Monday, September 30, 2013

Does God Suffer?

It is a commonplace that Christian theology evolved in an intellectual matrix of Greek thought. This is not surprising, since this latter tradition was -- and in many ways, still is -- the most complete and consistent system of thought available, and the early fathers wanted their new sect to benefit from the prestige of such an association (the same can be said for making clear the continuity with the venerable Hebrew Bible).

The Catholic church considers the Greek matrix providential, but in the past we've speculated on whether this connection is truly necessary or perhaps contingent, and how Christianity might have developed in a different intellectual climate -- most recently with regard to our series of posts on Jesus Purusha, i.e., Christ incarnating as a Hindu instead of a Jew.

More to the point, if Christ is "universal," then it seems to me that so too should his "metaphysical penumbra" be universal.

In other words, there really shouldn't be "Greek way" or "Hindu way" or "Chinese way" to understand him, but just one way -- which should in turn reflect a universal metaphysic. A universal metaphysic is one that cannot be reduced to anything more basic or fundamental, and is discernible in every event or occasion of reality.

The process theologian John Cobb writes of how "Philosophical theology has been deeply influenced by Greek thought," which in turn "reflected Greek values. These values included the appraisal of eternity as superior to time, and of being as superior to becoming."

Thus, this presupposes an ultimate reality that is essentially static, since movement implies change, and if something is already perfect, then change can only diminish it.

For this reason, God is considered "pure act," with no possibility of anything being added to or subtracted from him: "For the divine perspective change does not occur, since the whole temporal process is always co-present." Our distinctions of time past, present, and future "hold only from the creaturely point of view."

A corollary of this is that God's perspective is "real" whereas ours is fundamentally unreal. Here we see an implicit connection with Hindu-Buddhist theories of maya, of the essential unreality of the manifestation, of appearances. (Then again, the compassion of the bodhisattva impels him to forgo nirvana in favor of a return to the world of suffering and change, implying that compassion is superior to -- or perhaps covalent with -- enlightenment.)

It also means that what we believe we are free to choose has somehow already been chosen, and that "our sense of creativity, of rendering determinate what was, prior to that act, not determinate, is an illusion." Thus, "our sense of responsibility is undercut."

You can't pretend this isn't an issue, for the Protestant split obviously produced various theologies of predestination (both religious and secular/scientistic), and we routinely hear the phrase "everything happens for a reason" -- as if God designed the Holocaust for reasons known only to him, or even just gave some little girl leukemia.

Many people who are otherwise positively disposed toward religion cannot get past this hurdle of the simultaneous existence of divine omniscience and evil (and let's face it, there's plenty of evil that isn't just attributable to human freedom).

Perhaps we need to rethink what we mean by the idea of "perfection." To take one obvious example, a "perfect lover" is not unchanged by our love for him or her, just as we are not unchanged by their love for us. Is it possible to conceive of a "higher" and more "perfect" kind of love than this, in which the participants are completely unchanged by the experience? I don't see how, without love turning into something it is not.

A related issue is whether God suffers. We all want to believe he does -- that he suffers with us -- and I think it takes a skilled theologian to prove he doesn't. For example, "The early church knew that Jesus had suffered death on the cross, and there were those who drew the conclusion that God suffered in Jesus's suffering. But the church drew back from from this conclusion," as "'God the Father' could not suffer."

This again parallels the Greek idea that it "is a mark of weakness and inferiority" to be acted upon, and to thus "be vulnerable to the actions of others over which one cannot exercise control." Rather, the Greek ideal emphasized "the basic invulnerability necessary to excellence."

Let's again toy with the idea -- or principle -- that man is in the image of the divine. What this means is that our accidents and contingencies do not reflect the divine reality, but rather, only our essence. In other words, what truly and necessarily defines us as human -- or, let us say, persons -- would have to have some divine analogue.

Now, what truly and necessarily defines a human? What are the conditions without which we cannot be persons? I think, prior to everything else, we must be intersubjectively open systems. Clearly, the notion of God-as-Trinity reflects this principle, in that the Trinity is not static at all, nor is it closed. Rather, it is the very essence of dynamism, of self-giving, and of receptivity.

