Friday, June 18, 2010

Does God Suffer?

One of my great privileges over the past year has been to study with a brilliant new member of the seminary faculty. He appeared for the last quarter of my second year to teach a class on Christology. I'd already taken the course, but a friend mentioned one night that I might want to visit the new guy's class which I ended up doing almost every week following. He was teaching not only the subject at hand, but also how to evaluate various theological approaches. Finally! ~ I felt that I was getting that for which I had gone to seminary: the opportunity to begin to learn to think like a theologian.

I did an independent study with this professor the next (this past winter) quarter on the subjects of sin, grace, and freedom. I'm sure that I was a consistent disappointment to him, in that my complete lack of background in philosophy meant that the readings were virtually incomprehensible to me, but I did struggle through them. And then I audited his course on Stanley Hauerwas and took his course on Miroslav Volf. In the end, I was able to graduate with the sense that I had learned a tiny bit about Reformation and contemporary theology and a tiny bit about how to approach my own future study, and had found a friend with whom I could continue the conversation.

I had a question for him last week, and in response he sent me a paper he'd written in grad school. The overall question has to do with God's emotional life, but I thought we'd start with the question within the question: Does God suffer? It's been a topic of significant debate during the past century, and is for obvious reasons of great interest to me.

What do you think? Does God suffer? Does it matter to you whether or not God does? Are you comforted or reassured one way or the other? Does the question bother you? Go for it ~


Mrs. M said...
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Mrs. M said...

Gannet, my answer for this (my truth, of course, possibly having no relation to universal truth) is that God has to suffer. It seems to my uneducated self that a God who doesn't suffer is a God without the capacity for empathy. When I think of Jesus looking out on the crowd, who were like sheep without a shepherd, and feeling "splagchnizomai," compassion to his bowels, for them... that seems like suffering on behalf of others.

I'm sure there are other answers to this. I know people who cannot reconcile a God who can suffer with a powerful God. For the time being, I'm classifying that as "mystery," and accepting that I don't understand. But I completely believe that God suffers.

(And thank you-- I'm having a difficult time, and I really needed the opportunity to think about this. Thanks so much for raising the question.)

alto artist said...

Thank you, as well, for the opportunity to formulate some thoughts about this... it's been on my mind. The image of God that works best for me is as a parent--responsible for us, a partner, but one who steps back and lets us live our own lives. So we struggle, we survive--we are sad, joyous, despairing, hopeful, all emotions given by God even though I often wish some of them were not--and when we suffer, I believe God is sad and suffers just as a parent might.

karen gerstenberger said...

I've been told He does; I've been told He doesn't. If Jesus is the image of God, then of course He suffers. If God is Jesus' father, then of course He suffers - his son was murdered.

Isn't it interesting, how many years and words have been spent on this, and how little logic seems to be invited into the debate?
One of the clearest theological moments in my life came some time after Katie was diagnosed with cancer. It became clear then that the cross is not a CONCEPT; it is a reality, and it is THE WAY.
Suffering is part of life. No one wanted to discuss this in the Christian Science Sunday School or college; no one would grapple with it later, either, so I left that religion. But the Catholics are willing to face it, and I think, so must we, if we don't want to go crazy.

Gannet Girl said...

Oh, Karen, isn't that what so much of this is about? ~ trying not to go crazy with pain.

karen gerstenberger said...

Yes. Trying not to go crazy. Sending love to you.

Michelle said...

All I can muster theologically at this hour is yes. And it's important to me that the answer is yes.

Presbyterian Gal said...

God is not human and does not suffer as we do. We are not God and do not suffer as He does. I believe it is our suffering being different from God's suffering that causes a rift. We get angry God does not understand our suffering and God is impatient because he knows our suffering is so tiny and temporary compared to our eternal lives. And God grieves because we cannot understand the profundity of the eternal source of his suffering - lest our tiny heads explode.

At least that's how I think of it all.

