Does God Suffer?

A response to John Haught's 'Unevolved'

John F. Haught’s comments (“Unevolved,” April 7) on the criticism of Elizabeth A. Johnson [PDF] by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are clearly right in part. Haught argues that not all suffering can be attributed to human sin. And, if it is true (as I have no reason to doubt) that there were animals in pain before people came on the scene, that has to be correct. Again, Haught is surely to be commended for suggesting that there has to be something wrong with any essay in Christian theology which, in his words, embraces “a detachment of God from life’s suffering.” After all, Christians look to Christ, whom they take to be God. Yet Christ died on a cross. So Christians cannot say that God is detached from life’s suffering. If Christ was God, then God suffered. A Christian seems committed to concluding that, if we want what might be called a picture of God, we can gaze at a crucifix. That is what God looks like when he reveals himself in the world in which we live.

Yet Roman Catholic theology has traditionally insisted that God, in a serious sense, cannot suffer. Does Haught flatly reject this insistence? There is nothing in his April 7 essay to show that he does, but he seems to note approvingly that “today almost all theologians who take evolution seriously have accepted the idea of a suffering God in one form or another.”  He also speaks of the distinction “Jesus suffered as man and not as God” as floating “in a sea of theological paradox.” So some readers of Haught might be forgiven for attributing to him the claim that God is essentially something that suffers. Let me, therefore, briefly comment on that claim (whether or not Haught himself subscribes to it).

People sometimes speak as though to believe in God is only to believe that something got the universe going at some time in the past. But what I would call the classical theistic tradition, exemplified by figures like St. Thomas Aquinas, does not think in these terms. It holds that the beginning of the universe (if it had a beginning) was certainly brought about by God. But it also holds that the sheer existence of anything at any time is God’s doing—that, as Aquinas puts it (in his commentary on Aristotle’s Peri Hermeneias), God “is to be thought of as existing outside the realm of existents, as a cause from which pours forth everything that exists in all its variant forms.” I might wonder what accounts for you being there, and my puzzlement might be dissolved by a reference to your parents. But then I might ask “How come they existed, and how come any human beings existed?” My puzzlement here might be dissolved by a reference to evolution, or to what in the universe favored this, or to grand-scale accounts about the solar system and its way of working. Yet, when the answers to all of our scientific questions (questions along the lines “What in the universe accounts for this or that, and how does it do so?”) are in, there remains the question “How come any universe at all, instead of nothing?” Let me call this “the God Question.” It is a question that many have rejected by saying, for example, “The universe is just there, so there is no need to ask what accounts for it.” I take it, however, that Christians cannot accept such a response. In that case, how might they proceed when trying to say what God is?

They might say, “I simply believe that God is what he has revealed himself to be.” But now we might reasonably ask how we can distinguish between true and false accounts when it comes to what God has revealed himself to be. After all, there have been people claiming that God has revealed himself to be what many of us would say that God cannot be. A Christian will, presumably, say that God has revealed himself to us in the Bible. Yet we cannot take all that the Bible says to be literally true. In Genesis 3, for instance, Scripture tells us that God once walked around a garden. Should we believe that he did so? If not, why not? All theologians will doubtless say that God cannot walk in a garden since he is incorporeal. But how do they know that? Why should God not be able to walk in a garden? On what basis might we conclude, against the text of Genesis 3, that God cannot walk in a garden?

A traditional Catholic reply to this question would be “On the basis of what we can know of God by reason as distinct from revelation.” You might reject the distinction invoked here, but then, I assume, you would be somewhat hard-pressed to explain why God cannot walk in a garden (that is, if you believe that God exists and if you take the Bible to be an authority). After all, the Bible says that he did so. Some theologians have insisted that all doctrinal matters have to be settled on the basis of a notion of God presented to us by the Bible. Their argument is (1) that when talking about God we have to start with what the Bible tells us, and (2) that we should forget about anything that might be said philosophically when it comes to God. The famous German theologian Jürgen Moltmann is someone who seems to be arguing along these lines. In The Crucified God (1973) he says (or seems to say) that in light of the crucifixion of Jesus we have to conclude that God essentially suffers. And Moltmann develops a whole theology with this thought in mind. You can see how the reasoning goes here. If one assumes that all of our talk of God should proceed from what we read in the New Testament, where we read of Christ suffering, one may assume that God, without qualification, suffers because Christ suffered.

But what does that do to the notion of God as that which makes the difference between there being something and there being nothing? We can hardly think of it as unbiblical. Yet neither can we deny that God suffers because Christ suffered—not, at any rate, if we want to accept the Christology presented by the Council of Chalcedon. But what notion of God were the fathers of Chalcedon working with? I presume that they were, from the outset, taking God to be the maker of the universe, the reason why there is something rather than nothing (as the teachings of Jesus seem to do).

Now, if God makes the difference between there being something and nothing—if, in the traditional language, God creates ex nihilo (“from nothing”)—then God cannot essentially be anything that creatures essentially are, for that would make him one of them. I am essentially bodily, so God cannot (essentially) be something with a body. But what of me and God when it comes to suffering? I suffer as things in my environment have their way with me. So I suffered last week at the hands of a periodontist digging away at my gums. I can also be said to suffer in that I can become emotionally fraught in reaction to what confronts me: I suffered, in this sense, as I sat by the bed of my dying mother while just willing her to die.

