Jesus, Stop Suffering God. It’s Embarrassing and ‘Does’ Nothing.

One of my friends, whom I admire deeply, posted the following quote in light of the Connecticut shootings:

“Only a suffering God can help.” (Bonhoeffer)

For oh so many reasons, I really, really loathe that quote. It sure sounds potent, and, I guess for some, it’s comforting (I can’t quite figure that out, but hey, God is whatever you want God to be). And, I know, I know, context is everything. But this Bonhoeffer quote leaves me with a number of questions. Number one being . . .

How?

“How” does a suffering God help? I mean, do I take this literally? ‘Only’ ‘a’ ‘suffering’ ‘God’ ‘can’ ‘help’. There seems to be so many problems with this six word sentence/assertion (I put each word in quotes for a reason–you could break down the claim word by word and have a field day with it). First, I don’t see how a passible deity is of much help to anyone (please, don’t tell me that’s the point). The last thing we ‘need’ is a god who is, basically, a glorified version of us (I use the lowercase on purpose as I think Herbert McCabe is correct to suggest that such a ‘god’ is nothing more than another ‘being’ in the universe, not the God above being–I have enough of the former in my life already).

Second, even if you’re not talking about impassibility/passibility, that is, this quote by Bonhoeffer is talking about the suffering of the second person of the Triune God in human form, then how is that helpful? What does it do? How does such a sentiment not merely wreak of mawkish banality? Is it anything more than just a poetic attempt to say ‘something’ when it may be better not to say anything at all? I guess, at first glance it sounds good, but then it just doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t do anything at all. And, perhaps, that’s the point. It’s not supposed to ‘do’ anything (we’ve made a fetish out of anti-utilitarianism of late, so maybe this is helpful). But if that is the point, then I’m going with silence. After all, the Father was silent when Jesus cried out to ‘him’ so, maybe that’s it. The ‘dead shall rise’ and therein lies our hope.

Is this how it helps?

 

Further Reading:
  • ryan

    I have no idea except this thought: Brené Brown (oh man her stuff on shame, vulnerability, etc… is so good) says judgment exacerbates shame and empathy eradicates shame. If we’re talking about shame (which we often are) and the suffering of shame and/or the shame that comes from suffering, the feeling of not being enough or worthy or whatever…. well a God that suffered and can say “me too” in empathy, could matter quite a bit. Right?

    • theamishjihadist

      Hey Ryan,

      If it’s Jesus saying, ‘Me too’, then, yes, that make sense. The doctrine of the impassibility of God does not deny the suffering of Jesus.

      If you mean the Triune God says, ‘Hey, look at me, I’m suffering too. Don’t you feel better now? I’m on the same ontological plane as my creation. One day, you can be deified and be just like me.”

      But wait a minute, we already are just like you . . .

      I just watched Brown on TED. Thanks for the heads-up. I’d never listened to her before, so I’ll give her a careful hearing when I get back from lunch.

      Your turn. Read Weinandy (Does God Suffer) and then Hart (The Doors of the Sea). I think in that order as well. Then you will be ready for the master: McCabe.

      • ryan

        Ha, awesome! I will start with The Doors of the Sea just b/c there is a Kindle version. I’m on it!

        Maybe if Bonhoffer’s quote was “Only a God who has experienced suffering can help” it would be better?

        In my mind, there’s something pretty remarkable about a God who could not relate or say “me too” and then changes the story: yeah I’m going to try this human thing on and see for myself what this suffering is about… and can now say “me too” I know that feeling.

  • Eliezer Silva

    This post reminded me of this quote from Zizek’s book (I haven’t gone through the whole book, but that’s a nice quote):

    “When sin was converted to culpability, and the breaking of divine commands to an offense against human laws, something was lost.”

