- Learn how to pray.
- Pray all the time.
- Give everything to God.
- Work hard.
- Ask for help and take advice.
- Keep the Sabbath.
- Do everything for others.
I have been reading 1 and 2 Kings, and what has caught my attention is that which is not said – the long intervals between events; years, days and months of waiting. Elijah who walks forty days and nights through the desert, his only luggage his wish to die and the memory of the four-hundred slain prophets of Baal, blood and bodies, the mark of violence and death, fearing now also for his own life. Forty days and nights; alone in the silence. Questioning the meaning of any and all his works, his whole dedication, despairing. Then, he comes to the Mountain, and the very strange question: “Why are you here?” Wind, earthquake, fire. Then, a gentle whisper, and again – the strange question: “Why are you here?”
The Shunammite woman who has been waiting for so long that she has begun to dread hope – hope which has always been followed by disappointment, hope that is unable to rise anymore, hope that inflicts incurable wounds. “Please, do not mislead you servant!” And even after its fulfillment, the hope is weak, feeble, ready to retreat at the face of first adversity. “Did I ask you for a son, my Lord? Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t raise my hopes’?” Now disappointment has grief and loss as its companions. Yet God sees her, hears her, answers her: she receives back her son. But is not easy, not smooth. Full of long breaks of silence, free falling into the darkness, the difficult, painful work of hope.
The widow at Zarepath who has been starving for maybe weeks, months, years, watching his only son wither away, unable to feed him. Existence which is mere expectation of death; her future has been closed, and the only image left is that of herself and her son, following her husband to the grave. Alone, with no one to help, as the famine goes on and on and on and on. As the days repeat, repeat, repeat themselves. Future has disappeared into the darkness. And then comes this man of God with a request that feels like a mockery, the last jest of destiny: “Bring me, please, a piece of bread.” She informs him of her plans – a final meal for her and her son and then they will die. Perhaps there is, in her voice, a hint of sordid humor, cynical irony, ‘you came to the wrong house, man of God, here is only death, but if you wish to join us for our last meal, please feel free to do so’. Elijah does not blame her – there is again, that gentleness – but simply asks her to hope one more time. And perhaps, having nothing to lose, she obeys. One last time.
A miracle. Bread and oil, enough for everyone. Future is no longer impossible. The veil of darkness is lifted. The poor woman who has been dependent on other people’s help is now elevated. She receives a calling, a task, a sense of purpose: she is not merely a passive recipient of help, but someone who helps herself – she is the one upon whom the man of God is dependent. And yet, this hope, too, is weak, desperate, ready to retreat. “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” Words stemming from the raw pain of the soul. And yet – that gentleness again – she, too, receives back her son and her hope.
But these long, desperate silences. The in-between, the long intervals of waiting, between promise and fulfillment, exile and return, between prophecy and actuality. Indeed, this is the pattern of exile. The Long Saturday, the long stretches of silence, filled with anxiety, confusion, fear. The desert where forgetfulness eats away the memory of miracle, when the past moments of Glory are received in grey, where they lose their shape as their memory morphs into the meaninglessness of depression’s dull recollection. Where hope quivers, faints, weakens.
The Scriptures are full of waiting and seasons of life that do not seem to make any sense. Often, as in life, also in Scriptures the stories are confusing and full of loose ends, inexplicable events – they are not perfect circles, unbroken narratives. “Your path led through the seas, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.” [Ps. 77.19] In reading Scripture we skim through these seasons of waiting so easily, we long for the event, for something to happen.
We like to tell victorious stories – veni, vidi, vici. These were the words ringing in my ears as I returned from Madagascar. I had left all that was familiar and dear to me, left to live in another country for six months, left knowing that most likely my grandmother would pass away during my time on the Island and I would not be able to attend her funeral, not able to visit her before she would be gone. I left knowing I had made sacrifices, but I had no idea just how hard it would be. I plunged into deep, deep darkness and rather severe depression. I was alone, completely and utterly alone – in a strange country which language I did not speak or which culture I did not understand (it took me three months to meet the first foreigner besides myself).
Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair. You terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken from me friend and neighbor – darkness is my closest friend. [Ps. 88.14-18]
Later, years later, some still ask me: does any of it now make sense? Can you see why? After some attempts at appropriate narratives the only answer I could muster was the honest one: not really. Even today I would insist upon my ignorance, but there are some answers, yes, some brief glimpses of that complex glory that satisfies. These glimpses make me say: I would not desire to be there again, but nor would I give the experience away. The riches it brought were thick and dark like blood, not crystal clear like water; indirect, profound and visible only after years of utter perplexity. Their value is immeasurable and I cherish them. And yet, even today, fundamentally speaking, I do not know why. I rest content in my ignorance, savoring this complex glory.
We rarely truly consider the long journeys, the long years of confusion and disappointment, the loneliness and affliction – the pit from which so many psalms rise. We “neglect and belittle the desert”, as T.S. Eliot puts it, continuing (in Choruses from ‘the Rock’): “The desert is not remote in southern tropics / The desert is not only around the corner / The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you / The desert is in the heart of you brother.”
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’, and my foes will rejoice when I fall. [Ps. 13.1-4]
I’m reminded again of Henri de Lubac: “Only those who have suffered badly have truly suffered.” It is hard as we come to an end of ourselves, as we run out of all strength – when there is truly nothing left, but the empty, humming silence. It is hard – make no mistake – and in the stories we tell, those are the parts we skip. But it is hard. When you’ve lost all perspective, when the horizon disappears, you loose your sense of direction and it seems as if you were simply swirling in an endless whirlpool, free falling. When you’ve lost your ability to see any point in the struggle, any benefit in the trouble, any wisdom in the adversity.
Gently He comes, then. A voice asks: “Why are you here?” A child is born. Bread and oil are enough to feed the whole family. He lifts the needy from the ash heap, the poor from the dust. Gently, gently His faithfulness asserts itself, turns mourning into rejoicing, gradually, like the dawn that overcomes the night. Intervals end. A new song is sung, a psalm of thanksgiving.
I. Sentimentality in language; an inflation of meaning.
II. A secret that is revealed is a mystery: a hidden unveiled, an unheard heard, an unspoken spoken, an invisible made visible. And yet the tension remains: the veiled hidden, the heard unheard, the spoken unspoken, the visible invisible – that is the mystery, this ‘in-betweeness’ that is both and neither.
III. The prerequisite of all genuinely intellectual thought is the presence of an other. Intellectual exercise fails or succeeds to the extent it grasps the other its otherness, that is, reality. This is why love – as an ability to see the other – is a foundational intellectual virtue, “which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3.14).
IV. Dogmas are belief-practices. Our efforts to understand the meaning of any particular dogma – that is, our efforts in constructive theology – should be shaped not by mere theoretical or intellectual concerns, but also by the practical concern expressed in this question: “How can we live as human beings believing this dogma?”
V. Unconditional favor and love – grace – cannot be contemplated in terms of ‘why’ – that question would do violence to the very notion of grace if asked as a creaturely question. But when asked and answered as a divine question, the result is glory – God’s ineffably generous nature made visible.
VI. Grace is preserved in mystery, in a delicate balance between gratitude and forgetfulness – it cannot yield to inspection, to calculation.
Does divine simplicity eliminate any possible metaphysical foundation for the intelligibility and meaningfulness of theological language? In Systematic Theology volume 1: The Doctrine of God Katherine Sonderegger offers a vision of divine oneness and compatibilism that, in her view, makes faithful speech about the simple God possible. In this essay, I will suggest that Sonderegger’s ‘solution’ to the problem is dependent upon her account of metaphysical compatibilism, and – when taken together – divine oneness and compatibilism can form a stable ground for creaturely predications of God by establishing theological language firmly in the metaphysics of God’s being.
First, however, few definitions and a brief outline of the issue are in order. Roughly speaking, divine simplicity means that God is ‘all at once’ and hence radically different from creatures; He has no parts, no real divisions or distinctions, no intrinsic accidental properties, He is not first ‘this’ and then ‘that’: “He is devoid of any complexity or composition.” There is no movement from potentiality to actuality in Him, rather He is actus purus: willing, doing and being all things at once, so that “besides lacking spatial and temporal parts, God is free of matter-form composition, potency-act composition, and existence-essence composition”. Most importantly, for this essay, divine simplicity in this sense is usually taken to mean that all of God’s attributes are identical, that, indeed, God Himself is identical with each of His attributes: God doesn’t ‘have’ properties or nature – He simply is.
This, at least, seems to be how divine simplicity is usually understood in modern philosophical theology. It is – as Wolterstorff has called it – the ‘theoretical fecundity’ of this classical doctrine that has made it so attractive to the theologians of the past and present, although the doctrine – at least when understood in its crude form – raises many issues and has faced much criticism throughout history, especially during the modern period. There is also the ‘meta-criticism’ of divine simplicity that criticises the modern notion of simplicity, arguing that it is, in fact, different from the classical notions of divine simplicity and that many of the basic problems concerning divine simplicity emerge not from tradition, but from ontological notions and presumptions that are distinctively modern. Were we to understand simplicity through a different kind of ontological framework, we could, perhaps, side-step many of the problems that the doctrine raises.
