Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Does God suffer?

The final tranche of last week’s training marathon came on Sunday with a CME day, led by the utterly wonderful David Hoyle, and entitled “Does God Suffer?”
I won’t do his argument any sort of justice I’m afraid…his is the sort of mind that makes my fuddled brain catch fire and remember that it used to be quite competent once upon a time. He makes thinking the most exciting process…When I hear him teach or preach, I always feel that I’m alive in a new and special way,- and that there are great possibilities waiting just around the corner,- and this even when he disagrees with some of my cherished assumptions.

He began the day by by placing the hymn by Timothy Rees “God is love, let heaven adore him” against the old stalwart “Immortal, Invisible”.
D. said that he was quite unable to sing Rees’ second verse
God is Love; and he enfoldeth
All the world in one embrace;
With unfailing grasp he holdeth
Every child of every race.
And when human hearts are breaking
Under sorrow's iron rod,
Then they find that selfsame aching
Deep within the heart of God.

To this my unspoken reaction was,
"Well, that’s fine, but there is more than one verse of Immortal Invisible that sticks in my throat”.

For, you see, I was quite sure that God suffered. When I posted the excerpt from Helen Waddell’s Peter Abelard after the London bombings last summer, that picture of the suffering of God extending to the heart of his nature even as the rings of a tree extend right through the trunk, though only visible where the wood is cut open, exactly reflected my own view. For me, the cross was the truth of God. I love Herbert Vanstone, Moltmann and all the noble company who have, over recent decades, argued for the passibility of God. Clearly I am a child of my time, in my theology at least, and I have met so many situations in which I have cried, with Bonhoefferonly a suffering God can help”.

D., though, argued persuasively from the traditional stance of the Fathers, that this is in fact heresy…That in imagining a suffering, vulnerable God we are guilty of creating Him in our image. That, though Christ is the only lens through which we can see the Father, this does not mean that it is appropriate to attribute to the Father the sort of human experiences that we recognise in Jesus, the Incarnate God….That we are all too prone to blurring the distinctions between the persons of the Trinity, as we claim that “God yearns for a relationship with us” that “He feels our pain”.
We are guilty of extrapolating from our own experience of how love reacts in a particular situation, and attributing those feelings to the Creator who is always and forever of a different order of being from his creatures. We domesticate God, saying that we have progressed since the days when even the hem of God’s robe, filling the Temple, was enough to make Isaiah exclaim “Woe is me…for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts”.
I'm currently trying the discipline of reading the Bible in 90 days, joining other bloggers but not convinced that this is actually the most helpful way for me to plug my innumerable gaps in knowledge and love of the Scriptures. But it does mean that I've been immersed in all the infinitesimal details of the Levitical laws, and am getting a sense of the inexpressible awe that they felt at being the people chosen by the Living God. For the first time, I've begun to understand why my OT Lecturers would insist that the Law was protective rather than prescriptive...and to wonder whether my cheerful assumption that we have moved on in our understanding of God since those days speaks more of arrogant confusion than of liberation in Christ. Why should I presume that I know God so much better? God the Father is, truly, completely other...
In speaking of the Father, the apophatic line seems after all to be safest, though this is not to say that God is simply an intellectual principle. All we truly know about God the Father, said D, is the way that He engages with humanity in the person of Christ. All our language breaks down when we speak of him, unless we reduce him to fit our puny understandings. So we have a Trinity of Father, God beyond all vision….Son, the God we see and recognise…and Spirit…God so close to us that we can barely see him.
In addition, D pointed out the logical extension of a God who suffers...that he becomes powerless to help us in or ultimately to redeem our suffering. It is this view with Joan Northam presents in The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory when she writes
"what I want and urgently need is a Rescuer with a very bright light and a long ladder, full of strength, joy and assurance who can get me out of the pit, not a god who sits in the darkness suffering with me”.

