Monday, February 15, 2016

The Apotheosis of Suffering, the Trinity and the Cross---A Lenten Reflection

Lately I have referred to the Realism that pertains to Christianity rooted in the Cross as 'Catholic' or 'Christian' Realism.  These terms are interchangeable in the tradition but I will henceforth refer only to Christian Realism to avert any confusion and to confirm that this particular kind of realism does indeed have its roots the Gospels (certainly in their literary realism) and certainly in Aquinas, in the thought of Karl Rahner, in Karl Barth and in Bernard Lonergan's critical realism which itself is within the notion of Christian Realism. While Lonergan, and the like-minded Gilson, could not be mistaken for phenomenologists, the phenomenology considered in this blog is certainly rooted in Christian Realism, and offers its own kind realism; and Marion's vision of rationality is not foreign to the rational, intelligible universe of critical realism. At the center of this deployment of phenomenology is the flesh of Christ and the mystery of the Trinity.

Whatever suffers is redeemed. Because the endurance of the hypostatic union is fundamental for Christian realism, however 'mysterious' that is, the flesh that has taken upon itself all the capriciousness of the universe, all sources of suffering, is in turn taken into the Trinity itself, where it is 'cashed in', 'redeemed', for the absolute love that is the simplicity of God, the simplicity of the processions and relations within the Godhead. Capriciousness as suffering of the flesh is suffered by the Father in the Spirit as the Logos-sarx-Anthropos suffers it--- in the flesh--- 'once and for all' on the Cross. In a sense, there is nothing left of capriciousness in the Cross; it finally disintegrates in the Father's witness of the Son's flesh. The secular theme of 'redemption through love' as it courses through Goethe, Wagner and Mahler among other perhaps equally powerful currents, has this basis of its reality, its ground in the divine simplicity of love, in this analogy from 'above.'

No horizon searches with more urgency and immediacy for the horizon of meaning than the horizon of suffering. Suffering without meaning, or the hope for meaning, is not merely hopeless; it is absurd. A world of absurdity would have it that the words 'meaningful' and 'meaningless' mean the same thing. Not that the words would be synonymous, but that the thing would be either meaningful or meaningless willy-nilly in a world constituted by something other than meaning. For Christian thinking, the world is intelligible, imbued with a real rationality, and as such commands a posture of realism. For Christianity, the world makes sense.

The horizon of suffering seems to recede, withdraw endlessly into the deepest corners of reality as if it were constituted by receding and withdrawing. Because meaning is elusive, suffering become reflective, reduplicative, overwhelmed by the aporia of distance. The elusiveness of meaning holds suffering up to a mirror, and all it can see, it seems, is itself, its blinding self, its multiplying self, a self of pure suffering, unbearable and uncontainable. The horizon of meaning, just as powerfully real, also recedes and withdraws from the reality of suffering, at least from the perspective of a receding and withdrawing suffering.

Hope, oriented toward the future, envisions the intersection of the horizons of suffering and meaning at the infinite. For Christians, this infinite becomes historical in the Cross, the instantiation of suffering and meaning, the instantiation of the union of the human and the divine in the Incarnation whose purpose takes on and dissolves suffering in itself. The horizon of meaning is always on the threshold of the multi-layered chiasmus of the reality of the Trinity, where the logos-sarx-anthropos finds its nexus with the Father-Son-Spirit. Such chiasm defies articulation, but analogy can approach its description---logos-flesh/human::logos-father:/:spirit. As suggested above, the unity of the Logos provides the nexus for the entry of the flesh into the divine oikos. The inadequacy of this model, however, is at least partially addressed, and insightfully so, by Jean-Luc Marion, for whom the intersection of horizons might involve their dissolution, or perhaps their solubility, in faith, hope and charity.

Nonetheless, the union of all suffering in the Cross as enfolded within the Incarnation and the Trinity is the paradox of Christian faith itself. If a 'lesson' emerges from the experiences of the Christian mystics, it is that while one might initially strive to unite human suffering with the Cross, one discovers that the suffering flesh is already united to Cross of Christ. To seek union is therefore to find it already accomplished. The receding horizon of suffering finds its way forward, into the future foreseen by hope, by 'backing into' signification, into meaning.

Because hope (and love, too) orients itself toward the other, its motion is interpersonal and inter-Personal, as Steinbock has noted both in his Phenomenology and Mysticism and Moral Emotions. Because, as Steinbock has explicated, the Myself is not self-grounded, the suffering in the flesh (which itself is inseparable from the Myself) cannot rest in the idol as a self-reflexive suffering might indicate as noted above. The mirror held up by elusive meaning becomes translucent as the gaze catches a glimmer of the icon whose translucency refracts the gaze to what can be found beyond the reflective surface of the idolic mirror. In order, though, to find what already rests in the icon, the flesh must discover its porosity, the points where it bleeds. This uncontainability is the event of the flesh and the event of the redemption of the flesh, both saturated phenomena par excellence.