One specific problem related to divine simplicity, then, is that of meaningfulness of theological language; if God does not have parts or ‘accidents’ or ‘phenomena’, nor “distinct realities in world’s economy” (to use Sonderegger’s phrase), and if He is radically atemporal and immutable, we must ask: can language ever faithfully describe the simple God? And, more fundamentally, could such language be meaningful in any real sense? For it would seem that to speak about God’s goodness is to refer to some particular or distinct attribute or ‘property’ in God that is not, at least in our minds and language, the same thing as, say, God’s perfect knowledge. Yet this intuitive way of using language seems to contradict divine simplicity: if divine simplicity, at least when understood in its ‘modern’ form, is true, then God’s omnipotence is His omnipresence which is His omnibenevolence and so on. In other words, it would seem that language, when referring to God, would quickly lose its meaning and be lost in incomprehensibility. The problem rises, then, from an intuitive desire to “preserve the distinctiveness of these predications”, to say “multiplicity of distinct true things about God” without compromising simplicity. Some, for example R.T. Mullins, have argued that this issue is insoluble and as a result we should reject divine simplicity, unless we want to seize all theological speech. Others, wishing to defend divine simplicity, have opted for the apophatic way (something that Sonderegger also does, although, perhaps, in a way that is quite novel, as shall be seen later) or have attempted to modify simplicity so as to include some form of distinction in God (also something that Sonderegger seems to do in her systematic work). Still some have argued that the problem could be solved were we to realize that it rises from a wrong-headed, modern notion of simplicity (cf. above).
Within the limits of this essay I will not be able to pursue further the question whether Sonderegger’s notion of divine simplicity differs significantly from the ‘modern’ notions of ontological simplicity, but her foundational alignment with the Holy Scriptures rather than a priori philosophical considerations would suggest that Sonderegger feels free to understand ‘Oneness’ first and foremost as a Scriptural idiom rather than a ready-made philosophical concept. It is thus worth noticing that, despite the fact that her monumental work centers upon De Deo Uno, she barely mentions the term ‘divine simplicity’, preferring instead terms like Unicity and Oneness. Many of the problems related to divine simplicity in modern theological discourse are hence quietly left aside. This allows Sonderegger to find new avenues for theological language that wishes to speak about the One God.
However, “the Lord’s Oneness” certainly is, if you wish, ‘the ruling principle’ of her theological system through which all other attributes of God are understood and in light of which those attributes are also redefined. This Oneness is also the proper starting place of Christian theology, the “foundational predicate” of God, so that “all other modes and manifestations, all other predicates, Attributes, and Perfections – – are governed by and determined by Oneness”, for “the Oneness of God is pressed upon us by tradition and by philosophical coherence – – but even more Divine Oneness is recommended principally by Holy Scripture itself.”
At first sight, then, it seems that Sonderegger’s emphasis on Divine Oneness takes her down the usual apophatic road: “God’s Unicity is a predicate of annihilating concreteness – – a predicate of deepest mystery and negation.” God’s personal and simple Being is hence incommunicable, His Reality ineffable. However, rejecting the Kantian, transcendentally conditioned, ‘division’ between God in His ‘very Aseity’ and God as He appears to us, Sonderegger argues that this ineffability of God, His being ‘beyond definition’, is not due to God’s absence, hiddenness or transcendence but rather due to God’s “sheer Reality”- it is this positive Reality that “forces upon us the truth that He is beyond definition, utterly ineffable and unique, absolutely One”. She, in fact, puts aside the standard distinction between negative and positive attributes; for Sonderegger both negative and positive attributes disclose ‘God’s own true Being’, His very Aseity. “These negations are thus fully realist in character, metaphysical and substantial, neither bare epistemic limits nor denials of creaturely traits.” That is to say: via negative is not really about creatures as much as it is about God in His very Being, the concrete positivity of His presence which is – to borrow Barth’s phrase – the true ‘crisis’ of theology.
Theology hence begins from and find its refuge in this utterly positive and ineffable presence of God, His reality as He is present in His Aseity to His creatures. That is, theological language is made possible because of what God is: His compatibility with His creatures is the metaphysical foundation of creaturely predication – a compatibility which itself is a mystery that cannot be explained, but which can only be taken as given: “We speak of Mystery here, the Mystery of God with us. Such a relatio, we must say again and again, is the Lord God’s very own Life: God just is His own relation to the world.” In terms of epistemology this compatibilism means, thus, that “God is known a se in our words turned toward Him”. Theological language is dependent upon God’s revelation, but even more so, “the relationship between Divine Oneness and our intellect is itself a Mode of the Divine Being, in mission to us, raising in us created words for that which is ineffable”.
It is, then, perhaps useful to notice here, that Sonderegger is not relying on a some kind of doctrine of participation or in any explicitly soteriological framework: her vision stems simply from her understanding of God’s being as compatible with creatures, that is, from the doctrine of creation. “It is simply the Lord God’s will that His reality be manifest, be made known and shown, in the thought and words of His creatures. There can be no explanation, no mechanism or conceptual apparatus to render such commandeering systematic and intelligible.” It is simply ‘the Unique Mystery of God’s Oneness’ that He can be present in this way – compatible with His creatures – without compromising His freedom. “God alone can liberally give what He preserves as His very own – -.”
Hence, in terms of creaturely predication, Sonderegger’s theological compatibilism follows Barth in a sense that the initiative is fully and freely God’s own: He makes theological language possible. However, for Sonderegger Barth has gone too far: God’s freedom is preserved at the price of “creaturely upheaval” and so our knowledge of God is destabilized. Sonderegger’s search for a more ontologically established avenue for theological language thus takes her deep into metaphysics, that is, into the doctrine of creation where she finds the metaphysical foundation for her theological compatibilism which yields what she calls ‘the Transcendental Relation’: God’s simple essence communicated to and exemplified in creaturely predicates and being.
So then, “God’s ineffable Reality moves on twin axes: the incommunicable and the unique.” I take this to mean that God’s simple being, esse, is incommunicable, but His Perfections – being unique – can communicate His Being to creatures: Omnipresence is not Omnipotence, and so on; each Perfection is particular and irreducible, and thus communicates “the incommunicable Richess of the Divine Being” without compromising Oneness, for these Perfections “indwell” each other, they are mutually entwined and entailed dimensions. The One God “just is these Modes and Perfections, each distinct, formally and conceptually, yet utterly – – One in Being, utterly true and proper.” This is God’s “rich Simplicity” and compatibilism as it is ‘tied to Scotus’ formal distinction’, and so there is, in Sonderegger’s simple God, an ontological foundation for our distinct conceptions of God without any division in God’s being – not even in a sense that God would be ‘divided’ between His Aseity and His being pro nobis.
Each of God’s perfections or attributes are thus formally and conceptually distinct, although one in Being; God’s simple essence is grasped as such by human beings through complex predication – this just is the Mystery of God’s compatibility with His creatures, His incommunicable essence. And so our human predicates can “name a Richness that is present, and beyond all measure”. God is known as such in human language: distinct attributes are realist in their nature – not mere noetic conceptions that lack ultimate metaphysical foundation and that would hence be ultimately unintelligible. As the One, as the Permanent Mystery, the simple God can ‘humble’ Himself so that He becomes an Object for our knowledge and language and yet remains as ‘Subject in His Objectivity’, as the free Lord over our predications and definitions.
One could say, especially considering the remarkable influence of Kant on modern theology, that this is, perhaps, a bold claim, but it is allowed by Sonderegger’s own metaphysical framework, her doctrine of creation more particularly. And so, the “gracious doctrine of the Divine Perfections – – rises over the dark face of human predication” because the Creator Himself stands at the heart of cosmos. So also our words, in virtue of their creaturehood, “can refer and do refer to their Creator”, and not only so, but they can reach out to God in His very Being. How is this possible? We cannot say: it is simply the Mystery of God’s Being, compatible with His creatures. For Sonderegger, then, divine simplicity – rather than threatening theological language with annihilation – is where theological language finds its refuge. For divine simplicity as tied to Sonderegger’s theological compatibilism means precisely that God as He appears to us cannot be separated from God in His Aseity nor His perfections from His being, and so also our language reaches this One God and yet remains creaturely: fallible, but reliable. Like the burning bush that burns without being consumed.
1 Vallicella 2018.
2 Wolterstorff 1991: 531.
3 For an overview, see for example – especially in relation to Thomas’ classical conception of divine simplicity- Stump (2003), Mullins (2013) and – perhaps for a more ‘modern’ account – Duby (2014).
4 See, for example, Mullins (2013), Plantinga (1980) and Schmitt (2013). Richard Swinburne (in The Christian God) and Paul R. Hinlicky (in Divine Simplicity: Christ the Crisis of Metaphysics) have also been critical of the doctrine. Modern defenders of the doctrine would include, for example, Eleonore Stump, Nicholas Wolterstorff and David Bentley Hart.
5 Cf. for example Holmes (2011), Wolterstorff (1991) and Ortlund (2014).
6 Wolterstorff 1991: 533f.
7 Mullins (2013).
8 Sonderegger 2014: 24-25.
9 Sonderegger 2014: 9. Italics mine.
10 Sonderegger 2014: 24-25.
11 Sonderegger 2014: 35.
12 Sonderegger 2014: 113-115.
13 Sonderegger 2014: 79. One should perhaps note, thus, that metaphysical compatibilism in Sonderegger’s sense is not to be confused with panentheism – the notion that God is in all creation. Rather, God’s compatibilism – His ability to remain distinct from and yet intimately present in creation – simply is the Mystery of His Being. So then, finitum non capax infiniti, but the infinite – precisely because it is the Infinite – can be compatible with the finite. Compatibilism hence stems from the utterly Unique Being of God who “resides among us, without contradiction or identity or annihilation” (83).
