Thursday, August 16, 2007

Frymer-Kensky - 9 Suffering

The chapter on suffering has again 3 essays: On the Suffering of God's Chosen: Christian Views in Jewish Terms, Leora Batnitzky; Suspicions of Suffering, Robert Gibbs; and The Meaning and Value of Suffering: A Christian Response to Leora Batnitzky, John C. Cavadini.

I knew before I started that these essays would not be easy to deal with. But it was worse than I expected due to a large number of what seem to me to be philosophical issues, questions that have no resonance in me.

Leora Batnitzky begins with Isaiah 53 and 2 Corinthians 1:3-7, a good beginning. But the conversation rapidly goes to the arithmetic of suffering - that suffering is deserved, to the reversal of this arithmetic in the servant, and to the notion of chosenness resulting in fatherly discipline. She concludes the first part citing Proverbs 8:5 (also used in Hebrews) with this: "Suffering from this perspective results not from a moral inferiority but from a kind of superiority. The chosen suffer not because they are worse than others, but because they are in fact capable of being better than others."

Well, I think this is on the way to missing the boat. It is not a matter of superiority or inferiority and it is not a matter of morals. I know this will rub the total depravity addicts and the law-abiding older brothers the wrong way - but there must be a better approach to a conclusion which begins with Isaiah and 2 Corinthians. There is no consolation in this conclusion. And what Israel is looking for in the book of consolation (and Paul's substance in 2 Corinthians) is the consolation of Israel, the true inheritance, God's Spirit. God takes the issue of moral superiority absolutely off the table. The arithmetic is absolutely on the table (but not the way we do arithmetic). Just consider Isaiah 40: she has suffered double for all her sins. I agree with the author that all the passages of TNK that she sites are consistent with each other - but it has nothing to do with moral superiority or simple arithmetic.

She continues in a more hopeful vein - yet still there is a barrier to my understanding of why we must shortcut our justification of suffering. God knows we suffer - all of us, chosen or not, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and without exception every religion or non-religion in the world. It is not necessary to justify suffering. I know I have suffered for my own faults and caused others to suffer for them too. Whether I have suffered for another is not mine to say. In some ways, even the suffering for my own faults may be redemptive for others - for they too can be lost in their own self-righteousness. But what I have as a Christian is not predicated on my having suffered or not.

She deals with the ambiguity of the identity of the servant in deutero-Isaiah and she moves to Halevi and Aquinas in her next section and then to Hermann Cohen (1842-1918). All the citations are interesting, but the problems with the conclusions are too much to deal with in a short essay. Her treatments of Simone Weil and C. S. Lewis yield the most promising aphorisms on the subject

Weil: The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use for it.

Lewis: The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his.

Somehow, Batnitzky still manages to find Weil affirming suffering as the only way to begin to purge us of our sin and Lewis as affirming and valorizing suffering in itself. I have to admit, regardless of whether her attributions are true or false, I don't think that Christians have to conclude these positions. So in spite of what may be accurate reporting, I remain disturbingly dissatisfied. It is disturbing to me because there is a satisfaction and I must find a way to express it that threads the needle so that the suturing of our wounds can continue.

Gibbs comes closer to satisfaction. He reasons within a new measure: "The understanding of God's freedom in taking on suffering stands against the reasoning of calculable necessity." His concept of the assymetry of the interpretation of suffering is helpful: "a respect for our own suffering and for others' suffering as something not to be justified through our reasoning."

Cavadini answers well. "In the Christian view, suffering is indeed a 'necessity', as Batnitzky asserts, but it is not a necessity in the sense that it is a divinely prescribed good. Rather it is simply a fact of the mortal life, intrinsically evil if it is intrinsically anything. But faith in Christ enables the believer to 'use' something that has no inherent utility ... It is not the suffering that is good, but Christ."

Interesting that he reflects Weil and ultimately accepts her witness even though she refused to be baptized, being "reluctant to identify herself with a church that had a totalitarian past". He exonerates Lewis by balancing The Problem of Pain with A Grief Observed, and affirms that the very tension Batnitzky finds in Judaism is in fact in Christianity also.

And as usual, he ignores the middle essay!

Obviously this is a difficult issue. I find myself wondering how we are to 'use' suffering in spite of its lack of inherent value. Is it necessary only to 'use' the occasion of our own suffering? What if, in the use of the devastation of the cross, we were to use the destruction as symbolic of our own death? This is of course allowing ourselves to be identified with, incorporated into the suffering servant. Perhaps then we might learn something of the consolation of Israel. If we do, it will not be an intellectual conclusion but one that takes part in God's own passionate mercy.

Other chapter reviews in this series: 1-4 5 6 7 8; on devastation see this note on Psalm 46 - and note also the lack of the theme on rachamim in my treatment of Psalm 119. It is there (77, 176) - as frequent as the word completion - and I should not have left it out.

No comments: