Suffering and the search for meaning—Part 1

suffer3I first met Richard Rice in Boston nearly ten years ago. He’s a brilliant thinker and a kind and generous conversation partner. I circle back around to his contributions in Searching for an Adequate God: A Dialogue between Process and Free Will Theists (2009), especially Ch. 4 “Process Theism and the Open View of God: The Crucial Difference,” from time to time. He understands and appreciates Hartshorne but clearly sees the inadequacies of process theism. Just today I reread (I’m in reread mode this week) his Suffering and the Search for Meaning (2014), a book he published to summarize conversations and conclusions reached from having taught a class on suffering and theodicy to graduate students in the field of health sciences.

There are three reasons why I like this book:

The first is it seeks to explore the practical consequences our beliefs in God have for informing and sustaining us during times of suffering. The question it tries to answer is: How do we find meaning in suffering? And whenever someone honestly sets himself to address that question, count me in the conversation. Rice recognizes the value of purely philosophical arguments. They have their place. But in the end their usefulness is for life, for living well and meaningfully in and through suffering. So the practical-existential challenge of living is why we are even philosophically interested in such questions. A nice feature of his attempt to deal with the practical, ‘lived’, dimension of our beliefs is that each approach to suffering is worked out in terms of people’s actual stories. So you get to observe how somebody holding that particular view of God ‘world constructs’ or ‘makes meaning’ within the constraints of and resources provided by his/her view of God’s relationship to their suffering.

The second reason I like this book is that it gathers into a short volume helpful summaries of popular approaches to the question of suffering. Separate books have been written on each approach, but it’s nice to have the main options in a single volume.

The third reason I appreciate Rice here is that he doesn’t take a narrow, fundamentalist posture about the options. He has definite convictions, sure. But he recognizes there is something of value in each approach, something good that each approach recognizes and seeks to protect. He also recognizes the integrity of every person’s honest attempt to integrate suffering in a meaningfully and purposeful way. He is never condescending, insulting, or dismissive.

I’d like to briefly summarize the approaches Rice presents and then come back in Part 2 with some responses. I’ll also add an eighth approach to Rice’s seven. Here are his seven theodicies:

God Never Makes Mistakes | Perfect Plan Theodicy
Perfect plan theodicy is essentially that deterministic view of the world that sees every event of life as unconditionally determined by God. Whatever happens to us, however heinous the evil or devastating the loss, God specifically wills it, and nothing occurs outside God’s meticulous determination of things. Obviously how a person world-constructs within the framework of such a view is dependent upon the meaning-making options this view provides. One’s attempt to construct meaning and purpose, regardless of the suffering experienced or the nature of the evil behind it, can never step outside viewing such evil as unconditionally determined by God. There is no gratuitous evil, and whatever purpose God may have in determining suffering and evil for me, the fundamental truth that shapes my ‘meaning-making’ process in suffering is simply the conviction that nothing happens to me that is not meticulously decreed for me purposefully by God. There is, Rice notes, a certain appeal to this view of things. It appeals to our innate desire for order. We naturally want to fit the events of our lives into a purposeful narrative, and the ‘perfect plan theodicy’ eliminates all talk of risk, change occurrence, and capriciousness.

Let Freedom Ring | The Free Will Defense
The second theodicy Rice summarizes is the Free Will defense. It’s an explanation with a long tradition with different versions. From this view, God does not decree or will evil and suffering and so is not responsible for it. Rather, God has endowed us with a certain measure of ‘say-so’ or free will. And that, not some divine decree, explain the origin of evil and suffering.

Rice is aware that this brings up the question (for those views that view creation as a free act of God) of whether giving human beings such freedom to self-dispose is good and wise. It also leaves unaddressed (or very awkwardly addressed) the question of natural evil (animal suffering and suffering caused by natural catastrophes unrelated to any human moral agency). Nevertheless, a person seeking meaning and purpose in suffering within this view would world-construct very differently that the above ‘perfect plan’ perspective. One populates the world with agents exercising their wills in ways God does not determine or decree that they should, what suffering means to my life and purpose is viewed quite differently. I don’t look for some specific purpose in and behind every evil. Whatever meaning and purpose I construct within the context of my suffering, I do not begin with the assumption that God has decreed my suffering for me. God is responsible for the possibility of evil, but not the actuality of evil. For the perfect plan theodicy, suffering fulfills God’s purposes and designs. For the free will defense, suffering conflicts with God’s objectives.

