Hartian Illuminations: The Myth of Suffering Divinity

That God suffers, not just as the man Jesus of Nazareth but in his divine essence, has become dogma in modern theology. Outside the Thomistic sphere few scholars are inclined to dispute it. Just read the Bible. Is not YHWH portrayed as one who loves and grieves and suffers, who delights in the obedience of his people and becomes enraged by their wickedness, who declares doom and then changes his mind? If we take the Scriptures seriously, it seems but a small step to conceive of the Lord as a passible and mutable being, one who responds to the events of history and indeed shares a history, a deity of process and becoming–yet this step the Church Fathers and medieval doctors refused to make. Divinity, they taught, is impassible, immutable, atemporal, nonemotional, omniscient, omnipotent. These attributes must obtain if God is the transcendent Creator and not a mythological godling:

When all is said and done, the idea of a God who becomes through suffering passions, whose being is determined in a history, according to “encounters” with other realities, even realities he creates, is simply a metaphysical myth, a mere supreme being, but not the source of all being. To wax vaguely Heideggerean, he is a God on this side of the ontological difference…: one is identifying being with a being among beings; one’s God is an ontic God, who becomes what he is not, possessed of potential, receiving his being from elsewhere–from being. And, as a being, he is in some sense finite, divided between being and being this, and so cannot be the being of creatures, even though he is their cause. …

But the greatest problems with such approaches are as much moral as metaphysical, for once the interval of analogy between the immanent and economic Trinities (between God in himself and God with the world) has been collapsed into simple identity, certain very unsettling conclusions will become inevitable. Moltmann and Jüngel both, for all their differences, attempt to avoid depicting God, in his history of becoming, as merely the passive creature of his creatures: freely, they insist, he chooses his course. But this idea of God as a finite subject writ large, who elects himself as a project of self-discovery, only compounds the problem; in place of the metaphysically necessary “God” of the system, this sort of language gives us only an anthropomorphic myth, a God whose will enjoys a certain indeterminate priority over his essence, in whom possibility exceeds actuality, who is therefore composite, ontic, voluntaristic … and obviously nonexistent. More to the point, as many of the fathers would have argued, a God who can by nature experience finite affects and so be determined by them is a God whose identity is established through a commerce with evil; if the nature of God’s love can be in any sense positively shaped by sin, suffering, and death, then sin, suffering, and death will always be in some sense features of who he is. Among other things, this means that evil must enjoy a certain independent authenticity, a reality with which God must come to grips, and God’s love must–if it requires the negative pathos of history to bring it to fruition–be inherently deficient, and in itself a fundamentally reactive reality. Goodness then requires evil to be good; love must be goaded into being by pain. In brief, a God who can, in his nature as God, suffer cannot be the God who is love, even if at the end of the day he should prove to be loving, or the God who is simply good, or who is the wellspring of being and life. He, like us, is an accommodation between death and life.

Nor is it enough to say that, as God’s identity is infinite, the conditions of the finite do not determine its ultimate nature, for while a truly transcendent infinity might be able to assume the finite into itself without altering its nature, an “infinite” that realizes itself in and through finite determinations can in no sense remain untouched by the evils it passes through, even if the ultimate synthesis of its identity is, in it totality, “infinite” in the circular Hegelian sense; such can be only the infinite of total repletion, the fullness of ontic determinations in their interrelated discreteness and dialectical “yield”; only thus can being be one with becoming. Again, one simply cannot say that God finds himself in the one historical object of Jesus tout court; in specifying this one historical object, God must also specify the entire web of historical and cosmic contingencies in which this object subsists; no worldly reality can stand apart from the entire reality of the world. And so, if one pursues the logic of divine becoming to its proper end, one will find that all things are necessary aspects of God’s odyssey toward himself; every painful death of a child, every casual act of brutality, all war, famine, pestilence, disease, murder … all will turn out to be moments in the identity of God, resonances within the event of his being, aspects of the occurrence of his essence: all evil will become meaningful–speculatively meaningful and so necessary–as the crucible in which God is forged. (“No Shadow of Turning,” pp. 51-54)

The doctrine of divine impassibility of the Holy Trinity serves a critical purpose: it declares to us that evil and suffering do not belong to his eternal being and identity. The God of the gospel is not a tragic God.

(Go to “How Can Love be Impassible?”)

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In this series of “illuminations,” I quote passages from David Bentley Hart’s collection of essays The Hidden and the Manifest that I have found particularly instructive. I hope they will generate good discussion.

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17 Responses to Hartian Illuminations: The Myth of Suffering Divinity

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    The counter invariably is how a God so unmoved can relate to the creature. How can such deity love, respond, feel, care?

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  2. Matt Larimer says:

    For me, Genesis 3 and the nature of divine knowledge is essential. Mankind experiences evil and God’s response is, “The man has become like us knowing good and evil.” I don’t understand how humanity could possess a form of experiential knowledge that God did not. Jesus revelation of the Father is his suffering self and the Sons nature did not experience a change in its essence during the incarnation. Maybe it’s important to say that he only suffered in his human nature but the divine nature has always known our suffering.

