Archive for November, 2010

Suffering in a One-Storey Universe

November 1, 2010

A comment on a previous post which mentioned the Biblical and patristic teaching that we should “give thanks to God for all things” has been an occasion for personal reflection – the substance of which forms this present post. For those who wrestle with the inherent difficulties of giving thanks for all things – I hope this reflection will be helpful.

The comment which occasioned these thoughts:

..I think the lines separating suffering FOR Christ/for His sake and the suffering in life as is common to ALL men have become blurred….if i suffer persecution or if i am treated unjustly for naming Christ or for righteousness sake then i partake/share in Christ’s sufferings and would have joyful reason to Thank God for it…Yet for the christian NOT ALL  suffering experienced is FOR Christ’s sake…the vast majority (if not all)of my sufferings and trials while living my life as an american christian has nothing at all to do with my being a christian but is the common ‘stuff’ of life….there is a difference.. is there not?

As I thought about this very excellent question – I began to see the familiar pattern of secular thought which marks the “default position” of our culture – for believers and un-believers alike. Secularism does not disbelieve in God, but it divides the world into separate spheres: we inhabit a natural “non-God” arena – but God may be “accessed” in prayer, etc. In earlier writings I have described this construct as a “two-storey universe.” God dwells in heaven (or somewhere) while we live here in a world which works according to its own laws, etc. Transcendent meaning and all things “religious” are thus exiled to certain moments, or certain spaces, or to events of a certain nature. Things that are not so exiled are just “the stuff of life.”

In such a scenario, suffering takes on a “two-storey” character. There are specifically difficult things to be borne for Christ’s sake – persecution and other heroic religious acts – but there is also suffering that is just the “stuff of life”: cancer, tsunamis, earthquakes, being lost in a bad economy, the death of a child or a spouse, etc. This division of the world in which some suffering is “for Christ’s sake” while other suffering carries no particular meaning at all, partakes of the same problems raised by the two-storey model in every other area it touches. One part of our life is capable of transcendence while most of our lives collapse into the banality of “stuff.” Thus most of life is meaningless and absurd. It also seems to me, that the islands of transcendence which we posit in such a massive sea of absurdity, run the risk of a constantly shrinking shoreline. Transcendent meaning has not only been diminished, but stands on the edge of extinction.

I will offer a few observations:

1. Either Christ’s Pascha (His death and resurrection) contained all of existence (including all suffering) or it contained nothing.

2. Either Christ’s Pascha has filled everything with transcendence or it has filled nothing.

3. Every event, every particle of existence is “for Christ’s sake,” or nothing is “for His sake.”

This “all or nothing” approach to Christ and His Pascha lies at the very heart of the gospel and alone represents the fullness of life in Christ.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6).

St. Paul’s description of Christ’s saving work is expressed in cosmic, all-encompassing terms. In Romans 8 he describes the “whole” creation as groaning in travail awaiting the freedom that comes in Christ. In the first chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul speaks in unmistakeable terms:

Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him…” (Ephesians 1:9-11).

One of the great theological aphorisms of the fathers is that of St. Gregory the Theologian, who, addressing the doctrine of Christ’s humanity, said: “That which is not assumed is not saved.” His point was that our salvation in Christ was made possible by the fact that He took upon Himself the whole of human nature.

In the same manner, all of creation would have no hope were it not for the fact that the Creator assumed creation.

The two-storey approach to the world also creates a two-storey approach to our salvation. Those acts which have significance and transcendence are ultimately connected with human choice. Thus Christ dies for our sins (our wrong choices and actions). Actions which are not “wrong” thus have no need of redemption. Cancer caused the our choice to smoke, might thus be seen as a redeemable suffering – but the mindless, meaningless suffering of a childhood cancer cannot partake of that redemption. It is simply absurd within a two-storey universe.

I would readily grant that the suffering and evil which we encounter within the created order has the character of absurdity – but this is also part of its very character. If “all things are being gathered together in Christ,” then even absurdity is being gathered into Him – and in that union ceases to be absurd.

The Orthodox approach to the saving action of Christ has always had a very all-encompassing approach. The redemption of the world is not isolated to Christ’s death on the Cross (as payment for sin), but begins with His incarnation, when the Creator unites Himself to creation. That same Creator is crucified on the cross, and within Him all creation is crucified. The same Christ takes all of creation with Him in Hades and raises it together with Him in the resurrection. “That which is not assumed is not saved.” All is assumed.

The role of the human will (in its acceptance of Christ) is not insignificant in our salvation – but the will chooses or rejects what Christ has already accomplished. The ultimate outcome of those choices are known to God alone. However, God’s will is clear: He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

The great mystery of the suffering of Christ cannot be confined to a forensic account in which His death is simply a payment for sin. The Scripture and the fathers’ understanding of Christ is far more cosmic. Evil is inherently absurd and meaningless (for God is the only source of good and meaning is always relative to Him). But Christ has taken that absurdity into Himself and ultimately transforms it. It is the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Descent into Hades and Resurrection of Christ that make thanksgiving possible – including thanksgiving for all things. Christ is the Eucharist (thanksgiving) of the world and every act of thanksgiving finds its fulfillment in Him.

The world is not broken into sacred and profane. “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory,” the angels sing in Isaiah’s great vision. The glory they behold is nothing other than the life of Christ which offered “on behalf of all and for all.”

For which I give thanks.


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