Friday, March 13, 2015

Does God suffer?

A number of avant-garde theologians promote the notion of a suffering God. Predictably, this has a candle-like attraction for mothy freewill theists. 

A suffering God is supposed to be an improvement over the "remote" God of classical theism, who lies behind the bulletproof glass of divine timelessness, spacelessness, aseity, and impassibility. 

Now, in fairness, the God of classical theism can indeed be remote. Classical theism isn't specifically Christian. It doesn't select for Bible history. Al-Ghazâlî was a classical theist. Maimonides was a classical theist. Leibniz was a classical theist. 

Classical theism is consistent with a number of variety theistic traditions. I think it's fairly consistent with Biblical theism–if you make allowance for anthropomorphic representations. When Classical theism is nested within the framework of Biblical theism, God is not remote. 

But a fundamental problem with redefining God as a suffering God is that while theologians can tweak their doctrine of God–especially if they don't feel constrained by Biblical revelation–they can't tweak the world we live in. At the stroke of a pen they can rewrite their doctrine of God (although that makes it a fictional God), but they can't rewrite the world we inhabit at the stroke of a pen.

To say that God suffers with us doesn't make God answer desperate prayers more frequently, doesn't make God prevent personal tragedies more frequently. It's just a rhetorical construct. It does no work.  

To take a comparison: suppose you have a teenage jock who's impatient with the elderly and the handicapped. He's in a hurry. He likes to do things at his own brisk pace. He parks in the disabled parking slot for convenience, rather than walk a few extra yards. 

But then he has a terribly accident that leaves him partially paralyzed. Through physical therapy and dogged determination, he regains his mobility. 

But now he's considerate to the elderly and the handicapped. He knows what it's like. 

If that were the effect of divine suffering on the God of these theologians, it would have some benefit for humans. But in reality, it doesn't change the world we live in. It makes no practical difference to our own challenges. It doesn't alleviate our suffering. 

It's like a fictional character in a movie who undergoes redemptive suffering. That may be inspiring for 90 minutes. But then you exit the theater for the mean streets of reality. 

Of course, Christianity has a suffering God-Man. A suffering Savior. An empathetic Redeemer. But over and above that is the need for to be delivered from our condition:

Perhaps the best way to try to understand the nature of this problem is to take a familiar modern analogy--that of doctor and patient. Someone lying in a hospital bed does not want to be solely treated by a machine, which functions regardless of the pain it might inflict. Rather, the patient wants to be treated by someone who understands what he or she is going through, and who will sensitively adjust his approach. For this, a human being is essential, and any good doctor knows that his or her bedside manner is at least as important as any medicine. But having said that, what patient wants the doctor to climb into the bed next to him or her and start making groaning noises, as if to indicate that the doctor, too, is experiencing the same pain? This is not the kind of "empathy" desired, because the fundamental reason the patient wants the doctor is not to receive sympathy from him or her; the patient can get that just as easily from any medically unskilled visitor. What the patient wants is to be cured. Understanding pain is all very well, but overcoming it is what all sufferers really want. God is impassible, not because he is uncaring (he is in fact far more compassionate than any human being ever could be), but because he is strong to save. Unlike human doctors, who are available only at certain times and who are occasionally "off sick" themselves, God is always ready and able to help. The impassibility of his nature is, therefore, a guarantee that he will always be there.

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