Suffering and the search for meaning—Part 2


I don’t intend to respond to each of the seven theodicies Richard Rice surveys and which I briefly summarized in Part 1. There are, however, a couple of interesting points that Rice himself raises which I’d like comment on before I add an eighth approach to Rice’s seven.

As I emphasized this summer in reviewing existential arguments for (im)passibility (Parts 1-6), it’s difficult to evaluate how well particular beliefs help a person world-construct in healthy and transformative ways, particularly because what counts as ‘healthy’ is part of what is in dispute in existential arguments. At the same time, however, there’s no avoiding existential questions. Christianity is ultimately a life to be lived. As ubiquitous as evil and suffering are, it is precisely our living that throws us into the path of questions about the relationship between God’s goodness and providence (on the one hand) and evil and suffering (on the other). We are incurable meaning-makers who must integrate life’s experiences into a narrative that satisfies both heart and mind. Everybody has to sort this out for him/herself, of course, and Rice recognizes this.

We should distinguish between one of Rice’s seven theodicies and all the rest. The first approach he mentions (Perfect Plan Theodicy) maintains that all evil and suffering are unconditionally decreed by God. No other theodicy Rice lists takes this particular view of God’s relationship to evil, and for that reason I think we can draw our first distinction between Perfect Plan theodicies and every other theodicy that at least attempts to take creaturely freedom seriously. I respect the experience of those who find the Perfect Plan model meaningful and satisfying, but I don’t find it existentially viable on any level. There’s just no making sense of a God whose being is pure beatitude and holy delight exhaustively and unconditionally determining the evil and suffering of our world in the sense this theodicy maintains.

Of the other six approaches Rice describes, there are features I resonate with, so let me describe those features briefly.

First, there’s the integrity of the agency or ‘say-so’ God endows us with to determine ourselves in morally responsible ways. Whatever the extent to which one views created ‘say-so’ as having the power to realize evils not willed by God, it remains the case that created causes are real and do not collapse into mere occasions whose evil and suffering unfold in time the timeless will of God. This view of agency, or libertarian free will (not as the absolute unconstrained freedom to determine oneself without reference to transcendent goods and orientations), is an abiding feature throughout all the options Rice summarizes other than Perfect Plan theodicy.

Second, it was interesting to see Rice introduce the traditional understanding of evil as a privatio boni (privation of the good). Evil has no being or substance of its own but exists merely in a negative sense as a failure of what is to be all it was created to be. It is thus a diminished experience of the Good. It seems to me (as I’ve much argued the point on this blog) that the implications of this view of evil are vastly underappreciated, for once one admits evil as privation of the good, one admits a Supreme Good (viz., God) incapable of privation. And once this is admitted, it fundamentally guides and empowers meaning-making in a fallen and suffering world.

Burning Fiery FurnaceHowever we integrate our experiences of evil and suffering into a meaningful narrative that satisfies the mind and empowers our living for God, God cannot be viewed as willing evil or as willing his own privated forms of reflection within the world. Such willing would itself be privation. The essential point is that if there is privation of the good, there must be an undiminished and absolute Supreme Good. This has huge implications for meaning-making. Not only is evil not itself willed by God, but neither can the evil willed by us through our free choice manufacture within God or within our perfected forms (as contingent, embodied reflections of God) any sort of positive moment or contribution of beauty. Evil is in the strictest sense meaningless (or meaninglessness itself).

Interestingly, this understanding of God as the summum bonum becomes part of Rice’s argument against Protest theodicies (though it never takes center stage in his own understanding of how we meaning-make in the face of suffering). On what basis, Rice argues, does one ‘protest’ believing in the good in the face of horrendous evil if the conclusion of such protest is the eradication of the good needed to get the protest off the ground in the first place? Protest theodicies are self-contradictory because they seek to deny what their principled protest requires, namely, an undiminished and absolute Good to which the goodness of all things is related, from which all things derive their goodness, and by which all finite goods and claims are measured.

On a somewhat related note, I think the failure to understand the undiminished nature of the Good along concrete, existential lines is the fundamental mistake of all passibilisms. This has enormous implications for how we find meaning in suffering as well.

