B. DISPASSION, COMPASSION, AND THE TRINITY
The modern picture of a compassionate, suffering God isn’t entirely satisfactory. This Suffering God is drowning in the same quicksand we are. Such a suffering God is too weak to be very helpful, or really to be God at all. University of Chicago theologian David Tracy rejects the “fellow sufferer” God image, as did Karl Rahner, who said
It does not help me to escape from my mess and mixup and despair
if God is in the same (situation) . . . From the beginning I am locked into its horribleness . . . ..[i]
It’s good that we are not alone, but we are still sinking. Since the Fellow Sufferer God is in it with us, he can’t do us much good.[ii] In order to pull us out of the quicksand, we need a God whose feet are planted on firm ground. Our hope depends on the existence of a firm ground somewhere, a reality that isn’t subject to the ebb and flow of fortune. When we are drowning, we need God who can throw us a rope. We need a God who is not swept away by passions as we are. A vulnerable suffering God cannot provide the basis for an unshakeable reality in which we can set our hope.[iii]
The Trinity is a large enough doctrine to encompass both the Serene God Image[iv] and the Passionate God Image.[v] Some years ago, there were two popular songs about God. One of them, “From A Distance,” described how all human suffering and conflict are reduced to insignificance when placed in a redeeming context by God’s “distance.” Another, “One Of Us,” posited the notion of God living our life, sharing our frustration, tedium, and anxiety, so that we are fundamentally befriended, not alone. The Trinity invites us to embrace both these ways of thinking about God. In the next chapter, we will find a Passionate God in the Son, the God who is “one of us.” In this chapter, we will focus on the other half of the paradox, the Serene Center of reality represented by God the Father who sees all “from a distance,” the distance of eternity.
C. THE SERENE CENTER
The classical description of a dispassionate God is a totally wrong-headed way to think of the Son. So saying, “God is dispassionate” is a vast over-generalization. It forgets that God, in Jesus, was on the cross. Even calling the Father “dispassionate” is not quite right. The Father is personal and the ideal Father cares for his children. But the Father and the Son relate to us and to our suffering in dramatically different ways. When Early Church teachers called the Father “dispassionate,” that word rang well in their ears, but not in ours. It portrayed the Father too coldly to be a Father we would want. It preserved God’s serenity by stripping him of all feeling. We cannot love, worship, or emulate a Star Trek Vulcan God.
We do better to describe the Father as differentiated, meaning the Father cares, but calmly, confidently. A differentiated Father has feeling without being overcome by feeling. The Father remains the still point by having his feelings in balance, remaining perfectly centered because of his unique ability to take the long view of eternity. That long view enables God to allow us our freedom, to allow the creation to run amok for awhile. Because of God’s unshakable confidence that “all will be well,” such a Father cares for us but is not anxious over us. The Father is “the unmoved mover” – “unmoved” in that he is not knocked off balance. Yet God is not the “uncaring mover.” God cares for us as a mother cares for her children – but cares with unshaken confidence. While caring, God remains “infinitely at peace.”[vi] The Father sees our lives from a perspective of such length and depth and height that our suffering, though never trivial, is surrounded by enough reality to absorb and heal it. The Father-God is an infinite spaciousness in which tragedy can be held and contained.[vii]
. During the same era in which much theology has rendered God vulnerable and a “fellow sufferer,” countless Westerners have abandoned their faith traditions for Buddhism, Taoism, or other belief systems that expressly proclaim a Serene Center such as the Tao, or Sunyata, or Mind representing a vast unity lying deeper than the world’s divisions and passions. Such seekers do not want either a tirading patriarch or a martyred suffering Divinity. They are looking for the Serene Center to give them peace. Early Christians knew the Serene Center to be none other than the God “in whom we live and move and have our being.”
We deprive Christianity of its greatest source of hope and consolation when we deny any sense of God as an Ocean of Peaceful Wisdom, as the dharma, as the tao which cannot be named. This larger sense of God was the Greek gift to Christianity. Modern theologians, swayed by excessive Biblicism, and giving too little weight to Christian tradition, devalued the Greek contributions to our faith in favor of the Hebrew.[viii] Our faith has origins in both Israel and Greece. It limps if they are not both preserved.
A bit of art history suggests something vitally important about the quest for peace and the role of Greek thought in modern religion. Many modern Westerners attracted to Buddhism have never read a sutra, but they are drawn to Buddhism by statues of the serenely meditating Buddha. Early Buddhists, however, did not portray their teacher in art. The serene Buddha statues come from Buddhism’s later encounter with Greek culture. And the face of the Buddha appears to be modeled on the faces of Greek sculpture from the archaic and classical periods. What many modern Christians seek in Buddhism is actually a lost or suppressed truth in our own faith, and it is found in the Greek contribution to Christianity.