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  3. brian says:

    There is a rather adventitious agreement between naive biblical literalism and various forms of speculative philosophy mainly rooted in Hegel that God is determined by creaturely action. Hegel’s Origin is indeterminate and needs historical interaction with creation in order to realize a concrete Absolute. Consequently, the evil inherent in fallen time becomes necessary for God to be God. Fundamentalists who insist on reading scripture with little nuance or discerning awareness of complexity find themselves treating God as also implicated in genocide and tyrannical jealousy. If the God of Origin (outside becoming, founding the coming to be at all of ens commune) is not always already an aseity of infinite plenitude, then insistence on God affectively determined by His creatures at best allows for an Erotic Absolute that requires the otherness of the creature in order to be God. Then the pure gratuity and goodness of the Good is radically put in question. In contrast, the agapeic giving of the God who is Love has no self-interest. The legacy of voluntarism and our finite understanding of will has turned God more into an (equivocal, questionably loving) power rather than an Agapeic Generosity whereby the high nobly divests itself of superiority in order to secure the good of the fragile, wayward creature.

    It is important, I think, to clarify that none of this means that one has to deny affect to God. Indeed, the Eros of Agape is more passionate than Eros driven by the blind mechanism of Lack. The authentic jealousy of God is the utter refusal to accept partial victory. The unique, singular God is in love with each singular creature, called from nothing and irreplaceable. Agape will not allow the beloved to fall irretrievably into darkness. Love follows the creature all the way to hell if need be so that the original gift is infinitely given (this is the metaphysical ground of for-givenness.) In my view, the gift must ultimately be accepted to be gift. Unrequited love is not yet fully love. How do we know this? Because the archetype of all love is TriUne. Creaturely love participates in the Uncreated Good.

    William Desmond writes this in God and the Between:

    The Unequal does not flatten itself but reserves itself, placing itself on the footing of the creature, equalizes itself for the sake of the other. This is the divine patience or (com)passio: entry into all that the finite undergoes, including poverty, abjection, despair, and death. For love of finite life, agapeic God harrows even hell. This is the opposite of the self-enclosed transcendence that the dualistic way proposes.

    Divine kenosis does not place the creature on par with God as determining. Rather, affect in God is an unquenchable love that never lessens or gives up on creatures. God doesn’t change his mind or decide whether to love a creature or not based on inherent worth or action. It is always Love that responds to the wayfarer’s wandering path.

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    • Michelle says:

      brian,

      “the agapeic giving of the God who is Love has no self-interest. The legacy of voluntarism and our finite understanding of will has turned God more into an (equivocal, questionably loving) power rather than an Agapeic Generosity whereby the high nobly divests itself of superiority in order to secure the good of the fragile, wayward creature.”

      I think pretty much all of the early Church Fathers would agree with your statement here, some having (and correct me if I’m wrong) addressed this very point themselves. And yet most have also expressed belief in a good and just eternal punishment via hell-fire for those having died with unrepentant hearts. And they do so without contradiction, so long as in the end eternal punishment for the unrepentant proves truly good and just. And it seems, to their minds at least, that the few brief proclamations of eternal punishment found within Scripture is more than proof enough of it’s goodness and justice. Have you any good arguments contrariwise?

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      • Matthew Hryniewicz says:

        Brian has written a fair amount on this and other topics for this blog. You can find those posts here. Whether or not you deem them good, they are there and worth reading IMO.

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        • brian says:

          Thanks, Matthew. It is hard to answer you briefly, Michelle. As Matthew indicates, I have addressed the matter in some articles here. I would stress that the agape of God is not something we can master conceptually. One can gain a “feel for it” and one can talk about it meaningfully, so I am not abjuring reason or intelligence; nonetheless, there is a certain finesse involved. Something intuitive and closer to art and our own mysterious participation in love is needed. In any event, different saints have had different purchase on the breadth and mystery of the divine gift. In my view, the Christian tradition is often still largely trapped in conceptions of justice not wondrous enough before the implications of creation by the unique, agapeic God. There is a holy laughter and serenity beyond good and evil that is not the amoralism of Nietzsche, but a goodness transcendent of a more limited justice constrained by our equivocal experience in the world.

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  4. Tom says:

    One of my favorite Hart essays (“No Shadow…”).

    Forgive the link, but I remember this as an important time in my life.

    “To say our pain, suffering and all other forms of privated being are ‘meaningless’ to God, then, is not to say God doesn’t recognize or care about our well-being. It is to say he cares only about our well-being, and that he is our well-being.”

    https://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2014/12/23/god-as-meaning-maker/

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  5. There are many historical reasons behind the impassibility of God. Sadly, this is one doctrine that I feel is too tangled inside of philosophical musings and not enough in the text.

    Thanks for posting about this and generating conversation about it. Have you read Gerald Peterman and Andrew Schmutzer’s book “Between Pain and Grace: A Biblical Theology of Suffering” which was published in 2016?

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      thank God texts are ahistorical 🙂

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      • I highly recommend the book I recommended above to you (based upon your previous comments above).

        What is BDH? I must not run in circles where we use that TLA.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Thank you. DBH is shorthand for David Bentley Hart. My questions above are merely rhetorical. Peterman/Schmutzer tend to collapse God a se into creation economy which is from the theology of the early Church a fatal mistake.

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