Presbyterian Gal said...

PS I linked to your post today

MikeF said...

"From somewhere near them in the woods a cry rose, a thin cry, of such intolerable anguish that Abelard turned dizzy on his feet, and caught at the wall of the hut. ’It’s a child’s voice,’ he said.Thibault had gone outside. The cry came again. ‘A rabbit,’ said Thibault. He listened. ‘It’ll be in the trap. Hugh told me he was putting them down.’ ‘O God,’ Abelard muttered. ‘Let it die quickly.’ But the cry came yet again. He plunged through a thicket of hornbeam. ‘Watch out,’ said Thibault, thrusting past him. ’The trap might take the hand off you.’ The rabbit stopped shrieking when they stooped over it, either from exhaustion, or in some last extremity of fear. Thibault held the teeth of the trap apart, and Abelard gathered up the little creature in his hands. It lay for a moment breathing quickly, then in some blind recognition of the kindness that had met it at the last, the small head thrust and nestled against his arm, and it died. It was that last confiding thrust that broke Abelard’s heart. He looked down at the little draggled body, his mouth shaking. ’Thibault,’ he said , ’do you think there is a God at all? Whatever has come to me, I earned it. But what did this one do?’ Thibault nodded. ’I know,’ he said. ’Only I think God is in it too.’ Abelard looked up sharply. ’In it? Do you mean that it makes him suffer, the way it does us?' Again Thibault nodded. ’Then why doesn’t he stop it?’ ’I don’t know,’ said Thibault. ’Unless it’s like the prodigal son. I suppose the father could have kept him at home against his will. But what would have been the use? All this,’ he stroked the limp body, ‘ is because of us. But all the time God suffers. More than we do.’ Abelard looked at him, perplexed. ‘Thibault, do you mean Calvary?’ Thibault shook his head. ‘That was only a piece of it - the piece that we saw - in time. Like that.’ He pointed to a fallen tree beside them, sawn through the middle. ’That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it is cut across. That is what Christ’s life was; the bit of God that we saw. And we think God is like that, because Christ was like that, kind and forgiving sins and healing people. We think God is like that forever, because it happened once, with Christ. But not the pain. Not the agony at the last. We think that stopped.’ Abelard looked at him, the blunt nose and the wide mouth, the honest troubled eyes. He could have knelt before him. ’Then, Thibault,’ he said slowly, ‘you think that all this,’ he looked down at the little quiet body in his arms, ’all the pain of the world, was Christ’s cross?’ ‘God’s cross,’ said Thibault. ‘And it goes on.’"

Helen Waddell, Peter Abelard (New York: The Literary Guild, 1933) pp. 289-290

Sarah S-D said...

thank you, mike, gannet, and everyone for profound sharing. i find the distinctions presbyterian gal draws to be particularly intriguing; you work carefully to preserve distinction in the God/World relationship while yet allowing the possibility that God suffers.

It is fascinating to me that so many generations of orthodox Christians rejected patripassionism as a heresy while affirming the dual natures of Christ. The classic impulse clearly is to preserve distinction between God and world, and for good reason. That said, if Christ is God, suffering is a part of God's life. The 1st person of the Trinity suffers differently than the second, but the second is part of God and the 1st suffers. I find Moltmann to be very helpful on these questions. If you read Volf than you likely saw traces of Moltmann.

My final paper in seminary was on the God of suffering love as a resource for the confrontation of suffering and evil. I also a created a liturgy around a World War I poem called "The Suffering of God" that I used in a Lenten Series my first year in ministry. I'm not sure what I think of either product any more, but if you'd be interested, please let me know.

And what do you think? Do yo believe God suffers? Is it helpful or not to believe that God suffers?

Robin said...

Sarah, I would love to read your work! As you can see from my current blog, I am about to return to Moltmann. And I used to teach the WWI poets as part of world history so I would be very interested to see what you did with one of the poems in liturgy.