Lastly, I want to register my interest in soul-making approaches. While I don’t agree that actual evils contribute positively to God’s purposes, I do think there’s something worth affirming in the claim that we cannot become all God designs and calls us to be apart from certain challenges. I suggest that there’s no getting around having to world-construct (toward full, hypostatic-personal being) in the face of the truth about our createdness, and that truth includes our finitude as created ex nihilo, and in my view that means mortality. Apart from the experience of mortality we have no way to comprehend the truth of such radical finitude and contingency. Our fullest personal being is our truest being, and the truth of our being includes the truth of our being created ex nihilo. That ‘nothingness’ is the one truth we have to world-construct in light of if we’re going to live a meaningful life. So in our view mortality is a grace when seen as an embodiment of the truth of our finitude, a way to experience ourselves as created ex nihilo.

This is not to say misrelating to mortality in despairing ways (when ‘mortality’ becomes ‘death’ as viewed theologically) is necessary. One has only to embrace the truth of one’s existence as unconditionally given freely and ex nihilo. As much as we talk about creation ex nihilo, I think we forget to figure it into our understanding of the structure of human becoming and perfection. We talk about creation ex nihilo a lot. We experience it very little. So while I don’t affirm soul-making in the sense that I think who we finally become is positively shaped by evil or that we come to embody a goodness that is inconceivable apart from evil, I do think who we are meant by God to become cannot be embraced by us apart from our perceiving and embracing the truth of the nihil out of which God unconditionally called us into being. I’m happy to describe seeing and embracing that truth as a “soul making” moment. But I don’t see anything evil about finitude or mortality per se, though it can occasion suffering.


In summary then, the key meaning-making resources I gather from the seven approaches Rice describes are as follows:

(1) The necessity of libertarian free will for human being. Properly understood, such exercise of the will is fundamental to our achieving God’s ends for us even if it is not the fullest expression of our freedom in Christ. However God is ultimately responsible for creating a world facing possibilities for both good and evil, he does not will evil and suffering as such, so the popular “there’s a purpose for everything that happens” isn’t a viable truth for meaning-making.

(2) Evil as privation. Understanding evil as privation of the good is inseparable from understanding God as the summum bonum (the Supreme Good) as well as inseparable from understanding the rational structure of aesthetic perception and volition as irrevocably oriented toward the Good. So if there isn’t a specific divine purpose for every evil that occurs, there nevertheless is divine purpose in or available to everything that occurs. Simply stated, no privation of evil can so diminish our lives that we become inseparable from God’s purposes. We may suffer evils God does not will, evil that does not lie within the scope of his purposes for us, but these evils cannot permanently foreclose on us all possibility of realizing our truest purpose and meaning. Again, this radically shapes how we perceive the meaning of our lives relative to suffering.

(3) Qualified soul-making. Soul-making approaches are right to emphasize that perfection is the end of human being, not its beginning. And the ends for which we are created have to be chosen, learned, and acquired. Human fulfillment is a creative achievement. Such choice requires a context in which we can responsibly choose in light of the truth of our finitude and the nothingness from which God calls us to be. Finitude must embrace the truth about itself, and that is a painful journey – though not necessarily an evil one.

To which I’d add:

(4) God’s undiminished beatitude as the summum bonum. A qualified sense of apatheia, or God’s undiminished beatitude as the summum bonum, is a fundamental truth for human meaning-making. Believing God’s triune beatitude is undiminished by evil and suffering provides a radically different framework within which we world-construct and process meaning. This is perhaps the most significant aspect of my difference with all the models Rice surveys. None of them takes time to contemplate God’s experienced triune beatitude as that about God which constitutes his being the summum bonum (the highest good and supreme value). But once the link between God’s experienced beatitude and God as the highest good and greatest value is made, one then finds meaning in suffering quite differently than any of the approaches Rice discusses. Evil does not come to mean anything. As I’ve argued often, our meaning is not the difference we make to God (i.e., the difference our suffering makes to God as he suffers as we suffer), but the difference God makes to us (i.e., the transcendent healing which God’s joy and delight provide in our suffering).