14 Sonderegger 2014: 86.
15 Sonderegger 2014: 23, 40. Italics mine.
16 Sonderegger 2014: 108.
17 Sonderegger 2014: 96.
18 Sonderegger 2014: 269.
19 Sonderegger 2014: 103-106.
20 Sonderegger 2014: 353, 541f. Sonderegger seems to be, in some sense, following Scotus in univocity (cf. Williams 2005) – for transcendental relation seems to be a kind of univocity under the condition of infinity; God’s goodness, for example, is the same goodness as ours, but infinitely so; and hence His ‘goodness’ is actually a deep mystery, perhaps ineffable, and yet captured, in some frail and imperfect sense, in creaturely predications.
21 Sonderegger 2014: 269, 300.
22 Sonderegger 2014: 470. Italics mine.
23 Sonderegger 2014: 470. Cf. also (for Scotus’ formal distinction) Schmitt (2013: 118).
24 This, of course, raises again the question of how Sonderegger squares with the modern notions of divine simplicity (cf. Holmes 2011: 143). It would seem to me, that she sits less easily with notions of absolute divine simplicity, preferring instead a some form of moderate simplicity like that of Duns Scotus (cf. Schmitt 2013: 118).
25 Sonderegger 2014: 470.
26 Sonderegger 2014: 112.
27 In fact, Sonderegger’s dealing with Kant – and Barth, for that matter – would deserve its own paper. Rather than addressing directly the “problem of the given” – and following the mainstream of modern dogmatics by making that the fundamental, underlying question of her theological epistemology – she rejects the problem itself, resisting also the charge that her account of creaturely predication of God would be subject to barthian critiques of natural theology. Rather, theology simply begins from God and His Perfections as they are given in to us in their reality (118-121).
28 Sonderegger 2014: 106f. Italics mine.
Duby, Steven J. (2014). ‘Divine Simplicity’: A Dogmatic Account. Doctoral Thesis, University of St. Andrews.
Holmes, Stephen (2001). Article Something Much Too Plain to Say in Neue Zeitschrift für Systematicsche Theologie Und Religionsphilosophie, vol. 43(1).
Mullins, R.T. (2013). Article Simply Impossible: a Case Against Divine Simplicity in Journal of Reformed Theology, vol. 7 (181-203).
Ortlund, Gavin (2014). Article Divine Simplicity in Historical Perspective: Resourcing a Contemporary Discussion in International Journal of Systematic Theology, vol. 16(4).
Plantinga, Alvin (1980). Does God have a Nature? Marquette University Press, Milwaukee.
Schmitt, Yann (2013). Article The Deadlock of Absolute Divine Simplicity in International Journal of Philosophy, vol. 74 (117-130).
Sonderegger, Katherine (2014). Systematic Theology. Volume 1: The Doctrine of God. Fortress Press, Minneapolis.
Stump, Eleonore (2003). Aquinas. Routledge, London & New York.
Vallicella, William F. (2018), Article Divine Simplicity in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/divine-simplicity/>.
Williams, Thomas (2005), Article The Doctrine of Univocity Is True and Salutary in Modern Theology, vol. 21(4).
Wolterstoff, Nicholas (1991). Article Divine Simplicity in Philosophical Perspectives, vol. 5 (531-552).
This is an essay I wrote for one of my university courses. The name of the course was “Evil, Suffering and Death”.
1.1. Purpose and Aim
The purpose of this essay is to explore the possibility of an ethical and non-explanatory response to the reality of suffering within Christian context – context here understood as both theory and practice, theology and life. I shall ask later whether this broader understanding of context as the unity of theory and practice might necessitated by the very issue at hand itself, but first I’ll delineate the shape of this essay in general.
I would like to consider the question of suffering not as a sub-species of the atheism/theism -debate – and hence not merely in evidentialist terms – but rather as a more broader, perhaps even more fundamental, question; suffering is ubiquitous and common to all humans in its various forms, whether they be atheists or theists. Hence, ‘theodicy’ is not a theist’s problem – it is a human problem. In a way, therefore, faith in the triune God – although it can be drawn into a crisis due to suffering – is something that is presumed here. Thus, the focus of this essay will be the possibility of a continued Christian existence amidst suffering, that is, the question of how one can live as a responsible Christian, holding onto the basic tenets of Christian faith (as they shall be outlined later), while acknowledging the reality of suffering – her own or other’s. Those who know the intensity of faith and suffering – the faith which draws us, calls us and cannot, despite all, be given up – will most likely know what would motivate an exploration like this. However, I do acknowledge that for some this approach may seem strange, especially if one is accustomed to approaching the question of suffering primarily as an evidentialist problem.
I will also – to the extent that it is possible – engage the theodicy/antitheodicy debate, especially as it comes to the antitheodicists’ charge that all theodicies are fundamentally immoral and fail to properly acknowledge the reality of suffering. Considering these charges, I will delineate – in a very rudimentary sense – a possible theological, but also ethical and nonexplanatory response to the reality of suffering. I have purposively chosen the word ‘response’ rather than antitheodicy or theodicy. I would also like to avoid the language of “problems and explanations” – a language perhaps native to the evidentialist discourse on the matter, which I wish circumvent here. Hence I prefer terms such as “reality”, “response” and “comfort”. Nevertheless, I wish to explore different aspects of the question of suffering as it poses a challenge to Christian theism and I will attempt to carry out this exploration under the following, rudimental framework: that an ethical, theological, but nonexplanatory response to the problem of suffering should be able to (1) have reverence for the human experience, (2) offer comfort, (3) allow beauty and (4) awaken hope, and in this sense – as John Bishop has put it – ‘maintain a hopeful commitment to virtuous living in the face of all that may undermine human fulfilment’. But first it is perhaps useful to try and specify the terms employed.
1.2. Definitions and Limitations
Strictly speaking, theodicy can be understood as “the attempt to understand, to explain, and to justify the co-existence of God and evil through reason and the formulation of theories”, i.e. as a theistic response to the challenge of the argument from evil. More broadly, theodicy can be understood as a form of evidentialist discourse that includes also the arguments against the existence of a perfectly good, omniscient and omnipotent God. Nevertheless, in its most basic form, theodicy can be seen as a problem that rises from the following premises:
- God exists, and is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.
- Evil exists.
From these two premises, then, emerges various theodicies that seek to either prove that premises one or two – usually (1) – are untrue or that there is a way of reconciling the two without modifying either one. The argument can take a logical or an evidentialist form; in the former one would argue that the premises are logically inconsistent while in the latter one would argue that the existence of God is – as evidence is considered – improbable (or, vice versa, that the existence of God can follow logically from the premises or be probable). There is also a distinction to be made between theodicy as a mere defence and as a more full-blown solution. In the former – put forward, for example, by Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen – one simply argues that it is possible that God has good reasons (such as free will) to allow suffering. In a mere defence, thus, one does not claim to know exactly what those reasons might be and the goal of the argument is mainly to preserve theism as a live option, to make rational belief possible despite the suffering we encounter.
Despite the fact that “suffering is the locus or context of evil; whenever there is evil, there is someone’s (or something’s) suffering of some kind” the question of evil and the question of suffering are, although very closely intertwined, somewhat distinct questions. In relation to theodicy one should, hence, also ask what kind of suffering we are discussing and how is this suffering related to evil – be that evil of moral or natural kind, as the common distinction stands. In its strongest form a theistic response to the problem of suffering should thus be able to explain how perfectly good, omnipotent and omniscient God can have morally sufficient reasons to allow suffering that seems gratuitous, wholly unnecessary. It is this kind of seemingly gratuitous suffering – rather than evil or any other kind of suffering, such as suffering resulting from one’s own immoral actions – that is also the main focus of this essay.
Antitheodicy seems to be a term that is more difficult to define. If one thinks theodicy as an attempt – as John Milton put it – to “justify the ways of God to man”, then antitheodicy can be considered to be a “refusal and rejection of any such justification”. The heart of the antitheodicist project would then be to show how all theodicies are inadequate in their response to the reality of evil and suffering – that they fail to deliver what they promise, namely, a justification of suffering. More fundamentally, however, antitheodicy can be seen as a rejection of the whole project of theodicy, the whole “theodicist discourse”, because – as, for example, Kenneth Surin has argued – theoretical theodicy is “irrelevant to the real problem, immoral, tacitly an endorsement of evil, and undermined by the reality of evil”. Motivations for this kind of fundamental rejection vary and are, of course, interconnected.
In this essay I will leave aside the question whether antitheodicy is necessitated because of the inadequacy of the theodicist solutions, for there will not be room for such an extensive study within the limits of this essay, nor will it be necessary, for other a priori considerations related to the nature of the theodicist discourse might be enough to motivate an antitheodicist argument. Although, at least intuitively, it seems that an antitheodicist approach would be naturally connected to some kind of a priori metaphysical or epistemistemic considerations (for example, some kind of Kantian transcendental criticism and its cousins, such as wittgensteinian philosophy of religion of D.Z. Phillips) it might not be necessary to presume, say, some kind of anti-realism in relation to religious language or to completely reject evidentialism. Thus these epistemic considerations won’t be the main focus of this essay.