No Pain, No Gain | Soul Making Theodicy
Soul making theodicies resemble perfect plan theodicies in some ways and the free will defense in other ways. Proponents of the “soul making” theodicy agree that we are free in a non-determinisitc way, but they integrate suffering purposefully in ways free will theists often deny. They believe evil and suffering have positive roles to play in shaping or ‘making’ us, but they don’t necessarily see God’s will behind every evil. John Hick is largely responsible for the use of the term “soul making.” Hick grounds his arguments in the views of the Church father Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202 AD) who argued that human perfection was the ‘end’ and not the ‘beginning’ of human existence. We were meant to ‘become’ mature, responsible, loyal, obedient, good, etc., and becoming this requires pain and suffering. No pain, no gain.

jobWhile there is a certain appeal to this approach as well, Rice questions its stand along adequacy. Do evil and suffering always achieve their ‘soul making’ objectives? It seems they do not. If the purpose of suffering is to perfect our character, where are the perfect people? So the question arises as to whether or not the benefits that come from suffering a worth the costs, particularly in the case of “horrendous evils” (Rice brings in Marilyn McCord-Adams work here). Some evil is so horrendous, so overwhelmingly definitive of one’s experience, leaving many permanently damaged for life, it’s hard to imagine benefits that would justify a divine soul making policy which exposes innocent children to evils far greater than their capacities to integrate.

An Enemy Hath Done This | Cosmic Conflict Theodicy
With this explanation of evil and suffering, the material created order is viewed as the stage upon which a cosmic war is being waged between God and fallen angelic agencies led by Lucifer (Satan, the devil) who are in active rebellion against God’s creative purposes. Rice develops the main lines of this view nicely and notes the relevant proponents, focusing on Greg Boyd’s work (in addition to Ellen White) as a recent good example of this worldview.

This view has certain advantages. It’s able to take the biblical narrative about spiritual agencies working at cross purposes with God seriously without dismissing it as so much mythology. Very little of the serious work being done on theodicy even takes time to mention the reality and role of malevolent spiritual forces. Cosmic conflict theodicies essentially do away with the distinction between ‘moral’ and ‘nature’ evil (moral evil being evil brought about through the moral choices of responsible moral agents; natural evil refers to suffering caused by natural evils – tornadoes, tsunamis, mud slides, earthquakes, tree limbs falling on passers-by, etc.) presumably unrelated to the choices of any moral agent. Boyd argues it’s false to view natural evil this way, that in fact all such events are ‘moral’ in the sense that they are caused by the choices of malevolent spiritual agencies perverting the natural order and orchestrating matter toward destructive ends.

A proponent of cosmic conflict theodicy like Boyd would of course make use of the resources within the free will defense and open theism. But cosmic warfare theodicy adds an element not explicitly a part of these other approaches, for now even natural events are to be viewed as the effects of choices being made by innumerable spiritual agencies (causing tornadoes, pushing tectonic plates, orchestrating mud slides and forcing lava from volcanoes). This would certain redefine the explanatory resources a person suffering from natural disasters would have. If I suffer the loss of someone I love due to a flash flood or a tornado, I needn’t suffer the additional pain of wondering why an omnipotent, loving God would not stop such events if doing so would interfere with no one’s free will. On this view, all events in the nature order are the consequence of a host of competing wills (divine, angelic, human). Spiritual agencies promoting and contesting God’s will are at work behind all natural events. Everything is contested.

Love Makes the World Go Round | Openness of God Theodicy
Open theists argues that the relationship between God and the world, as it regards providence and outcomes, is very interactive. They share the essential commitments of the free will defense and may enjoy the perceived benefits of both the soul making and cosmic conflict theodicies. The unique contribution that open theism makes to a person’s ability to explain evil and integrate pain and suffering into a meaningful and healthy narrative for living is its claim that God does not eternally foreknow future contingencies, that is, divine providence is not the unfolding in time of an absolute blueprint of precisely how the world’s events occur. Whether the blueprint is conceived as determined by the will of God (perfect plan theodicy) or simply foreknown (timelessly or otherwise, along classical Arminian and even Orthodox lines), open theism argues there is no one blueprint in God’s mind or will that maps out exactly how the world’s possibilities will as a matter of fact unfold, certainly nothing that would be providentially useful.

The perceived existential benefit here is that a person suffering from some evil isn’t attempting to reconcile their suffering with the fact that God eternally knows this specific evil shall occur as it does and that God determined to permit such evil on the basis of such foreknowledge (as some traditions argue). That explanation of my suffering isn’t available to the open theist. I may seek to integrate evil and suffering in the construction of an existentially viable worldview based on God’s foreknowing such evils as a possibility, but there’s no place for an understanding of providence that includes a blueprint worldview.

Even God Can’t Do Everything | Finite God Theodicy
Process theism offers resources for world-construction and meaning-making which are radically different from other approaches here described. On the immediate surface of things, Process affirms generally what other Christian approaches affirm, i.e., that God cares deeply about the world, that God involved in and responsive to the world, that he wisely and lovingly pursue the world’s highest good. “But,” Rice summarizes, “there is only so much God can do. God doesn’t have the sort of power that enables God to achieve everything God wants just by willing it to be so, or by directly, unilaterally, acting within the world to accomplish it.”

