Evil & the Essence of God {1}: the discussion


Update: Part 2 is now up.

Yesterday, I wrote some meditations on the world’s suffering and evil in light of the incredible Beauty I saw this past weekend on a trip to western Pennsylvania. One of my very best friends, Austin (who’s written for this site before), appreciated the post but had some thoughts on some of the theological implications of my thinking, and talked about where/how he differed. I love his mind (and his heart), and I see where he’s coming from, but it’s a place I can’t go. I want to offer you all his comment, and then my perspective on all of this, hoping to offer all of you some things to think about and a space to discuss anything that strikes you as off.

Here were my relevant, original comments:

I ask simply this: what story of life, the world, and the universe merely contains the space to hold these paradoxes within itself without denying nor destroying itself.

My contention would be that the Gospel–the Christian narrative–is that story.

And (for all you Christians), for the moment forget the whole Garden-Fruit-Serpent-”Aha! That explains how it all got this way!”-part. “The Fall” is not the Gospel. The Garden is not what holds life in itself. Sin is not our Story. (And “Sin Management” is not our salvation.) Rather, it is the Cross itself. The place where God forsakes God, bringing doubt, alienation, exploitation, death, and suffering into the divine experience, thereby making all of those things part and parcel to our story and not alien aspects that do damage to it.

(As my pastor beautifully articulated a couple of weeks ago) In Christianity, God looks at those expressions of “The Fall” and says that yes, he hates them too, and has also done what was needed to begin knitting the world together to rid the earth of them. In the alchemy of the Cross, God has now turned those things most ugly into the very conduits of the World To Come.

Here’s Austin’s comment:

I agree that the Christian story makes sense of the evil as well as the good in this world, this Creation. Christianity does not sunder itself in articulating the Fall. It confirms itself, if it doesn’t go all the way to proving itself. You are right on all these counts.

I wonder, however, at the logic of your view of the Cross. Can this be the way of things? Your view is a 21st century Lutheran view. For all my Lutheran heritage and inclination, I can’t follow you or Robert Jenson here. I have to go the way of a 21st century Reformed person, ultimately. I have thought long and hard and have realized that bringing death into the essential form of God will not work–certainly not in the Jenson form.

The West has been too careless with its thinking about God’s essence. Barth, as much as I love him, and for all his Reformed strutting about God’s Transcendence, has opened the door on this Western view of essence even more, allowing his legion of Lutheran followers to walk through.

I have been burdened with this ever since I wrote my post on Love and Divine Suffering. I will have to officially recant that in the near future, even as I do so unofficially now. It seems to me that there are two logical outcomes for bringing death into God’s formal essence:

1) If you place Death in God’s formal essence from eternity, you simply make God the author of evil. There is really no way to escape that. I’m quite sure that the position that I laid out before cannot escape that, not ultimately, even for all of its care to do so.

2) If you bring death into the formal essence of God at the time of the Cross, then you make God mutable and/or composite in God’s essence. If mutable, then, ironically, you ensure that death will continue as part of creation rather than be discontinued, which does not fit the biblical witness. If composite, then you render the formal essence schizophrenic and make two divinities, which would be anathema from a biblical standpoint.

I believe that there is a way to understand God suffering for us, but it can’t be at the level of formal essence. Something like the Eastern essence and energy distinction has to apply. There is another notion that will have to be brought into play, a notion that will make the doctrine of the Trinity a truly 21st century Reformed articulation. But that notion will have to wait.

Peace be with you, Paul. Thanks for your thoughts; they have furthered my own thinking. I am indebted to you for that.

Here’s Part 2 of my response. I’m separating these posts like this for two reasons. First, I want to ensure that people will read the posts, and the easiest way to push people away is making the post too long. Secondly, I think the other post is able to stand on its own. Discuss.

[image credit: photo by Jen Huber, sculpture by Adel Abdesemmed]

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7 thoughts on “Evil & the Essence of God {1}: the discussion

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