We experience this saturation and verticality in the experience of the Church as the body of Christ. This unity of our flesh with the flesh of Christ gives the flesh its meaning at the nexus of the horizons of suffering and meaning. There is no meaning of salvation beyond this: being 'saved' is finding our flesh united in the Cross and received into divinity itself. Phenomenologically, I hope with great effort to unite the suffering of my flesh to the Cross. At first,  I experience the saturated phenomenon of the idol: I am reflected back upon my self and the horizon of meaning recedes as my hope is disappointed; and I as 'subject' attempt but fail to constitute the meaning of my own suffering. Then I experience the icon: I hope for the givenness of the Cross as it gives itself as pure gift. I become the gifted when I find the Myself (as not self-grounded) in the flesh already there in the crucified Christ, who suffered the flesh once and for all. My flesh, subsumed into the flesh of Christ, discovers its meaning in the logos-sarx-anthropos, and therefore enters into the receiving breast of the mystery of the Trinity in its ever-dancing perichoresis.

The giving way of the idol to the icon perhaps play out in the phenomenal field of the body and flesh in the temptation of Christ in the desert, the pericope that traditionally opens the Lenten season.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days,
to be tempted by the devil.
He ate nothing during those days,
and when they were over he was hungry.
The devil said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered him,
“It is written,
One does not live on bread alone.
Then he took him up and showed him
all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.
The devil said to him,
“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.

Then he led him to Jerusalem,
made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here, for it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,
and:With their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.

Jesus said to him in reply,
“It also says,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.
When the devil had finished every temptation,
he departed from him for a time. [Luke 4:1-13; NAB]

At each invitation to sovereignty in this world, Jesus responds with the unconditional call of God. This rejection of sovereignty presented in Christ's rejection of temptation underscores his being in the world and his not being of the world. The turning from the idol toward the icon, as the flesh suffers the thirst of the body through its mortification in the desert, structures metanoia and the turn from worldly sovereignty toward the unconditional call. This call for us comes from the completed work of Christ, from the Cross where the experience of the call does not locate a God who chooses omnipotence's flexing the power of sovereignty, but the unconditional: the saturation of divine love in the erotic reduction. All temptation offers the idol of sovereignty; in the change of heart commanded by the Lenten season that anticipates the Passion-Resurrection of Christ, Christians hearken to the pure call, to the starkly different invitation of the divine insistence to love, to redemption of the flesh and the resurrection of the body.

Such an invitation is also found in Matthew's goats and sheep, where the evangelist offers the possibility that the invisible Christ is made visible in acts of hope and love. Such transitions from the invisible to the visible share the grammar of the shift from one saturated phenomenon to another (idol to icon), as the flesh, the Myself, not grounded in the self, finds itself already grounded in the experience of the other. In this sense, the version of intertextuality finds its analogue in the Myself whose play as object and subject in its grounding in the interpersonal and inter-Personal, reveals a strange intersubjectivity, where subjects are now objects, at once recipients of givenness, hearers of the call, accused and chosen.


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    1. Unfortunately, there is nothing 'exact' about how I am thinking 'redemption,' though I have a sense I am thinking a bit more clearly about it lately, mostly as a response to the saturated phenomenon, but also to Falque's _Transformation of Finitude_.

      I have said that the body is resurrected and the flesh is redeemed. To be clear, I have avoided placing 'suffering' as the subject/object that undergoes redemption, instead suggesting that the 'flesh' is redeemed. As I noted above, suffering seeks meaning. Somehow, when suffering finds its meaning, the flesh, the suffering flesh is redeemed. This becomes a possibility for the flesh because the meaning of suffering is the death of God on the Cross.

      The divine witness to the suffering human is the Trinity: the logos/son, united to the human is a witness in the chiasmus of the hypostation union; the Father witnesses in the silence of the Spirit the death of the logos-sarx-anthropos; the Spirit bears the suffering of the Father---the Father suffers in the Spirit what the Son suffers in the flesh. Here in the Trinity, the suffering of the flesh is united to its meaning. Suffering can be thought of as dissolving in the meaning found in God. Unredeemed suffering flesh suffers absurdity; redeemed suffering flesh, it would seem, finds it meaning, and suffers no more.

      What is the meaning of a suffering flesh that finds its meaning? It is the transformation of finitude: all flesh suffers finitude (some flesh suffers much more than this). A finitude transformed is finitude united to the infinite. Perhaps this is the nexus with Rahner's anthropological theology: the decisiveness of the Christ event brings all flesh to find (Rahner calls this the destiny of the human creature) itself already united to the flesh of Christ.

