II. THE BIBLE
The first thing we must do is question the Scriptures.
The Jewish reading of the Bible leads to the rejection of the Christ-Messiah, Son of God, as the center of history. And the Christian reading brings recognition. But the image of a "pathetic" God imposes itself on both sides.
For Andre Neher the first page of Genesis proposes the image of a creation that is perfect, complete, unfolding in all fullness; but soon there appear "gaps", "holes", "with corresponding additions and superfluities." Certain creatures put up "resistance" to God, there are "adventures, revolts, dramas." It seems, then, that the work of creation "was not at all thought out or realized according to some pre-established plan, but sprang up, on the contrary, out of a radical unpreparedness and preserved throughout its execution all the characteristics, be they disappointing or stimulating, of an improvisation." So no guarantees! Radical insecurity from the word go! Later history measures the full repercussions of this: "It is a compendium of failures and regret, a play full of improvisations, in which the main, unlucky hero is God." The Creator is out looking for his creatures: "Where are you?" he asks Adam who is hiding behind the screen of trees. This is the cry that echoes throughout the Old Testament, from end to end. And as Abraham Heschel says, "It is the feeble echo of a feeble voice, never expressed in words, never translated into mental categories, ineffable and mysterious, as ineffable and mysterious as the glory that fills the whole world. Muffled and deadened, it veils itself in silence, but it is as if everything were the petrified echo of the question, Where are you?"
Now if the divine work is an improvisation, it is set under the sign of uncertainty. The match is an open one, there is an inevitable element of "perhaps", the risk of failure is ever- present, with no "point Omega" gathering into a final plenitude all "the infinite debris of previous failures" and uniting them "in a figure at last intelligible, as a magnet orders iron filings in its field". God may loose his creatures; there is "a gaping void between God's intention and its failure."
These are, for Andre Neher, the conditions for true hope, that sung by Jeremiah, "the hope of a Good Friday aware that it will never hear the bells of Easter." "In thirteenth century Jewish terms, it is the hope of martyrdom without miracle... in twentieth century Jewish transposition, it is the hope of Auschwitz."
Among the flood of Biblical images, Neher seizes on those that portray a God dramatically unsure of the success of his enterprise. I am not clear about the reflexive path by which he comes to criticize the anthropomorphism of this, nor how he conceives that "inexhaustible reservoir of Being" into which, he says, human hope ever "plunges back", "finding there a new impetus", even in the ultimate eventuality of a "final shipwreck" of history. At all events, I am quite clear that he is arguing against Christianity in favor of gratuitousness. In his opinion the bells of Easter, Christology in other words, round off history at its center, in such a way that spaces and times are "illuminated from one end to the other, leaving no trace of shadows, if not of mystery." In which case the promise is accomplished, the reward obtained. Now, "the accomplishment is the suicide of the promise," the reward the negation of disinterestedness. It is essential to "give up totally every utopia of remuneration or sanction."
If the bells of Easter were indeed a denial of gratuitousness, then certainly one's duty would be to block one's ears so as not to hear them! Christians like to hear them because they sing the song of Joy's absolute disinterestedness. To the offer of a superior degree of gratuitousness, access to God's own way of loving, we give the name of Grace. Our hope is love finally stripped of all self-interest. If we speak of Beatitude as a "reward", it is only in the sense that such an idea of reward could never find any place in the hearts of saints.
So much for our divergences. From here I wish only to stress points of intersection. I believe that a Jewish-Christian dialogue operating with these rocky heights as its starting-point should be able to keep uppermost, accepted by both sides, the image of a "pathetic" God. Jewish and Christian readings of the Bible agree, for example, in the following, which is fundamental:
The ruah of God... is pathetic. This is a truth which no idealism, no spiritualism, can attenuate, let alone abolish. That one and the same term, ruah, should designate in the Bible not only the highest and most specific spiritual dimension but also the psychological life in its utmost contradictions, was only possible within a pathetic concept of the Spirit. The Greeks were unable to work out this notion. Their philosophers esteemed that motion, and consequently the emotions, were irreconcilable with divinity... The Hebrews, on the other hand, saw in history and its motions a manifestation of their God; the emotions of God were the mainspring of that history, in which human beings were ineluctable actors. The emotion of God was firmly woven into the very condition of humankind. The biblical description of God is anthropopathic, to be sure; that means that God appeared to the people in the Bible in the polarity of his pathos, in his love and in his wrath, in his strictness and in his pardon. The ruah of God judges itself: it repents. This repenting of God would already suffice to show that the God of the Bible is not limited to a abstract, general principle. This is not the God of universal principles but the God of the Unique, of the historical moment. The ruah is not spiritual fixity but vital emotion.
