A companion in pain or a savior?

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16 Responses to A companion in pain or a savior?

  1. Jonathan says:

    To deny that God can be both companion in sorrow and the savior, is simply blasphemous. It denies on the one hand the reality of Christ’s suffering, and on the other hand God’s omnipotence. If the metaphysicians have a problem with that, then. . . well, it’s their problem.


  2. Karen says:

    God is mercy. He has no need to react with mercy to our suffering because this is the unchanging nature of His energy toward all He has made. That mercy was demonstrated and expressed fully in a way we could know it through Christ. God did not need to become human so that He could learn what our suffering is (He already knows all things and is our unseen Companion in all things); He became human so we could see and understand He knows even our sufferings and has overcome them by the Resurrection.


  3. tgbelt says:

    I began moving toward a qualified version of apatheia (never mind the qualification) independently of my present interest in Orthodoxy, but nobody expresses my own concerns on this issue as well as DBH. Really helpful. The more extreme passibilist claims (like Moltmann’s) are untenable in so many ways (philosophically, existentially, and—yes—even biblically). I simply can’t any longer relate to such claims as viably Christian understandings of God or the gospel.


  4. Jonathan says:

    I just really want to know what happened on the Cross. I confess that the distinction of God suffering in his own nature, and God suffering in and with our nature — this doesn’t do much for me. I don’t deny that those are two different “natures,” at least on paper, but if the Cross does not bring them together in an awesomely intimate way, then I’m not sure what the point of Christianity is.

    I’m pretty sure that if God could not be a companion in sorrow then the Christian faith would have come into the world stillborn, nothing more than the rarified game of esoteric gurus. Instead, the entire spiritual and devotional tradition witnesses to the depths and mysteries of divine-human suffering. Everyone knows the Christian story has a happy ending, but that ending is rendered meaningless if you leap the Cross to get there.

    Admittedly, the Cross is a challenge — foolishness, in fact. A lot of nonbelievers — I’m thinking of the ones who harbor a special horror of Christianity — stumble not on the miracles and the myths, but at the foot of the Cross. How can God inflict suffering on his own Son? Or how can the Son, if he is really also God, suffer (and not just on the Cross)? I’m afraid that if the Christian apologist answers anything that boils down to “It’s not really suffering, it just looks that way” then the conversation is over, because what you’ve got there is a Hipster God, one who pretends to suffer but doesn’t really and wants you to know it. Reasonable people don’t have time for such shenanigans.

    The way to apologize the faith to a modern scandalized by Christ’s suffering is not by denying that he really suffered and thus making oneself look ridiculous and embarrassed by the very faith one is supposed to be defending. No, the thing to do is to think a little harder about what suffering is. I don’t see Christians doing this. Instead I see an uncritical adoption of the modern identification of suffering — all suffering — with evil. The result is drivel like Colm Toibin’s “The Testament of Mary.” Incidentally, if you want to know why there’s been almost no great art from Christian hands in the last two generations, the inability to face the Cross is why. (Bob Dylan is a notable exception.) Take away the suffering of the God-Man, and all our suffering becomes meaningless. Once our suffering is meaningless, art becomes either a species of hollow activism, or else gratuitous wallowing in self-pity and trivial aestheticism (the ‘gritty realism’ so much in vogue). But this is an argument for another time and place. . .

    Could be I’m just a monophysite at heart.


    • Dante Aligheri says:

      I can understand where your concerns are coming from, I think. But God is, even in the classical theist conception, a Companion in our suffering. He is indeed with us and indeed always open before us – but precisely as Himself, unchanging like light falling through the dust. The light doesn’t change, but we experience the unchanging light from within a musty condition. If God is outside of time, with all of history open before him, the Light at the beginning and the end of the tunnel, then He cannot be suffering because then suffering, which is evil, is incorporated into the timeless nature of God. But suffering and evil have no place in God – only the complete and utterly full goodness that is Being. We want suffering gone, not to remain. He is with us as the refuge against our suffering, the goal in which the suffering soul rests to find complete joy, but that does not require God in himself to be suffering and in fact seems to go against it.

      In terms of God suffering in Christ, this is a tricky thing, and I think I have the opposite tendency here to side with Antioch as far as it does not jeopardize real theosis so it is, to some degree, a matter of taste. If Christ has a human soul and human flesh, then it seems to me (and I think Aquinas wrote something on this, if I’m not mistaken) that Christ in his human soul experiences the unchanging beatific vision of the divine nature (not speaking, for a second, of any question about energies or the alleged static tendencies within this phrase) precisely as a human being – that is, in the Spirit who can be said to have “birthed” his whole nature and in union with the Word which possesses the Father. Christ in his human nature, it seems, does not experience the Father in any way different than a divinized human being would. So, God remains the end of complete joy, undiminished by suffering, the Kingdom in himself, but Christ in his divinized soul has brought that human suffering not into the Godhead but rather to be destroyed or at least relativized precisely against the Word.

