The myth of ‘divine withdrawal’

crucifixionWhy the gruesome picture? Because sometimes theology gets in the way.

I continue to contemplate the crucifixion. Where was God? What was he up to? What was his part in this? What happened there that day which God gives to faith to perceive that so radically transforms the world? God-talk these days is full of references to ‘divine withdrawal’, and to the Cross as the quintessential manifestation of divine withdrawal. I’d like to reflect here a bit upon that idea.

• If we understand God to be inseparably present from creation (as its creator and sustainer), then talk of God “withdrawing” can only be a figurative expression for the phenomenological aspects of our suffering. We experience ourselves and the world in ways we explain by removing God from the scene. If God were “here,” here would be different that it is, so God must “really” be somewhere else; he must have withdrawn himself.

• But it cannot literally be the case that God withdraws himself absolutely, metaphysically speaking, such that the created things he withdraws from continue to exist in a state wholly vacated by God. Not even hell – whatever that is – can be construed as so absolute an absence of God. Consider, nothing created has created itself, nor can it sustain its own existence. Creation remains, at every level of its being, inseparable from God who is creatively present actively sustaining it and knowing what he sustains.

• Consider too that God isn’t a ‘composite’ being, i.e., he isn’t composed of parts more fundamental to him than his actual triune life. He isn’t the achievement or product of a series of divine events which combine over time to produce God’s triune fullness as its effect. “All that God is” is “everywhere God is,” and that’s everywhere without conceivable exception. God is fully all he is everywhere he is, and that means immeasurable and inseparable intimacy with created things. Any notion of divine withdrawal has to be understood as a kind of presence to things as the most intimate act of their being, even when we suffer, even as we do the evil we do. Divine withdrawal, properly understood, is a ‘mode of presence’ not of ‘absence’, a way of being with and sustaining us, not a way of being without us or moving away from us.

• The Cross cannot, then, be understood as contradicting this fundamental sense in which God is fully present, always and everywhere, creatively at work in sustaining the world. Everything God does, including dying, reveals this much to faith. The Cross manifests God’s triune fullness within every narrative of divine withdrawal (even biblical ones), but the Cross is not itself a narrative of withdrawal. It is a narrative of approach, of nearness, of presence. It is where God, in the full simplicity of triune love, insists upon being with us, thus judging (viz., rendering) all narratives of divine withdrawal to be myths and fabrications of despair and dereliction. The ‘Cry of Dereliction’ (as theologians have named it) is not that cry Jesus utters on the Cross (“My God, My God! Why?”) The true cry of dereliction is ours: “Crucify him!” There’s the despair and dereliction. Dereliction put Jesus on the Cross. Sanity is what we crucified. The dereliction is heard in a thousand other cries – cries that give up altogether, but also cries that scream their despair all the louder. Much of our despairing dereliction gets published as Christian theology.

• To speak of God ‘witdrawing, then, is to describe the suffering and despair of a life that refuses to welcome the truth of God’s presence. But that refusal does not thereby affirm some other truth – namely, a truth of divine absence. It is rather the pain of our taking the myth of divine absence to be true. But happily God needn’t suffer the pain of falsely believing such a myth in order to free us from it.