Richard W. Miller, editor. Suffering and the Christian Life. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2013. Pp. 152. $22.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-013-5. Reviewed by Hans GUSTAFSON, Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at Saint John’s University (MN) and the University of St. Thomas (MN)
As the title suggests, Richard W. Miller has brought together a collection of scholars (representing Boston College, Creighton University, and Fairfield University) to reflect on suffering and the Christian life from a Catholic perspective. The first three essays (Daniel J. Harrington, M. Dennis Hamm, and Susan A. Calef) draw on scripture (both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament) as a resource for examining suffering. The final three essays (Richard W. Miller, Michael J. Himes, and Elizabeth A. Dreyer) shift beyond scripture to theological, doctrinal, and experiential approaches to suffering.
Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., opens the volume with his chapter on “Old Testament Approaches to Suffering.” It commences with the astute recognition that taking suffering, as universal human experience, “as a starting point for theology makes us face a genuine human problem and challenges us to relate theology to experience and experience to theology” (3). After drawing on five approaches to suffering from the Hebrew Bible, which he believes without which “we cannot understand Jesus or the New Testament,” (3) Harrington engages in a “close reading of Psalm 22” (10). The five approaches include lament psalms (from those who suffer), the law of retribution (with attention to both variations and criticisms), suffering as mystery (exhibited in the life of Job), redemptive suffering (in the Servant Songs and Suffering Servant of Isaiah), and the apocalyptic solution (which challenges the divine attribute of perfect omnipotence and instead defers it till the last judgment). The second half of the essay engages Psalm 22, which “throughout the centuries … has encouraged suffering persons to ask the hard theological questions, to express their pain, to connect with the community of suffering persons, and to find hope in the midst of their suffering. Suffering does not have the last word. In my view Psalm 22 expresses well the greatest contribution of the Old Testament to our topic of suffering in Christian life and experience” (17-18).
M. Dennis Hamm, S.J., follows Harrington with his chapter, “The Sharing of His Sufferings: The Social Cost of Following Jesus,” in which he makes clear that the New Testament writers were “not interested in the classic philosophical problem of pain,” but rather were more interested in “apostolic suffering” (19). This refers to the suffering endured as a consequence of following God’s given mission. It is exemplified in shaming, humiliation, shunning, rejection, and vilification experienced by Jesus first, and then by his followers. The suffering endured by his followers is pronounced in Paul’s letter to the Philippians which emphasizes Jesus self-emptying (kenosis) and the shared suffering of the community of his followers together in solidarity. Hamm reminds us that “this New Testament understanding of suffering may also keep us from too easily identifying every private injury as an occasion of carrying our cross” (43). In this regard, Hamm admits, “the thesis of this study … may come as a disappointment for those seeking in scripture solace for their experience of those other sufferings that fill our lives and challenge our faith – sufferings like sickness, financial loss, accidents, and natural disasters” (44).
Susan A. Calef’s chapter titled “Taking Up the Cross” examines a Markan understanding of suffering and discipleship. She claims that “no discussion on suffering in Christian life and thought … would be complete without attention to the experience and practice of Jesus, which provides the pattern or ‘way’ of our discipleship” (50). Like Hamm, she makes a distinction between general human suffering and messianic suffering, the latter of which serves a model for “apostolic suffering.” However, the two are not unrelated. Calef shows, by reflecting on the hemorrhaging woman and Jesus in Gethsemane and on Golgotha, that the discipleship of caring for those experiencing suffering “can expect that their allegiance to God’s reign will bring them their own ‘cup’ to drink” (68). Also with Hamm, Calef make clear that Mark’s Gospel does not attempt to explain, or bring meaning to, human suffering . Rather it “narrates the promise of its relief with God’s in-breaking reign” (68). Thus any attempt to justify, glorify, or valorize suffering for its own sake, or for the sake of Jesus, falls dangerously flat. This interpretation is, and has been, dangerous for women and other marginalized groups since it can lead to the encouragement of passively “bearing one’s cross” as an appropriate response to general human suffering. Calef ends by drawing attention to Jesus’ cry on the cross, not as a justification for suffering, but rather as ultimately a cry for the presence of, and relationship to, God as a way through suffering.
