An Epiphany of Love in a Suffering World?

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
8 Jan 2007
Once they told Rabbi Pinhas of the great misery among the needy. He listened, sunk in grief. Then he raised his head. “Let us draw God into the world,” he cried, “and all need will be quenched.” God’s grace consists precisely in this, that God wants to... be won by humanity, placing [Godself], so to speak, into human hands. God wants to come to the world, but to come to it through men and women. This is the mystery of our existence, the supra-human chance of humankind. (Martin Buber, ‘Tales of the Hasidim’, Schocken, 1991)

Writing from the depths of reflective Judaism, Martin Buber and Rabbi Pinhas serve to remind us Christians of the biblical truth that the One who we meet in Christ this Epiphany is not a God whose incarnation begins and ends with the history of Jesus. It is, says the tradition, an eternal condition of the divine to be given within the limits of our humanity – rather than in some esoteric knowledge or proposition.

This is actually what the strange language in St John's Prologue seeks to convey by picturing for us the ‘pre-existence’ of the Logos (divine reason), and later by proclaiming that the one who was crucified is now ‘risen’ – in other words, that the tortured love we meet in the person of Jesus is finally recovered in the hidden and un-containable life of God. This claim, experienced through forgiveness and restoration-in-community, is what Christian hope is all about.

Rendered as metaphysical propositions such formulations are likely to cause us moderns no end of problems. Capturing the reality of God in the formulae of human calculation is an illusion. But received as a nameless encounter beyond theorising, ‘God-with-us’ returns our puzzled gaze with the interrogative face of Christ, right down to his revolutionary, definitive anonymity in the very poorest (see Matthew 25).

Picking up philosophically on these echoes in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, Scottish theologian Ruth Page has suggested that ‘pansyntheism’ (God-with-all) may be a better way of expositing the trajectory of what she terms ‘the incarnation of freedom and love’ than either forensic seventeenth century theism or contemporary process panentheism [1]. The former can seem too abstract and aloof; the latter blurs the incommensurability of God and the universe in seeking their ultimate congruence.

Meanwhile, what sticks out like a bloodied thumb in Rabbi Pinhas’s otherwise (com)passionate prose is his apparent suggestion that the need created by endless suffering in our present horizon can somehow be quenched by the invocation of God within this world.

That may be the experience of some people, but as a generalised prescription it is too easy, too definitive. Like sub-Christian attempts to mortgage disaster and disease to sin and judgement (a move Jesus explicitly rejected), it evades the obscenity and horror of actual death and torture.

For we should never forget that in the New Testament the risen Christ is deliberately imaged with the wounds of crucifixion still visibly impressed upon him. They are transformed, yes. But not obliterated. Not even by the resurrection of the dead – the hope of divine life-giving beyond the undeniable limits of biological process and human striving.

In a universe where Love’s as-yet-unfinished work entails the often deadly freedom of contingency, suffering cannot be effaced. Even so, those who suffer can themselves be ‘faced’: given worth, dignity and hope within the community of the living-alongside. That is what is at stake in current arguments about the treatment of people living with irrecoverable incapacity, whatever view one takes of the immensely difficult medical and ethical options.

For the vision that God will in the final reckoning be all-in-all is, simultaneously, the promise that ‘one day we shall have faces’. We will count in our own right, but also in utter liberating dependence on one another and upon God. That is the mutuality (communion) that ‘the risen life’ invites us towards.

Right now, however, in a world still entrapped and enthralled by the power of death, “only a suffering God will do”, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer poignantly put it. Not a God who denies, douses, justifies, inflicts or disowns suffering, but a God who embraces it (and its victims) through an unconquerable love that is beyond our calculation, for sure – but not beyond either our imagination or our effective action.

It is this destabilisngly ‘epiphanic’ God of Jesus who comes close to us when we are so pressed that we simply do not know how to begin pray. As St Paul puts it, on such occasions the Spirit holds for us the very words we cannot find. And they tell us not that we can avoid suffering, but that with and beyond it there is the God who is our beginning, our sustenance and our end.

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Note: See (eds.) Philip Clayton & Arthur Peacocke, In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World, Eerdmans, 2004. Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in the notion of panentheism — the proposition that the world is located ‘within’ the Divine, although God is in no way contained or defined by the world. In this book theologians and scientists discuss the strengths and weaknesses of this particular understanding of the God-world relation. Atheist and theist, Eastern and Western, conservative and liberal, modern and post-modern, physicist and biologist, Orthodox and Protestant — the authors explore the tensions between traditional views of God and contemporary cosmogonies and ask what a more credible account of divine action for our age would look like.

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