    [Habermas]

    Which is why secular-humanist reactions to phenomena like the Shoah or the gulag (amongst others) are experienced as insufficient: in order to reach the level of such phenomena, something much stronger is needed, something akin to the old religious topic of a cosmic perversion or catastrophe in which the world itself is “out of joint”—when one confronts a phenomenon like the Shoah, the only appropriate reaction is to ask the perplexed question Why did the heavens not darken?” (the title of Arno Mayor’s book). Therein resides the paradox of the theological significance of the Shoah: although it is usually conceived as the ultimate challenge to theology (if there is a God and if he is good, how could he have allowed such a horror to take place?), it is at the same time only theology that can provide the frame enabling us to somehow approach the scope of the catastrophe—the fiasco of God is still the fiasco of /God/.

    Slavoj Žižek, God in Pain, pp.157f.

    https://simple-note.appspot.com/publish/NR5m8p

  • Jesse Turri

    Tripp,

    This comment will probably fall under your anthropomorphic category, but it’s still powerful to me.

    Full disclosure, I appreciate Whitehead a great deal (I know you’re not a fan. I’d like to hear more of your criticism on Process sometime). Whitehead may be saying something similar to Bonhoeffer when he says, “[God] is the great companion — the fellow sufferer who understands.”

    When a kid falls off their bike, perhaps the most powerful and healing thing a parent can do is kiss the wound of that child. In a way that says ‘I feel your pain and I will not turn a way from it. I am here with you, I’m not going anywhere, you are not alone.’

    So maybe that’s “how.” But maybe not.

  • Jesse Turri

    Tripp,

    This comment will probably fall under your anthropomorphic category, but it’s still powerful to me.

    Full disclosure, I appreciate Whitehead a great deal (I know you’re not a fan. I’d like to hear more of your criticism on Process sometime). Whitehead may be saying something similar to Bonhoeffer when he says, “[God] is the great companion — the fellow sufferer who understands.”

    When a kid falls off their bike, perhaps the most powerful and healing thing a parent can do is kiss the wound of that child. In a way that says, ‘I feel your pain and I will not turn a way from it. I am here with you, I’m not going anywhere, you are not alone.’

    So maybe that’s “how.” But maybe not.

    • Jesse Turri

      Sorry this posted twice, dunno what happened.

      • theamishjihadist

        And of all things to post twice . . . Whitehead. =)

    • theamishjihadist

      Hey Jesse,

      Yeah man, that whole ‘fellow sufferer’ thing . . . ugh.

      If God is not actus purus (pure act) then there is potential in God for God to be something other than what God has always been (or is). This ‘potential’ means that God is now nor ever can be actuality–not the ‘I am who I am’–rather, God might ‘become’ something other.

      Disastrous. =)

      Check out Weinandy’s book listed below. I think that is one of the strongest (terribly accessible too) accounts of why the impassibility of God is some utterly important to Christian thought. And folks like Hart show how once that is ‘relinquished’ for accounts indebted to, what I think are more anthropological concerns, you end up with things like, ‘theodicy’ and all of the inane responses Christians give to a question that can only be asked once certain a-theological moves our made (which make the question inevitable).

      Hauerwas does a bit of this in his book . . . ah, what’s it called? Naming the Silences, maybe? I’ll have to check.

      Thanks, Jesse!

      • Jesse Turri

        Thanks for the reply Tripp. I’ll definitely check those books out.

        I dont know why passivity is your hang up, because thinkers like Hartshorne have definitely pointed out the di-polar nature of God in process thought. Specifically, God has a “primordial” or transcendent nature, which is God’s timeless perfection of character, and God has a “consequent” or immanent nature by which he is part of the cosmic process itself. See, the best of both worlds!

  • Dwight Davis

    Context, as is usual with Bonhoeffer, is pretty important. Bonhoeffer wrote this from his prison cell in Tegel. He had seen true suffering of the Jews and had seen Christians say absolutely nothing about it. He was also espousing a very Lutheran idea. I think it’s helpful to look at another perspective on God during the same time. Elie Wiesel said that God was the little boy who was hanged in the Nazi concentration camp. This view wasn’t unique to Bonhoeffer, but was pretty common for the people around him. The school shooting was certainly awful, and it makes me sick to think about. But it’s not the widespread evil committed by the Nazis. I imagine I would say something similar if I was living under that regime.