At stake here is our all-important interpretation of God’s silence. When we lay our doctrines aside and look honestly at our experience, we must admit that God often is silent. We pray and hear no reply, we plead with God to act, and we see no action. God’s silence can be the grave of our faith, or it can be the basis of our faith, depending on how we interpret it. Silence could mean there is no God; or that God does not care about us; or that God exists and cares but is too helpless to even communicate. It is, however, also possible to hear the silence as God’s word, a wisdom which transcends discursive speech. God’s silence bespeaks a stillness, a serenity that is undisturbed – a God who does not sleep but meditates upon creation. [ix]
We can hold together in one faith both the changeless God who does not suffer and the “fellow sufferer God” if we just remember two things: (1) Truth claims about God are best stated in paradoxes such as “immanent and transcendent,” “three and one,” “human and divine.” Why not “dispassionate and compassionate,” “immutable and responsive?” Anything we say about God has to be offset by an opposite statement. The Trinity allows us to imagine God as possessing attributes that would, for anyone but God, be impossible to combine in one person. So if we are to say God is “dispassionate,” we must reinterpret that word to mean something other than “cold.” We must think of it instead as meaning infinitely peaceful even in the midst of deeply caring.
The Early Church was right that there is in God a Serene Center, unmoved, unshaken, eternal, sitting Buddha-like in perfect balance. Given our traditional rejection of the idea that the Father suffers and given that, in the face of the Cross, it is rather hard in to argue that the Son does not, we associate this Serene Center with the Father.[x] The Father God is, in T. S. Eliot’s words, “The still point of the turning world.”
At the still point of the turning world . . .
at the still point, there the dance is. . .
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance,
And there is only the dance.
Much of 20th Century’s theology’s over-reaction against God throwing lightning bolts at us from Olympus or Sinai, completely identifies God with our own vulnerability – it denies the “still point.” It wants only the dance; but as Eliot so wisely said, “Except for the still point, there would be no dance.”
We may find a Scriptural basis for God’s comforting us with his own eternity in Job Chapter 38. I readily grant that Job is subject to a less congenial interpretation, especially given the reprehensible betting God and Satan do at the beginning.[xi] But it is also possible to gather from Job Chapter 38 a beneficent sense of God’s differentiated, long-term view. In response to Job’s lament arising out of his immediate situation, God answers with his own eternity:
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . .
Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place . . . ?
Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? . . .
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads his wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes his nest on high?
The vastness of God can swallow up our suffering. God’s eternity does not spell out meaning, but it sets our sorrows in a vast context. When we are caught up in the immediacy of our own pain, the perspective of eternity can open us up to hope and even to the possibility of peace and consolation.
There is a special grace in knowing that the Father God is peaceful and eternal, that he is the Serene Center of Reality. In Shusaku Endo’s novel, Deep River, the Ganges River serves as an image of God. Humanity throngs to the Ganges, all sorts of people with all sorts of suffering. They bathe in the Ganges seeking healing. They pour their grief into the Ganges. Human ashes are poured into the Ganges. The deep and ancient river carries all this with serene dignity.[xii] A hymn goes, “Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all our cares away.”
The ocean is another such image of the Father. The ocean in its stillness by moonlight speaks of eternity. It has a powerful strength and dignity. In his poem “When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be,” John Keats lamented his impending death because it would preclude him from writing all the poems that were in him and because it would separate him from his lover. He says that when these thoughts become to much for him,
“. . . then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.”
To stand alone on the shore of the wide world is to stand before the Eternity of God, and pour our cares into God’s eternity until they sink to nothingness. Sometimes our sorrows are so great that we would have to stand on that shore for a very long time indeed. But God gives us forever.
The mystical tradition of Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius the Areopagite, John Scotus Erigena, the Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhart, and (in our time) Gerald May and Tilden Edwards have connected Christians to the God who is without name or image, who is the unity of all things in eternity. True, Christianity also includes “passion mysticism,” prayerful union with Christ in the way of the Cross, but even that way leads ultimately to the Father who is our hope of peace. The Christian God is more than the tao, not less than the tao. If we are to tell the full truth about God and respond to suffering humanity’s need for peace and consolation, Christianity must reclaim a its ancient sense of God’s Serene Eternity, the same sense which Christian mystics have experienced for two millennia.
Because we believe God suffers – more about that in the next chapter -- we believe there is tragedy in God. But, to paraphrase the hermeneutical philosophers, “is it suffering all the way down?” Is God eternally tragic? If God is our destiny as well as our origin, our Alpha and our Omega, then if God is essentially tragic, we are without hope. But we have a brighter view. God is not so simple as the monism of Eastern philosophy, in which union with that ultimate reality is loss of oneself in the Void – but neither is God so broken as the world we now inhabit. God includes a mysterious wisdom but is not devoid of life and passion and longing. The force of life, the passion, are eternally at the core of reality, but embraced within an essential and comprehensive peace.