From the Process view, the idea that God wills or permits all events and omnipotently brings all things to pass is mistaken. Power as coercion, or as unilateral determination, of any created entity is out of the question on the Process view. God lures, convinces, draws, influences, yes. God cannot determine things. This is so because some measure of creative self-determination is the sine qua non of creation’s integrity as non-divine. But as clearly as Process theists insist upon the reality of every Created entity’s distinction from God, they are as passionately committed to the belief that the God-World relationship is necessary and mutually determining of both God and the world. God suffers fully and essentially in and with the world and both God and world are in a process of mutual becoming.

Obviously theodicy follows the contours of such a view of God, the most serious considerations (in my view) here are eschatological in nature. With few (vague) exceptions, Process theologians do not hope for the permanent survival of personal existence beyond the grave, nor are no ultimate or final guarantees regarding temporal outcomes in the near future nor for the defeat of evil in the long run. God is present suffering with us, grieving as we grieve, and always offering the world creative aims for future possibilities, but we are “on our own” outside of these provisions. God cannot offer metaphysical closure to the question of evil.

Rage Against the Dying of the Light | Protest Theodicies
Protest theologies, as the name suggest, represent a fundamental rage against attempts to reconcile the world as it is with the existence of a loving and competent Creator. These needn’t be thoughtless or uninformed viewpoints. Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov represents as thoughtful and penetrating a protest imaginable (perhaps the only protest really imaginable). But one can find a range of less carefully thought out reasons for protest. Rice has some very good observations in this chapter about the weak foundations upon which atheism and protest theodicies are built, but since they don’t represent a version of faith enduring suffering, I’ll leave things there.

Back in a few with Part 2.

Chasing the scream

drugI had to share this short Youtube video that summarizes essential points argued by Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (2015). I’ve got the book on order and am looking forward to reading it. But I’ve listened to Hari outline his points and I think he’s spot on. Having worked with/in the Recovery community the past five years, I’ve seen the healing power of healthy connections as the greatest single influence for healing in the lives of the addicted. Addictions are formed as our response to some form of despair and failure to find fulfillment in existing relationships. They’re healed through the provision of what was lacking in that respect, not through incarceration, punishment, social branding. That’s not to say drug addiction has no chemical basis of course. It’s just to prioritize things. I’ll review Hari later, but for now I thought I’d post the video.

Spirit as capacity for self-relationality

reflection_card_small_05I had time today to reread Don Alexander’s The Humanity of Christ and the Healing of the Dysfunction of the Human Spirit, a helpful book that focuses on the inherent relational structure of human being as ‘spirit’. He connects to James Loder at various points, and there’s no talking about Loder without exploring Kierkegaard. This is a helpful book that discusses the healing of humanity in ‘relational’ terms. Here’s a portion of Ch. 2, “The Nature and Function of the Human Spirit”:

Characteristics of the Human Spirit
Kierkegaard: The Spiritual Self as a Relational Self

In an opaque passage in his book Sickness Unto Death, Soren Kierkegaard designates the human person as essentially spirit. As quoted above, Kierkegaard writes,

The human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.

In this complex passage Kierkegaard views the human person as spirit, which is the human dimension that embodies the capacity for self-relational encounters. This self-relational capacity constitutes an essential component of being a human person. The human person, therefore, is not understood simply as an entity independent of relationality; that is, as an isolated being. Rather, the human person by constitution is a relational being right down to the core of human personhood. As a spiritual self, the human person actualizes itself in and through its relational capacity, enabling reflection upon itself both as a subject as well as an object of its own self-reflective thought.

The human self as spirit, however, is not simply a self-interacting being. This self-relational capacity also constitutes the ontological ground for relational interaction outside oneself; that is, with others. Kierkegaard writes, “The human self is…a relation that relates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself relates itself to another.” In a different, yet complementary, context, the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, makes a similar observation, “A person cannot be humane [virtuous] apart from his/her neighbor.” In other words, the human person cannot be understood fully in isolation or a lack of interaction with others since the individual self is not a simple entity but entails a complex capacity for relationship between two disparate things. James Loder expresses a complementary understanding of the human spirit when he writes “The human spirit is a quality of relationality; it is a way to conceptualize the dynamic interactive unity by which two disparate things are held together without loss of their diversity.”

While Loder interprets the human spirit as a quality of relationality, I prefer capacity for personal relationality. The change of phrase is intended to reinforce a particular perspective. I want to ascribe an ontological dimension to the human spirit. Perhaps the term ontology is a little too precise. Nevertheless, I want to contend that the human spirit is really something rather than a mere relationship or an emergent property of brain function. The human person is a self that in relating to the self relates to something: namely, the self that is spirit. If the human person is spirit, the human person as spirit, then, understands itself principally, though not exclusively, through relation with others. The human spirit is not simply an independent autonomous self, but is a self-relating self…

To assert, then, that the core of human personhood is essentially spirit means that the human spirit exists ontologically as the ground for relationality and existentially as the experience of self-relatedness with others. It is, however, in the interaction with other that the functional nature of the human person as spirit is revealed.