If I boil down points 1 through 4 into an eighth approach to suffering, I wouldn’t know what to call it. Perhaps:

Undiminished divine delight | Therapeutic theodicy
Participation in God | Theosis theodicy

I’ll end with a passage from Daniel 3 which should explain my choice of pictures attending this post, all depicting Nebuchadnezzar’s throwing the three Jewish men into the consuming fires of a furnace:

“Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego…were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace…Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, ‘Were not there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire? Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods’.” (Daniel Ch 3)

What’s the powerful imagery of this story have to do with the points I’ve here tried to express regarding suffering within the framework of God’s undiminished beatitude? If you have to ask, I’ve done a lousy job of explaining myself.

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. I don’t mean prior in the sense of it being something you leave behind when the drama of life demands that you give your attention to other things. Rather, prior in the sense of it’s being true before anything else is true about you and so as the measure by which the truth of every other experience is exposed and determined.

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 are pure ‘gift’ 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 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 outside the eye.

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.

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 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. Their 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 our thought and language makes God out 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 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 but cannot explain. 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 that account 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.

Existential arguments for (im)passibility—Part 5

Steven-Lavaggi_ConsolationSince I favor a qualified impassibilist approach to divine suffering, I want in this Part 5 to give passibilist approaches room to express. So I’ll simply reproduce portions from Paul Fiddes’s Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (2000). Fiddes is a British Baptist Professor of Systematic Theology (University of Oxford). I appreciate his attempt to explore the pastoral implications of one’s beliefs on this question. All but the final paragraph comes from Ch 5 “The Vulnerable God and the Problem of Suffering.” I’ll come back in a final Part 6 to reflect upon Fiddes’s comments and close this series out.

Is a Theodicy Possible?
The moment of acute suffering, such as the loss of a child in an accident or the sudden death of a partner in middle life, is not of course the time for the past to offer theological arguments about the problem of suffering. But I suggest that the way pastors act and react in this situation will be guided by the image of God that they hold. Even more profoundly, it will be influenced by what they believe can become possible through participation, or deeper participation, in the triune God…

Basic to any understanding of the problem of suffering is, I suggest, the idea of the suffering of God, or the self-emptying (kenosis) of God. In recent years it has seemed to many theologians and ordinary Christians that an essential element in any theodicy is the belief that God suffers with creation. It seems to fit particularly well with a move away from an interventionist or coercive picture of God’s activity, to the picture we were considering in the last chapter – that is, one in which God acts with loving persuasion on the inside of nature, luring creation from within towards a fullness of life. Centuries of traditional belief about the impassibility of God have been overturned in our age, whether by theologians or devotional writers. I believe that this revolution has been right and necessary. Yet, I want to place a warning sign early on. Much talk about the suffering of God is merely sentimental, even romantic, and does not face the real problems it raises….So as soon as we dare to speak of a suffering God, the theologian is faced with some hard questions. Is the belief that God suffers with the world really a theodicy, or is it a despairing view of God who is just as much of a victim of evil as we are?

What light, then, is cast on the problem of evil by affirming that God suffers with humanity? How does it help us practically in our experience of suffering to say that God suffers too? Here we may consider four kinds of theodicy, all of which, I suggest, are strengthened immeasurably by a belief in the suffering of God.

A theodicy of consolation
A first kind of theodicy aims at consolation and is sometimes called a ‘practical’ theodicy. No attempt is made to explain the existence of evil, or to excuse the goodness of the Creator, or to justify the mountain of human misery represented by the names of Auschwitz or Babi Yar, Hiroshima or Rwanda. Instead, it is simply being claimed that it is consoling to those who suffer to know that God is with them, that suffering has no cut them off from God…In this situation, it is affirmed, God does not abandon the victims. It can readily be seen that this theodicy is strengthened by the affirmation that the God who is with them also suffers alongside them, and so understands their situation from within.

This is really less of a rational argument than a picture of God that has psychological effect upon the sufferer. No attempt is being made to argue that the suffering of God somehow accounts for human misery. But 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.

A theodicy of story
There is, second, a more modern version of the ‘practical approach to theodicy’, that we might call the theodicy of story. Again there is no attempt to produce a rational argument about the problem of evil and suffering, but instead an appeal is simply made to the power of stories of others who have suffered, which can help us to find some meaning in the story of our own lives and our own suffering…

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.