In the Covenant vocabulary, the word hesed has not just one meaning, but a whole spectrum of nuances of meaning. It expresses the gratuitousness of friendship, which lies at the very roots of the preferential election. It also suggests a desire for reciprocity, the conduct by which exchange is made possible between people united by some bond: faithfulness, generosity, loyalty, trust. Duty, too, only more than mere duty; there is no possible satisfaction in mere correctness towards a father, brother, or friend; that deep sympathy, beyond felt emotion, which anticipates the partner's wishes even when they are not explicitly expressed at all. God granted his hesed to Israel in choosing them to be his People, he then waits for the People to give him theirs in return. We would need to rediscover something of the rich complexity of the Latin pietas here, with its suggestion of intimacy, gentleness, respect, an intuitive sense of the right distances to be kept.
Rahamim is close to hesed but refers to a more carnal aspect of the bond of reciprocity. Rehem means the maternal womb, the uterus. Rahamim then evokes the voice of the blood, with all that that implies in terms of emotion, of uncontrolable inner turmoil: Joseph reunited with his brothers, the real mother revealed by the judgement of Solomon, the father whose very entrails are stirred at the return of the Prodigal Son, God himself towards each of his children. The word does not express suffering as such, but the warm intimacy it suggests can hardly be felt to exclude it.
A thousand confidences have made me feel the stab of Hosea's pain: you put your arms around a woman and there, heart against heart, you find yourself blushing with shame as the fleshly frame of the beloved betrays movements of deception or irony, of selfishness or of wickedness; in such moments you touch infernal depths of distress. I love you and you are not worthy to be loved. For life to be possible, one would have to be able to forget Gomer, to consent at least to some form of distraction, sing lullabies of illusion. "Odo tua, amo te," said St Augustine, "Your works I hate but you I love." Those words are deep as the abyss. The God of Hosea speaks them, weeping.
Speaking in the name of the same God, Jeremiah laments:
If you do not listen,
I will weep in secret
because of your pride...
the Lord's flock will be taken captive. (Jer. 13:17)
This God in tears is holy indeed. The simplicity of his innocence is as terrible as fire. What must we think of a burning flame that needs comfort? The Bible makes no attempt to synthesize the images with which it teems. It leaves us to struggle with the contradictions which become apparent when we bring them together. Dare to link certain words, to superimpose certain fantasies, and you are on the verge of the preposterous. We are equally in danger of too quickly thinking that we have reached the threshold beyond which silence is necessary; we must be firm, and postpone its arrival. We know quite well that in the end we are bound to fall silent; but not before we have exhausted all the resources of language, including the resources of poetry! Nobody can boast that, having given up the use of words, they are then safe from those alternating partialities which are the inevitable price to be paid for any discourse.
God: God wholly other, and God within me, more I than I myself. The God whom I seek, the God who seeks for me. God the inexpressible, the God whom the Bible expresses. God the tender, God the severe. God strong, God feeble. That God who is the source of all joy, the grieving God.
God sensitive, God Spirit.
Sometimes you can read very beautiful pages written about "God", about the attributes, the greatness, the mystery, of God; words that you might readily term mystic, were it not for a fear of cheapening the expression. But if the name of Jesus Christ is not mentioned there, we cannot avoid doubt: how do such writers know the truth of what they are saying? Where does it all come from? Christians are right to distrust theological expressions which do not proceed from a knowledge of Christ, or which are developed without explicit references to his Gospel. We must never tire of repeating that key-phrase we find in St John: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father"(14:9). What this means is that the unity of God and man in Jesus manifests in time the eternal unity of Father and Son in the Holy Spirit. Then the voice of the Son is the voice of the Father. To hear Jesus is to hear the Father. The striking image used by Urs von Balthasar is suggestive, when he says that the christian believer hears this voice "in a kind of stereo".
