EMIL NOLDE, OIL ON CANVAS, 1912
Not to beat a dead horse but the recent discussion over whether God suffers, it occurs to me, is a question about what religion really is. To me, religion—to bind back together—is the question of what it means to be human. We're not asking, or answering, the questions in a vacuum. All theological questions have at their core: does the answer to them, or even the asking of them, make us more fully human: more compassionate, more open to both suffering and joy, more lost in wonder, more disposed to see Christ in the faces of those with whom we rub up against, interact, and in my case, clash, during the course of my day?
The purpose of theology, for the follower of Christ, in other words, is not to come up with a formula. The purpose of theology is to break open our hearts in love.
A reader recently opined “I think God suffers without anxiety. As beings with imperfect vision, knowledge, and love, we suffer with it.” Which certainly raises more interesting questions, and also brings me back to the musing that kicked off the discussion in the first place; to wit, without questioning that God knows in the end, that good will triumph, that love will reign, that Christ will take his place upon the throne—we “know” that, too—I wondered whether, like us, God doesn’t know exactly how that will happen. To give people free will, it seems to me, is to consent to not know, to wait knowing that but without knowing how.
I’m just groping here. But to say God knows no anxiety, it seems to me, is to say it would have been all the same to God--to the Father of Christ, to the First Person of the Trinity--whether He created man or not, whether He gave us free will or not. It's to say that the same God who created mortal, fragile, glorious man could just as well have not created him, or could have created him to be a programmed robot. It's to believe we play no part whatsoever in ongoing creation. It’s to believe in a God who is inert, preternaturally calm, distant, removed, uninvolved, and utterly uninterested in and detached from what crazy, wild-card thing happens next in this ongoing drama called Planet Earth.
Instead, we have a very particular kind of God, a stupendous, utterly counterintuitive God, a God who pitched his tent among us, took on human form so he could know, among other things, the excruciating existential anxiety of knowing we are going to die, who nonetheless laughed, ate, drank, danced, gazed upon the trees and flowers and mountains and sky, who went to weddings and parties, who got pissed off and had a sense of humor, who loved, who sweat tears of blood in the Garden at Gethsemane the night before He died, who gave us His very Body so that we could break Him—knowing that we would break Him—and eat.
Who said, "I'll be with you till the end of time" but did not add "pushing you around like puppets" nor "sleeping."
I think God contains his anxiety, consents to be stretched as far as He can possibly go, and to hold, as Christ did on the Cross, the stretched-to-the-breaking point tension, without lashing out, without transmitting the suffering, but rather in love, as a mother holds that kind of tension in labor--and is then split apart in birth.
A quote from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:
“No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint's body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive…Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances. The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.”
And an essay by Marco Bersanelli, at English Spoken Here: Ilsussidiaro.net that includes this passage:
"But not only are we restless for God: God’s heart is restless for us. God is waiting for us. He is looking for us. He knows no rest either, until he finds us. God’s heart is restless, and that is why he set out on the path towards us...God is restless for us, he looks out for people willing to 'catch' his unrest, his passion for us, people who carry within them the searching of their own hearts and at the same time open themselves to be touched by God’s search for us". We too, children of modernity, may not remain completely insensitive to a God who is restless for us.”
That's not from some ex-drunk untutored layperson such as myself. It’s from Pope Benedict XVI.
EMIL NOLDE,WOODCUT, 1912
EMIL NOLDE (1867-1956) WAS A GERMAN EXPRESSIONIST,
LONELY, BROODING, MORBIDLY RELIGIOUS,
AND WITH AN INTENSE PREOCCUPATION WITH FLOWERS