    This may not answer your question at all, but I think you responded too quickly to this quote without taking in the larger cultural context of Nazism and the Holocaust.

    • theamishjihadist

      Hi Dwight,

      Thanks for your response. I actually sat on the quote for four days (I know the context of the quote–I’ve read quite a bit of Bonhoeffer–that whole PhD in Christian ethics thing made it inevitable).

      My response was two-fold: 1) the use of it in the current context (problematic, I think–it seems that you agree), and 2) what it says, if anything, about the impassibility of God (that was my true point).

      My understanding of Weisel’s reading is that God is dead (which is not a totally foreign conception to Lutheranism itself), or, best-case scenario, whatever Weisel once thought of as God, well, that conception has now perished along with the little boy. I find that to certainly be helpful. Often.

  • http://twitter.com/redwatchmanscap Ethics of Elfland

    You’re asking the wrong question (according to Bonhoeffer’s christology). The question to be asked is not How, but Who. How, is a Godless question because it is the truly anthropomorphic one. To ask How is to attempt to supersede the Authority of God. However, Who, is a question of relationship. And, if God is truly relational, the type of Being that cold ever offer us any sort of ‘help’, then He must experience suffering. For to be in relationship is to suffer. A monolithic Deity is ultimately powerless because it has no reference point for it’s Power. Therefore, true Power and Authority can only be ultimately displayed in vulnerability. Is it embarrassing? Of course. The beauty is that God descended, nay condescended.

    Only a suffering God can be an Immanuel God. And only an Immanuel God could have any potency for ‘help’.

    • theamishjihadist

      Ethics of Elfland (please say more on that moniker!),

      I don’t think it’s too much to ask the question of ‘How’. I think this is one of those replies by which so many people say, ‘See. Told you there’s nothing behind this but more sophistry.’ Which, by the way, I like. However, I don’t think I have to choose between the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ question. It’s a false dichotomy. I’m not buying it.

      Who said anything about a ‘monolithic deity’? Where did that come from? If (and I’m just saying ‘if’) you think that’s what an impassible ‘God’ must be then you’ve never read anyone from the Patristics to Aquinas (or, anyone else in this rich tradition that has argued for impassibility). I would counter and say, along with Weinandy, that only an impassible God can ‘help’ (you see, that’s an assertion just like ‘only a suffering God can . . .’ is an assertion). I’ve read everyone on this stuff, now why won’t anyone bother reading what those guys are disparaging? That is, check out Weinandy’s argument and get back to me. I have to agree that the kind of theological thinking of the, say, Moltmanns and company, who are so proud to champion their suffering god, fail to grasp the significance of the Incarnation which is why they are so compelled to turn God into just another being in the universe. God is not on the same ontological plane as us, which is why there is a real relationship from us to God (i.e., we are contingent upon God), but not the other way around (that is, God is God regardless of our existence–God is not contingent upon us). This is orthodoxy 101–and for good reason. I’m always blown away by how one bad century’s worth of theological thinking can so quickly undo everything.

      Now, in terms of what you are saying in relation to vulnerability (power, etc), then yes, IF you are speaking of the Incarnation. Absolutely. It’s a brilliant claim Christianity makes (because it is all so absurd). This is the ‘genius’ of the Incarnation. This does not, however, translate beyond the Incarnation. Otherwise, we end up with a god that can only be an ‘Immanuel God’ if such a deity is contingent upon forces outside of itself.

      No. No…

      • http://twitter.com/redwatchmanscap Ethics of Elfland

        Jihadist! (The moniker is taken from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy)

        Thanks

        for your reply. I thought you might scream sophistry, and I smell what
        you’re stepping in, although I will still maintain that Who and How are
        fundamentally unequivocal questions. One is relational in a framework of intimacy and mystery, the other in a framework of cause and effect. I do have one clarifying caveat: At
        least for
        Bonhoeffer, to speak of God outside of the Incarnation is
        unintelligible. However, I do agree that to translate beyond the
        Incarnation is disastrous!

        I am painfully unfamiliar (as you must clearly see) with
        Weinandy, and will be sure to look into his work. Thanks for the suggestion!!