So then, “the actual antitheodicist arguments will unfold starting from the idea that theodicies are morally inadequate, or even immoral, responses to the evil and suffering.” According to antitheodicists theodicies can be immoral for various, intertwined reasons, such as that they fail in acknowledgment or recognition by, for example, calling into the question the sincerity of the suffering person or the very idea of God having morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil might be seen as immoral when the reality of evil is properly apprehended. One could also suggest that at least some – though many would argue that the problem is essential to the whole project – theodicies can be seen as immoral because they are instrumental in their nature: a person’s suffering, or – more strongly put – the suffering person herself, becomes a means to and end that is supposed to justify the suffering, this might so even if one would appeal to some “patient-centered good” as the good that justifies suffering. On the other hand, some have claimed that theodicies endanger the moral development of those involved in the theodicist project and thus keep us from becoming the kind of moral agents we would have to be in a world such as ours, that, in fact, theodicies are a tacit ‘endorsement of a world with evil’. There are also moral criticisms that have do with more specific aspects of certain kinds of theodicies, such as the criticism that appealing to some retribution in the afterlife – for example, in a form of beatific vision – would, in fact, undo the “evilness” of evil, and thus theodicies cannot really respond to evil in an ethical manner, but rather end up diminishing evil. Nor all convinced that such a retribution could be truly redemptive even if it did occur.
Many, often analytic, philosophers and theologians who wish to defend theodicies against such charges, have appealed to the distinction between theory and practice: they do not claim that their theodicies are meant to comfort the suffering – theodicy is a purely intellectual exercise which aims to defend theism. Some theodicist have also emphasised that “to explain suffering is not to explain it away”, for “no matter how successful a theodicy is, it cannot possibly alter the fact of suffering”. However, one could plausibly argue that at least in this particular issue such an approach is uncalled for; that the very issue at hand – suffering – is of such kind that it cannot be discussed as an intellectual challenge in abstracto – to discuss it as such would not be to address the issue itself, but rather to engage in a kind of “pseudo-discourse”. Hence one could also argue that a theological response to the reality of suffering should be inherently holistic, taking into account both theory and practice, theology and life.
In this essay, I cannot discuss all of the above mentioned charges against theodicies in a very detailed manner. I will, instead, focus on two them and consider a possible theological response to suffering in light of them: (1) that theodicies lack proper reverence for the human experience and (2) that the theodicy-project is detrimental to our moral development, making us unable to respond to other people’s suffering in an ethical manner. I will consider these charges within the boundaries and possibilities of Christian theism while suggesting that our response to suffering, for all that it’s worth, be it an antitheodicy or some kind of “ethically modified” theodicy, should be able to do at least the following: (1) have reverence for the human experience, (2) offer comfort, (3) allow beauty and (4) awaken hope. I will especially focus on theology of the cross and theological aesthetics as resources from which a possible theological response could emerge.
However, before these considerations I would like to outline some of these boundaries and possibilities set by Christian theism. Boundaries set by, say, confessions of faith set the limits within which one’s response to suffering should operate in order to retain to its integrity, that is, in order to still be a Christian response to the reality of suffering. In some ways, then, the issue at hand here parallels that between natural theology and ‘revelation theology’: there is, perhaps, a tension between public credibility and integrity. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this essay the relevant, basic boundaries could be stated – roughly – as follows: Christian response to suffering cannot dispense with the fact that (1) the world has an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent Creator, (2) that this Creator God has revealed Himself definatevely in the Jesus of Nazareth (3) whose death and resurrection are fundamental to our understanding of God’s plan to deal with evil and suffering, and that, indeed, (4) God is going to eradicate evil and suffering – they are not permanent realities, not as, if you wish, “ontologically established”’ as goodness, and that God will bring about (5) a final judgment where the world will be set right. One should also note that fundamental to Christian theism is a narrative understanding of reality, and of humanity, as created, fallen and redeemed. Taking seriously this meta-narrative means that a Christian response to suffering cannot ‘marginalize the beginning or the end’, the fall and the future judgment, for example. In essence, then, Christian worldview is what we might call ‘salvific’ and as such the question of suffering, as presented within that worldview, faces particular challenges that other kinds of worldviews might not face. Hopefully I will be able to – albeit in a limited way – show during the course of this essay how these basic tenets or “boundaries” do not merely acts as limits, but how they also form the basis of an ethical response to suffering – that the resources of Christian theism themselves make such a response possible.
2. On the Possibility of A Nonexplanatory, Ethical Response
2.1. Reverence for the Human Experience as a Precondition
There are evils that are so horrendous that they call into the question the whole positive meaning of one’s existence, rendering one’s entire existence incomprehensible. At the deepest, then, there seems to be this ineffable, incomprehensible quality to suffering, a silence around which all talk, all theodicies and theologies, swirl – and this silence, this incomprehensibility, is first and foremost the experience of the one who suffers. And as “each heart knows its own bitterness” (Pr. 14.10), so also our response to suffering should have reverence for this experience, for this incomprehensibility and ineffability. A response to suffering should start from reverence and silence that can allow for a sincere response.
Kant offered his own transcendental criticism of theodicies in On the Miscarriage of All Philosophical Trials in Theodicy, arguing – roughly speaking – that theodicies fail not simply because they claim to have theoretical knowledge about God as such, but also because they are unethical due to their insincerity. Thus in his essay Kant sets Job’s sincerity and his friends attempts at explanation into a juxtaposition from which only Job emerges as vindicated before God. “Job speaks as he thinks, and with the courage with which he – – can well afford; his friends, on the contrary, speak as if they we being secretly listened to by the mighty one, over whose cause they are passing judgment, and as if gaining his favor through their judgment were closer to their heart than the truth. Their malice in pretending to assert things into which they yet must admit they have no insight, and in simulating a conviction which they in fact do not have, contrasts with Job’s frankness – -.” One must note that Job’s friends spend first seven days and nights in silence, “because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2.13), but apparently their own agony and desire for explanation grows too heavy, too much to bear in silence, and so they begin to speak and the painful theodicy-debate ensues. Perhaps we could argue then, that any proper ethical response to suffering should start from this silence which is reverence for the human experience: not to rush into explanations or possible solutions, especially at the expense of ignoring the claims of the suffering person himself. In their rush to offer explanations – to justify the ways of God to man, as it were – Job’s friends fail to be sincere themselves, but they also fail to take seriously Job’s experience: they fail to relate to Job’s suffering in an appropriate ethical manner by not acknowledging Job’s sincerity.
There are, thus, many ways in which a theodicy might fail in recognition. However, according to Levinas, the reason we must abandon theodicies is not merely that we should not offer explanations for suffering, but rather that we cannot offer such explanations. Suffering is itself inherently inexplicable, it is “an excess, an unwelcome superfluity, – – penetrating – -, the dimensions of meaning that seem to open themselves to it, or become grafted onto it”, “suffering is a pure undergoing” and as such, the least one can say about suffering is that it is “for nothing”. Hence, for Levinas evil does not simply resist theodicy, but opposes it: suffering is not something that human beings can comprehend, nor can evil be truly comprehended, not even as some kind of dialectical negation of good. Many other antitheodicists also appeal to the fundamental incomprehensibility of suffering, for example Kenneth Surin: “Evil and suffering in their innermost depths are fundamentally mysterious; they confound the human mind. And yet the goal of theodicy is, somehow, to render them comprehensible, explicable.”
In some ways, perhaps, the incomprehensibility of suffering rises from Levina’s fundamental question – question which Levinas thought to be even more fundamental than the ontological question of ‘why there is something rather than nothing?’: “Why there is evil rather than good?” If one presses upon Levina’s question – if one takes it to its very core – one is inclined to agree that suffering is incomprehensible. Here examples of “useful suffering” – such as that which the child experiences at the dentist – aren’t of much help: even then, if one presses the question, one cannot fully understand why we live in a kind of world where even some good things seem to require suffering. It’s the question that parallels that of Lila in Marilynne Robinson’s novel of the same name: “Why things go the way they do?” Why this kind of world, and not any other kind? Why suffering rather than not suffering?
Perhaps there is, then, behind this profound question, a denial of one of the most fundamental axioms of most theodicies: the necessity of suffering, i.e. that there is some good that is essential to us and can be achieved only through suffering and that good will outweigh the suffering experienced, and hence God has sufficient moral reasons to allow such suffering. Many have argued that horrendous evils, such as the Holocaust, call into question this axiom, but even more fundamentally, that asking the whole question is itself immoral. However, even some theodicists, such as Eleonore Stump, agree that “for some evils, the grief and the pain are so great that – – those evils are not fit subjects for academic exploration of the problem of evil”. For Stump the Holocaust is that type of evil: to the Holocaust the only appropriate response – besides making sure that nothing like that will ever happen again and so on – is “stricken awe in the face of it”, that is, silence.
