Existential arguments for (im)passibility—Part 6

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 call 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.

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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 defence 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, incidentially, 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 make 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.