      From our perspective, not from within Trinity which is utterly dynamic, God is the stationary endpoint, outside of time, who has within himself completeness of the Kingdom and joy, but the Word which possesses this completeness of rest, is conformed with a changeable and temporal human soul and flesh which does suffer so that soul and that flesh are, as it were, moving within time and history while seeing the Father in the Word but precisely as any divinized human being might. So just as we experience suffering but look at it in light of God and so it transforms against that goal so too, and only in a far better mode, did and does Christ in his human soul experience God precisely as a human being might and relativize his suffering against that – this distance between where soul, experience, and God creating authentic hope in that everything is relativized against a stationary point. So within Christ those elements, suffering in soul and body against the beatific vision, are held in friction – not incorporated but held together.

      So when Christ asks why God has forsaken him, it is that hope in a human soul which is seen in Psalm 22. But that point cannot be said to contain suffering, and the Word as Word, if such a thing is conceivable, cannot be said to suffer.

      So the Word which does not suffer and the human soul of Christ which can are brought together in an awesome way, the anguished soul complete in its present experiences of loss (the most obvious probably being the death of Lazarus) but existing in light of complete transparency with the Word. I guess what I’m trying to say is I don’t think that the problem of a suffering Christ should be much different than that of a suffering saint or a suffering Christian, experiencing pain in light of God, except insofar as the human flesh of Christ is and always has been at the endpoint in God, but that doesn’t take away, I think, from the created nature of it.

      When talking about the subjective experiences of Christ from his human nature, I guess it boils down to whether the “I” (the human soul and human will) that is Christ experiences the Word and Spirit within him, an awareness of the Word as the Word is not strictly identical with the human soul of Christ. And it would, in my opinion, be correct to say Christ “experiences” or shows an awareness of the Word as much as he experiences the beatific vision as a human being.

      Whether this seems Nestorian or is adequate, I would interested in any input and correction.


      • Jonathan says:

        Dante, thank you for the response. I have a few thoughts.

        Just to recall, the original blogger sets up an either/or scenario, to which I felt it necessary to object. In my opinion, anyone who looks down on someone for desiring in God a companion in sorrow displays a miserable condescension. I’m aware that’s not the usual or classical position, and wondered why it was being presented that way.

        I don’t know how familiar or devoted you are to the tradition of western spirituality — judging by your name, probably more of both than I am — but in my reading of that tradition, focus on the suffering of Christ (however we want to construe that) is extremely important. I’d go so far as to call it the single most overwhelming feature of western Christian spirituality, at least from the perspective of a secular modern. So one thing I am thinking about these days is what that might mean. Another thing I am thinking about is how Christianity relates to secular modernity. I fear it caves before a simplistic and definitively (if not exclusively) modern idea of suffering.

        About suffering, I simply cannot agree that it is coterminous or synonymous with evil. There is quite a bit of evil that is not at all suffering in any useful sense of the word, and there is a good deal of very painful suffering that is not evil in any way I can understand, and in fact seems to be more like an epiphenomenon of the conversion of evil into good. And there is suffering of a sort that is nothing worse than wholesome ascesis. A person who is fasting out of true devotion and a person who cannot afford to buy food both experience the same physical sensation, but only one is experiencing something that might be called evil. Perhaps this point of view is incorrigibly worldly.

        I revert to my initial question, having to do with the nature of the Atonement. There seems to be no getting around suffering’s central role in the mechanism (if I may so call it) of Atonement. I’m not only thinking of the Cross, but of all the other ways Christ suffered. I wonder if there is a fear that if the divine nature could in some way encompass suffering, this would logically enable God to inflict it eternally on human souls. For me, there is no such fear. I can understand some necessity of suffering in the Atonement — I mean divine suffering — because I don’t equate *all* suffering and evil. And as I mentioned, I believe that if human suffering remains the only kind of real suffering (in which animals obviously share to some extent), then that suffering is disastrously meaningless. To say that God can have compassion on our suffering, or can know it, means to me that God in some way suffers. He may be suffering “as” a human being, but still it is God suffering. Otherwise, he is sending in a drone, an avatar, to do his dirty work for him.