But can we think of the Creator of all things as being acted on by anything? Surely not.  When it comes to God and creatures the causality has to be from God to creatures only. Otherwise, creatures would be bringing it about that something comes to be in God, in which case creatures can make things to be and we have no need for the notion of God as Creator. Can we think of the Creator of all things as being emotionally fraught? Again, surely not. Emotions are what (bodily) people undergo. What sense can it make to ascribe them to God? Surely none.  The Bible depicts God as having what we might think of as emotions (as in the book of Isaiah’s talk about God as a woman crying out when giving birth to a child). But the Bible also depicts God as walking in a garden. You might say that the God-walking-in-a-garden talk should be regarded as figurative and not to be taken literally, while Isaiah’s talk about God in childbirth should not be so taken. But on what basis could you say this?

I think God never walked in a garden because I take God—the Maker of all things, that which makes the difference between there being something and nothing—to be incorporeal since I take it that nothing corporeal could account for the existence of all bodies. And I doubt that any theists, including Haught, would disagree with me on this point. But I also think that God cannot literally undergo pain or suffering without (impossibly) being passive to the action of something other than God. In traditional terms, I would say that God is essentially immutable—that God is incapable of undergoing change and, therefore, cannot suffer. To say this might sound like saying that God is remote, or uninvolved with us. But note the negative emphasis of what I have said. If I say that Fred is not a Republican, you have no reason to conclude that Fred is a Democrat. By the same token, to say that God does not undergo suffering is not to say that he is remote, or uninvolved with us. It is to say what God cannot be considered as the beginning and end of all things. That, and no more.

In his essay, Haught seems to be critical of a robust declaration to the effect “God does not suffer.” But such a robust declaration can, it seems to me, be defended if by “God” we mean “that which makes the difference between there being something as opposed to nothing.” Considered as such, God cannot be rightly thought of as an agent in time or space able to be acted on by anything, or as having anything like human emotions. God might be thought of figuratively as such, but should he be thought of literally as such? People have disagreed in their answers to the question “What might we mean by ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’?” but let me now throw caution to the winds and make this suggestion: “X is F” can be thought of as “figurative” if we can intelligibly deny that X is F. Thus: Can we intelligibly deny that God is a mighty fortress? Yes we can, because God is not made of bricks and mortar. So “God is a mighty fortress” should be regarded as figurative. Can we intelligibly deny that God is good? Well, if we stand within the Christian tradition, we cannot: in no way could it be argued that God is not good. But how about “God suffers”? Can this be intelligibly denied? The line of thinking I have been defending above would suggest that it can, for God cannot be thought of as passive to the action of anything, is not an agent among agents (a creature), and is not acted on by anything.  If God were an agent among agents, acted on by other agents, he would at best be a god among gods. So it makes perfectly good sense to say that God cannot suffer, period.

One might think that if God isn’t capable of suffering (as you and I are), then God cannot be involved with us. Or one might think that God should be with us in our suffering as one who sympathizes in the way that I can sympathize with you. Yet thoughts like these seem not to be taking seriously what it means to speak of God as the Creator. If God the Creator can suffer, then it would seem that he is passive to the action of something he creates. And how can that be so?  If God stands to us as one who sympathizes, then he is not the one who makes us to be for as long as we exist. To attribute sympathy to God, or, with Haught, to attribute “solidarity” to God, is to make God seem less involved with us than, as Creator, he must be. We may sympathize or be in solidarity with people, but we are, even then, outside them, not present in them as making them to be, as is God. Our sympathy and solidarity is but a pale imitation of what is going on as God makes us to be ourselves by making us to be (on this topic I recommend to readers the essay “The Involvement of God” in Herbert McCabe’s collection God Matters). God, as our Creator, is more closely involved with creatures than any creature can be to any other, and without undergoing suffering in any literal sense.

And yet, of course, Christians have traditionally wanted to say that God literally suffered because Jesus did: because God suffered in the human nature of the Second Person of the Trinity. Haught sniffs “a sea of theological paradox” when noting this claim. Does he mean that the claim is contradictory? He may simply mean that it expresses what is mysterious to us, in which case I agree with him, since I don’t know what it would be to be a divine person united to what is human without ceasing to be divine. I do not claim to understand what is involved in the hypostatic union. Still, if—and I think only if—one believes in this (and assuming that the notion is not contradictory) can one attribute to God, not sympathy and solidarity from on high, as it were, but the involvement of one with a human nature. And if one does believe in this, as generations of Catholic Christians have done, then one can certainly speak of God literally suffering without going back on the truth that suffering is literally alien to his divine nature.

Related: Unevolved: How the Bishops Misread Elizabeth Johnson, by John F. Haught
Censure or Critique? by Luke Timothy Johnson & Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt
Letters, July 15, 2011

Published in the 2011-06-03 issue: 

Brian Davies is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University. His books include Thomas Aquinas’s ‘Summa Theologiae’: A Guide and Commentary (2014) and Thomas Aquinas’s ‘Summa Contra Gentiles’: A Guide and Com-
(2016), both published by Oxford University Press.

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