This interactive-relational capacity of the human spirit, argues Kierkegaard, functions in a context of opposites since the human self is “a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.” Consequently, the decisive matter for becoming a self lies in the nature of the opposites. The opposites, argues Kierkegaard, form the ground for relationality in that they provide the context for a potential shift from being negative, i.e., “a relation that exists primarily through opposition,” to a positive one, i.e., “one that has power in its own right to define the polarities and their relationship.” James Loder illustrates the significance of this relational movement between opposites by noting, “The quality of opposition that pertains between male and female and of their love relationship which completes each in, with, and for the other, and is itself transcendent with respect to the opposition [difference] between them.”

At first, notes Loder, the opposition or distance of identity appears, but the opposition changes as male and female come to enjoy other’s company and a love relationship develops. The relationship, states Loder, “which was first established on a premise of opposition becomes positive, even a dominant force in the interaction between the two: each increasingly begins to define him/herself in terms of the relationship, per se. In this relationship the polarities of male and female are not lost; rather mutuality hightens individuality. The point of the illustration is that “mutuality becomes a positive third term, not obliterating but intensifying the polarities.” Here the pattern of relationality governing “the self as spirit,” suggests James Loder, “is perichoretic; that is, inter-penetrating,” a theologicall insightful and helpful concept in grasping the relationality between creaturely existence and the human spirit illustrated by the male/female relationship…


If I understand Kierkegaard correctly, it is only when “the self-transcendent agency [the human spirit] of the self finds its ground outside and beyond the pattern of self-relatedness can self-relatedness be sustained.” “When the self is ‘transparently grounded in the power that posits it’,” writes Loder, “it is, then, spirit.” What is central here is a relationship of mutual coinherence; that is “opposites are coinherent in and through this relatedness, and the relatedness is coinherent with itself.” This entails the interpretation that “the self cannot be itself without its centered grounding beyond itself, but must be a participant in the ground such that its life is preserved and its integrity as spirit is sustained by that ground.” Kierkegaard, then, will place the self-relationality of the human person in a unique position between the nature of God and the nature of the human person as spirit.

At this juncture an important element in the understanding of the relational nature of human persons as spirit enters; namely, “that the self measures itself by the ideal to which it relates itself.” C. Stephen Evans comments on this Kierkegaardian perspective. To be a self is to be “a being who is striving toward a certain ideal; this ideal provides the measure or criterion for the self that is derived from the conscious relationships that have formed the self.” While many factors contribute to the person we are and will become (parents, friends, social influences, etc.), genuine selfhood, in the Kierkegaardian perspective, “requires that I stand before God, accepting the self I am as a gift from God and the self I should become as a talk God has set for me.” Hence, the person that I become emerges from the relational character of the self as the result of the conscious decisions made with reference to the ideal I choose to follow…

Hence the self is always formed in relation to some ideal. Thus, “the self that lacks God as a conscious ideal will reflect the defective ideal that has replaced God.” “What an infinite accent falls on the self,” writes Kierkegaard, “by having God as the criterion.”


Couple of quick thoughts—

  • Loder describes the human spirit as a quality of relationality. Alexander prefers to describe it as the capacity for such relationality. Alexander also calls this capacity an agency for self-relationality. These are all good terms. Let’s combine them and view the human spirit as an aesthetic disposition or an aesthetic appetite for personal existence. Sarah Coakley would describe this in terms of desire, which of course introduces desired ends, and that brings me to a second comment.
  • Alexander ends by noting that the self measures itself in terms of some ideal or end. This is the irreducibly teleological orientation of the human spirit. We constitute our spiritual existence as fulfilled desire for transcendent meaning as persons. The self is constituted in relation to this ideal. For Kierkegaard, any end or ideal other than God chosen by the self would only lead to existential despair. “The self that lacks God as a conscious ideal will reflect the defective ideal that has replaced God.” This is the false self. Alexander quotes Kierkegaard, “What an infinite accent falls on the self by having God as the criterion.” Indeed. God is the criterion. And that brings us to the inevitable question (which I never grow tired of mentioning) of what (if not God) constitutes that ideal, the summum bonum, the highest good, the greatest value, that criterion of relational existence by which all experience is measured? A consistent ‘relational theology’ (and what a buzz phrase that is among open theists) has to expound some transcendent ground of personal-relational being, i.e., some notion of the relational ideal for which all desire longs, from which all appetite is fulfilled, and in which the human spirit achieves its end but from which relations this Ideal cannot be thought to fulfill its own dispositional appetite for relationality (thus the asymmetrical nature of uncreated-created relationality).