        I’ve been pondering Psalm 22. Of course we must take Jesus’ cry of forsakenness in that context. But I can’t get at any interpretation that would limit his agony in that moment to some single part of his self. What is required for such an interpretation is an a priori assumption that God does not suffer in himself. But on what do we base that assumption? Jesus is the epitome of revelation. His image and his story would seem to trump subsequent philosophical finessing. If God could, as it were, inhabit the man Jesus’ suffering without taking it fully upon himself — at that moment or some other — then he could just as well inhabit your or my suffering, and unite himself to our species in that way. In fact, I am saying he does do this, but first by means of the Son.

        Am I an inveterate miaphysite? (I think that’s the more proper term.) I don’t know. As far as I can tell, I’m not asserting that the Word, co-eternal with the Father, suffers from all time or eternally. There are even plenty of moments in the Gospel narratives when Jesus’ transcendence is paramount. I assume that if God is omnipotent, not constrained to obey the rules of metaphysics, then he can choose to suffer if that is what his wisdom asks of him. He does not have to choose to suffer eternally. All I am trying to insist on is that God really suffered in the person of Jesus, that “Jesus” was not some sort of effigy.

        Sorry to go on for so long. I’m sure you or others, if you care to, can tell me whether I’m orthodox but stuck in a terminological confusion, or irredeemably heretic. For what it’s worth, I worship at a Roman Catholic church. But quite possibly I’m not doing it right.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “I confess that the distinction of God suffering in his own nature, and God suffering in and with our nature — this doesn’t do much for me.”

      Well, the distinction really isn’t intended to do much for any of us. I don’t imagine many preachers talk about divine impassibility on Sunday mornings. It only arises once one makes the astounding claim that the eternal Creator died on the cross. At that point one might wonder what sort of “being” this God is.


      • Jonathan says:

        I certainly never meant to claim that God the Father and Creator, or Being Itself, died on the cross. And I’m sure I never said God was a being among beings. So I think we’re OK there. I’m trying to understand what sort of transcendent God this transcendent God is. I assume that a transcendent God is free and omnipotent enough to experience the contingency of his own creation if and as he sees fit to do so. I also assume that he might see fit to do so for reasons and in ways that are beyond our ken.

        That the God we Christians worship is triune cuts many ways. Jesus Christ really was both God and man, and Jesus Christ really did suffer and die. On the one hand, of course God doesn’t suffer, he’s the eternal Creator. On the other hand, of course God suffers, he was Jesus Christ. I can’t rest easy with an image of Christ only suffering in one of his natures. As I said, that strikes me as something of a hoax, and in that case I am incapable of understanding in what way the Son can be said to have triumphed: rather it would have been the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth that triumphed. I am Trinitarian, I do believe that Christ’s divine nature is not the entirety of the Triune nature; and that there is much more to say about God than that he died on the cross and rose again (although this is the single most important thing to say). And I think this means I’m saying that God suffers — not eternally, perhaps, and not with his whole nature, but still a suffering God. I think of spouses. If one spouse is suffering and in danger (either morally or physically), the other suffers as well. Not in precisely the same way, but it is surely the second spouse’s own suffering, not a discrete object of his knowledge separate from himself. What else can it mean for the two natures to be “one flesh”? Similarly, the union of natures in Christ. Again, I am left with a suffering God, but not, I think, with an executed Creator.

        Even the straightforward catechism of the Roman Church is unclear. One finds such statements as “The individual characteristics of Christ’s body express the divine person of God’s Son. He has made the features of his human body his own, to the point that they can be venerated when portrayed in a holy image. . .” [par. 477]. Well, it was a tortured, reviled, longsuffering body and in the Western art that’s certainly how it’s presented. I’m left to draw certain inevitable conclusions – either about the catechism or about God. And there’s Gethsemane, an episode rendered incoherent for me by what I read a couple of paragraphs above in the CCC: “Christ possesses two wills and two natural operations, divine and human. They are not opposed to each other, but cooperate in such a way that the Word made flesh willed humanly in obedience to his Father all that he had decided divinely with the Father and the Holy Spirit for our salvation. Christ’s human will ‘does not resist or oppose, but rather submits to his divine and almighty will.’” So much for sweating blood. And two paragraphs before that I am quoted Maximus the Confessor to the effect that, “The human nature of God’s Son, not by itself but by union with the Word, knew and showed forth in itself everything that pertains to God.” Am I to assume that when that human nature was suffering, it was not knowing and showing forth anything pertaining to God? In that case, the majority of the Gospel shows forth nothing pertaining to God. Elsewhere (par. 603) I’m told that it’s “in our name” that Jesus cried from the cross the first words of Psalm 22. I’d like to know what that means, and how we could know it.

        I’ll go back and read Hart’s essay again. I don’t yet understand the motivation behind a strong assertion of apatheia. Scripture shows a suffering God, but of course not one who is all or finally suffering. I’m wrestling with what must seem like pretty basic christological stuff to people who regard these questions as having been decided long ago. Unfortunately, such is not the case for me, despite my best efforts.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          “I certainly never meant to claim that God the Father and Creator, or Being Itself, died on the cross.”