It all made, and makes, good intellectual sense for me, but I’m left struggling with how I use this in pastoral situations of great pain where heart sense is what matters. D told us of an encounter between the theologian Herbert McCabe, a staunch defender of the Classical position, and Margaret Spufford, whose own experience placed her non-negotiably within the camp of those who require a vulnerable, suffering God. The encounter was oddly disappointing, as McCabe spoke entirely from the head, and Spufford from the scars of her own life, and they simply reiterated their own positions with no real dialogue...It felt to me as if a similar process was going on in my own being...Where do I go with these alternative thoughts on the nature of God the Creator?
I’m anxious too that in stressing the distinction between Father and Son, I could either slip into modalism, or worse still suggest that sort of picture of a just but loveless Father sending his innocent son to his death…but there lurks penal substitution, so there I cannot and will not go.

I wrote an essay on this very topic only 2 years ago, at vicar school...but the arguments that I used then, which clearly impressed the markers, seem less satisfying today. In my final paragraph then I quoted Moltmann (no surprise there!) as if these words clinched the whole discussion...Today I am less confident that they do.
“If God has taken upon himself death on the cross, he has also taken upon himself all of life and real life as it stands under death, law and guilt. In so doing he makes it possible to accept life whole and entire and death whole and entire. Man is taken up, without limitations and contradictions, into the life and suffering, the death and resurrection of God….There is nothing that can exclude him from the situation of God between the grief of the Father, the love of the Son and the drive of the Spirit"

Perhaps its not so much the theology of suffering as our theology of the Trinity that needs and overhaul?


Anonymous said...

If it is heresy to say that God can suffer, it's an equally great heresy to say that God cannot suffer.

The idea of an impassible God owes nothing to the Bible - it comes from Greek thought. The God in the Bible feels love, hate, joy and pain. The language used of God is, of course, not precise, but it is true - to claim that it is completely divorced from the senses in which we use these words of human beings is to allow any claim at all about God to be reinterpreted at will (if we follow Humpty Dumpty, words may mean whatever we want).

"Joan Northam presents [this view] when she writes
"what I want and urgently need is a Rescuer ... not a god who sits in the darkness suffering with me”.

That's all very well - but "what we want and need" is hardly a yardstick by which we can establish what God actually is! We may think we need many things, but God is still God regardless.

pax et bonum

Theresa Coleman said...

I think God suffering is almost necessary. I'll have to think about it.

And I agree with your Trinity theory.

love and hugs.

Ron Henzel said...

You make some exceedingly interesting points, worthy of much thought. My thoughts on things apophatic may be found at http://thatisnotmyblog.blogspot.com.

Anonymous said...

Hello Kathryn, you certainly seem to have been having an interesting and demanding time.

I wonder, if the Father can't suffer, how did the Father feel about losing his Son on the cross?

I assume the Father did feel something, if the Father is a person, not simply an idea.



Jules said...

There is so very much here that I'm afraid I need some time to digest. But I wanted to leave you a pebble, so that you might know that I was here, and will be considering these things.

Unknown said...

Hmm. I don't think of God as a person, but why can't God, however we perceive the Divine, experience suffering? In other words, where there is something deeply sorrowful occuring, is God immune to caring? I think loving is inseparable from suffering under some circumstances.

Anonymous said...

I find this months too late: perhaps because I'm wrestling with personal pain at the moment and googled for Timothy Rees' words to quote elsewhere, and found this oh so wunderbar Blog. But I will always be with Moltmann on this: the Cross alters divine impassibility, the cry of dereliction takes suffering into the heart of God. There and only there we - or I - find resurrection hope.

Kathryn said...

Padre Mick...first, prayers for your own situation. Strangely, I found myself thinking of this post last night during our annual service of "remembrance and thanksgiving". The organist had chosen "Immortal Invisible" as the first hymn...and I was reflecting on how hard it is to challenge the idea of an impassible God, since so many seem to draw great strength and comfort from it...but beneath the surface, surely, that would mean a God who didn't care. Not my God. Sometimes, his tears seem to be the only hope of healing we can offer