Black holes and burning bushes


There are moments when you awaken to God’s presence as the simplest and truest thing about you, simple as in prior to everything else; not prior in the sense that it’s something you leave behind when the drama of life demands your attention and engagements. Rather, prior in the sense of always being true before anything else is true about you and as being the measure by which the truth of every other experience is exposed.

What squeezes me into being reminded of this so explicitly is personal loss. I lost something dear to me last week. Never mind what or how. It doesn’t matter. But the loss presses in on my heart and mind without relent. In such times you discover yourself in the abiding truth I just described. And as I sit here contemplating my own loss, I feel as if I’m sitting in the eye of the storm.

Do I hurt? Sure. Am I in pain? Yes. I feel the wind. I’m soaked by rain. Things I cared for and helped to build are removed from view. But even on the inside of that, there’s a deeper and truer place where I sit typing this, a place that I didn’t build, a place that builds me, a space and presence that is purely ‘gifted’ by God and which only God and I can occupy. No one else. Nothing else. And there God tells you who you are. It’s where you experience yourself as being spoken into being out of nothing (ex nihilo) by love. I don’t know how else to describe it.

Few find this place, and the reason I suspect is that no false self can bare the truth of it, and we live so much of our lives under the direction of the false self. I know how many false selves can inhabit a heart. I continue to confront my own. But false selves cannot survive the journey to true space. In fact, their death is the way into the eye of the storm. Why can’t false selves occupy that eye of the storm? Because they are the storm.

I sit here in pain, and yet the laughter is on my side. The pain comes from all those ways my living is conditioned by a fallen world. That’s the world we inhabit. But the laughter comes from all those ways my living is unconditioned by that world, and that’s the world that inhabits us. We only get to enjoy the latter by painfully dying to the former. We have to leave the storming false selves behind to enjoy the peace of experiencing our very existence and well-being as graciously given, as spoken out of nothing and into being by God in love.

I love Jean-Luc Marion’s notion of the “saturated phenomenon.” A saturated phenomenon is an “excess of divine presence,” a presence that so overwhelms you, you’re “unable to objectify the source of this saturation and enclose it” within our powers of reasoning or our categories.

Also, I circle round time and time again to Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 3. The burning bush is such powerful imagery. It communicates on so many levels. I explore them a bit here.

As I thought on the burning bush as an embodied form of transcendence, other less helpful ways of imagining transcendence came to mind. Strangely, black holes came to mind from recent conversations, and I ended up just contrasting the two: burning bushes vs black holes. I wonder how many are stuck thinking about divine transcendence as a black hole rather than as a burning bush.

Black holes devour, crush, and consume whatever ventures beyond their event horizon. The weight of created gravity disassembles, deconstructs, and devours. There are some who view God’s transcendence as a theological black hole. The idea that God is beyond or transcendent or not reducible to or circumscribed within the horizon of a certain kind of categorical predication makes God out in some minds to be a kind of black hole. The closer one gets to the truth of it, the more dismembered language becomes under the weight of such a consuming vision. In the end all is lost.

But transcendence as burning bush is different. It still evades certain kinds of capture. It still mystifies. It still leaves us speechless. But it is anything but consuming. Quite the opposite. Precisely because the fire doesn’t need the bush for fuel, it does not consume the bush. And precisely because of this the bush can be ablaze without losing itself. This is no consuming black hole. This is being fully alive.

From earlier thoughts on Moses’s encounter with God at the burning bush:

Moses-and-the-Burning-Bush-from-In-the-Beginning-by-Abraham-RattnerMoses sees the contradiction but cannot explain it. He experiences it but cannot account for it. He says it (/bərniNG bo͝oSHē/) but must unsay it because the semantics disallow it. It contradicts the prevailing definitions of ‘fire’ and ‘bush’. We don’t have definitions for “fire” and “bush” that can meaningfully accommodate “burning bush.”

The burning bush is ‘categorically inexplicable’. It is ‘given’ – there it is – and so undeniable. But it is only known in the combining of otherwise contradictory modes of being. Burning bushes are consumed. That’s what bushes are and that’s what fire does to bushes. All our textbooks say so. And yet this fire doesn’t need this bush, and this bush isn’t consumed by this fire.

That “and yet” is the moment when you connect to something you don’t have categories to possess, something you cannot turn into your cognitive property. You experience yourself as someone else’s, as thought by, as written by, as spoken into being. I don’t know how else to express it.