A theodicy of protest
Still in the area of what we might call practical rather than theoretical theodicies, there is the theodicy which is characterized by protest. Rather than finding an intellectual explanation for suffering, we engage in protest against it and against those who inflict it. This can be called a ‘theodicy’ rather than ‘protest atheism’, when protest and resistance arises from the conviction that God too protests against the dealers in pain, and is on the side of the victims. The theologians of liberation have been particularly critical of Western theology in this respect; what is important, they insist, is not to explain suffering but to change the factors in society that cause it…

Now, a believer that God suffers can be a strong support to this kind of theodicy. If God suffers then God too, as Leonardo Boff points out, is to be numbered among the victims and not among the torturers, murderers and oppressors…

Sufferers rightly protest against their suffering. God protests with the protesters because God too suffers. There is a mutuality between the two experiences: if God suffers then God too protests, and a God who protests against suffering cannot be the cause of it…

A belief in the suffering of God thus strengthens three kinds of practical theodicy – those of consolation, story and protest. Moreover, I want to suggest that each of these becomes even more practical when we affirm that the suffering God exists in triune relationships, and that God has made room for us to participate in these movements of relationship. As with our discussion of God’s action in the world in the previous chapter, the invitation to participate more deeply in the interweaving patterns of the divine life is at the heart of the matter. If, to begin with, we take the theodicy of consolation, the affirmation that God is ‘alongside us’ in our suffering may be understood as our involvement in currents of relational love that are already there before us. God is present because we are present in God. We are not simply accompanied by another individual who suffers, but embraced by movements of suffering love – like those, for instance, between a father who has lost a beloved son and a son who has been forsaken and abandoned by all whom he loves.

A theodicy of free will

The central point is that, if created persons are to be given a genuine freedom to make real choices, then God must limit God’s own self. In allowing persons to grow and develop as adults, God must give them room to be themselves. God must take a risk on them, so that they can ‘come of age’…Thus God must limit God’s own self in the act of creation. The technical term usually applied to this is kenosis – the self-emptying of God. Freedom for the world therefore means self-limitation for God. While this has been increasingly accepted by Christian theologians today, not all draw the conclusion that this must also mean suffering for God. We can, however, see that this is bound to be true in at least three ways.

In the first place, the giving of freedom to created beings means that God is going to suffer some frustration of the divine purposes and desires…A loving relationship allows the risk of freedom to the other, and therefore involves pain.

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.

This leads to a third reason why the self-limitation of God entails the suffering of God. The emergence of non-being [i.e. evil] raises the matter of divine responsibility for a broken world. While the free-will defense argues that the emergence is not absolutely necessary in our world, it is very likely to develop through free choices when human beings are immature and the divine glory is veiled…In short, God took a considerable risk in granting radical freedom to creation. While not directly creating evil and suffering, God puts the world into this situation. In the Hebraic-Christian tradition, God is not then absolved from final responsibility in choosing to make a free world at all, and in taking such a severe risk.

If God exposes a creation to the high risk of slipping into non-being, God too will face the outcome of the risk. But then this is what the Christian story of the cross of Jesus tells us. God does take responsibility….

Later in the same chapter Fiddes discusses several understandings of love that do not entail vulnerability to suffering. He first names the classical tradition of course, which I won’t get into here. Secondly, then:

A more modern version of love without suffering, and so without change, runs like this: unlike us, God knows that that evil will finally be overcome, and so cannot share the anguish that we feel. [Richard] Creel, for example, gives the example of a mother who (supposedly) does not share emotionally in the distress of a child when she knows that the child is being frightened by a danger which is only imaginary. So, Creel, argues, ‘we cannot rule out the possibility that God knows something about our destiny that renders it inappropriate for him to be disturbed by our suffering in this life’. In reply, we may return to our earlier consideration of God’s knowledge of the future [Fiddes, incidentally, adopts an open view of the future]; if there can be unknown elements for God in a future whose outline God is nevertheless certain about, this gives plenty of room for genuine empathy with us. But we may also notice that Creel’s argument depends quite largely upon whether we are convinced by his illustration of what human love is like. The picture of the unperturbed mother misses, I suggest, the nature of sympathetic suffering as a necessary form of communication between persons. Whatever superior knowledge she has, for the mother to be truly in contact with her child it is quite appropriate for her to share the child’s feelings of distress. When we apply this analogy to God, we can see again how theodicies of consolation and protest require this intimate communication through suffering; indeed, communication with the triune God means nothing less than participation in God.

Human love always involves some suffering in sympathy with others, and this in turn means being changed by others; it seems meaningless to apply the analogy of love to God unless we are willing to affirm these characteristics in God also. A merely beneficent love does not, in any case, meet the test of theodicy.

A third strategy for moderating the vulnerability of God accepts much of the linkage between love, suffering and change. But it is suggested that while God is indeed affected by human suffering, God still remains in told control of these effects upon the divine life. As Marcel Sarot puts it, ‘God may be influenced by the world, as long as this influence is subject to his will’, so that ‘God remains master of his own passibility’…Sarot thus affirms a ‘qualified form of passibility’ in God in which God is passible but never passive, since God has command over any impact from outside.

Eventually Fiddes makes his way to discussing a fourth qualified impassibilist approach, Frances Young. Her Face to Face: A Narrative Essay in the Theology of Suffering is a wonderful, heart-wrenching and extremely thoughtful reflection by Young on her raising a severely brain-damaged son. Fiddes reflects:

9780281070459From this experience [Young] has come to the conclusion that we can only cope with suffering if there is some aspect of God which is immune from suffering – which is detached, impassible, invulnerable.

Young marks the turning point in her spiritual journey towards a new sense of the reality of God as being a moment when she heard a voice within her saying, ‘It makes no difference to me whether you believe in me or not’. She interprets this inner voice as meaning that in one dimension of Good’s being, it makes no difference whether the world rejects God’s love and suffers the inevitable consequences of its refusal of God’s purposes. God is untouched. However at the same times she does want to say that there is another aspect of God’s being which is immersed in the world, and which does suffer…

[W]hat is so challenging about Frances Young’s account is not her appeal to a negative theology, but her own story. She has found reason for this picture of God in her own experience that it helps to find people who seem to be detached from your own suffering, in the sense that they are not overwhelmed by it. They stand like granite, or they are as stable as the depths of the ocean. This has been her experience as someone who has both received care and offered care to others. Faced by the sorrow of some friends whose baby had been stillborn, she relates how she found that she could be of not help while she was ‘re-living her own pain’, her own ‘protest at the suffering of the world’. She discerned that she was ‘too involved’, and it was only when the self-involvement was purged that she could become of any use to her friends. So God, she concludes, ‘is not emotionally involved [with us] in a self-concerned way’; he assures us that ‘It makes no difference to me…’ while at the same times in Christ ‘he subjected himself to personal involvement in pain and anguish’.

Fiddes then respectfully assesses Young’s conclusions:

I feel a sense of presumption in daring to comment upon such a testimony, born out of so many years of self-giving love. However, I want to suggest two responses to this witness, while thoroughly respecting its integrity. We can surely sympathize with the desire for a God whose existence is not threatened by suffering, as ours is, and this can be considered from the two perspectives of origin and destination. First, as the only ‘unoriginate’ reality, God owes nothing to anyone or anything for the origin of God’s existence. Traditionally, this has been called the ‘aseity’ of God; God exists from no one except from God’s own self (a se). However, 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.

Second, Frances Young is rightly pointing out that a sufferer will not be helped if the one caring for her is overwhelmed by his or her own feelings of distress, or becomes erratic in response because of these emotions. But, with regard to God as the supreme carer, this need is not best met by keeping back an area of God’s life that is invulnerable, an untouched reservoir of bliss. I do not think that we can speak of a God who shares the risk and responsibility of creation – an essential part of theodicy – if God puts part of the divine being into a zone of immunity. The need for a carer who is not herself broken by suffering is surely best met by showing how a suffering God will finally bring about the end of evil, and will achieve the fulfillment of divine purposes.

And finally, later in Ch. 7, Fiddes expands on God’s deepest experience of suffering on the cross with which I’ll bring this Part 5 to an end and plan on returning with my own reflections later.

