We’re continuing this guest series from my good friend, Matthew Simpson. In case you’ve missed the series up to this point, I would highly recommend going back and reading the previous installations, beginning with this one. Enjoy!
In the light of the Incarnation I would like to propose a Theodicy. I think it has existed for quite some time, I am just naming it for the purpose of this blog. Is there something called “Incarnation Theodicy?” If not, I will use the term in this blog. What I will offer is a Theodicy based primarily on the event of the Incarnation. And in doing so, I will offer the possibility that it is the questions that need to change, because we need to change.
For a discussion on what is the point of suffering in a Christian context I will refer to an interview I had with a clinical psychologist who is ordained in the Episcopal Church.
Christianity as an Invitation to Suffering
So what is a Christian Theodicy in looking at Jesus of Nazareth? In an interview with Dr. Pamela Nesbit who is the Episcopal Archdeacon of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, we explored this topic. First, I talked to her about my experience in other denominations having difficulty with this topic. I was curious as to why she feels that in the Episcopal tradition there seems to be less anxiety over death and suffering theologically, where in other traditions it appears more problematic. She responded:
“Well in our theology, there is not a connection between suffering and God’s love for us. Even in suffering, there is never the question, ‘does God love me?’ In fact, there is no Gospel warrant for a life devoid of suffering. The avoidance of suffering is not Christian.”
So what is a Christian way to answer “why suffering?”
“[In suffering] We are to seek wisdom and transformation through it. There is a larger picture than just our own suffering. There is an acceptance that suffering is a part of the mystery; the ‘whole of things.’”
Later she went on to say,
“Christianity is an invitation of faith to suffer. The first step to that is surrender. Alcoholics Anoymous’ 1st step in their 12-step program is all about this; they get it. Something happens in our life that will lead to an absolute brokenness, an utter failure of ego that will facilitate metanoia (repentance, or changing of heart.). The first step into this journey is to surrender to God it all. To evade suffering, or to use Christianity or any religion to try to get out of suffering is a delusion. You will only have illusion as a result. Good religion is that which breaks you open. Only a faith that breaks me open can save me. Again, if I try to evade the pain it will lead me to an illusion. If we respond to suffering in cynicism that is only a defense mechanism. It is the openness to suffering that can break us and save us.”
Well that sounds frightening.
“To the ego it absolutely is. God is scary. God is asking you to give up your self, to go through ego-annihilation.”
She went on to say that in faith, “suffering transmutes itself into love.”
I was a bit timid to ask, but I asked as a woman in ministry, you are a sort of theologian. Do you think there is any difference in a masculine or feminine approach to theodicy? Her response was that masculinity seeks to rationalize and understand suffering, where femininity tends more to the relational aspect of the issue. Take Job for example, if you are looking to try to figure the precise “why?” to Job’s suffering, or in the midst of that suffering try to formulate your way out of it, you will not, you can’t. A feminine approach is more concerned with the relational; so if that is your focus, the Book of Job is easier to comprehend. God is God, we are mortal and will be taken care of no matter what in the end; there is more going on in this whole thing than just our suffering… trust. Trust is relational, not cerebral.
So in the midst of that suffering, how do you offer pastoral assistance to those suffering?
“You do everything to be Christ to that person, and that means being present in it, not necessarily trying to fix it. Just be with.”
But what about injustice? Do we just sit and do nothing?
“They are two different things. One is being present to that person in their suffering. Once they are cared for, you can advocate for that person. Two separate acts, but both are important.”
She went on,
“In Christ, God and the human are together, we are to be that, that is the Christian response to suffering in others. When I am in the position of being there for people who are suffering, I pray, ‘Be here, Christ be here.’”
Incarnation Changes the Questions
As I reflected on the interview the phrase that came to me was: Christianity is an invitation to suffering. That is certainly not the advertisement we hear in most churches. And yet, if we look to Jesus as the prime revelation of God, we see this to be accurate. If Incarnation is real, in Jesus God is the innocent victim, not the abuser, not the oppressor. In Christ, God is the servant, not the conqueror. In Christ, God is the bearer and healer of our pain, not the cause. In Jesus we do not see a “fix” per se to suffering or the evil caused by others; we see God’s response to it. Instead of avoiding suffering, we see Christ is in the suffering, is present in it… “God with us.” In the defeat of life, we are victorious. It reminds me of a quote to which I cannot remember who said it, “Our victory is in the folly of the cross.”
To further expound on this emphasis of Incarnation in suffering I want to quote Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk:
“In Jesus we have an almost extreme example of God taking sides. It starts with one who empties himself of all divinity (see Philippians 2:6-7), comes as a homeless baby in a poor family, then a refugee in a foreign country, then an invisible carpenter in his own country which is colonized and occupied by an imperial power, ending as a “criminal,” accused and tortured by heads of both systems of power, temple and empire, abandoned by most of his inner circle, subjected to the death penalty by a most humiliating and bizarre public ritual, and finally buried quickly in an unmarked grave. If God in any way planned this story line, God surely intended the message to be subversive, clear, and unavoidable. Yet we largely made Jesus into a churchy icon that any priestly or policing establishment could gather around without even blushing.”