Burning bush transcendence is not black hole transcendence. Where the latter disassembles and devours, the former frees and fulfills. If burning bush transcendence represents the categorically inexplicable, it is not on account of that existentially inaccessible (the way black holes are). In a black hole there are neither bushes nor fire. In God both coexist. In God bushes can burn without being consumed. The event horizon of black hole transcendence represents an absolute intolerance of created diversities. Beyond that horizon waits the crushing gravity of a dialectic totality. But the horizon of a burning bush is an ever expanding horizon where all creation is set ablaze by God without diminishment to either.

Christ is my home


“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3.1-3)

Christ is my home

What’s a home provide?
For some a place just to abide,
An address where they silently reside,
Neither addressing nor being addressed—
Merely a place to hide.

For some home is war,
Daily casualties in store,
A fist, or maybe a head, pushed through a door,
Bruises on the outside and in by unnecessary sin—
Toys and blood on the floor.

For others home is striving,
Driven parents, driven kids trying,
Life a competition, achieving that ‘A’ and if not just crying,
Love and affirmation achieved as compensation—
Always climbing but never arriving.

Christ is my home,
The one place on earth I’m never alone,
Where irrevocable love is unconditionally shown,
Where I cannot die or fail to have light to see—
Where to be is to be fully loved and known.

(Tom Belt)

Minnesota flow


I’m so gone
Flowin out to sea,
but believe that I float on,
Ain’t no rest for me;
Wanna quit, but I go on
Minnesota flow,
Betta put your coats on
And act like you know—here we go;
Pushin on the gas like a stunt driver
Leading the charge into battle,
I am the front rider,
Of the Calvary, buffalo soldier regiment
Lyrical layers on layers, piling like its sediment
It’s evident the game needs some foreign exchange,
I was married to the music, now things are worn and estranged,
Cuz in ignorance and insanity, they crown the deranged
But the Lyrical Doctor is in, getting minds rearranged
I could flow for days, but I’ll stop here at sixteen,
Seeing two visions of the world, like a split screen
Walking the world, but still living the Ethereal
High off the Spirit showing glory in the material.

(Dwayne Polk)

Existential arguments for (im)passibility—Part 6


I began this series by noting how difficult existential arguments are to evaluate. What a person decides is ‘existentially best’ (i.e., what constitutes a more existentially fulfilling experience) is always based on some perceived end, and we often pursue conflicting ends. Chocolate is from the perspective of taste a better existential value than kale. But from the perspective of health, kale is a more valuable experience. I’ve suggested that existential arguments for divine (im)passibility focus on the structure of aesthetic experience understood from a certain perspective, that is, within the truth of our end or telos in God. I’ve tried to weave this structure into how I consider (im)passibilist views of God’s nature. In this final Part 6 I’d like engage Paul Fiddes’s comments from Part 5 (sticking to his bold outline) in the hopes of further clarifying the debate. Just to be clear, when I speak of God’s “essential suffering” I mean the (ad intra) suffering of the divine nature or essence.

Theodicy of consolation
Fiddes believes divine consolation is bolstered if we affirm God’s essential suffering:

Believing that God suffers in God’s own self and so understands their predicament at first hand may in the end be more convincing to sufferers than any formal theodicy can be.

He construes consolation as a form of presence with those suffering, a presence which is not itself an explanation of evil, nor an excuse, nor a justification of human misery. Consolation rests simply in the knowledge that “our suffering has not cut [us] off from God,” that “God is with [us]” and “does not abandoned [us].” I agree it certainly is a consolation to know our suffering does not cut us off from God or make God inaccessible to us. Fiddes goes on then to argue that while it is one thing to posit the intimate presence of God with us in our misery, it is a greater and more consoling truth to posit God suffering with us.

At this point I want to question certain assumptions at work. Is it really the case that we universally derive consolation, encouragement, and grace from knowing that our suffering is multiplied outside our experience into the experience of others, even those who are present with us? I don’t see that this follows. From a certain despairing point of view I can see a person in misery feeling better at discovering their misery is reproduced in others. But surely this would count as the kind of despairing passibilism Fiddes warns against. However, if I’m being tortured, or suffering cancer, or have all I possess washed away in a tsunami, it would be of no consolation to me to know that those I love are suffering the same loss, or that their experience is one of misery and suffering on account of me. On the contrary, it would be a consolation to me to know that the greater realities and relationships that define me are not reduced to such misery.

Is there no consolation we receive from God’s sharing the weaknesses and struggles of the human journey? There is indeed. I discussed Hebrews 2 and 4. There is consolation in having beside me someone I know has faced the struggles I am facing and who was not reduced to failure and despair I may find myself in. When I lose a grandchild, am I encouraged to have someone beside me who has also lost a grandchild? Yes, but not someone defined without remainder by the pain of that loss. What grace and encouragement do I derive from this? But as we noted in considering Hebrews 2 and 4, that shared experience is had by God via Incarnation. The consolation and empathy described there is explicitly grounded in Christ’s “having been made” like us “in order to become a high priest,” i.e., in order to lift human nature into a representative perfection inclusive of us all.