        • theamishjihadist

          EOE!

          I’m so embarrassed that I didn’t know the Chesterton reference! It is a pitiful gap in my reading habits. I have several Chesterton books, including some of his fiction, but I have rarely sat down with him and did any serious reading. Speaking of which, Zizek, recently, seems to be quite the fan of Chesterton.

          Compelling? Strange? Awesome?

          A little of all of these things.

          (Nice clarification on the ‘how’ and ‘who’.)

  • Craig

    What helps me here is (of all persons) Cyril of Alexandria. On the way to what became the Definition of Chalcedon, in the context of a lot of years of contention over the the doctrine of the Trinity, Cyril spoke of the two natures of Jesus Christ. He did so in order to show how God suffers in Christ. He was certain that God did, but he was equally certain that God by definition cannot and does not suffer. So, the way he worked that out is by maintaining that in Jesus Christ the God who cannot and does not suffer does in fact suffer “in the flesh” of Jesus. So, how can that ever make sense? I think it makes sense if one thinks the distance traveled in the incarnation, from unspeakable exaltation to unspeakable abasement. The incarnation is the entry of apatheia into patheia, but wthout dissolving apatheia and without diluting patheia. It is the Son, not the Father or the Spirit, who is incarnate. And Cyril says that what happens in him is that there is in Jesus Christ a patheia that is an apatheia. Now, at first that seems like a linguistic trick, as if Cyril were saying that there is a suffering that isn’t really a suffering, but really a non-suffering. But I don’t think that’s what he’s saying. His stress is on the salvific work of the incarnation. We human beings are suffering and dying and we are dead. Suffering isn’t just hurting, it’s dying. And we can’t save ourselves. Only God is free to save us and only God is free do that because only God is an apatheia and only God is free to enter into our patheia to set us free from dying and death. And so this patheia that is an apatheia is not a suffering that isn’t really a suffering. It is a suffering that is an un-suffering, a suffering that undoes suffering. And so, the whole fullness of the glory of the immortal God comes to dwell in the suffering, dying, dead, and damned Jesus Christ, when on Easter Sunday his mutilated body is raised still mutilated.

    • theamishjihadist

      Craig,

      Yes, yes, yes. And I think the brilliance of what Weinandy and McCabe (as well as Hart, and, please do forgive me, Milbank) are trying to do is to show how this recent emphasis on passibility actually undermines the radical nature of the Incarnation, therein rendering unintelligible most of our claims about creation, salvation, and redemption (much less deification).

      • Craig

        The trick, though—and this is what makes it impossible for me to go with advocates of mediating analogy—is to let difference be glorified when God is glorified in Jesus and his sisters and brothers, those with whom he is entangled all the way through. Milbank in particular has given up on difference. That is why by what he says and how he says it has become more and more violent as time has gone by, and why he brushes the love of enemies aside as he rushes to friendship. It is true that only a suffering God can save us, but it’s true because only an un-suffering God can save us, only because God is exalted Father, abased Son, and boundary-transgressing, glorifying Spirit. I think Hart has this problem, too. McCabe, I think maybe not. (I can’t say about Weinandy.)

        • Craig

          Boy that was pretty sloppy writing. I hope it isn’t entirely incomprehensible.

          • theamishjihadist

            Sloppy is how I roll!

        • theamishjihadist

          I think you’re dead-on in regard to Milbank. Something happened between ‘Theology & Social Theory’ and ‘Being Reconciled’ that made me coil in horror and disbelief . . . at least in terms of his all to ready concession to violence and ‘tragedy’–the latter is quite baffling. Granted, it was there, to some degree in the former book as well–despite his protest against tragedy (I often wonder how this plays a role in his, as you state, giving up of difference).

          Can you point me to where you think Hart exemplifies this tendency? You very well may be correct . . .

  • MS

    Dr. York,

    I don’t understand how people find the idea that God suffered novel because as McCabe reminds us it is right there in the creed, “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

    Is you point that Bonhoeffer’s quote would be better if stated “Only God who suffers and overcomes can help.” That God’s love is stronger than death.