Richard W. Miller’s essay, “The Divine Purpose and Human Suffering,” marks the transition from scriptural reflection on suffering to doctrinal and theological reflection on suffering. I suppose no volume on suffering in the Christian tradition is complete without at least some attempt to wrestle with the problem of evil, suffering and theodicy. Miller’s essay satisfies this condition. Relying heavily on Aquinas, Rahner, and W. Norris Clarke, the essay argues that “one cannot know why God permitted suffering in a particular instance or conversely whether God intervened … in other instances to prevent suffering” (106). Further, Miller argues that God cannot create free persons who act rightly by their own nature at all times, nor can God create free persons and then immediately raise them to a vision of God in which they would affirm and embrace God as their own proper end. In other words, human persons must exist “outside of the beatific vision in the order of grace” (106). For God to achieve God’s purpose of creatures sharing in God’s self, persons (as spirits) must exist outside the vision where they have free choice, since their free decisions are the mechanism by which they actualize their potential personhood (i.e., freedom is required to be a person). This freedom entails suffering to various degrees, but unlike evil not all suffering is destructive. Rather, suffering can be constructive. For instance, the experience of separation from, and the absence of, God (outside the vision) can be understood as a form of suffering reminiscent of Augustinian restlessness which only draws the person towards her end in God.
Michael J. Himes’ essay, “The Suffering of Christ,” though the shortest in the volume, cuts straight to the heart of suffering both for persons and Christ. By reflecting on the humanity of Christ, Himes draws out the necessary implications for what it means to be human made in the image and likeness of God. He begins with the fundamental assertion that “the essence of suffering is a sense of things being out of control” (113) and realizing that we are utterly dependent. The humanity of Jesus brings meaning to our seemingly meaningless experience of suffering. In particular, Himes reflects on the stories of Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane and the story of the raising of Lazarus to draw out what it means to suffer for humans. These stories demonstrate that, in his humanity, “Jesus really suffers with us, but the suffering is not only pain, not only the physical horror of crucifixion. It is the anguish of not seeing where we are going … of losing ourselves” (119). This leads to the question of how Jesus’ suffering saves humanity. Himes rejects both satisfaction and penal theories of atonement and suggests instead a theory which promotes Jesus as a sacramental reveler of “how things have always been. He does not tell us what to do; he shows us what human existence is. By living our humanity as he has lived his humanity we are saved” (120). We are people who struggle, like Jacob, with God. Instead of passively resigning ourselves to the plight of suffering as way of “taking up our crosses,” we ought to struggle with the reality of suffering in light of the mystery (that is God) and God’s fundamental nature to will God’s self as self-gift (agape).
Elizabeth A. Dreyer closes out the volume with her essay “Suffering in Christian Life and Experience,” which examines suffering from a spiritual perspective; that is, she focuses on the lived religious experience of suffering from a Christian perspective. Her essay functions, perhaps by design, as a one long drawn-out form of weeping. Under the theme of “types of suffering,” Dryer covers Kinds and Causes of Suffering, The Immediacy of Suffering, The Depth of Suffering, and Possible Responses to Suffering. In addition to providing several useful typologies under these headings, she raises the futility of reason, logic, and words vis-à-vis suffering. “Any discussion of suffering must exist concretely ‘on the ground’ and in our guts as well as in our ideas and words about it. Reason and logic do not suffice. … Words are not perfect. They can be way off the mark, and even the best of words about suffering always remain inadequate” (133). The second half of the chapter turns to theological themes and the problem of suffering. In particular, Dreyer emphasizes suffering as an evil in and of itself. In approaching theodicy, she brings in considerations from process theology and Judaism which heretofore were greatly missing in this volume. These considerations provide grounds to consider God being profoundly affected by human suffering and thus serve as an impetus to reconsider God’s impassibility (something that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel might refer to as the divine pathos of God). Further, Dreyer reflects on the obligation to alleviate suffering, speaking out against unjust suffering and its consequences, the loss and grief involved with true suffering, the power of prayer and ritual in its attempt to bring meaning to suffering, and the necessity of hope which comes through promise of Christ’s suffering with us.
Despite some of the heavy content in this volume, the writers provide an accessible text for both scholars of theology as well as non-theological specialists. Even Richard W. Miller’s rather theo-philosophical language-laden essay is written in a clear manner that is appropriate for mid-level undergraduate students. This short volume provides a content-rich examination of suffering in its few pages making it well suited for undergraduates, seminarians, and reading groups alike.