Posted by: hansgustafson | March 21, 2013

Suffering and God

My mother passed less than four months ago.  My father just passed on Monday.  Elizabeth A. Dreyer says that “Words are not perfect … even the best words about suffering always remain inadequate.”  With that said, I’ve rewritten a Psalm 22 to reflect my fathers last days.  In addition, I published a book review on God and Suffering for Catholicbooksreview.org.  Below I have provided both my revision of Pslam 22 and the book review.

Psalm 22

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of the community. In you our world has trusted; we trusted, and you have delivered them. To you they cried, and were apparently saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. But I feel like an awful person, a sub-human; not human even; scorned by others, and despised by others for what I have done in the world and left behind.  I’ve made mistakes but I’ve also loved many too.  There are those who see me and mock me behind my back; they shake their heads; Yet it was you who took me from the womb of my mother; you kept me safe on by my parents’ side. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Many troubles encircle me, they are strong and surround me; they open wide their sharp-tooth filled mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within me; my mouth is dried up like sand, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. My hands and feet have shriveled; my bones are sticking out. Vultures surround me at all hours. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots. But you, God, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul, my life, from the power of the vultures! Save me from the mouth of the lion! I will tell of your name to my family; in the midst of my friends I will praise you: You who fear God, praise him! All of you, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you! For God did not despise nor abhor the affliction of the afflicted; God did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him. From you comes my praise in this great community; my vows I will pay before those who fear God. The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek God shall praise the God. May your hearts live forever!  May we celebrate the life and living we have now and what’s to come! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to God; For dominion belongs to God, and God rules over all. To God, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down, including Ethel, Doris and loved ones before us; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, including Spenser, Meg, Harriet, and Luke … and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn (which hopefully includes more grandchildren to come), saying that he has done it. Suffering and death does not, and will not, have the last word.

Review of Richard W. Miller, editor.  Suffering and the Christian Life. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2013. Pp. 152. $22.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-013-5.

978-1-62698-013-6As the title suggests, Richard W. Miller has brought together a collection of scholars (representing Boston College, Creighton University, and Fairfield University) to reflect on suffering and the Christian life from a Catholic perspective.  The first three essays (Daniel J. Harrington, M. Dennis Hamm, and Susan A. Calef) draw on scripture (both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament) as a resource for examining suffering.  The final three essays (Richard W. Miller, Michael J. Himes, and Elizabeth A. Dreyer) shift beyond scripture to theological, doctrinal, and experiential approaches to suffering.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., opens the volume with his chapter on “Old Testament Approaches to Suffering.” It commences with the astute recognition that taking suffering, as universal human experience, “as a starting point for theology makes us face a genuine human problem and challenges us to relate theology to experience and experience to theology” (3).  After drawing on five approaches to suffering from the Hebrew Bible, which he believes without which “we cannot understand Jesus or the New Testament,” (3) Harrington engages in a “close reading of Psalm 22” (10).  The five approaches include lament psalms (from those who suffer), the law of retribution (with attention to both variations and criticisms), suffering as mystery (exhibited in the life of Job), redemptive suffering (in the Servant Songs and Suffering Servant of Isaiah), and the apocalyptic solution (which challenges the divine attribute of perfect omnipotence and instead defers it till the last judgment).  The second half of the essay engages Psalm 22, which “throughout the centuries … has encouraged suffering persons to ask the hard theological questions, to express their pain, to connect with the community of suffering persons, and to find hope in the midst of their suffering.  Suffering does not have the last word.  In my view Psalm 22 expresses well the greatest contribution of the Old Testament to our topic of suffering in Christian life and experience” (17-18).

M. Dennis Hamm, S.J., follows Harrington with his chapter, “The Sharing of His Sufferings: The Social Cost of Following Jesus,” in which he makes clear that the New Testament writers were “not interested in the classic philosophical problem of pain,” but rather were more interested in “apostolic suffering” (19).  This refers to the suffering endured as a consequence of following God’s given mission.  It is exemplified in shaming, humiliation, shunning, rejection, and vilification experienced by Jesus first, and then by his followers.  The suffering endured by his followers is pronounced in Paul’s letter to the Philippians which emphasizes Jesus self-emptying (kenosis) and the shared suffering of the community of his followers together in solidarity.  Hamm reminds us that “this New Testament understanding of suffering may also keep us from too easily identifying every private injury as an occasion of carrying our cross” (43).  In this regard, Hamm admits, “the thesis of this study … may come as a disappointment for those seeking in scripture solace for their experience of those other sufferings that fill our lives and challenge our faith – sufferings like sickness, financial loss, accidents, and natural disasters” (44).