Thus at this point, it might be useful to attempt to draw some distinctions between different kinds of antitheodicist stances. First, one could argue that (1) it is immoral to form theodicies that attempt to justify suffering, i.e. that would attempt to make visible even the possible reasons why God would allow suffering, rather than fall silent on those reasons for ethical or epistemic reasons (while still leaving open the possibility that (a) such reasons might exist, or even asserting that (b) such reasons – all things considered – must exist). Slightly distinct from this would be the stronger argument that (2) we should deny that any such possible reasons could exist (instead of merely denying our knowledge of such reasons – the epistemic argument – or refusing to engage in a discussion of such reasons – the ethical argument) since entertaining even the possibility of such reasons existing is immoral.
Nevertheless, we might conclude that theodicies fail in recognition at least unless they manage to make room for reverence and silence in the face of suffering, because suffering, by definition, is something that cannot be explained, at least not from an outsider’s perspective. So then, reverence for the human experience of suffering in all of its terrible, life-shattering awfulness – reverence that does not explain the suffering away, that refuses any explanation that would belittle the suffering – is perhaps the first prerequisite for an ethical response to suffering. However, a theological response cannot, in my view, remain in the “unavenged and unassuaged indignation”; refusal to ‘forgive’ must not be considered as the only option available for those who wish to have “love for the mankind”. Since Christianity makes claims on the salvific nature of reality and the ultimate triumph of good over evil, antitheodicy in Ivan Karamazov’s ‘moral atheist’ sense seems unsatisfactory. And although we should take seriously and learn from ‘Jamesian-like sick souls’ who refuse to ‘throw off the burden of the consciousness of evil’, we should also ask for the possibility of a kind of ‘deep, serious joy’ (1Ts. 5.16, 2Cr. 7.4) amidst suffering; we should be “perplexed, but not in despair” (2Cr. 4.8). A theological and ethical response should thus ask for the possibility of meaning, beauty and hope – the possibility of comfort – despite the often incomprehensible nature of suffering while keeping in mind the constant danger that our attempts to offer comfort become explanations that explain the suffering away.
2.2. Offering Comfort: Reconsidering and Relativizing Explanations
It seems that human beings have a natural tendency to explain things teleologically. When it comes to suffering, these explanation can take various forms. In this essay I will focus on those that presume the axiom I called ‘the necessity of suffering’. These explanations often take, approximately, the following form: “God caused/allowed one to suffer ‘x’ in order that ‘y’.” What is essential here is that the relation between ‘x’ and ‘y’ is understood as a logical necessity where ‘y’ is some kind of essential good that will outweigh the suffering ‘x’ and cannot be gained without it. An explanation would then make explicable the (possible or actual) relation between ‘x’ and ‘y’ and thus also justify the suffering. Depending on one’s epistemic position one could claim this justification either as an actual (a strong theodicy) or as a possible (a mere defence). Both of these solutions would then assert that (1) God does have sufficient moral reasons to allow suffering and that (2) we can have some kind of epistemic access to these reasons. If, as many antitheodicists have argued, the very act of explaining suffering in these terms explains it away, then – in order to fulfill the precondition of reverence and recognition – an ethical response to suffering should deny at least (2) and thus refuse to offer an explanation of suffering.
However, it seems also true that many people find comfort in their suffering through some kind of explanation. Is it possible to relativize these explanations by understanding them in terms of comfort and thus modify (2) in order to fulfill ‘the precondition of reverence’? Also, if ‘the foundational problem of evil’ is understood as that of “dealing with, coping with, or coming to terms with evil”, then one could plausibly argue that a proper response to suffering should also be able to help us ‘deal with’ or ‘cope with’ suffering – and comfort might be necessary for this.
So then, let’s presume that, in reality, the relationship between ‘x’ and ‘y’ – suffering and its consequences – is contingent: suffering ‘x’ doesn’t necessarily lead to ‘y’ nor does gaining ‘y’ necessarily require suffering ‘x’. This would not be a denial of the possibility that ‘x’ might lead to ‘y’, but it would deny that there can be an absolute, necessary explanation for ‘x’ that would justify it. Hence there could be comfort, not as a justification, but as a recognition of suffering that would also allow for relativized explanations. In fact, it seems that recognition of suffering in its fullest sense should also include a recognition of the explanations that the suffering person gives to her suffering.
How, then, could an ethical, theological response to suffering offer comfort? When it comes to relativizing explanations we must ask about the relation between our own and other’s suffering: explanations – or comforts, as I would like to call them – should be “patient-centered”, i.e. they should be a comfort, first and foremost, to the suffering person herself. Also, as I noted earlier, Christian response to suffering should take into account the central belief that “the Creator God has revealed Himself definatevely in the Jesus of Nazareth whose death and resurrection are fundamental to our understanding of God’s plan to deal with evil and suffering”. It is in the theology of the cross that Christian faith has often found its richest comforts.
Through the cross – Christ’s death and resurrection, our mortificatio and vivificatio – the incomprehensibility of suffering becomes an inter-personal mystery, for to it is added the reality of mutual participation: that ‘in Christ God participates in my suffering and I in His victorious suffering’. For the cross is followed by the resurrection: via participatio Christi the suffering person is caught up in the divine drama of redemption. This comfort is not something that is brought forcefully from outside, and as it is with mysteries the question of causality, of a definitive explanation, becomes almost obsolete. At the same time the cross reveals the compassion and care of the mysterious God: through this inter-personal mystery, an identification with the Crucified One, is made available ‘a second-person address’ – an encounter – which can yield ‘non-propositional, personal knowledge’, and which as such is ‘not the sort of thing to be true or false’; not an explanation, but comfort.
From a theological perspective the cross of Christ is the ultimate reality of “suffering for the useless suffering of the other – – which opens suffering to the ethical perspective of the inter-human”. The cross is thus not a sanctification of suffering as such that would deny “suffering its quality of contingency within divine providence” – would require that ‘x’ necessarily precedes ‘y’, as I put it earlier – but rather it makes it possible for us to become ethical agents capable of responding to other people’s suffering, able to ‘comfort others with the comfort we ourselves receive’ (cf. 1Cr. 1.3-7). Suffering or the cross cannot be converted into a principle: suffering is a mystery, ‘not a method’. The cross is, hence, not an explanation of suffering, but quite the opposite: the cross of Christ is a comfort that reveals suffering as incomprehensible but not indissoluble, that is, as a mystery, while at the same time beckoning us to become people capable of responding to suffering in an ethical manner, opening up a horizon of hope.
2.3. Allowing Beauty and Awakening Hope: the Desire for Goodness and Justice Satisfied
Presuming as contingent the relation between suffering and its consequences and hence refusing explanations draws us into the mystery of suffering (which, when theology of the cross in considered, might be more appropriate term than incomprehensibility). Christian theology, however, cannot leave it to that, for – as I put it earlier – we cannot dispense with hope, with the the fact that “God is going to eradicate evil and suffering and that God will bring about a final judgment where the world will be set right”. In addition, the comforts that are available to the suffering should not merely assert that God is present in one’s sufferings (theology of the cross), but also, in some sense, be able to heal the deep wound inflicted by the double-edged sword of suffering – the questioning of God’s goodness and justice.
In addition, if we agree that – pace O’Connor – the very reality of suffering requires a rejection of the ‘theory/practice -distinction’ in the responses we give to suffering, then, at least to some extent, “the measures of success and failure [of our responses] are subjective, existential, and pragmatic – – we succeed – – to the degree we cope”. But cope in what sense? We should cope in a way that allows us to become capable ethical agents, “maintain a hopeful commitment to virtuous living”, as Bishop put it. It is my intuition that Christian hope – including hope of the beatific vision in God’s new Creation – is essential here, but first I’d like to consider whether the question of goodness and justice could be reformulated in aesthetic terms.
For in many ways the question of God’s justice and goodness comes down to this: even if God would have some ‘morally sufficient reason’ to allow horrendous suffering, should we want such a god? Would such a god be beautiful? For “beauty is a splendour of the true and the good” and “in it man senses the attractive power of all that is good and true”. In other words, is there “something in God, the God of all the perfections, which justifies us in having joy, desire and pleasure towards Him, which indeed obliges, summons and attracts us to do this”? Is God, despite all the horrendous suffering in this world, still the origin of all things good, true and beautiful, someone we should want as the summum bonum of human existence? Is He lovable and desirable? Or should we, rather, choose Ivan Karamazov’s “protest atheism” and “return our tickets”?
God’s simplicity, His Oneness, is that which ultimately calls for a unity of justice and goodness in beauty, and in mystery. It is ‘a permanent mystery’, that is, not “an epistemic matter alone – – [for] God is not mystery because we cannot know enough or comprehend what we know”. This is to say, “Divine mystery is not a sign of our failure in knowledge, rather our success”, since “radical oneness, radial uniqueness, demands thought beyond any class, any universal, any likeness”. Thus to know this God, “is to be taken up in into an unparalleled ineffability and ignorance”, it is hence knowledge that can never be “fully proper or exhaustively third-personal knowledge of the Lord’s Oneness”. That is, in relation to the question of suffering, the ‘answer’ we are looking for might never yield to the kind of third-personal, distanced arguments that the evidentialist are looking for. It might be that these arguments remain unpersuasive precisely because, due to their very nature, they cannot convince one of God’s healing beauty, i.e. they do not make Him attractive.