Likewise, Cobb notes that "True human excellence does not involve insensitivity or indifference to others, but rather empathy with them.... This is especially important when others are suffering."

If we were to transpose this imperfect ability of ours to the divine plane, it would imply that "the divine perfection means that God perfectly receives all that happens in the world and perfectly responds to it. Far from being unaffected by our suffering and joy, God suffers fully with us and rejoices fully with us" (emphasis mine).

Importantly, this does not represent an anthropomorphization of God, but rather, a divinization of man. The same can be said of all man's divine qualities, prerogatives, and responsibilities, including his obligation to truth, his capacity for beauty, his striving for nobility, not to mention all the various flavors of love, e.g., philia, agape, caritas, eros, etc.

Well, all of this is still quite preliminary. Maybe I can dive into the heart of the matter tomorrow.

13 Comments:

Blogger julie said...

A related issue is whether God suffers. ... I think, prior to everything else, we must be intersubjectively open systems.

Jesus wept.

I was thinking about that last week, on the question of whether God can be surprised. Maybe it's just me, but the idea that he wept upon hearing the news of Lazarus' death would indicate that he can.

In the context of today's post, I might actually use his tears as an indication of suffering even over the crucifixion. That is, I don't know whether he suffered bodily in any sense that I could even begin to understand on the cross, but the only reason he (who knows precisely what death is) should cry over Lazarus is because he was genuinely saddened by the event. That loss of an intersubjective relationship hurt him, just as much as anyone was ever hurt by the loss of a loved one.

So yes, I think he suffers.

9/30/2013 09:44:00 AM  
Blogger Open Trench said...

How would like the question to be answered? What would feed your soul?

I would prefer God suffers, but interprets suffering as pleasure, as a change up from his continuous status of delight.

The novelty of suffering, which He cannot achieve without partial self-forgetting, which he obtains through us, is the one of the reason's He made the cosmos.

God wants variety, and he wants to be amused. He can't do that without us.

This might make God sound trivial, but I think novelty, fun, and diversions are no light-weight matter; they may matter more than "serious" matters.

He has to make us forget we are Him. If we remember, then we no longer suffering and God has to get His product from someone else; although he probably welcomes His awakened ones back home to the main body and gives them the option to go back after having their memories wiped again.

Such are the intuitions of the Trench; poor fare indeed.

Loved the post, so expertly crafted and unique as usual... sorry to post my garbage here. I can't help it, it would seem.

I look forward to reading your post each morning. It's a habit like some people read the newspaper.

9/30/2013 09:45:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

...God perfectly receives all that happens in the world and perfectly responds to it ...

I like that. The hero does not always know what is coming, but he is always able to meet the challenge and overcome it. Even when it kills him.

Christ's suffering was not the end of all suffering -- see Colossians 1:24 -- ... filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.

I wonder what Johnny Cash would say?

9/30/2013 11:04:00 AM  
Blogger Open Trench said...

JOhnny is trapped in a burning ring of fire and can't respond at this time.

9/30/2013 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger River Cocytus said...

There is some paradox in this, though. If we understand God's perfection, eternity, stability and lack of change as being stasis and death, I think maybe it is because we under-estimate the difference between the divine and the human. For instance, if God has a body in Jesus Christ and Christ has a body in the faithful, does it not hold that the body grows - that God is being added to - with each believer that joins him?

And perhaps that is what existence is the answer to, the question of "how can the perfect and complete be made more perfect and more complete?"

It's definitely orthodox that God suffers through Christ - however you wish to interpret that. It would seem that God knows suffering through Christ although he himself is impassible. If he is not then there is no paradox and perhaps no need even for an incarnation.

---

So when they shut down the gov't they also shut down NASA which means we get shut down! You know, just when we had all of our bills paid and were sitting on piles of money.

Just kidding! We're strapped for cash and hoping that some of the other stuff we do on the side will be worth money at some point but you know, we didn't enter this life with anything and it is more clear day by day that we will not leave it with anything either!

9/30/2013 12:20:00 PM  
Blogger Magister said...