When Christians speak of union with God, we do not mean non-being, loss of self in the Void, but rather participation in the Trinitarian life. We participate in dynamic on-going life in God energized by longing but sustained by joy. This Trinity which includes both passion and peace is our destiny, and we are even now living into our destiny. If we see our destiny as All-Is-One-In-The-Void, a one-note symphony, a one-color painting, a perfect passionless non-dual peace which dismisses all the ups and downs of mortal life, then we dismiss our experience in this world of chance and change as “only thoughts,” as meaningless, as illusion. On the other hand, if we see our destiny as essentially and eternally torn and tragic, then we indulge our feelings as if they were absolute reality deserving to dominate us. But the Trinitarian view of our destiny calls us to live our life, to treasure it and value it. We dare to experience life all the more fully because the fear which holds us back from passion is overcome by the assurance of peace and redemption in our Father God.
The Father’s eternity and serenity are necessary to our hope. However, the Father’s response, standing alone, is infuriatingly aloof. If God remains outside creation, composed and immune to the vicissitudes of transitory life, we feel cut off, utterly removed. Such a God cannot be truly compassionate because he is above the suffering that comes of being trapped in the pain of the present moment. Compassion means “to suffer with.” Such a God is too invulnerable to understand in a personal way what we go though. We can only resent such a God for living imperturbably above while atrocities rage here below.
[i] Karl Rahner In Dialogue: Conversations And Interviews, 1965-1982, ed. Paul Imhoff and Hubert Biallowons (New York: Crossroad, 1986) 126-127 quoted in Mark McIntosh, Mystical Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998) p. 153.
[ii] In fairness, God in process theology is not entirely unable to help. But the metaphorical representation of God as “fellow sufferer” suggests a God who is more of a sympathetic listener than a power for healing and transformation. It is this metaphor to which Rahner, Tracy, and Yale theologian David Kelsey object.
[iii] “David Bentley Hart regards the rejection of God’s “impassibility” or apatheia, as “disastrous” because it makes God’s state of being dependent on us. That makes God considerably less than the foundation of reality which we have long understood the word “God” to mean, and deprives us of the basis for hope in an unshakeable eternity.” David Bentley Hart, The Doors Of The Sea, pp 75-77, 81.
[iv] Rahner, Tracy, and Hart.
[v] Whitehead, Moltmann, and Soelle are theologians of the Passionate God. I am sure Hart would not agree that there is room anywhere in God for suffering. But I stand by my claim that in speaking of God, we can only speak paradoxically, so that both dispassion and compassion can coexist.
[vi] David Bentley Hart insists that God is not dependent of the vicissitudes of nature and history for anything, so God is, in his words, “infinitely at peace.” David Bentley Hart, The Beauty Of The Infinite, p. 157.
[vii] A metaphor for this aspect of God, particularly well-attested in Scripture, is the rock.
“The Rock, his work is perfect . . .
A God of faithfulness. . .” Deut. 32:4
“There is no rock like our God.” I Sam. 2:2
“Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.” Ps. 95
The strength and stability of a huge boulder shows us something about God. The rock image in Scripture is by no means intended to suggest God is hard, cold, dissociative, apathetic, or removed. It means God is stable, faithful, dependable, “the rock of our salvation,” powerful, and unshakable.
[viii] With due respect of Robert W. Jensen and Jurgen Moltmann, both great theologians, they too readily treat the Hebrew tradition as authentic and the Greek tradition as inauthentic, notwithstanding the New Testament’s being a Greek document. Greek thought was well known to St. Paul, to St. John the Evangelist, and perhaps even to Jesus, who even told an Egyptian story as one of his parables. The rejection of church doctrines developed from Greek philosophy in the patristic era is primarily the work of Adolph Harnack and the “history of dogma” movement. Alister McGrath, Christian Theology, pp. 276, 366. While this movement has sometimes been helpful, it has thrown out many a baby with the bath.
[ix] “The Indian theologian Raimundo Pannikar interprets God’s silence as revealing the core of reality as the serene reconciling of duality which people seek in the Eastern religions.” Raimundo Pannikar, The Silence of God trans. Robert Barr (New York: Orbis Books, 1989).
[x] As we consider the question of what this view of the Father means for our problem of evil and suffering, it is important to remember several points:
a. God is not only the Father. This Father is only one aspect of the Triune God.
b . The Father language is drawn from tradition, but is misleading in that it is gender specific. This is particularly unfortunate in our culture since it may evoke the image of an absentee Father who is unconcerned with the family because he is pursuing his own interests. That is by no means the point.
c. The point is that God is generative, that God creates reality through a process akin to giving birth, so Mother would be more apt.
[xi] D. Z. Philips and Herman Tennesen regard Job as portraying the divine nature as a contemptible “God of caprice” who offers Job no real redemption at all. D. Z. Phillips, The Problem Of Evil And The Problem Of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) pp. 132-140.
[xii] Shusaku Endo, Deep River. Trans. Van C. Gessel. New York: New Directions Books. 1994. pp. 194-204.