Sociologist Christian Smith’s claim regarding the religious climate in America is that most Americans, from baby boomers to today’s youth, have adopted a new sort of “national religion”: “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” or MTD.
This “religion”, which emerged from hundreds of interviews with US teenagers, consists of a God who created and orders the world, watching over human life on earth. This God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, but does not need to be particularly involved in their lives, except when he is needed to resolve a problem. Being happy and feeling good is the central goal in life. When they die, good people will go to heaven.
Smith, himself a practicing, orthodox Christian, fears that MTD has made much of what passes for “Christianity” in the US unrecognizable as Christian faith. Because they have adopted wholesale the theological and practical paradigm of “Christian” MTD, American “Christians” have, wittingly or not, changed the very language — “and therefore experience,” claims Smith — of the Christian faith. No longer do words such as “Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist,” or, one might add, suffering mean a great deal, if anything at all, to the majority of American Christians. In short, Smith fears that “Christianity [in America] is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.” (For a more extensive treatment of MTD, see Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.)
For invested Christian faithful, Smith’s diagnosis of the American religious Zeitgeist gives cause for concern. He clearly understands the primary end-goal of (“Christian”) MTD to be some version of individualistic human happiness. This sort of religious faith is incompatible with a faith the author of which is described as a Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53), whose apostle (Paul) exhorts fellow believers to “[fill] up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24, NASB) and himself suffers great anguish as a result of his own depravity (Rom 7). The scriptural and traditional account of faith in Jesus Christ suggests that much of what passes for “Christianity” in America, whether it be a gospel of material prosperity or a redefinition of sin in order to “liberate” those who struggle deeply with it, is, in fact, inimical to it.
Thus, it seems necessary in this cultural moment to reflect deeply upon the nature of the Christian life as one characterized by the suffering Christ, who is both the subject and object of the Christian faith (a claim which I will explain later, via Jürgen Moltmann). In what follows, I will put forth Moltmann’s cross-centric Christology and Richard Hays’ summary of Pauline ecclesiological ethics as theological and ethical paradigms for suffering as part and parcel of Christian practice. I find, also, that Alyosha Karamazov, the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, serves as a literary example of a Christian disciple who faithfully embodies the suffering Christ to particular persons both good and evil and within and without the church.
“The theological foundation for Christian hope,” Jürgen Moltmann declares in The Crucified God, “is the raising [i.e. resurrection] of the crucified Christ. Anyone who develops a ‘theology of hope’ from this centre will be inescapably reminded of the other side of that foundation: the cross of the risen Christ.” This statement makes evident Moltmann’s fixation of his Christology in the central event of Christ’s crucifixion and, more specifically, on the crucified Christ as God himself. Built upon this foundation, Moltmann’s theology holds many implications for the Christian’s (trans)formation into the image of Christ and his/her adoption of a proper eschatological vision of the Kingdom of God.
Unlike many (if not most) fathers of the church, Moltmann holds no strict notion of divine impassibility (i.e. God’s inability to suffer in his own nature). Rather, Moltmann sees the suffering of Christ as a cosmic reality expressed in a “metaphysics of the particular, gospel history of Jesus of Nazareth.” In the suffering Christ (who is the subject of Christian faith) is revealed one facet of the objective nature of God himself as one who suffers. Understanding this key distinction that Moltmann makes is crucial for understanding the rest of his (and my own) argument. Jesus Christ (and, in this particular case, the suffering Christ) is the subject of the Christian faith precisely because Jesus was and is God enfleshed. In other words, God knows himself as the man Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and thus knows himself as Jesus Christ who suffered subjectively (i.e. he suffered as a human subject, just as we ourselves suffer). It is this same God, so closely identified with the immanent human subject, who has existed objectively and transcendently from eternity as the Triune God in full self-knowledge.
Clearly, Moltmann does not conceive of God in Christ in terms of inert Platonic forms or ideals; nor, however, does he conceive of God after the manner of Schleiermacher, whose “Jesuology” (as opposed to Christology) has no “criterion… [except] the present experience of redemption in the empowering of [one’s] consciousness of God.” (Which God? one asks.) Instead, Moltmann insists that the transcendent God has, in and through Christ, chosen willfully to suffer subjective human hardship. Thus, Moltmann can say that “[t]he transcendence of the crucified Christ is not metaphysical [in the strictly Platonic sense], but the transcendence of concrete rejection.”
With this notion of “the transcendence of concrete rejection” in view, Moltmann understands the knowledge of Christ crucified that comes by faith as an iconoclastic knowledge. Once one understands the crucified Christ to be both the object and subject of Christian faith, one’s former conception of God as only exalted and victorious is destroyed. Significantly, then, such knowledge “destroys the god, miserable in his pride, which [one] would like to be,” and restores to each human person his/her “abandoned and despised humanity” (i.e. suffering humanity), in which Christ himself has shared. In short, this knowledge of the crucified Christ “brings a conflict of interest between God who has become man and man who wishes to become God.”