I don’t doubt that there is a certain existential relief that a suffering person derives from knowing others are in the same pain they are in. But it is a confirmation of despair and not a healing consolation simply to reproduce their pain ad infinitum in others or in God, and not to introduce into their perspective a healing and transforming perspective that empowers their meaning-making capacities in the appropriation of divine consolation and grace.


A theodicy of story
Fiddes sees that we meaning-make or world-construct in a narrative framework. That is, we write or compose the meaning of our existence by situating it within the context of a larger story or narrative. Fiddes explains:

We may, then, be helped to cope with suffering and find some hope in the midst of it, if we place alongside our story some greater story, a story of suffering which does have meaning…We find in the Gospel passion narrative that Jesus himself depends on a story like this. In the midst of his agony, he recalls the little story of the righteous sufferer in Psalm 22, and out of his silence he speaks the words from that story: ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ It is a cry of protest…but even in that cry he is beginning to relate his experience of death to God. In turn, the story of the cross of Jesus itself becomes a paradigm that we can place alongside our suffering, to see what meaning emerges.

There is an important truth here. We do indeed learn to world-construct by situating our individual stories within a larger story. We all do this naturally. And when our immediate experience is one of pain and loss, we seek meaning within our loss by situating ourselves within a larger narrative we believe provides us a perspective that gives meaning to our suffering. Here I think we see clearly where passibislist and impassibilist approaches diverge Christologically.

The story of the cross does indeed become a paradigm in which we perceive our own suffering “to see what meaning emerges.” The question is What do we see? At ‘ground zero’ (i.e., the Cross), I think the New Testament shows us the power of the divine identity world-constructing, meaning-making, within the constraints of human being rejected by others and crucified alone. I don’t want to unnecessarily lengthen this post, so I’ll just point you here and here for our view on transcendence and the cross.

Part of what divides passibilists and impassibilists is that the former seek to incorporate suffering and pain as meaning within the larger story or creation. Their experience of evil has to mean something. Evil has to play a positive part in composing the abiding meaning of existence, and the way it does this in an abiding, permanent way is through playing such a part within God whose life is viewed as achieved dialectically through a fallen and suffering creation. And in believing God (ad intra) to be shaped by evil and suffering, I’m empowered to see how evil and suffering can have a meaningful role in my own identity. I don’t think I’m being unfair to passibilists here. This seems to be the standard view.

My view is different, obviously. I world-construct by taking the same essential steps. That is, I situate my suffering within God’s own embodied meaning-making journey. But where the passibilist uploads the existential pain of suffering evil into the divine identity and experience ad intra (becoming constitutive of that identity essentially) and in so doing construes his effect upon and within God as his meaning, I download the divine identity into the embodied meaning-making capacities of human being and view that empowered perspective as transformative in precisely the opposite direction Fiddes proposes. The divine identity (in this case divine sonship or filiation) is an infinitely superior virus (forgive the backward analogy!) that infects every conceivable finite perspective with truth which exposes evil (and thus the suffering of evil) as the lie and illusion that it is—exposes it as false, that is, rather than construing it as meaningful. So instead of being comforted in suffering by believing the evil I suffer will forever shape who I am and so not be meaningless, I am comforted in suffering by coming to see that who I truly am (Rom 8.15) cannot be harmed or defined by the meaninglessness of evil.

Whether and how a person views this as good news is, I suggest, itself determined by whether and how one has come to terms with the Void, the truth of God’s calling one into being ex nihilo (out of nothing). Part of evil’s abiding victory in us is its convincing us to immortalize it, and what better way to immortalize it than to have God essentially defined by it? The cross is where and how that happens for passibilists. In my view the cross is where and how God’s fullness is definitive of our truest identity in spite of suffering.

A theodicy of free will
Fiddes then proposes three reasons for believe human free will entails divine passibilism. He first claims that if God grants creatures a measure of say-so to determine outcomes that do not conform to God’s purposes and desires, God must be frustrated. A “loving relationship allows the risk of freedom to other, and therefore involves pain.”

Why believe that? See Dr. Phil’s disastrous prescription to parents: “As parents, you are only as happy as your saddest child.” I don’t deny the world is full of people who construe their own well-being in such codependent terms. But this is an example of passibilism’s failing to heed Fiddes’s warning not to reduce itself to the despair of dysfunctional perspectives and codependency.

Secondly, Fiddes suggests:

A second reason why self-limitation means suffering is because this humility of God allows something strange and alien to emerge from God’s own creation. There is something that God has not planned, something to be confronted, something therefore to be suffered.