In Jesus, it seems the real question of suffering and evil is changed. The “why” seems irrelevant if God appears to dive headstrong in it with us. In fact, it is in the suffering we come to know Him more, because that is how He came to know us more. The question is almost “how will I suffer with God?” and “how will God suffer with me; how will God suffer with us?” Is that too far? If we seek God; if we seek to be like Jesus of Nazareth, our entire approach to suffering and evil is changed, particularly in the light of the Resurrection. And so what does that mean for Christianity today? How can we suffer with God? And how does God suffer with us?
“An incarnational bias is evident today in our globalized culture. The “problem” of immigrants, welfare recipients, incarcerated, mentally ill, . . . disabled, and all who are marginalized by mainstream society, is a problem of the incarnation. When we reject our relatedness to the poor, the weak, the simple, and the unlovable we define the family of creation over and against God. In place of God we decide who is worthy of our attention and who can be rejected. Because of our deep fears, we spend time, attention, and money on preserving our boundaries of privacy and increasing our knowledge and power. We hermetically seal ourselves off from the undesired “other,” the stranger, and in doing so, we seal ourselves off from God. By rejecting God in the neighbor, we reject the love that can heal us.
Until we come to accept created reality with all its limits and pains as the living presence of God, Christianity has nothing to offer to the world. It is sound bites of empty promises. When we lose the priority of God’s love in weak, fragile humanity, we lose the Christ, the foundation on which we stand as Christians.”
— Ilia Delio, a Franciscan scientist and theologian
Christian Answers: Reconciliation and Resurrection
To approach the issue of Theodicy in Christian Terms, in terms of the Incarnation is to shift one’s worldview entirely. The suffering of the self, the concern for the self is inverted to the outside world and to others’ suffering. The question changes from “why did she get cancer?” to “how can I support her and her family?” It is not to ask “why did that car accident happen that injured me?” but to ask, “how in this injury can I be Christ to others?” And it is not to ask “where will all the migrants go?” but “how can we provide a home for the stranger?” In terms of suffering through conflict (and God knows we have plenty of that), the Christian question is “how can we reconcile?”
Reconciliation seems almost impossible in most circumstances, and yet in Christ the Great Reconciliation was initiated. With such an emphasis on forgiveness, loving one’s enemies (and friends), we would think Christians would play a more active role in healing divisions instead of creating them. But, in order to do that we first have to be saved by grace… we have to be willing to admit our own faults. I love the “Prayer for Enemies,” from the Book of Common Prayer, “lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty and revenge.” It is in reconciliation the power of evil is nullified. But reconciliation can only happen when: a) we are humble enough to admit our faults; we take responsibility for our actions, and b) we are willing to have compassion on those who hurt us. Again, an act only possible to those who have been saved by grace in brokenness by suffering.
I think this is particularly difficult for us as Americans. There is good and bad to every philosophy and culture, but in American (and much of Western) culture we focused largely on the individual, and incidentally our self and our egos. In America, mediocrity is failure, and we are very very good at pursuing financial success and popularity at any cost. We typically do not value simplicity, but extravagance, and we will ignore and neglect relationships that get in the way. This I think inevitably leads to an inability to share each others’ pain and vulnerability, and so we cut ourselves off from a vital Christian spiritual practice. We fail to see Christ in the stranger (forget about our enemies). We cannot understand Jesus of Nazareth if we view life as a right and salvation as an achievement. And in modern mainstream America it is viewed as such. In mainstream Christian theology, one needs to accept saving knowledge, not grace. For if one did accept grace, there would be a lot less judgment. One who knows they have been saved by grace (that is one who has been broken and experienced grace), does not question the worthiness of another to receive it. On the opposite end, if my life is my life and I have a right to it, how dare God or any theology ask me to sacrifice and suffer for others in that “grace”… let them do it on their own, I have.
To summarize: in using Incarnation as a basis for theodicy, the questions we ask change, and that is because we are asked/invited to change. Through Jesus’ life we see that to evade suffering is not Christian. Because of the resurrection, we have a hope and faith that this suffering will be a gateway to a life everlasting; that any loss we suffer will be returned to us in a new life (both in this life and the next). But, the cost to such a life is pain (as we see in Christ). The Resurrection of Jesus turns suffering into an opportunity; curse into a blessing, and gives us hope in our despair.
In the last blog post, I will try to address criticisms to this theodicy, and argue why other approaches are dangerous and inadequate.