      Victor Frankl, in his _Man's Search for Meaning_ begins a discourse in which suffering plays out against meaning---the horizon of suffering seeking the horizon of meaning. He was a Shoah survivor, and could search for meaning even in the camps. Remarkably he found it. Is that redemption? I think so, certainly a redemption of sorts. His work, as you might imagine, has applicability in the field of hospice and palliative medicine.

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  3. When suffering and meaning is playing out for the theist, you have a very different kind of "playing out." Frankl believed you can only find meaning in suffering that is necessary (that is, suffering that cannot be alleviated); and no one should suffer if their suffering CAN be alleviated. He brings in two examples here: a man whose wife has died from cancer. This is necessary suffering in the sense that it presents itself as a brute fact of reality that simply cannot be changed, it cannot be helped. The wife is gone, period. So the suffering of her widower, Frankl says, may find some sort of meaning or give some sort of meaning to his loss (give or find, however you wish to interpret it), in this case, Frankl says, perhaps an awareness of the (necessary) sacrifice he has made to spare his wife of enduring HIS death. (Why this kind of meaning is supposed to be desirable, I have no idea—isn't just a variation on the idea of tragedy that fate is inescapable so you should just run into it and make it your own?)

    But he also turns to the question of a person suffering from a cause that can addressed, mitigated and ended. In this case, everything that can be done must be done when the suffering is not inevitable and intractable. Okay, I get this. I would go as far to say I accept it, though I think the meaning a person might give to their unavoidable suffering will be contingent and relative to the particular situation.

    However—and this is a catastrophic "however"—as a theist, what suffering is truly and absolutely necessary? A classical, orthodox theist, belonging to any of the mainstream monotheisms, cannot really say to this widower that the death of his wife of cancer is inevitable, intractable and necessary. Why? Because, say, the orthodox Catholic believes tumors and cancers are not intractable to God whatsoever and many of them will accept the teaching of the church that says, yes, not only is God not powerless in the face of tumors and cancers, God's powerful goodness can, and probably has, dissolved them supernaturally. The Catholic church, your own church, as you know, just canonized a woman who, they claim, interceded with God to—guess what?—cause a series of tumors to disappear. The Vatican, the one, holy apostolic church gifted with the wise dogmas you embrace, guided by the Holy Spirit, accepted that there was very good evidence to say that God saved at least two people from malignant tumors through the intercession of this saint....

  4. SO...where does that leave Frankl's logotherapy for the theist? The theist believes God created a world where he can directly cause things to happen in it (a miracle) and that he wants to do this and that he has done this and (if you're a loyal Catholic) he probably continues to do this up to the present day. So what of the death of the man's wife was necessary? God could have cured her cancer directly. God could, also, raise her from the dead and return her to her husband. Orthodox Catholics and Christians believe that God desires to raise the dead and, assuming certain beliefs about the supernatural, along with Jesus' ministry and the history of the very early church, God HAS in fact raised the dead through the God-man and then apostles. Likewise, God will raise all the dead at the end of time, so he surely must have the maximal, powerful goodness to do so as part of his eternal nature. Dying and death, then, for these theists, can't possibly fit into Frankl's "necessary suffering." Rather, the theist must tell the widower that it is God who has some meaning in mind by not miraculously causing his wife to live (either by removing the cancer or raising her from the dead like Jesus was popularly believed to have done for some people).

    "It goes without saying that suffering would not have a meaning unless it were absolutely necessary; e.g., a cancer that can be cured by surgery should not be shouldered by the patient as though it were his cross. This would be masochism rather than heroism."

    These are Frankl's words from Man's Search for Meaning (pp 179–180). I think in view of orthodox theism, they are devastating. And not only for strictly orthodox theism. Even a God who was not technically omnipotent would probably, by most religious theists, be powerfully good enough to create the world, sustain it, enter into it, work miracles in it and finally transform it into perfection (or something like that). But Frankl's words really startled me and I had to read them again and again—if suffering can be ended, there is no meaning to it.

    You think about and your God, what you believe God wants, did, does and will do. I think Frankl stumbled on a superb and elegantly precise defense of irreligion and atheism.

    God must allow an obscene amount of utterly meaningless suffering if Frankl is correct. If Frankl is right, the theist is a masochist—and what God becomes is clear.

    And it returns me again to a question no Christian I have asked has an answer to: If we look at Jesus through Frankl's words, then Jesus, through his miracle-working, rendered suffering meaningless, by removing its necessity. The MBB didn't have to live with his blindness, so it has no meaning. Lazarus didn't have to remain dead, and did not, and so any meaning to his suffering and those around him becomes an absurd project.

