God in the midst of pain

As my spring graduate course on "Christ and Evolution" was winding down, a graduate student in my class asked if he could write his final paper on Christ's descent into hell. At first, I was reluctant to engage this request since we did not discuss this topic during the semester. However, I gave him permission to pursue his interest and I am glad I did because hell may be an apt description of the chaos of our age.

Today we learned of more gun violence in Dallas, following the shooting in Minneapolis. Europe continues to teeter on the heels of Brexit and the explosive Middle East shows no signs of abating war. Fear reigns on every side and one of the greatest signs of fear is the volatility of the stock market. The heightened fear of collapse — whether businesses or nations — impels people to take their money and run for cover. Our animal nature shows itself under conditions of external pressure and competition: either fight or flee.

Fear and fragility go together and those who are fragile in their psychological and emotional make-up are having a difficult time holding life together. I once heard fear defined as "deep hurt" and there may be an element of truth in this idea. The human person is feeling threatened today on all sides because there is deep hurt; a hurt that I would diagnose as a deep, existential hurt stemming from lack of love and respect. Human dignity has become a commodity. Where there is no love, all hell literally breaks loose because without love, no one cares whether we live or die.

Although the framework of heaven and hell can still limit us to the medieval cosmos and the wedding cake cosmology of Ptolemy, heaven and hell are concepts that speak about our relationship with God (or lack of). As such we can speak of heaven and hell within our own evolutionary universe as either deep, abiding indwelling in God's love (heaven) or the extremes of unrelatedness, selfishness and destruction (hell).

Pseudo-Dionysius, that profound fifth-century mystic, once wrote that God knows evil under the form of the good. This is a bit hard for us to digest but I could liken it to riding in an airplane 20,000 feet high and looking down below. One does not see tears and pain; one sees a quilt of rolling hills, deserts, winding rivers and riveting sands. From a distance the Earth is beautiful and bound into a web of goodness; close up, however, it is like a fragile piece of china cracking into many pieces. Bonaventure spoke of God as altissime et piissime — most high and most intimately with us.

God knows the beauty of the Earth and the pain of the human heart. God bends low in love, to the furthest and most distant realms of life and death. This is symbolized by the cross where we see, most poignantly, the poverty and humility of God. God's love is vulnerable and unconditional; it is love completely and totally turned to the other, willing to undergo death for the sake of life. Bonaventure wrapped together the mystery of love and suffering in his classic Soul's Journey into God where he wrote: "There is no other path into the heart of God than through the burning love of the crucified Christ." Anyone who enters into love, and through love experiences the inextricable suffering and the fatality of death, enters into the history of the human God.

For centuries, the church taught that God is impassible, that God could suffer in his humanity but not his divinity. This belief became difficult in the 20th century when war after war — and all that war entailed — consumed millions of innocent lives. The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann tells how he lost friends and family to the violence of Nazism and how he would go to church and sit for hours before the crucified Christ, wondering what kind of God could allow such destruction. After years of praying before the cross he came to the insight that God really does enter into suffering humanity and he wrote a wonderful book called The Crucified God. In it, Moltmann proposes a controversial, innovative way to approach Jesus' death, viewed as what he calls, the "suffering of God." The distinction comes in understanding that the Son suffers on the cross, as "does the Father, but not in the same way." In a powerful passage on the suffering of God, Moltmann writes:

When the crucified Jesus is called the 'image of the invisible God,' the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this. God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in his humanity. The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about 'God' is to be found in this Christ event.

In Moltmann's eyes, the idea of suffering is ingrained in the act of love; suffering becomes an indispensable aspect of life in God, one that is necessary to understand the power and selflessness of God's love. If God were really incapable of suffering, he would also be incapable of love. He would like the God of Aristotle who was loved by all but could not love. 

Teilhard de Chardin claimed that love is the physical structure of the universe; the very stuff of life itself. Love is the gravitation of the soul, Augustine wrote, impelling humans to constantly be drawn to God and to one another and all creation. The Gospel writer John said that God is love (John 4:13). To have faith in a God of unconditional love is to realize how intimately close God is. So close that our joys and sorrows, our grief and anguish are wrapped up tightly in God's humble embrace. So close we forget God's presence. In a world of anguish and suffering, the lines between divinity and humanity become blurred. Jesus lived in a violent culture, a culture of conflict and anxiety but he also knew the deep truth hidden beneath the surface of human judgment, namely, that this broken, anxious world is oozing with God.

Without love God is forever unreachable. God's love is absolute and unconditional. God chooses to suffer, in the same way that God chooses to love. Jesus chose to participate in suffering and gave his will up to the Father, heading for Jerusalem, where he anticipated the public scandal of the cross. This choice to participate in the pain and suffering of the world, according to Moltmann, shows the sacrifice and love of God. In the cross, the Father does not sit by idly while the Son suffers the pain and death. Rather, the Father participates in the Son's suffering, in the very act of God-forsakenness. God bears the pain of a father watching his child undergo anguish and death, with no power to stop it because where there is absolute love there is absolute freedom. In this way, God enters into the human experience of forsakenness so that no violent act, no darkness, no pain is left bereft of God's love. God is there in the brokenness of heart, the tears, the anguish, confusion and abandonment that forsakenness bears. Yet love is stronger than death. Even in the midst of darkness, God's love tenderly stoops down and embraces us as an only-begotten child, comforting us as a mother comforts her son, empowering us to get up again and choose life. When all has been stripped away in the pain of suffering, we can either die in despair or we can get up and live into a new future. God who embraces us in our darkness is the power of the future, the power of hope, promise and new life. God is the newest thing, Meister Eckhart wrote, the youngest thing and when we are united to God we become new again.

All of nature is cruciform, Holmes Rolston said, "This whole evolutionary upslope is a calling in which renewed life comes by blasting the old. Life is gathered up in the midst of its throes, a blessed tragedy, lived in grace through a besetting storm." We are called to let go and enter into the storm, to love as passionately, extravagantly and wastefully as God has loved us; to suffer through to joy is a supreme emergent and an essence of Christianity. This is what the mystics tell over and again: love is stronger than death. In the words of Etty Hillesum: "Each of us moves things along in the direction of war every time we fail in love."

We have the capacity for a new world and the capacity to destroy this world by failing in love. God will not clean up the mess we have created but we are being invited into a new future. It is time to let go of everything we are clinging to because whatever we possess divides us. Love alone can bring us to the threshold of a universe, Teilhard said. It is time to let go into love.

[Ilia Delio, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Washington, D.C., is the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University. She is the author of 16 books and the general editor of the series Catholicity in an Evolving Universe. Her newest book is Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology and Consciousness (Orbis Books 2015).]