Posted by: nuismera | February 28, 2009

Emerging from the Rubble: Where was God? Where is God?

“But if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omni benevolent why is there suffering?”

It seems as if every generation is defined by tragedy. For the theologians drawn on in chapter three of Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God that tragedy was the Holocaust or “the tremendum that shattered belief not only in God but also in humanity”. She vividly illustrates the point through Albert Mainslinger, a Holocaust survivor, who upon admission into the concentration camp in 1939 was recorded as weighing 250 lbs and Roman Catholic. By 1945 he was only 90 lbs and on the religion line was written “das nichts”= nothing.

Comparatively, for the New Atheists’ project the tragedy in New York with the Twin Towers elicits an extreme response. Mainly, they attempt to prove that religion is the main source of world conflict and violence. Therefore, the only solution to suffering becomes the abolishment of faith all together. As Sam Harris wishes to instill in the American public, “The truth that we must finally confront is that Islam contains specific notions of martyrdom and jihad that fully explain the character of Muslim violence.” Sam Harris appears to be viscerally concerned with the question of suffering as indeed the whole of humanity has struggled with the same question from the beginning. The term “theodicy” was coined by the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz in 1710 in the midst of the Enlightenment. However, throughout history there have been a multitude of responses offered to “solve” this problem of evil and suffering in a world created by an omnipotent, omniscient, and omni benevolent deity.

These responses include and are not limited to: a world created with its own natural laws and these laws allow for the existence of evil without necessitating the direct creation of this evil by the creator (the indirect response or unfortunate consequence); somewhat similarly the idea that true love must be freely chosen and it is this free will which allows the individual to choose to deny God and God’s love and therefore turn away from God and towards evil; the use of suffering to punish sin, to test character, or educate persons in mature virtue; to refine and purify souls for heaven; suffering as an opportunity to grow and change and become more human.

As Peter Kreeft lays out in his work Making Sense of Suffering, if one can get rid of just one premise of the philosophical problem then it has been solved. The first premise is that God exists-if one chooses to deny God’s existence then atheism becomes the solution. If one denies the second premise that God is all-powerful than one may adopt a deist stance: that God created the world and then left it to keep on tickin’ and remains a non interventionalist character. One could deny God’s goodness and believe in an indifferent God at best and a capricious or evil God at worst. Finally, the individual may reject the resistance of evil and interpret it instead as our subjective misperceptions of reality. However, in the end all of these ‘solutions’ fall apart as reductions and one is left unsatisfied that the question has indeed been answered. Thus the problem of suffering or theodicy continues to trouble our sleep.

In the wake of the Holocaust the global slogan became “never again”; one million children had been murdered. And yet we continue to witness this same kind of innocent suffering in the context of ethnic cleansing and genocide: The Khmer Rouge regime that wiped away one third of Cambodia’s population; the 800,000 Tutsis massacred in Rwanda; and the continuing suffering in Darfur. The type of suffering that these political theologians had to deal with and which continues to plague the very notion of God goes beyond the personal, existential, and relatively private suffering we endure on a day to day basis. In a broader sense this type of suffering is an affliction that occurs from the injury that people inflict unjustly on each other en masse: poverty and hunger, slavery, domestic abuse, rape, murder, war, and genocide.

In sharp contrast to this understanding of suffering are the new atheist’s definitions of faith and suffering. For them faith functions like “greedy desire” for the Buddha- it is the tendency to cling to things so obsessively that we set ourselves up for disappointment whenever we have to face the transience of all beings. The New atheists go on to say that the source of all our suffering is the tendency to believe in anything without evidence. It would appear, to them, that if one simply gave up the belief in God and stubbornly clung to a purely materialistic worldview one would be free of suffering. Indeed on the global scale we should be free of evil entirely.

Our materialistic cultures’ and first world’s response to this brand of suffering that the political theologians are concerned with is most commonly apathy and avoidance. And this is where the political theologians define their task: it is theology done that seeks to connect speech about God with the polis and assumingly in this way bring about a radical change in an apathetic outlook. The word polis is Greek and mean city. Political Theology is a calling out to the polis for action and for change at its very core, especially in response to dehumanizing suffering.

The image of God that these political theologians draw is the God of pathos-pathos being a kind of suffering feeling. For Soelle and Moltmann it is the suffering

God who endures and is defeated with those who suffer. God takes the pain of the world into the divine being in order to redeem it. In other schools of thought, which include Metz & Edward Schilllebeeckx, God stands in solidarity with those who suffer, but suffering does not enter the divine being.

Abraham Heschel is another important figure in political theology who draws on the Prophetic tradition, namely Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos, claiming that God’s heart burned with care. It is this image of a caring God that serves as a biting critique of social evil and hopeful consolation for the afflicted. The language of liberation theology, which also draws heavily on the prophets, is easily observed in his writings.

In the atmosphere of postwar Germany and National Socialism however three leading political theologians emerged from the rubble to do battle with the oldest question of mankind. Indeed, it was “no longer the atheism of the secular world that challenged faith, but the issue of horrific suffering”.

The first such theologian was Jurgen Moltmann: held as a prisoner of war by the British, He comes from the reformed Protestant Tradition. He describes this atmosphere in his own words, “Shattered and broken, the survivors of my generation were then returning from camps and hospitals to the lecture room. A theology which did not speak of God in the sight of the one who was abandoned and crucified would have had nothing to say to us then”. Moltmann employs his own narrative midrash in which the starting point is that the being of God is self-giving love. The Father is able to suffer and suffers as a result of the loss of his son experiencing infinite grief and total separation. But, at same time Father and Son have never been so close, they are in deep community of will-each willing to do this in sacrifice for love of the world. The Holy Spirit then is able to flow out into the broken, sinful world and bring healing. This midrash allows the cross to open up a reverse pathway on which suffering travels back into God in order to be redeemed. Moltmann claims that “only if all disaster, forsakenness by God, absolute death, the infinite curse of damnation and sinking into nothingness is in God’s own self, is community with this God eternal salvation”. He is careful to point out that the crucified God freely chooses to suffer with us and that His suffering is not a result of his own finite being as ours is but rather is done in complete freedom of will out of love.