So then, the question of God’s justice and goodness can be reformulated as a question of God’s beauty: is God beautiful? One must note that to answer ‘yes’ to this question is not necessarily to claim that some future, transcendental good of a beatific vision would eventually ‘engulf’ or ‘defeat’ the horrendous evils we encounter – it would not necessarily be an explanation, a kind of aesthetic theodicy such as that of Marilyn McCord Adam’s. Rather, beauty is something that transcends “the realms of profit and utility”, it transcends explanation and calculation and thus makes room for an ultimate mystery: God’s beauty revealed at the cross, in the suffering servant, the man of suffering (Cf. Ish. 53.2-5). The inter-personal mystery of encounter and identification with the Crucified One is hence also an aesthetic experience: theology of the cross cuts through theological aesthetics and offers a vision of God as a mysterious, even dark beauty – beauty which can, in a mysterious way, comfort the suffering person and satisfy the desire for justice and goodness in the present by drawing us towards the future. For, within the eschatological narrative of Christian faith, beauty allows for a satisfaction in hope – if one can conceive God’s beauty as the attractive, mysterious, complex harmony of His goodness and justice as displayed in the face of Christ, the man of suffering (cf. Heb. 1.3). This might be a kind of modified, cruciform version of classical arguments like those of James Kellenberg or Paul Draper – who both seem to argue, essentially, that the ‘epistemic weight’ of the creation’s beauty would allow us to trust in God’s goodness despite suffering and evil. The problem with these arguments is that they are subject to critiques like that of C.S. Lewis: on the basis of creation one might as well conclude that God is “quite merciless and no friend of man”. However, if we can conceive beauty as mysteriously revealed in Jesus Christ at the cross, and as an eschatologically open possibility proclaimed in His resurrection, then we might be able to begin to imagine a true unity of goodness and justice, begin to trust. Trust, that is, that the God of the cross is also the God of creation.
The word ‘conceive’ might be vital here, for – to return to the question of God’s ‘ineffable, permanent mystery’ – can we conceive such a Beauty? Can we be comforted by such a Beauty? To answer this question we would have to make an extensive foray into epistemology of theology for which there is no room here. Instead, I’ll be satisfied to suggest this: a sanctified imagination – pneumatically orientated, refined through spiritual practice and encounter with the Crucified One – can already in hope imagine and sense that which is possible: a harmony of goodness and justice, perfect, complete and effortless, ultimately ineffable. Such a sanctified imagination may be essential for those wish to ‘retain a hopeful commitment to virtuous living’: hope can form us into the kind of ethical agents we must be in a world such as ours.
An experience of God’s beauty can thus comfort the troubled soul that asks for justice and goodness in this life, and in the life to come – for in beauty one tastes the future glory of God’s new Creation, the final eradication of evil and suffering. This beauty that will eventually satisfy in the ultimate, eschatological vision doesn’t act as an explanation, but as comfort, since as a mystery it won’t relate to suffering and evil in neat categories, in fact, it does not necessarily relate at all – necessitating suffering in some way, making suffering its necessary precondition. This beauty then – and its infinite value – is something that would not justify horrendous suffering: it would bear no such relation to it, it would not yield to theodicy. Rather, it might simply be something that weighs more; something heavier (although it is lighter), something more fundamental, more important. Parentheses of love, closing us in, comforting without an explanation, a satisfying mystery, an answer without answers.
1 Cf. for example, Trakakis (2018): ‘The Problem of Evil for Atheists’.
2 Here I have in mind, for literary examples, accounts like those of C.S. Lewis’ in A Grief Observed, the Book of Job, Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest or Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, which all explore the unyielding tension between faith and suffering.
3 This choice is partly motivated by the fact that what exactly constitutes a theodicy (or an antitheodicy, for that matter) seems to be a matter of debate. Those advocating for an antitheodicist stance (such as Trakakis 2008, Pihlström and Kivistö 2016) seem to understand ‘theodicy’ more broadly than many theodicists (such as O’Connor 1988, Stump 2010), including within it also “mere defences”, or, in fact, the whole ‘theodicist discourse’.
4 Challenge here understood mostly as an existential, personal challenge to one’s continued Christian existence, rather than a public, intellectual challenge to the credibility of Christian faith, although these two aspects can be seen as interconnected.
5 Bishop 2018: 42.
6 O’Connor 1988: 62.
7 McCord Adams (1989).
8 Pihlström and Kivistö 2016: 2ff.
9 Pihlström and Kivistö 2016: 4-5.
10 Stump 2010: 4.
11 Trakakis 2018: 97.
12 As characterized by O’Connor (1988: 62).
13 Cf. for example Pihlström and Kivistö (2016: 5-6) and Trakakis (2018: 97-98).
14 Pihlström and Kivistö 2016: 5.
15 Pihlström and Kivistö 2016: 5.
16 Trakakis 2008: 6, 13ff.
17 Trakakis 2008: 16.
18 Cf. Levinas 1998: 91ff.
19 O’Connor 1988: 63.
20 Trakakis 2008: 22.
21 Cf. for example, O’Connor (1988) or Langtry (2008: 4-6).
22 Stump 2010: 16.
23 Cf. Bruce Marshall’s Trinity and Truth (2000, Cambridge University Press).
24 However, these attributes – taken individually or together – may of course be understood in various ways and the conversation on the topic is immense and ever-continuing. Here I simply wish to draw some very general boundaries.
25 Cf. for example Wright (2007). N.T. Wright has offered an understanding of Christian hope as it is shaped by the Biblical narrative. In this narrative can be found resources for hope that can also guide the Christian church into hopeful living in the midst of suffering. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of space, in this essay I’ll only be able to briefly address some aspects of this narrative (the cross, beatific vision).
26 Bishop 2018: 44ff.
27 McCord Adams 1989: 299f. Cf. also Job 3.1-26.
28 Kant 8:255ff; 8:266.
29 Kant 8:266.
30 Pihlström and Kivistö 2006: 5-6.
31 Levinas 1998: 91-93.
32 Bernstein 2006: 260.
33 As quotes by Trakakis (2008: 20).
34 Bernstein 2006: 261.
35 Be this ‘outweighting good’ either transcendental or non-transcendental, of which the former would constitute, in some theist’s opinion, a stronger argument (cf. McCord Adams 1989).
36 Cf. Stump 2010: 13.
37 Stump 2010: 16.
38 Also, this approach might not require a rejection of the axiom I called ‘the necessity of suffering’.
39 Or – if one wishes to retain to some kind of “ethically modified theodicy” – should not be explained unless this precondition of sincerity and reverence is fulfilled. I’ll leave open the question whether such an explanation is possible.
40 Trakakis 2008: 23.
41 As characterized by Trakakis (2008: 23).
42 Pihlström and Kivistö 2016: 260.
43 de Cruz 2014: 148. (The Enduring Appeal of Natural Theological Arguments, Philosophy Compass 9/2 (2014)).
44 For now I’ll leave open the question whether an ethical response would also require a rejection of (1), that is, the question of how these epistemic and ethical aspects relate to each other.
45 Bishop 2018: 42.
46 This would, of course, challenge most if not all soul-making theodicies (cf. Speak 2014), not to mention appreciation theodicies or counterpart theodicies (cf. McBrayer 2014), all of which – in some essential sense – depend on the axiom of ‘the necessity of suffering’. Without wanting to make too comprehensive claims, it does seem that most theodicies depend, in some way, on this axiom and hence presuming, instead, as axiomatic ‘the non-necessity of suffering’, would lead us into a nonexplanatory direction and leave room for responses other than explanation.
47 Intuitively, it would seem that this contingency or ‘non-necessity’ would result from the fundamental incomprehensibility of suffering (cf. above): “Why there is evil rather than good? Why suffering rather than no suffering?” This is the question, the mystery of suffering, that cannot be answered in any absolute sense.
48 For classical examples Luther often comes to mind first, but ‘theology of the cross’ has its deeps roots in the Biblical tradition itself (cf. for example 2Cr. 2.14-6.12) and it has provided rich resources for creative, Christian rearticulations of hope during the modern period, too, for example in various forms of liberation theology (for example in Jürgen Moltmann’s or Gustavo Gutierréz’s theology).
49 Cf. McCord Adams 1989: 307-309.
50 Cf. Stump 2010: 192f.
51 Levinas 1998: 94.
52 Bonhoeffer 2013: 808.
54 O’Connor 1988: 63.
55 Bernard Häring in Theological Aesthetics: a Reader (TA 2014: 338). Italics mine.
56 Cf. Karl Barth (TA 2014: 318). Italics mine.
57 Trakakis 2008: 23.
58 Here, besides theological aesthetics, I have in mind the classical doctrines of transcendentals and Deus simplicitas: God’s justice and beauty come together in His utter Oneness, they are His beauty. I don’t have the space here to go into detail, but I think it should be noted that, from a Christian, theological perspective, an answer to the question of suffering should also address metaphysical questions, i.e. God’s being and relation to creatures. (See also Navone TA 2014: 355.) One could also argue that a kind of Kantian, a priori separation of aesthetics from ethics might not be necessary (Tallon 2011: 17), that, indeed – when the classical doctrine of transcendentals is considered – it might be uncalled for.