Lots to think about.

Our distinctions of time past, present, and future "hold only from the creaturely point of view." A corollary of this is that God's perspective is "real" whereas ours is fundamentally unreal.

I'm not sure about this. I'd have ventured to say instead that "God's perspective is complete, whereas ours is fundamentally incomplete." W don't see the entire Film Strip of Created Time all at once, just frame by frame. That doesn't make our view of temporality any less "real," and it sidesteps the whole business of maya/illusion, etc. I know various protestors like Calvin worried about all this, but I haven't cracked the Institutes to really give it serious thought. I've been more interested lately in definitions of "nature."

As for God's suffering, I've always thought that since Christ was crucified at a particular moment, God of course sees and suffers that moment eternally, even after the Final Marriage of Heaven and Earth. Golgotha will still be a part of Cosmic History, which I assume would still be a pain in God's heart.

In the meantime, down here in the old Magistorium (which needs some serious weatherstripping), I find myself remembering what an old Lutheran pastor once told me, "Never forget that at the heart of the universe is a God who grieves." It makes me feel for the Guy, which is kind of the point.

Also, I think it's important and of course difficult to distinguish between suffering and evil. We know that God is love and cannot ordain evil, but His creation clearly produces a whole lot of disfigurement and pain. Birth defects. Tsunami. Cancer. Very difficult in each case to see how human sin brought them on. Maybe it did, in which case God grieves it.

What did He say to Job? It's not like Job saw anything unreal. He just didn't see as much as God saw.

That's as far as I get with these kinds of questions. Looking forward to hearing others.

9/30/2013 01:48:00 PM  
Blogger Open Trench said...

RC

I'm concerned about NASA being shut down. This is unacceptable.

I'm hoping it is just a scare that will subside without incident.

In the meantime,increased consumption of intoxicants is indicated, starting now, to allay the anxiety.

9/30/2013 02:49:00 PM  
Blogger JP said...

"Now, what truly and necessarily defines a human? What are the conditions without which we cannot be persons? I think, prior to everything else, we must be intersubjectively open systems. Clearly, the notion of God-as-Trinity reflects this principle, in that the Trinity is not static at all, nor is it closed. Rather, it is the very essence of dynamism, of self-giving, and of receptivity."

Persons are also permanent.

As I like to say, my problem isn't that I'm mortal.

It's that I'm not.

And everywhere I go, there I am.

I just can't get away from me.

And I have a specific geometry. I'm always me, no matter how much I change.

I'm always the same and always different. Static and dynamic at the same time.

9/30/2013 05:54:00 PM  
Blogger JP said...

"Importantly, this does not represent an anthropomorphization of God, but rather, a divinization of man. The same can be said of all man's divine qualities, prerogatives, and responsibilities, including his obligation to truth, his capacity for beauty, his striving for nobility, not to mention all the various flavors of love, e.g., philia, agape, caritas, eros, etc."

Everybody gets that backwards these days.

9/30/2013 05:58:00 PM  
Blogger Magister said...

Everybody gets that backwards these days.

Welcome to the USSA.

10/01/2013 05:42:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

There are different ways to suffer. It may be useful to define what we mean. For example, my son is recovering from a breakup from his girlfriend. He was (is) deeply attached to her. He blames himself for what happened. His mother and I suffer with him. What kind of suffering is his mother's and mine? Perhaps it is a reflection of an aspect of God's kind.

10/02/2013 09:18:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

In others words,
The Sorrow through which the Father sees me, is the same sorrow through which I see the boy

10/03/2013 05:20:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

One last thin
Before the conspiracy kicks in:

Thought I should watch the movie Ordinary People again since the boy is having a difficult time with this breakup.
The movie is better than I thought. By that I think there is more to it than I realized. Layers of truth sort of thing. Which is likely why the movie was so successful.
Among other things, it reflects that scripture about "leaving the mother and clinging to his wife ".
If I change the characters around, I think the template holds up when the girlfriend in my sons story is played by the mother. And that the father in the movie is a shadow of the future son in the movie. And so on..

10/03/2013 05:58:00 AM  

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