Dorothee Soelle is another political theologian who emerges during this time and she comes from the Lutheran tradition. She states her concern precisely, “In the light of Auschwitz, the assumption of the omnipotence of God seemed a heresy, ethically offensive and impossible to believe”. She also finds the idea that Jesus was deliberately handed over and abandoned by his Father to the fate of death found in Moltmann’s theology intolerable. She asks the question, quite rightly, what kind of Father is this?

Many seem to have difficulty with sacrificial atonement theories and the query is perhaps articulately more clearly by William O’Malley in his book ‘Redemptive Suffering’, “I dare not say I ‘reject’ the doctrine of expiation, but I find enormous difficulty with it…I think, now, that’s why I took on this book: to find a better understanding of unmerited suffering. I don’t deny God exists of that evil exists; I don’t deny God is both all-good and all-powerful. But I do deny God is vindictive” (O’Malley, 112).

The problem with Moltmann, according to Soelle, is that this construal blames the Father for what in fact was done to Jesus by the history of human injustice. Furthermore she states that the cross shows that God is always suffering with the one who is suffering: against our cultural apathy we need to face it, articulate it, learn from it, and indict it. While the aims of political theology are clearly observed here, Soelle moves and evolves in her writings beginning with classical theism’s omnipotent Father who require obedience to the powerless God on the cross who models the impotence of love and finally arriving at the crucified and risen Christ in whom the divine victory of life over death empowers our own participation in God’s power of life.

In this first stage we find an outsized father figure who is really no more than a projection of men’s fantasy of domination. This misinterpretation of the divine reality is reflected in the new atheist’s project in which God is viewed as an old white man in the sky who points fingers and deals out lightning strikes. This view point is reflected in the following quote:

Human beings worshiped what they had found within themselves and had objectified; what they believed is what their fears and loves projected into objectivity, into an imaginative existence over and against their own: “Thus man transforms his feelings, desires, imaginings, and thoughts into beings; though what he wishes, thinks or imagines has no other existence than in his mind, it takes an objective existence for him.”7 The cumulative critique of religious belief in the nineteenth century and the judgment which has lain upon it throughout the twentieth was succinctly summarized in Feuerbach’s synthesis of his own work in a sentence: “This is why I wrote in the Essence of Christianity that man’s belief in God is nothing other than his belief in himself, that in his God he reveres and loves nothing else than his own being.”8

Buckley, M. (1979, December). Atheism and Contemplation. Theological Studies, 40(4),


John Haught responds to the new atheists and Harris in particular by affirming his criticisms of a limited notion of the ultimately transcendent, “I would begin by replying that what Harris means by God, faith, and worship has nothing whatsoever to do with what I and countless other Christians mean by them. I agree with his atheism insofar as I reject the same crude caricatures of God, faith and worship that he does.”

Next Soelle reaches to the opposite extreme and employs the idea of selfless love which completely goes against our fixation on power and domination. She cautions that this understanding can lead to terrible passivity in the face of the world’s suffering and forgets about the resurrection.

Finally, she reaches her definition of divine power which is the creative, noncompelling, life-giving good, or the silent cry of life in the midst of suffering. She compares this to the power of grass pushing up through cracks in the asphalt: a surge of life in the midst of concrete. Once again Haught derives a similar definition of divine power, “A God who truly loves the world is intimately related to it, but in a way that allows the world to remain forever distinct from God. The process of evolution is the story of the universe trying out various ways of becoming distinctively itself. Divine power, therefore, is manifested as loving self-restraint, as a “letting be” that permits the world to emerge as something other than God. It takes more power and goodness to respect freedom than to compel everything in dictatorial fashion.” At the end Soelle insists that “No heaven can justify Auschwitz”.

The final political theologian discussed in this chapter is Johann Baptist Metz who at 16 had his company wiped out in his absence. This experience lead to a fissure in his Catholic imagination and its impregnable confidence that God is good and the world is orderly. His main theological thrust is perhaps best echoed in his own words, “Whoever hears the message of the resurrection of Christ in such a way that the cry of the crucified has become inaudible in it, hears not the Gospel but rather a myth.”

Metz believes that the symbol of suffering God is too easy an answer because it eternalizes suffering by placing it in God and it discharges the tension set up by the cries of victims. Rather, theology should protect the radical question of suffering, clear a space for it, shelter it so that it might continue to cry out in history and irritate our thought. To accomplish this he proposes two main activities: remembering & lamenting. In this dangerous remembering one keeps alive the story of the martyrs to rob the masters of their victory over history and by connecting their story with Jesus restore hope that they too will be justified. This kind of remembering serves as a social counterforce to apathy: we do not act as if we were defeated by evil.

The idea of lamenting points to the fact that there is no positive meaning in unjust

radical suffering that destroys persons. Lamenting is a prayer, is a suffering unto God, an active engagement with God uttered in anguished hope that there will be an answer; such prayer has the capacity to nurture ongoing resistance to the victimization of others, past and present.

In conclusion there is no conclusion: The existence of suffering in this world

demands a response from humanity, the symbol of the crucified Christ speaks to an ineffable experience of innocent suffering and yet we continue to try to reconcile suffering with God, to understand “why?” in the midst of the unimaginable. Theologies of redemption, spiritualization, or atonement, at least to me, leave the question unanswered.


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