    Is there not a point in that the second member of the Trinity is devotionally powerful for many Christians but his suffering is not his end and the undoing of that suffering is what maybe lacking in contemporary discourse? That God suffered at Golgotha I think gives us a place in the darkness with the God who has no darkness but who is light and love. Or is this a bankrupt enterprise? I’m actually interested in knowing what you think not looking for an argument.

  • Joe

    Isaiah 53. He bore our sorrows, really. Not abstractly. Not in theory only. God got beat up, spat on, all the rest of the story we know. One way it helps–in the penultimate (bonhoeffer’s term for the now, the important things that are not the final things), is the knowledge (again, not abstract but made visible) that suffering is not necessarily a mark of God’s disdain or wrath. In some cases, it might be the opposite. This does not help, as you say, intellectually. Or at least not much. But maybe some other way. Losers may be winners. Yes, the resurrection, whatever that is, will be the ultimate vindication of both the sufferers and God. But now we see Christ crucified.

    • theamishjihadist

      Hi Joe,

      Yes, yes, the Incarnation. Martyrs. Losers. Christus Victor. Definitely. Wrote a book (or three) on this subject. Though, I was going for something else with the post, I thank you for reminding us (albeit, maybe this is not what you were going for!) of how the martyrs (and those they point to . . . Jesus) suffered and lost. And won.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=8622251 Matt Morin

    Does God suffer? Yes– but only in the same sense that God the Father has a dong.

    “God’s consistency is not as it were mathematical. It is not the consistency of a supreme natural law or mechanism… This was and is the way that every form of Platonism conceives God. It is impossible to overemphasize the fact that here, too, God is described as basically without life, word or act. Biblical thinking about God would rather submit to confusion with the grossest anthropomorphism than to confusion with this the primary denial of god.” -CD II.1, p496

    • theamishjihadist

      “Does God suffer? Yes– but only in the same sense that God the Father has a dong.”

      Matt, I am going to swipe that genius comment of yours!

  • Dave_the_Zoo_Advocate

    So Professor, when I finished reading your wonderful blog article this week, I was literally thinking, “Jeez, the poor Trippster lost his touch. For the first time EVER, I agree with everything he said.” Imagine my surprise when I scrolled down to the comments section to discover (1) there were comments, and (2) there were tons of comments. Over a beer, I’d love to hear what it is exactly that ignited your fellow travelers. I love you man!

    • theamishjihadist

      Haha. Hey, Dave. I’ve noticed that I get far more comments, historically, if I talk about one of two different things: 1) genuine, rich historical theology, and 2) sex. For the most part, everything else tends to be ignored (except by you and a few other weirdos). =)

      I insist on whiskey for my part. But yes, anytime I can delve into Aquinas (as well as the Patristics), then I’m all about it.

  • betterbegood

    Ah, this has been on my mind for awhile now (even before the shooting). I’ll have to process all of the comments. Bunch of fancy book learnin’ people leaving fancy words, it may take me awhile.

    I will say though, after talking to people about the shooting, every conversation has been about guns or about God not being allowed in schools. This has finally made me come around to the fact that American Christians have nothing to offer in times like this, or for that matter, any time. There’s nothing unique from the world to offer. Besides the generic “praying for the victims” statements, the Church has completely missed the mark, yet again. No mourning with those who mourn and not a lot of love (especially tearing apart each other with political debates over this). I know for sure we’re not going to be known for our love being poured out over this. This is something I kind of realized before, but it has become more real to me after this event.

  • Amanda

    I think this is about empathy. Of course I don’t know the context. But that’s kind of Bonhoeffer’s thing, right? Christ the empathetic figure/form of god. Nothing can help except for the empathy and understanding found in a being who has felt what you’ve felt and been where you’ve been. And ultimately, true empathy is a wordless act–it’s not even an act, it’s more of a state of being–it just is. If you’ve been there, you know, and perhaps the best thing that you can do is to sit in it together. In which case, silence, yes, that may be the point (or at least a part of it).