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Angela Tilby: Can only a suffering God help?

22 May 2020


Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1944

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1944

“ONLY a suffering God can help.” Those words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer were quoted to me at a time when I was going through a devastating bereavement. The words helped — although not, perhaps, in the way that the writer had expected.

What they did was to stir me to consider the merits of Patripassianism: the belief that God suffers in the sufferings of his creatures. The cross is God’s cross; the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world. All this was brilliantly articulated by Helen Waddell in her novel Peter Abelard. It has contributed to the liberation theologies, and has been endorsed by Jürgen Moltmann. I am sure that, for many, the idea of a suffering God really does help.

But it also brings real problems. To attribute suffering to God suggests that God is acted on by another agent, and, if that is so, it is hard to see how God remains God. Christian orthodoxy insists, therefore, that God is “without body, parts, or passions”. In our culture, in which emotions are so often regarded as proof of sincerity, such a definition of God could sound detached, and even cold.

But it need not be so. When my friend sent me Bonhoeffer’s words, they actually stirred me out of a pit of grief to a kind of rebellion. I realised that I did not want God to be weeping with me in a corner.

My daily prayer at this time included the words: “Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.” The suffering God suggested to me that God was limited by the suffering of his creatures and subject to a tragedy that was beyond his scope.

Now, I have to be careful here, because I think that Christian faith does acknowledge tragedy and engage with it. I even think that a tragic form of Christianity may be possible. But I think that there is a better solution to how God empathises with us while remaining God.

If emotion, with its roots in the body, suggests a passivity that is un-divine, feelings are more active. I am struck that Carl Jung understood “feeling” as a rational function, a parallel to thinking, but based on values rather than logic. We can surely and rightly attribute feeling to God — after all, God so loved the world as to come to us in Christ, in our own nature. We can attribute feeling to God without suggesting that God is overwhelmed by the emotions that we are subject to (and sometimes overvalue).

There was a thought-provoking post on Twitter this week which quoted a Puritan prayer: “O God most high . . . the thought of your infinite serenity cheers me, for I am toiling and moiling, troubled and distressed, but you are for ever at perfect peace.” I’m with the Puritans here.

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