It seems that a few other folks are poking around with the same question as my recent series of posts on David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite and the question of divine impassibility. Their thoughts are more concise and poignantly articulated than my own stumbling efforts, so if thinking through God’s compassionate suffering is a live question for you, you might do well to visit:
It is precisely because divine apatheia is not a possession subject to loss or diminution that God does not penuriously guard his life, but opens himself to creation and suffers with it. No one can change God or force God to act, no one can conjure or coerce God’s presence or action-God is never passive. But where God is open in love, he does not stand passively aloof, impervious to the plight of his beloved. God’s unchangeable infinitude is not at risk where God aches with longing and is pained by the dissolute state of creation-this too is an expression of the boundless variation within the unchanging generosity of God’s triune life. Thinking in this way helps us to express both God’s suffering and God’s apatheia in properly analogical terms. Hart correctly insists that “God is incapable of experiencing shifting emotions within himself” (as if manipulative ploys had any foothold), but to this similitudo, we must insist upon a maior dissimilitudo and say that God is not devoid of emotional intensity or insensitive with regard to his beloved creation (355). Likewise, if we are to speak of God’s aching solidarity with those who suffer, a solidarity that transgresses every boundary we can imagine (Hades itself), we must also insist that according to a maior dissimilitudo, God’s suffering does not incapacitate and diminish him (as suffering does to us). God never says, “It would have been better if…” with regard to God’s own boundless life; God’s life always is better in the mutual exchange and enrichment of the divine economy.
Hart’s positive understanding of divine infinitude is sufficiently capacious to incorporate theological attentiveness to the whole of Scripture’s narrative with regard to God’s immutability and impassibility, including a nuanced account of the emotional intensity and pain ascribed to God’s experience therein. Unfortunately, Hart allows his metaphysical predilection for a more univocal understanding of divine apatheia to eclipse this conceptual openness and thereby falsely constrains his understanding of God and in docetic fashion meticulously evacuates the cross of the divinity hung thereupon. Despite himself, Hart helps us understand how Bonhoeffer is, in my estimation, finally correct: “Only the suffering God can help.”
Yet, despite insisting that divine apatheia does not override God’s scriptural self-revelation or make the divine pathos out to be an illusion, Hart insists that even the cross holds no suffering for God (355). Through the Son, God attends and possesses the human suffering of the cross (and does so “inseparably” according to Chalcedon), but, he insists, God (qua God) does not suffer pain there. Hart rightly upholds patristic paradoxes like that of Melito of Sardis, “in Christ the impassible suffers,” but mistakenly goes further to assert that Jesus’ cry of dereliction (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) is only his “human voice,” words uttered in the place of all humanity, rather than as a expression of God torn from God. He argues, somewhat strangely, that if this cry fits into the divine economy at all, it ought to be heard as a darker expression of the same interval whereby the eternally begotten Son is differentiated from the unbegotten Father (360). Hart insists that only the God who is beyond all suffering is capable of saving us. By restricting the suffering of the cross to the Son’s human nature, Hart (like Cyril before him) draws the blinds on the view that his own thinking about God’s infinity has opened up for him. In so doing, he foregoes an opportunity for greater theological fidelity to Scripture by a manifest preference for restrictive metaphysical preconceptions of divinity. Yet, we must be clear, Hart (again like Cyril) is not wrong in his affirmation of divine impassibility; it is just that impassibility is not a univocal description of God capable of expressing God’s character without the qualification of analogical difference.
Hart’s positive expression of God’s infinity opens the space to speak about divine pathos, not as a deficiency, but as another modulation of his unconquerable and incorruptible love. The fullness of divine revelation is found in Jesus Christ and as the gospels tell it, God’s life as a human being progresses inexorably, almost magnetically, toward the cross in Jerusalem where God joins humanity (and all creation) in suffering, alienation, torture, death, and in the very depths of hell. Suffering and pain are not thereby to be understood as an attribute of the unchangeable God, like an incurable affliction, but as yet one more expression of divine openness and sharing of life. The cross is God’s glory (John) precisely because it makes visible the fullness of God’s triune openness and love. The same self-giving love by which the Father begets the Son and sends forth the Spirit (and receives the joy of his life in their return) is the self-giving love that knowingly, willingly, freely, and obediently swallows the suffering and death of creation because it pains God to see his creation languish. God’s pathos is an amplification of his love rather than the weakness of a God subject to the violence, control, or coercion of others. The resurrection shows that even in stretching to encompass pain, death, and the depths of hell, God’s peace is unbroken, God’s love is unconquered, God’s infinity is undiminished. The persistence of Christ’s wounds on his Resurrected body demonstrate that wounded-ness is no diminution of God’s life and that God’s bliss cannot be etiolated by exposure to violence. Nor can it be said that death is a necessary player in this drama, or that suffering is the attribute of God whereby his love is eternally demonstrated; death is exposed as nothing, suffering is revealed to be only the short darkness of a night bounded by endless day. To recognize that God genuinely suffers in Jesus Christ is not to subject God to change because (1) this suffering is not imposed upon God but freely borne, and (2) because God’s immutability is not a flat stasis, but the tireless repetition of a fathomless generosity found both in the Trinity and in the history of salvation.