    See, Frankl, in his simple, direct prose, says that it is always better, when possible, to merely end suffering. As I read him, there should be no meaning to suffering whatsoever because it all should be made contingent and removed. God is the powerful goodness that renders all suffering contingent. Yet, given their rarity, he almost always makes people shoulder their burden. It's like he got a taste for crosses and crucifixions of every kind; our history and our planet, because of God's distance and silence, is Golgotha. Why should I not then call God the Almighty Sadist? Why should you go on calling him good?

  5. Too bad you never responded to my questions here. Not because I am particularly clever, but I think they are pretty good questions. More importantly, I have not yet found a reason to stop asking them. They remain perpetually unanswered. And the answers I do get are, well...

    What do you think Frankl means when he says that it "goes without saying that suffering would not have a meaning unless it were absolutely necessary; e.g., a cancer that can be cured by surgery should not be shouldered by the patient as though it were his cross. This would be masochism rather than heroism"? Why doesn't this apply to the suffering, pain and evil in the world vis-à-vis God?

    Jesus had his cross but he chose that cross. One who chooses a cross is not at all like one who, through the vagaries of circumstance, has the cross forced upon them, or nailed into them, or crushed by the weight of them. You can't witness someone's crucifixion in any meaningful way if you have the means to stop it or reduce it. Period. Full stop. That's it. The debris of her house, the arms of her relatives beneath her and the mud and water which became Omayra Sánchez's slow, static disintegration into oblivion was not her fucking cross. It was no crucifixion in any Christian sense of the word. The cross of Jesus cannot and does not relate to her death in any way whatsoever. If I have any convictions, this would be one of them. She was no saintly martyr; she was no charismatic prophet provoking dangerous people and institutions. She was a 13-year-old girl.

    You wouldn't witness to suffering if you had the power to alleviate or end that suffering. I know you know that. Why you give God the greatest moral pass, why you make a cosmic exception for divine providence still remains, for me, almost an offensive theological gesture.

    The Gospel (as a whole) never depicts, to my knowledge, a Jesus witnessing to suffering and sin in empathy without directly challenging that suffering. In fact, his witness to suffering is almost always (again to my knowledge) the prologue to stop witnessing and step in, intervene, transform the situation miraculously and bring peace, joy, life and integrity back to those wretched individuals who sought him out. Am I wrong? Is this an inaccurate depiction of the apocalyptic prophet described in the Greek testament? Can you point to me instances of people coming to him for his help and Jesus responds only with a vague divine "solidarity" and nice words like "I suffer with you"?

    You've dabbled in the potentia ordinata/absoluta thing, but only superficially. It does not solve any of these problems. Yes, okay, so God's omnipotence is ordered to this particular world—–but you say that like he didn't make this particular world in its particularity in the first place. And you seem to think it mitigates the need to justify God's moral responsibility and acts in this world, but it doesn't. The world God created absolutely was the world God wanted to achieve miracles in. Any detour through the modes of God's omnipotence will lead back to the question. You've only wasted your time, or mine, by such diversions (as if most theodicies don't already assume these differences).

  6. I don't want to believe in a god who is in solidarity with suffering human beings and then, for some reason, does not alleviate that suffering. What's so great about that? "I suffer with you." So? It's like a person—–after being rescued from drowning earlier——yelling to their friend who just fell off the boat and is now drowning: "I suffer with you! I empathize with you right now!" he says as his friend breathes in the ocean. If the empathy and solidarity do not lead to action, or are not in the form of action, then what is so wonderful about such a god? What is worthy of worship and adoration in such a god? What? I am willing to listen and I am very willing to be wrong.

    But I am pessimistic. I've not come across any convincing argument for belief in a robust monotheism, let alone an alleged incarnation of one.

    I found this line from an essay on Gothic literature by Chris Baldick and Robert Mighall called "Gothic Criticism." But this quote is applicable to theodicy and theism generally:

    "We should declare at the outset that we regard the problems as severe and the strategies as radically misguided."

  7. The weird thing about the temptation of Jesus in the desert is that the temptations, especially the first one, only work if the devil is right. Jesus could, if he chose, turn the rocks into bread. Elsewhere he's turned water to wine. What's the difference?

    And why is the temptation to be saved by angels from jumping off a cliff a temptation is if was impossible anyway? It can only be a temptation if the object that is tempting you is actually there, something you can achieve or act on. Otherwise, what's the point? If you overcome a temptation to jump over the moon, that hardly says anything about the person's character, since they can't jump over the moon no matter how much they wanted to. That's not a challenge or a test.

    You seem to think all this diminishes God's sovereignty, but only because you're playing with the word, making it more ambiguous than it is. Sure, God does not have sovereignty like a king and his kingdom. God's sovereignty is divine...

    Which is to say, God made the kingdoms and the kings.