Susan A. Calef’s chapter titled “Taking Up the Cross” examines a Markan understanding of suffering and discipleship.  She claims that “no discussion on suffering in Christian life and thought … would be complete without attention to the experience and practice of Jesus, which provides the pattern or ‘way’ of our discipleship” (50).  Like Hamm, she makes a distinction between general human suffering and messianic suffering, the latter of which serves a model for “apostolic suffering.”  However, the two are not unrelated.  Calef shows, by reflecting on the hemorrhaging woman and Jesus in Gethsemane and on Golgotha, that the discipleship of caring for those experiencing suffering “can expect that their allegiance to God’s reign will bring them their own ‘cup’ to drink” (68).  Also with Hamm, Calef make clear that Mark’s Gospel does not attempt to explain, or bring meaning to, human suffering .  Rather it “narrates the promise of its relief with God’s in-breaking reign” (68).  Thus any attempt to justify, glorify, or valorize suffering for its own sake, or for the sake of Jesus, falls dangerously flat.  This interpretation is, and has been, dangerous for women and other marginalized groups since it can lead to the encouragement of passively “bearing one’s cross” as an appropriate response to general human suffering.  Calef ends by drawing attention to Jesus’ cry on the cross, not as a justification for suffering, but rather as ultimately a cry for the presence of, and relationship to, God as a way through suffering.

Richard W. Miller’s essay, “The Divine Purpose and Human Suffering,” marks the transition from scriptural reflection on suffering to doctrinal and theological reflection on suffering.  I suppose no volume on suffering in the Christian tradition is complete without at least some attempt to wrestle with the problem of evil, suffering and theodicy.  Miller’s essay satisfies this condition.  Relying heavily on Aquinas, Rahner, and W. Norris Clarke, the essay argues that “one cannot know why God permitted suffering in a particular instance or conversely whether God intervened … in other instances to prevent suffering” (106).  Further, Miller argues that God cannot create free persons who act rightly by their own nature at all times, nor can God create free persons and then immediately raise them to a vision of God in which they would affirm and embrace God as their own proper end.  In other words, human persons must exist “outside of the beatific vision in the order of grace” (106).  For God to achieve God’s purpose of creatures sharing in God’s self, persons (as spirits) must exist outside the vision where they have free choice, since their free decisions are the mechanism by which they actualize their potential personhood (i.e., freedom is required to be a person).  This freedom entails suffering to various degrees, but unlike evil not all suffering is destructive.  Rather, suffering can be constructive.  For instance, the experience of separation from, and the absence of, God (outside the vision) can be understood as a form of suffering reminiscent of Augustinian restlessness which only draws the person towards her end in God.

Michael J. Himes’ essay, “The Suffering of Christ,” though the shortest in the volume, cuts straight to the heart of suffering both for persons and Christ.  By reflecting on the humanity of Christ, Himes draws out the necessary implications for what it means to be human made in the image and likeness of God.  He begins with the fundamental assertion that “the essence of suffering is a sense of things being out of control” (113) and realizing that we are utterly dependent.  The humanity of Jesus brings meaning to our seemingly meaningless experience of suffering.  In particular, Himes reflects on the stories of Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane and the story of the raising of Lazarus to draw out what it means to suffer for humans.  These stories demonstrate that, in his humanity, “Jesus really suffers with us, but the suffering is not only pain, not only the physical horror of crucifixion.  It is the anguish of not seeing where we are going … of losing ourselves” (119).  This leads to the question of how Jesus’ suffering saves humanity.  Himes rejects both satisfaction and penal theories of atonement and suggests instead a theory which promotes Jesus as a sacramental reveler of “how things have always been.  He does not tell us what to do; he shows us what human existence is.  By living our humanity as he has lived his humanity we are saved” (120).  We are people who struggle, like Jacob, with God.  Instead of passively resigning ourselves to the plight of suffering as way of “taking up our crosses,” we ought to struggle with the reality of suffering in light of the mystery (that is God) and God’s fundamental nature to will God’s self as self-gift (agape).

Elizabeth A. Dreyer closes out the volume with her essay “Suffering in Christian Life and Experience,” which examines suffering from a spiritual perspective; that is, she focuses on the lived religious experience of suffering from a Christian perspective.  Her essay functions, perhaps by design, as a one long drawn-out form of weeping.  Under the theme of “types of suffering,” Dryer covers Kinds and Causes of Suffering, The Immediacy of Suffering, The Depth of Suffering, and Possible Responses to Suffering.  In addition to providing several useful typologies under these headings, she raises the futility of reason, logic, and words vis-à-vis suffering.  “Any discussion of suffering must exist concretely ‘on the ground’ and in our guts as well as in our ideas and words about it.  Reason and logic do not suffice. … Words are not perfect.  They can be way off the mark, and even the best of words about suffering always remain inadequate” (133).   The second half of the chapter turns to theological themes and the problem of suffering.  In particular, Dreyer emphasizes suffering as an evil in and of itself.  In approaching theodicy, she brings in considerations from process theology and Judaism which heretofore were greatly missing in this volume.  These considerations provide grounds to consider God being profoundly affected by human suffering and thus serve as an impetus to reconsider God’s impassibility (something that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel might refer to as the divine pathos of God).  Further, Dreyer reflects on the obligation to alleviate suffering, speaking out against unjust suffering and its consequences, the loss and grief involved with true suffering, the power of prayer and ritual in its attempt to bring meaning to suffering, and the necessity of hope which comes through promise of Christ’s suffering with us.

Despite some of the heavy content in this volume, the writers provide an accessible text for both scholars of theology as well as non-theological specialists.  Even Richard W. Miller’s rather theo-philosophical language-laden essay is written in a clear manner that is appropriate for mid-level undergraduate students.  This short volume provides a content-rich examination of suffering in its few pages making it well suited for undergraduates, seminarians, and reading groups alike.

This review was first published on CatholicBooksReview.org here on March 18, 2013.

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