Nowhere outside of Christianity do divine truth and spiritual path thus fully coincide in the objective presence of an historical being. But in Christianity, God is what Christ says, and shows, and does.
An intimate knowledge of the sufferings of Jesus must therefore precede all theological reflexion on the suffering of God. First, one has to read the Gospels like a child. And with very much love. For only love can guide our ears and eyes to that point at which, beyond gestures and words, one touches the vibrant soul from which both unfold. Is it really conceivable that the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Father as of Son, was in some sense not in harmony with the shudderings of the human flesh and human heart of the incarnate Word? Jesus trembled with joy, yet as the Imitation says, "his whole life was Cross and martyrdom" (11,12,7); and St Ignatius of Loyola evokes "the pains, the fatigues and grief which Christ underwent from the moment of his birth until the mystery of his Passion". Rather than contemplate Jesus as being exterior to me, somewhere in front of me, I must enter into him, and so be turned with him towards the Father and towards others. Then I shall feel more intensely all that he feels when confronted with coldness, or insincerity, when he measures the great distance that separates the sublime dignity of the human vocation from the wretched use that more than a few make of their freedom, when he sees what Claudel calls the "sabotage" of that "upwards tending within us" which God brings welling up ceaselessly in the heart of souls as he creates them.
The presence and attention of Jesus to this discordant humanity are a form of participation. To bear with is to be born with, and thus to share in. He does not look at me, he is touching me. He coincides. It is from within himself that he hears how painfully life grates inside me. And despite all the "dark complicity" of unhappiness and sin, there is also that vast expanse of suffering symbolized in the language of the poets by the bird felled by a stone, the tree struck by lightning, all the sickness, grief, and infirmity, the failures and loneliness of life. Jesus traverses it in all directions, "He spends his life in the most agonizing areas of our humanity". And life grates in his heart too. He claims, wishes, to be a doctor. He claims, wishes, to be an advocate. He is both. A good doctor experiences compassion; in an emergency he hurries, he says "I'll come at once!" (How often the Gospels use that same word, "At once! Statim!") He has only one aim, to heal. Jesus heals. Massively, not picking and choosing: "They brought to him all (omnes) who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and he healed them"(Matt. 4:24). But he is stabbed to the quick when their disbelief prevents him performing any miracle in Nazareth (Mk. 6:5).
A good advocate gives advice, helps, assists, and encourages. He is no mere technician of laws; he participates too, all the more so when he is closely acquainted with a client. Jesus knows "what is in man" (John 2:25), and he knows that God knows: "Even if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts, he knows everything" (John 3:20). There is nothing in the brief to disturb him. Far from seeing things according to the rigour of the law, his defense plea is all in a single phrase: "This is your son, this is your daughter," he tells the Father. Nothing more. So how could he not be hurt when doubt arises and grows before his very eyes, so that multitudes, rather than "take shelter" in his weakness, prefer to "rely on the mighty" (Psalm 117)?
At the return of the Prodigal Son, we read how his father was "moved with compassion" (Luke 15:20). Only that is too feeble a translation of the Greek esplagknisthe, with its evocation of one's very bowels being shaken. This is no skin-deep emotion, it is the very depths of one's being that are overturned. The voice of the blood. This father's joy is not born of indifference, as when some event comes to interrupt for a moment the bland ordinariness of daily life; it is born of a deathly fear that is at last reduced to ashes: "my son was lost, and he is found".
Jesus, far from experiencing even the least trace of weakness with regard to sin, far from inclining to attenuate the gravity of it, or minimize its destructive power, sees it all, rather, in its full, sinister depth of death and perdition. And in order to help us to understand what this perdition is, how irreperable it is, and what that irreperableness signifies for God who knows the risk and takes it, Jesus refers to one of the most ordinary, and painful, of human experiences. Loosing something we are attached to, even something of little intrinsic value, a mere banknote for example, is always a cruel blow, a sign of the failure potentially undermining and threatening all that we do, all that we love. God, says Jesus, has the same experience. The joy he feels in forgiving, the delight filling him on the recovery of his children,is the emotion felt by someone who had thought that the objects of love were perhaps already destroyed, and still shudders to think of what would have happened if he had not been able to catch them back in time.