God can enter with empathy into the human experience of the breaking of relations because the triune life is existence in relationships which have an otherness about them. It is not the God abandons God, that one person of the Trinity expels another. Rather, God is willing to experience God’s own relationships in a new way in the face of death. God is willing to allow otherness to become alienation, to take a journey into the unknown, into ‘no man’s land’. This is a risk for God, sharing the risk of creation. What it might mean for the divine life cannot be predicted ahead of its happening, any more than can any journey of forgiving love. God is open to the strangeness of the new, dark movement in the dance of love. God encounters death, and uses it to define deity, in victory over death as the living God.

Existential arguments for (im)passibility—Part 4


“Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh 8.10)
“You rejoice with an unspeakable and glorious joy, for you are receiving
the salvation of your souls.” (1Pet 1.8)
“The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking,
but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14.17)

In this Part 4 I hope to evaluate (im)passibilist understandings of God in terms of the structure of aesthetic experience described in Part 3. I’ll jump between ‘aesthetic valuation’, ‘meaning-making’, and ‘world-constructing’ as equivalent terms for how the Self organizes and structures experience. Let me begin by suggesting a breakdown of the process.

  • First, we have an experience.
  • Secondly, we interpret that experience relative to the Self.
  • Thirdly, we respond emotionally based on our interpretation of the experience.
  • Fourthly, our emotions motivate us to choose some behavior designed to celebrate, share, promote or defend the Self. Emotions are strategies for maintaining the Self.
  • Fifthly, we evaluate our behavior to see if it was successful at securing the Self’s well-being as intended, and the process keeps going.


By ordering them sequentially I don’t mean to suggest we always consciously separate them. We typically process life’s experience on these levels as a seamless whole. Steps 1 through 3 are particularly difficult to separate. We have, interpret, and feel an experience as a single event. But we’re certainly capable of making the distinction between stages. That’s why human transformation in Christ is even possible.

Experiences are interpreted by the Self in terms of the Self’s understanding of its own well-being. If an experience is interpreted as a threat to the Self, we may experience this as fear, anger, embarrassment, shame, etc. It all depends on how one interprets the threat in light of one’s competencies. If a lion is chasing us, we will most likely experience a fear that motivates us to run. If someone insults or makes fun of us, we may respond by choosing to defend ourselves in anger or attack in return. If someone admires and loves us, we interpret this as beneficial to the Self and experience its value as increased well-being (joy, delight, etc.). The important point to note is that interpretation and aesthetic valuation are performed by the Self (self-identity), and every Self is of course committed to some understanding of what it believes constitutes its well-being.

Unfortunately, the Self at the center of our lives is more often than not some “false self,” false in the sense that we construct our Self and well-being contrary to the truth of our truest identity in Christ (Eph 4.22-24). Take a Self that identifies its well-being in terms of material possessions and wealth. It’s not difficult to imagine how such a person would interpret being robbed or facing bankruptcy. Such a Self would ‘meaning-make’ within its belief that the meaning of life is in one’s material possessions. The response might be depression, anxiety, panic, or anger as one contemplates behaviors one believes have the best chance of restoring to the Self what it views as its well-being—wealth. We can easily imagine similar scenarios for a dozen different “false selves”—those who grew up learning that their worth and value are in physical beauty, or in the acquiring of knowledge or educational accomplishment, or in achieving power as social or political status, or in the escape that drugs provide, or in the approval of others. There is no shortage of false ways we try to be fulfilled human beings.

I need to add here that a certain sense of aesthetic satisfaction can be had by false selves who have experiences that only confirm their illusions. A materialist Self might experience a new tax policy as benefiting his well-being. But what is felt as pleasurable is only increasing ‘existential despair’ (if I may borrow from Kierkegaard). The existential ‘release’ a materialist gets from taking over another company and seeing its earnings increase, or the ‘rush’ an addict feels when heroin surges through her veins, or the ‘elation’ a fashion model feels when being admired by crowds of photographers—these may all be nothing but forms of existential despair even though they’re experienced as pleasurable and empowering in the moment. Such pleasure is not true human flourishing understood as well-being in anything like a Christian sense. It is like the happiness of a hungry child filling his stomach with candy. This is why we require an absolute summum bonum. Otherwise, all aesthetic experience is contingent and relative.