59 Sonderegger 2014: 23-27.
60 Tallon 2011: 41.
61 See McCord Adams (1989).
62 Häring (TA 2014: 341).
63 Tallon 2011: 39-40.
64 Cf. Sherry 1992: 86-91.
65 In this way one might also, in some sense, be able to avoid the criticism that appealing to future retribution or beatific vision would somehow “undo” the ‘evilness of evil’ by making an experience of some evils a necessary condition of a refined, beatific vision. It is, perhaps, possible to conceive beatific vision without such appeals to necessity of suffering, appealing instead to a “non-relating”, absolute mystery.
Bernstein, Richard J. (2006). Article Evil and the tempation of theodicy in the Cambridge Companion to Levinas (ed. Robert Bernasconi, Simon Critchley). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Bishop, John. (2018). Article On Identifying the Problem of Evil and The Possibility of Its Theist Solution in The Problem of Evil: Eight Views in Dialogue (ed. N.N. Trakakis). Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2013). The Bonhoeffer Reader. Fortress Press, Minneapolis.
De Cruz, Helen (2014). Article The Enduring Appeal of Natural Theological Arguments. In Philosophy Compass 9/2: 145-153.
Kant, Immanuel. Essay On the miscarriage of all philosophical trials in theodicy in Religion and Rational Theology. (Translated and edited by Allen W. Wood, George Di Giovanni). Cambridge University Press.
Langtry, Bruce (2008). God, the Best and Evil. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Levinas, Emmanuel (1998). On Thinking-of-the-Other – entre nous. Columbia University Press, New York.
McBrayer, Justin P. (2014). Article Counterpart and Appreciation Theodicies in the Blackwell Companion to Problem of Evil. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, England.
McCord Adams, Marilyn (1989). Article Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (Supplementary Volumes Vol. 63, pp. 297-323).
O’Connor, David (1988). Article In Defense of Theoretical Theodicy in Modern Theology 5:1.
Pihlström, Sami; Kivistö Sari (2016). Kantian Antitheodicy: Philosophical and Literary Varieties. Pagrave Macmillan, Cham, Switzerland.
Sherry, Patrick (1992). Spirit and Beauty: An Introduction To Theological Aesthetics. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Sonderegger, Katherine (2014). Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Doctrine of God. Fortress Press, Minneapolis.
Speak, Daniel (2014). Article Free-will and Soul-Making Theodicies in the Blackwell Companion to Problem of Evil. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, England.
Stump, Eleonore (2010). Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Tallon, Philip (2011). The Poetics of Evil: Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Theological Aesthetics: A Reader (2014). Ed. Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, UK.
Trakakis, N. N. (2018). Article The Problem of Evil for Atheists in The Problem of Evil: Eight Views in Dialogue (ed. N.N. Trakakis). Oxford University Press, Oxford.
(2008) The End of Philosophy of Religion. Continuum, Norfolk, UK.Wright, N.T. (2007). Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. HarperOne, UK.
The final part of the series* comes as a very brief one:
in love abstractions live.
All language must travel through love, all language must be love, or nothing.
This is to say, as a theologian, avoid this fate: you have a comfortable armchair. You have ideas. You pronounce your ideas, you refine them, you make them very sophisticated, perhaps many people listen to you, they read your books, your articles. You have such fine ideas, they say. You believe it. Then you die. Your ideas die, too.
What have you spend your life saying? Have you said anything that is true? In love, in love only, you have.
I could make a fine argument of this, I can sense it: the nature and object of love, Deus simplicitas, speech-acts etc, etc. You imagine it, if you wish. You make your own, if you wish.
Sometimes I think to myself: maybe I’ll become a poet instead (that would probably be an equally rational choice in terms of financial stability). It is not that I have come to resist theological truths. Rather, it’s the theological language that exhausts me. I despair weekly.
Love is loyal. David Bentley Hart: “I do not expect perfect consistency from Paul, but only fervent fidelity to the mysteries with which he is grappling.”
Fervent fidelity to the mysteries with which we are grappling; love. Love of God drives away despair, it opens up an avenue of grace and light. You must love Him, then you can talk about Him. You must speak in love: adoration, fidelity, attraction, praise. Love is loyal to the integrity of its object, love is loyal in retaining its object’s independence, its essential realism.
Love lasts even when language does not. Love stronger than death.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
1Cr. 13.1-2, 8-end.
Series on theological language as it is justified in faith, hope and love:
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
T.S. Elliot (Preludes)
Illumination: like turning on the light, gradually. A light not itself seen, or seen only in the things that are seen in it, things illuminated: a barely noticeable change at first, but then, quite suddenly perhaps, we are in the full light of day. Or so we think: the light increases, increases still, even after we think we see it all. For we don’t know the dark to be dark before the light removes it: those who have lived their whole lives in the night easily mistake the first glimmer of light to be the Day.
The true light that gives light to everything has come in to the world (Jh. 1.9) – and the world is unwilling to receive it, its own light (Jh. 1.10-11), for the world loves the darkness (Jh. 3.19-20). But He calls us (Rm. 13.12): “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deed of darkness and put on the armor of light.” And the light illuminates us: we become light in the Lord (Eph. 5.8), the children of the light and the children of the day (1Ts. 5.5) – we put aside the fruitless deeds of the darkness, and put on Christ Jesus (Rm. 13.14). And the fruit of that Light is goodness, righteousness and truth (Eph. 5.9); faith, hope and love (1Ts. 5.8).
And so the call resounds: Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you! (Eph. 5.14).
And so, we who are now qualified to share in the inheritance of His holy people in the kingdom of light (Col. 1.12) become the ambassadors – the missionaries – of this Kingdom (Mt. 5.1-16). For the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it (Jh. 1.5).
“The cynical tend to see everything through the projection of their own inability to integrate around goodness. The cynical person sees romantic love only as lust, political leadership only as power-seeking, disagreement as only personal enmity, compassion and benevolence only as manipulation. In short the cynical person sees others through the lens of his own character because his character is divided against itself, it tends to mix an evil, such as manipulation, with any good, such as compassion, that is sees. And so the cynical person, who sees others through his understanding of himself, has a seriously impaired vision.” [Stump 2010: 203]
Culture that is ‘divided against itself’ is a culture that cannot believe in the goodness it nevertheless desires. And this dividedness is precisely what differentiates cynicism from unbelief: there is still left that distant, dream-like memory of the Good That Should Be, like a sweet taste turn sour, a feeble sense of this-should-not-be, a hidden, buried heartbreak: the ache, the longing suppressed, felt so deeply that it is not felt at all. And yet we do not want to come in to the Light.
It is this culture ‘divided against itself’ that praises cynicism as the highest form of realism, the savvy option for those who wish not be fooled, who rather make sure to slap first than turn the other cheek (cf. Mt. 5.38-42). The whole Sermon on the Mount is really an antidote to cynicism of this kind, ethics of hope and trust, available only for those who truly believe the Resurrection, who dwell in its light. For those who believe the Resurrection hope is the higher form of realism. The Resurrection awakens our hope and hope reveals the ache, the heartbreak, the longing suppressed. It confesses that which the cynic never dares to, even though he might sense it to be true (hence the bitterness); it confesses that This Should Not Be. Hope breaks our heart and molds it anew; it ‘rips open the inconsolable secret in each one of us’.
“In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you – the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both.” [C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory] Katherine Sonderegger [2014: 455f.] taps into the same idea: “It is an act of faith to affirm that the transcendentals exist – -. Ours is an intellectual culture that long ago learned to take less, to exercise intellectual modesty and restraint, to accept deflationary accounts of all grand ideas, to suspect with a moral earnestness all large-scale theories, to lower ourselves, in every field, to something reduced, even inert – -. – – But those called and healed and freed by the gospel may allow themselves to take more: to be haunted by this song of Zion, to ascend to its heights and hear the aching melody of the high and lifted up, to be dazzled by the exceeding weight of glory that is the human destiny and stature. – – More is the name of Christian dignity. – – This is the larger room we are invited to habit; it is the greater confidence and hope that we dare to profess – -.”
‘The larger room we are invited to inhabit’: this is the hope, like a lamp shining in a dark place, lighting our way until the bright morning star rises in our hearts (2Pt. 1.19, cf. Rev. 22.16). As the light shines in our hearts, driving away the darkness of despair, ignorance and sin, we begin to truly see the reality, we shake off cynicism and bitterness and embrace hope and heartbreak. This is the higher realism of hope.
Realism – in the sense our modern culture – comes close to cynicism. We pride ourselves in our narrow view of reality we call ‘scientific world-view’: we are impoverished by “the artificial limits we put on our sense of things”, we have come to be persuaded of a definition of the real that is so “arbitrarily exclusive”, leaving much of what we have intuited and even what we know “in the limbo of the unarticulated and the unacknowledged”. Cynicism is the “realism” that is ‘arbitrarily exclusive’, unable to acknowledge goodness it can not find it in itself. But as the light shines in us – revealing the world as it truly is – we are called to abandon “realism that distracts us from reality”. [Robinson 2014: 274]
Grace comes close to hope. For hope allows us to see that which could be; it teaches us to look at the world gracefully, generously and charitably (these are the virtues of the hopeful) and to let go of our desire to ‘pry into the sins of others’ (Bonhoeffer). And this not simply in relation to our immediate encounters with other human beings, but in relation to the whole reality; grace, too, is “a higher realism, an ethics of truth” (Robinson, again) that won’t allow us to harbor contempt for the masses, to characterize the human situation in cynical terms.
