies it. Is the suffering love of God finally anything other than the transformative love of sympathy? And is that enough?

I'm rethinking apatheia lately (you're right, the immediate jump to the notion of 'apathy' is terribly unfortunate). But I'm also convinced that the hunch of much of C20 theology is right: we need to recast Aristotle's unmoved mover in a radically trinitarian light to make sense of this. Still working on what that might mean!

I'm curious to hear more about your notion of suffering by analogy. Certainly it is the case that if God suffers, it is out of God's fullness and perfection, out of a withdrawal and self-limitation of God out of God's freedom. And this might simply be where cataphatic theology completely breaks down.

I too am reading von Balthasar at the moment. His account of Holy Saturday is the crux (no pun intended, but felicitous nonetheless!) of much of the christology I'm struggling with.

Sunday, December 04, 2005 11:14:00 PM  
Blogger Doug Wood said...


You're way over my head, no surprise there, but nonetheless I'll share my own personal Easter Heresy because it relates directly to the suffering or lack thereof of Christ. Here it is ... often when thinking of the passion of Christ I think, "what's the big deal?"

Alright, once you're back up off of the floor and firmly seated, let me explain. It is fairly simple minded, but it goes like this ... if God is eternal and a day or even a year to us is like a blink of the eye to Him, what's a day on the cross to save all of His children? I think I can say with all certainty if Claire or Addison were in grave danger and I was told I could save them by accepting the most excruiating pain and suffering known to man for a millisecond or two, I'd take the pain, no questions asked. I know you would too, even if it was for Claire or Addison instead of Alex.

To allow my "Big Whup" theology to exist in my head in tension with the love I know Christ has for us, knowing that the Easter story is central to that love, I have come up with the following: The suffering on the cross is just something that us simpletons here on earth can understand, but it is nothing compared to the suffering God felt/feels because we were/are lost. As well, if God suffers because he is separated from us, the cross is an example of the kind of suffering God can take. In other words, He may suffer, but we're going to have to reconcile ourselves to Him, it won't be anytime soon that He's reconciling Himself to us.

Monday, December 05, 2005 8:09:00 PM  

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