That creaturely freedom introduces novelties is true. Any open theist will agree. Even someone like Bulgakov can agree to the emergence of unpredictable outcomes and can say they are, in an important sense, new to God. But this is carefully qualified. Yes, there are events that occur “God has not planned.” But that such events are “something therefore to be suffered” because unforeseen in their actuality? Again, I’m very familiar with this passibilist refrain, but it is not self-evidently true. It doesn’t follow that if I open myself to the unpredictable per se I open myself to having my experienced sense of well-being constituted dialectically through what happens to me.

A third reason Fiddes suggests for why God’s granting us free will entails divine suffering is because God takes responsibility for freely creating the world in which people suffer. God assumes this responsibility, Fiddes argues, in suffering in Christ on the cross.


I once argued this myself. I can appreciate wanting to avoid a view of God as not involved in the fate of the world he created, but that God’s suffering is to be construed as “taking responsibility” for having created? We look to the final revelation of God within creation (Rom 8.18) to reconcile us to an account of God’s purposes that satisfies. But to suppose that God answers to human interrogation because he is in any just sense “to blame” is disastrous, for it would construe God to suffer to redeem himself as well as us, to reconcile himself to the world (where Paul has God reconciling the world to himself in Christ), to satisfy a justice extrinsic to his himself and to all his own actions. Incarnation would become the price-tag, a punishment, a fulfillment of justice, for having created and not creation’s crowning and definitive fulfillment.

Let me address finally Fiddes’s criticisms of an understanding of love that does not entail vulnerability to suffering. Richard Creel has argued (2005) it is conceivable that if God knows that evil will finally be overcome he would not share the anguish that we feel. An example of this would be a parent who does not share emotionally in the distress of her child when the parent knows her child is frightened by a danger that is imaginary. I’ve suggested the same analogy myself.

Fiddes objects. He first objects on the basis of an open view of the future. “If there can be unknown elements for God in a future whose outline God is nevertheless certain about,” Fiddes reasons, “this gives plenty of room for genuine empathy with us.” Does it? That all depends on what one views to be the certain outline of creation’s future. Fiddes supposes an open future would necessarily be ‘open’ with respect to creaturely well-being in ways not also included in that “outline God is nevertheless certain about.” But what would such contingencies be relative to creation’s final end? For this objection to work, one would have to suppose that the final well-being of creatures would have to lie outside that “outline” which God is “nevertheless certain about.” But what if creation’s final well-being lies within the outline of creation’s future that is known to God? Creel’s point would stand.

Fiddes has a second objection to Creel’s analogy. What the parent would feel depends, Fiddes argues, upon whether the parent’s feelings illustrate “what human love is like.” And “the picture of an unperturbed mother,” Fiddes objects, “misses the nature of sympathetic suffering as a necessary form of communication between persons.” If the parent is “truly in contact with her child it is quite appropriate for her to share the child’s feelings of distress.”

But this is no objection to Creel. The question is whether it is inappropriate (or even possible) for the parent to communicate care and concern for the child without sharing the child’s distress over imagined dangers. And we know this is possible because we know ourselves to attend lovingly to our children without being defined in the least by their distress. It does nothing to miscommunicate to a frightened child to have a loving parent embrace and rescue it joyfully from a nightmare.

This same point is embodied in Frances Young’s experience. Young relates how her experience of raising a severely disabled child shaped her view of how God is present in a supportive and grace-imparting way to her. Young concludes that those who suffer and who seek to world-construct within the resources of faith must do so in the belief that there remains an essential sense in which God is not vulnerable to or defined by our suffering, for this is the space in which we come to world-construct in healthy, supportive, and grace-filled ways.

However, when Young experienced her turning point in hearing God say “It makes no difference to me whether you believe in me or not,” she faced and entered the Void, the truth of the nothingness out of which God calls us into being unconditionally and in love. Fiddes responds by limiting creation’s “indifference” to God to the mere fact that God exists at all. Certainly we cannot make a difference to whether God exits. God exists necessarily. We don’t get to determine that. “However,” Fiddes argues, “we need not equate self-existence with self-sufficiency. A God who exists from nothing but God’s self can still choose to be fulfilled in the manner of that existence through fellowship with created beings, to be open to being affected and changed by them.” (emphasis mine)

Fiddes’ final quote there reveals the crux of the matter—the relationship between God’s existence as such (on the one hand) and the aesthetic sufficiency of God’s experienced triune relations (on the other hand). That God exists at all is necessary and so not open to contribution or determination by creatures. But how God exists—the felt quality of his experience, his aesthetic fulfillment, the beatitude of his essential, triune actuality—is understood by passibilists as contingent and open to determination by us, and were it not so our lives would be (to the extent we do not determine God) meaningless, for our meaning is the difference we make to God. We here have argued to the contrary that God’s self-existence and self-sufficiency are perfectly convertible and open to participation (not determination) by us, and were it not so our lives would be meaningless.