I bring this last point up because I want to acknowledge that theological pursuits can provide the theologian as false a sense of well-being as heroin provides an addict. Theological constructions can and often do function to secure a false self that gets life from ‘being right’ or ‘having tradition on my side’. As far as we’re able, we have to continue to assess our identity and sense of well-being in relationship with others and within the fuller biblical narrative of the gospel as it’s encountered within the God-given structure of aesthetic experience, a narrative that includes God as summum bonum, human being as radically contingent, God as the end and purpose of our existence, and our truest Self as God-given in Christ (Rom 8.15; Gal. 2.20; 4.19; Eph 4.22-24).

Let me return to the illustration above. At the center is the Self, ‘who’ we believe ourselves most fundamentally to be. If that Self is defined in terms of its contingent relations to other things in the world which are as contingent as it is (material possessions, power and status, nationality, race, gender, being a husband or wife, having children, etc.) then the Self can never be permanently secure. Its well-being will always be “at stake” in conditions that change or cease to be. It will always fear, get angry, become depressed, etc.

But let us consider redefining the Self in such a way as to free it and its perceived well-being from all the contingent relations that make up its created environment, a Self whose well-being is not what others prescribe, not its material wealth, not the shapely features of its body, not its racial or gender identity, not its physical talents or abilities to perform to the approval of others, not its social, political, or educational freedoms or accomplishments as judged by society, and not the comfort of those it loves; a Self whose identity cannot be threatened by anything in or of this world.

Is such a Self possible? How would such a Self interpret its experiences within relations and contexts which are, strictly speaking, irrelevant to its own identity? What would such a Self feel for others who hate, dismiss, or murder it? What would it feel for the suffering of those it loves?


A passibilist understands the divine identity as capable of interpretations of its experiences that generate an essentially diminished aesthetic value in response to others who reject it or in response to the suffering of others (a view which is fatal to viewing God as the summum bonum as we’ve argued). Also, healing and help for those who suffer is mediated through the belief that God suffers as we suffer. Given the relationship of aesthetic valuation to personal identity, passibilists construe the divine identity as malleable and definable by creatures. And it is precisely this affective determination of God by us which when contemplated in passibilist terms becomes our meaning and salvation. In this sense, passibilism argues that God is the truth of our pain, so I feel encouraged and sustained in my pain and suffering knowing that God is also in pain and suffering on account of me.

If I ever attempted to grow in my salvation in such passibilist terms, as I did for decades, I cannot now tell you how I processed my pain in those terms. It’s too faint a memory. I can only now say that I’ve never experienced the gift of identity more definitively present to, and unconditioned by, the pain and suffering of any moment as I experience it within the truth of God’s undiminished beatitude mediated within the Spirit’s “Abba, Father!” (Rom 8.15) In Part 2 I discussed how I consider divine apatheia to be grounded in Christ’s incarnate experience. God ‘becomes’ our High Priest who is not untouched by our weaknesses and temptations. But empathy reduces to commiseration when divorced from teleology and God as summum bonum. Christ empathizes with us by sharing the circumstances under which we suffer. He suffers what drives us insane—that is, being misunderstood, rejected, hated, tortured and murdered. But he doesn’t empathize with our suffering the consequences of having misinterpreted ourselves within those circumstances, because he never self-identified outside his God-given identity as Son, and—please here me on this—it is precisely in this difference that our salvation is wrought.

Empathy is commiseration when it is not the shared experience of someone who was not defined by our pain and suffering as we allow it to define us. In our view, much passibilist theology is simply belief in divine commiseration, and while there’s a certain comfort (viz., existential despair masquerading as pleasure) I can derive from knowing others are suffering what I’m suffering, it is not empathy as redemptive presence.