          Neither did I mean to suggest that the Father died on the Cross. But if Jesus the Son is consubstantial with the Father, then to say that he died on the Cross is to say that God died on the Cross.

          “’I’m trying to understand what sort of transcendent God this transcendent God is.”

          God luck with that! We Orthodox are generally content to say, “heck if we know.” 🙂


          • Jonathan says:

            Who knows, maybe someday I’ll end up Orthodox. For now I guess I’m sticking with the heretics.

            I seem to be incapable of understanding consubstantial in that way. Perhaps it’s a matter of my decadent literary education and the particular kinds of hermeneutics it seems to have stuck me with. But I suspect it’s more personal and ineluctable: I know for myself that I have at certain times felt a part of my being die, yet I remain somehow undiminished, possibly even increased or augmented through the suffering of loss. Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point. Pascal is one of my favorites. I guess that tells you something.

            Anyway, thanks for allowing me to air my concerns and not thwacking me upside the head with anathemas, as would happen in most other corners of the internet.


          • Was “God luck” meant to be a pun or a typo of “Good luck”?


  5. brian says:


    I think you are unduly exercised by all this.
    No one is arguing that the Christian God is indifferent to our suffering.
    No one is arguing that God is not “companionable” to our troubles.
    Quite the contrary. Impassibility properly understood is a sign of God’s transcendence.
    Part of that transcendence is what allows the agapeic God to be closer to us than we are to ourselves.

    There are several dangers one could come up against in atonement theory. One of them is a quasi-Hegelian notion that God somehow needs the Cross. As I understand McCabe, he is actually saying that Christ’s suffering on the Cross is not some exigent need of God’s, but actually a sign of Love’s free choice to be with us in all things. You should have a look at Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday. Mysterium Paschale has some issues, but one would never come away from that with the misapprehension that God is aloof from our sorrows.

    If you look at Hart’s article that Father posted on apatheia, you will see that there’s no confusion of Greek and Christian notions here. For that matter, go look at the post I recently sent Dino, minus one, in that long thread on universalism. I outline the radical distinction between philosophical absolutes and the God revealed by Christ. Apatheia grounds Love metaphysically, not merely emotively. Posing an analogical distance between the Immanent and the Economic Trinity allows for an affirmation of the reality of the suffering of the God-man without importing that suffering as a necessary condition of Triune life.

    You want to separate evil from suffering, or some suffering.
    I said before in an earlier post that I don’t think there will be a need for courage as we currently understand it in the eschaton, insofar as fear will not exist in a renewed cosmos. Nonetheless, I posited that a kind of hyperbolic courage called forth by the infinite mystery of the Godhead should exist. Something like a redeemed questing should involve the merits of courage without the defects of fear. This, of course, calls for an imaginative leap, for we cannot really understand a courage that is not called forth by the fearful. Or, if you like, a kind of “positive fear” linked to the awesome majesty of God is the real “site” of courage. Likewise, one can think of something like “suffering” in the Immanent Trinity, so long as one understands that it is analogous to what we know as suffering and not something that is the effect of a pathos, but rather, such “suffering” is part of the courteous dance of receptivity that is always part of the Triune life.


    • Jonathan says:

      Could be I’m caught up in a theologia crucis that’s bleaching metaphysical refinements of their savor. This results in me hitting grounders while you all hang in the outfield waiting for a fly ball.

      Although normally I’m all for sensitivity to the analogical quality of (more poetic) language, lately it seems a bit. . . I don’t know, disingenuous maybe. To insist that my language is analogical implies that I know more of what’s on the other side of the analogy than the subjective limits of analogy should permit me to know. . . a sort of “protesting too much” situation. My penchant for more existential modes of theology (which I know Hart doesn’t care much for) is probably coming through here.

      I’m intrigued by hyperbolic courage. Why “hyperbolic” exactly?


      • Jonathan says:

        — And yet, having registered my momentary dyspepsia with respect to analogy, I do want to avow that I’m sure there is a sort of mystery of poiesis — nothing less than a kind of revelation — that gives us a capacity for analogous speech in excess of our epistemic constitution. I think of Steiner’s Real Presences, and similar work in that vein from the more visionary literary thinkers. Artists know more than they know. What this faith entails for my theologia crucis, I’m not sure yet.


      • brian says:

        Mainly hyperbolic because it points to both the fullest realization of what courage is and that the reality that this entails necessarily exceeds our conceptual and imaginative powers. It’s sort of analogy on supernatural steroids.


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