While I am reading Julien Green's Epaves, why am I suddenly transported to the very heart of the Gospel?
The woman paused between two trees... misery had added so much to her age that it was quite impossible to say how old she might be; yet she still retained that inexplicable trace of playfulness that is often found in very old people whose minds are going, while her greenish-grey hair was half-concealed by a black toque with a waving feather. Her slight figure was hunched over, as if she were carrying someone in a sack slung on her back; she was dressed in rags of blue and black, her feet cased in old slippers dragged over the stones without ever leaving the ground... and that sad body had once been young.
It is because Jesus must have met with similar "wrecks" in the squares and alley-ways of Jerusalem. He saw and touched similar "sad bodies". If the sensitivity of a novelist is touched by the distress of old, ruined flesh (sarx palaia, said Aeschylus), then how much more the sensitivity of Jesus! He is not the God of just our loftiest heights, but of our entire history. The genesis of man is his joy, but he is not stonily indifferent towards the crueller phases of our begetting to Life. Our decrepitude also makes him shudder.
At the gates of Nain, Jesus has his "bowels stirred" -- the word esplagknisthe again -- by the grief of a widow whose only son is being carried to the grave. "Don't cry!" he says, and raises the young man there and then (Luke 7:11-15). But at the tomb of Lazarus he weeps at the sight of Mary weeping, with the Jews accompanying her. Why those tears, Newman asks? A friend's spontaneous affection, the horror of the "whiff of the grave" which will later swallow Lazarus again (the miracle he is about to perform is "a respite, not a Resurrection"). But there are other thoughts too. Here God comes face-to-face with his own death. "His disciples would have dissuaded him from going into Judea, lest the Jews should kill him. Their apprehension was fulfilled. He went to raise Lazarus, and the fame of that miracle was the immediate cause of his seizure and crucifixion... He felt that Lazarus was wakening to life at His own sacrifice; that he was descending into the grave which Lazarus left." These tears of Jesus are the beginning of his agony, they express the naivety of his sensitivity in the presence of human death. Or so it is permitted to think, in company with the great Newman.
If there were no suffering of the Father, might it not be thought that the Son bears witness to a greater love? But, according to St John, Father and Son are one (John 10:30); Father and Son act together (5:17); all that is the Son's is the Father's (16:15; 17:10); the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son (14:11). If there is "no greater love than to give one's life for one's friends" (15:13), then it is from the Father whose Image he is that the Son receives that love which includes giving one's life. Giving one's life is the very act of the Father's Power, springing from the fullness of love.
"God did not refuse his own Son, but delivered him up for us all," says St Paul (Romans 8:32). And St John, writing some fifty years later, states that "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (3:16). There is no ambiguity in the words -- "delivered up", "gave". Now, it is surely not conceivable that these two theologian-apostles are imagining a giving, a delivering up, consented to in cold blood! The truth of God rather suggests itself to them in the very paroxysm of a rending apart, as if they perceive a blazing scream in the heart of the Trinity. Mercy, indeed, "is not a limp giving away of something we have too much of. It is a passion." A passion in both senses of the word.
There will not be given to us a more perfect image of God as he is in himself than that of the man Jesus in his agony, disgraced, crucified.
Shortly before he died, Jesus cried out, "My God, why have you abandoned me?" (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46). These are the opening words of Psalm 22, which is a song of both anguish and trust, of trust victorious over anguish. In its supreme hour, the suffering of Jesus ceases to be a suffering lived in a communion. He no longer knows that the Father suffers with him. He suffers, alone, thus more. It is the utmost limit. Here I would venture to think what might be the distress of a mother who does not know that her husband is suffering as much as she from the death of their baby. For Christ, this is the bottomless gulf of the kenosis, out of which arises a trust sustained only by itself, and thus all the more vertiginous. Here, in this withdrawal of communion, we find the closest communion. Its bond is the Spirit.
Pope Pius XI, that tremendous man, in his Encyclical Miserentissimus, wrote begging people to comfort God. He went on to quote St Augustine, "Give me someone who loves, they will understand what I mean."