“There is a sort of evil satisfaction in knowing that every person has failings and weak spots. – – It is as if you wouldn’t know a fine house until you have found cobwebs in the remotest cellar – -. The same trend is found in novels of the last fifty years, which only think they have portrayed their characters honestly if they depict them in the marriage bed, and in movies, which have to have scenes of people undressing. To be clothed, veiled, pure and chaste is considered a lie, a disguise, impure from the outset, which only gives proof of one’s own impurity. This mistrust and suspicion as the basic attitude toward others people is the rebellion of the inferior. From a theological point of view the error is twofold: thinking one can only address people as sinners after having spied out their weaknesses and meanness; second, thinking that the essential nature of a person consists of his innermost, intimate depths and background.” [Bonhoeffer 2013: 799]
“The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” – this is a profound grace (Gen. 3.20). Grace is alleviation, says Robinson, and that is true. She is also right in saying that “respect is a profound alleviation”, a profound grace. Grace respects the way people would like to be seen, even against our ‘better knowledge’. And it is not ‘a higher realism’ despite this, but because of this. We must become realists, that is, we must learn to look at the world as it is permeated with grace. Cynicism or vulgarity won’t do. To refuse to interpret reality graciously is to miss it.
I mean this: to look at the world without grace is to look at it without truth, because grace and truth belong together. There is no contradiction. To suggest a contradiction is to reveal how unaccustomed we are to mystery, how our view of reality is impoverished by “the artificial limits we put on our sense of things”: we struggle to comprehend God who is utterly and completely just and good, full of grace and truth. We are divided against ourselves, and so Deus simplicitas eludes us.
God, however, is utterly perfect and complete: infinite peace and rest, effortless harmony – certain, faithful, constant ‘mutable immutability’. He is not ‘first this’ and ‘then that’, ‘good, but also just’. As this Very One He is not burdened by tensions or paradoxes, ‘buts’ or ‘despites’, He is not ‘good, but then also…’ There is, thus, no ‘grace despite the truth’, grace that would ignore truth – no divine pardon in such cheap sense is available here. He is utterly One.
Hence there is no need to force grace and truth into unity, since there is no contradiction to overcome in the first place. Rather, we need to learn to understand grace that is truth and truth that is grace: we must learn to live with mysteries rather than just problems. We must learn to dwell in that which is not to be understood merely by thinking, but in prayer; not merely with reason, but with emotion and intuition.
So we need to open our eyes to the peculiar strangeness of this existence: the terrible horror and the wonderful beauty of the human condition, the prosaic mystery of the usual life. And I mean, truly, the usual life: not some platonic idea, but an average, mundane life with all its pettiness; ordinary people with all the usual bitterness, disoriented desires and selfish motives; the average existence with its mediocre problems and usual – and as such terrible, life-shattering – pain; the day-to-day ebb and flow of suffering that – instead of making saints – often simply erodes. To all this grace is a gentle alleviation, lifting the burden of this existence; to look at this life and see the incomprehensible mystery of the weight of its glory is to look with grace. It is to look with hope.
Grace is truth: to allow respect and alleviation into the ordinary human condition is not to circle around the “hard facts”, to live in denial. It is not sacrificio intellectum in that sense. To allow such alleviation, such grace, is to embrace a higher realism that is possible only if we are illuminated by the Holy Spirit. To look, to contemplate the human life as it appears to us through prayer in the Spirit and in truth, to probe into it with graceful and hopeful spirit so that we are able to see the invisible God in the things visible by dwelling in the – sometimes dark – light of faith. This is to be illuminated, to be open towards the profound, fundamental incomprehensibility of life – its mystery, the silent center.
And since this is a hopeful vision, it is irreducibly eschatological: the unity of grace and truth is essentially in spe and in fide. For now it is trust that opens up towards the future, waiting for its final vindication: visio Dei. The full light of Day. And so shame and fear that keep us away from the light (Eph. 5.12; Jh. 3.20) find their undoing in the hope of the grace of this light (Eph. 5.13; Jh. 3.21): He is full of grace and truth (Jh. 1.14).
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich 2013. The Bonhoeffer Reader. Fortress Press. (July 9 1944 letter to Eberhard Bethge).
Robinson, Marilynne 2015. The Givenness of Things. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. (The essay “Realism”.)
Sonderegger, Katherine 2014. Systematic Theology v. 1: the Doctrine of God. Fortress Press.
Stump, Eleanore 2014. Wandering in Darkness. Clarendon Press.
Light my way, Lord, with Your Light,
Your Light is Christ who shines on me.
Song of Colossians Three
Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead
And Christ shall give you light.
You have died and your life is hid with Christ in God.
Awake O sleeper, and arise from the dead.
Set your mind on things that are above,
not on things that are on the earth.
And Christ shall give you light.
When Christ our life appears you will appear with Him in glory.
Awake O sleeper, and arise from the dead,
And Christ shall give you light.
Light my way, Lord, with Your Light,
Your Light is Christ who shines on me.
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said:
“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.
Ephesians 5.1-2, 8-17
Light my way, Lord, with Your Light,
Your Light is Christ who shines on me.
Yesterday I was crucified with Christ;
today I am glorified with him.
Yesterday I died with Christ;
today I am made alive in him.
Yesterday I was buried with Christ;
today I am raised up in him.
Gregory pf Nazianzus
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
Light my way, Lord, with Your Light,
Your Light is Christ who shines on me.
The refrain and the Song of Colossians Three can also be sung. Perhaps I will be able to upload the notes for that later on.
I. We must learn to trust in the cross before we can take up the cross.
I.1. The cross must never become for us a mere imperative: something to do, to take, to follow. It must always first and foremost be for us the cross of Christ and only secondarily – via participatio Christi – our cross.
I.2. This is to say, participatio must not eclipse substitutio: He goes first and He goes alone. We are mere spectators: this is His work, His initiative, fully and completely. Only after are we to understand our calling.
I.3. In Christian existence the objective (substitutio) and the subjective (participatio) dwell together, enclose each other, are intertwined, but always: Christ first, Christ last. He is the end and the beginning of my salvation.
II. The cross is a symbol that is effective only because it is the cross of Christ. No general principle, no suffering in abstracto will do.
II.1. For suffering itself is contingent: only through our participation in Christ the cross can gain its meaning. It can become the Way for us.
II.2. To take the cross as some universal symbol of suffering and its transformative power, as a manifestation of some age-old universal wisdom, is to neglect it, to become blind to it: it is to do violence, it is to sanctify and justify suffering. This violent cross can be for us a symbol of peace only in and through Christ, only within the economy of salvation of the Triune God.
II.3. This is the offensive particularity of the cross which we must embrace to be blessed by it.
III. God forbid that we objectify the subjectivity of the cross: that we sanctify suffering and thus lose sight of its fundamental evil, its contingency in God’s plan, that we lose sight of our call to alleviate suffering.
III.1. The cross can not be imposed from outside: taking up is an inner choice. Hence, subjectivity.
III.2. The cross of Christ is not a theodicy, not an explanation. It is, rather, an anti-theodicy: the cross says that suffering is not a problem to be solved. That it is a mystery.
III.3. As a mystery, as the cross of Christ, the cross is our comfort, but not in a manner that would sanctify suffering, would render it a static reality, something to be prized in itself. Suffering is temporary and contingent, suffering is something to be done away with.
IV. This is to say: the cross can only be understood in light of the resurrection.
IV.1. In light of hope and new life, that is. In light of God’s victory over evil, suffering, pain and death. It is precisely the resurrection that invests the cross with its proper sense of contingency.
V. Nor is the cross just a piece in our soteriological puzzle, a solution to a problem. God doesn’t have problems.
V.1. This is to say, after Anselm (approximately speaking), the western theological tradition (especially in Reformed theology) has given too much weight to legal metaphors, understanding the cross merely as a solution to a problem (penal substitution), instead of seeing as a reality of God to be embraced, to be wondered at. (And this not only in terms of the cross, the problematic approach extents to incarnation in general.)
V.2. The cross, thus, is not only a manifestation of God’s righteousness (iustitia Dei), but of His love, too.
V.3. We must be weary of systematizing the cross, of rationalizing it in a way that makes it captive to narrow theological perspectives and explanations. At the center there is no theory or an ‘idea’, but the incomprehensible mystery and wonder of God’s reality. All speech comes after that wonder, after that reality.
V.4. Generally speaking, an overwhelming emphasis on penal substitution – the cross as a ‘solution’ – can overlook the subjective aspect of the cross as the reality of Christian existence that expands to all areas of theology and life.
VI. God forbid that we subjectify the objectivity of the cross: that the reality of reconciliation becomes dependent on our ability to receive it, to live it.
VI.2. We must empathetically disagree with Luther: God does not only pardon us to the extent we accuse ourselves (cf. Heidelberg Disputation, article 12). The cross is absolute grace: nothing before or after in our doing can ever count for merit.
VI.3. The Cross of Christ stands as the objective reality of our salvation, objective beyond our feelings, thoughts, doubts and prayers, even.
VII. His gentle calling is a miracle: we can love the cross.