Our claim is that the divine personal identities Christians name Father, Son, and Spirit, are essentially self-sufficient in their mutual, interpenetrating love and by definition enjoy an aesthetic value antecedent to any manner of contingent experience God may have with the world. This beatitude is not a narcissistic preoccupation with oneself. Nor is it pollyannaish. Nor is God consumed with himself at the world’s expense. On the contrary, God is open to giving himself away, to creating out of love so that what he creates may participate in who he is and know his joy. So the existential question we’re asking here is, What consequence does believing this about God have for us? What does it mean for us to process our own identities and aesthetic value in the presence of a God we require to establish our identity and aesthetic value but who does not need us to establish his identity and aesthetic value?

I think the most fundamental thing to say about how this truth is perceived and experienced as healing is that the gift of life and healing is mediated from God to us as the gift of identity. All human spiritual healing and transformation is the fruit of transformed identity. There is an event, and experience (Step 1), we can have that defines the Self without reference to the world around us, an identity that is literally not of this world and so which cannot be threatened or determined by the world. As such it is the ground and source of an aesthetic satisfaction that is as undetermined by the world as the identity from which such satisfaction springs. This identity of course is our “true self” created by God and possessed by us in the risen Christ who mastered death as a human being. It is the Son’s own identity which we are given as our identity.

Essentially, there are no other truly personal identities that exist. All fully personal existence we enjoy flows from God as the gift of and invitation to participate in divine filiation or sonship. As Paul says (Rom 8.15), “You have not been given a spirit of fear which makes you slaves again”—that is, in Christ you are not condemned again to a mode of personal existence that depends for its identity and well-being upon the dysfunctional, despairing and contingent narratives which are the fallen, suffering world we live in. On the contrary, “you have been given the Spirit of adoption in whom you cry, ‘Abba, Father!’” Forgive the inset and bold, but it all boils down to this:

Who cries “Abba, Father!”? Only the Son. We are given his identity for our own. Incarnation is how God gives this gift. We now relate to God, ourselves, and the world from within God’s own self-defining cry of sonship. And so we also experience God, ourselves, and the world from within the aesthetic satisfaction of that cry. That cry is its own satisfaction. So the power of the gospel to heal and transform us is its power to include us within the Son’s own identity.

However, a very painful journey awaits those who seek to realize this identity in its fullness. That journey passes through what James Loder called the Void. Every false self must die, every attempt to establish an identity and meaning for ourselves that asserts we are more than ex nihilo, a meaning we contribute to God and in contributing to God determine him essentially. The Void is where we embrace our own nothingness, where we experience the truth of the nihilo out of which God called us into being unconditionally. But in this death is life, for on the other side of the Void is “Abba, Father!” And for those who survive the Void (or rather, who have survived the death it deals us), what threat can lesser versions of the Void (rejection, abandonment, abuse, sickness, loss of earthly relations and possessions) pose?

How would such an identity then interpret the experiences it has within the world? More specifically, how would God comfort, empower and support my meaning-making if his meaning-making is not essentially vulnerable to the failures of interpretation and diminished aesthetic value that I am vulnerable to? Does not my being-in-pain require God’s being-in-pain for me to overcome my pain? In answer to this we can only offer the biblical foundations for the healing and empowering grace of God’s transcendent beatitude as a transformative reality that lives and animates the Self within the perspective of the divine “Abba, Father!” It is the “joy of the Lord,” not his sorrow, that is “our strength.” (Neh 8) It is the “grace of God” that is perfected in “our weakness.” (2Cor 12) God’s presence and kingdom are “peace and joy.” (Rom 14.17) Peter says our very salvation is manifest in “unspeakable and glorious joy.” (1Pet 1.8) Paul describes a “peace that passes our ability to understand” (Phil 4.7) which is ours in anxious times. If I am rejected, hated, dismissed, or marginalized, persecuted, laid on the rack, strapped into a guillotine, or imprisoned—what falsification could these experiences effect in an identity whose source is eternal and unconditional and quite literally not of this world? Only paragraphs after assuring us that we are given the Son’s own “Abba, Father!” Paul concludes “Nothing—neither death, life, angels, demons, present, future, height, depth, nor any power—can separate us from the experience of the love of Christ.” (Rom 8.38) If the Self is responsible for interpreting life’s experiences and this interpretation is determinative of aesthetic experience, what can our aesthetic experience be as we learn increasingly to possess ourselves within the truth of such an identity?