This iconoclasm frees one, then, to adopt a clearer eschatological vision rooted in the ministry, death, and resurrection of the crucified God. For Moltmann, the crucifixion of Jesus is never to be considered outside the context of his ministry, which inaugurated “the future of the kingdom,” and his resurrection, which secures the future existence of that kingdom in the eschaton. Christian faithful, then, bear witness to the mystery of the suffering, crucified, and risen Lord by participating in Christ through imitation of his eschatological deeds of selfless love (including even his crucifixion) and through sharing in his suffering and that of others.
Richard Hays’ analysis of ethically pertinent passages from Paul’s epistles in his work The Moral Vision of the New Testament reveals Moltmann’s Christology as thickly biblical (or, at the very least, thickly Pauline). Such passages provide ethical flesh for Moltmann’s theological skeleton. This is, perhaps, because Paul, as a pastor and pioneer of churches, brooked no dichotomy between theology and ethics. As Hays points out, Paul’s theology arose out of “specific pastoral problems in [his] churches” that required “his theological reflection.”
For Paul, the life of faithfulness is one that “[fulfills] the law of Christ” by burden-bearing, understood as sharing in the sufferings of Christ on behalf of one’s fellow believer (Gal 6:2). Thus has Paul “taken the pattern of Christ’s self-giving love… and projected it into an imperative for the community to serve one another in love.” In so serving fellow believers, the individual Christian participates more fully in the life of Christ in the context of the community of faith (i.e. the church), which suffers collectively when even one of its members suffers (cf. 1 Cor 12:26). Such a community of burden-bearers serves as an eschatological sign that gestures toward the suffering and risen Christ as burden-bearing Savior of a fractured humanity and a chaotic cosmos. Though the church’s life together takes place between this present age and the age to come, Paul is adamant that God in Christ is present and actively working through his church fully to establish his Kingdom presence on earth.
Hays’ scholarship in tracing a Pauline ethic for a faithful Christian life is careful and cogent. However, I wish that Hays would have expanded upon the possible effects of the cruciform life on those to whom the cross of Christ (and thus a life lived in conformity to the crucified Christ) is scandal and foolishness (cf. 1 Cor 1:18, 23). (Many Christians, as Smith implies, would also see such a life as foolish.) Hays himself rightly admits that in the Pauline corpus itself, the apostle “articulates no basis for a general [Christian] ethic” of suffering or burden-bearing “applicable to those outside the church.” This, as Hays would surely agree, does not imply that Scripture is silent as it regards ethical action toward those outside the community of faith (see Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount). However, in today’s religious climate, one wonders how such an outwardly-focused ethic of Christian suffering or burden-bearing might look. Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed the need for and the beginnings of such an ethic during a time in which Hitler’s Nazis wrought unimaginable suffering throughout all of Europe:
Suffering must be borne in order for it to pass. Either the world must bear it and be crushed by it, or it falls on Christ and is overcome in him. That is how Christ suffers as vicarious representative for the world. Only suffering brings salvation. But the church-community itself knows now that the world’s suffering seeks a bearer. So in following Christ, this suffering falls upon it, and it bears the suffering while being borne by Christ. The community of Jesus vicariously represents the world before God by following Christ under the cross (Discipleship, emphasis mine).
If works of fiction, and especially those works that come from the pen of Christian disciples, help to incarnate Christian truth in artistic form, then there is perhaps no better example of a lived ethic of cruciform suffering, even on behalf of those who hate God, than that of Alyosha Karamazov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. The three most central chapters in The Brothers Karamazov are comprised of a conversation between Alyosha, a young Orthodox monastic, and his anti-theistic journalist brother, Ivan. Ivan, who (not insignificantly) does most of the talking during their conversation, believes that it is only possible to “‘love one’s neighbor abstractly, and even occasionally from a distance, but hardly ever up close.’” Only innocent children, in Ivan’s mind, are worthy of such particular love because, unlike adults, these children do not have the knowledge of good and evil that “‘disgusting’” adults possess, and so cannot act wickedly on such knowledge.
Ivan describes to Alyosha the countless stories that he has read in the papers about the suffering of innocent children: a fact which, he believes, makes it impossible, and even unethical, to believe in a God who allows such things to transpire. How, Ivan asks, can a good and kind God allow Turkish soldiers to cut open mothers’ wombs and catch unborn children on their bayonets? How can a good God allow a young girl of five to be beaten senselessly by her parents for wetting the bed, and to be made to eat her own excrement as she is thrown into an outhouse in the bitter cold, “‘[weeping] with her anguished, gentle, meek tears for “dear God” to protect her…?’” Ivan is not merely grieved that, in this world, innocent children suffer such atrocities. He flatly refuses, at least intellectually, to live in such a world where God allows these atrocities to occur. This intellectual move is far from insignificant, however. If Ivan has any credo at all, it is this: if God is dead, as Nietzsche famously said, then everything is morally permissible, and nothing is forbidden. (By the end of the novel, however, we see that Ivan can only think in terms of this nihilism but cannot live it out practically.)
Alyosha’s response to one of Ivan’s lengthy monologues contains, perhaps, the most telling phrase in Dostoyevsky’s novel:
“…I’m not talking about the suffering of grown-ups, they ate the apple [cf. Gen 3] and to hell with them, let the devil take them all, but these little ones! I’m tormenting you, Alyoshka, you don’t look yourself. I’ll stop if you wish.”
“Never mind, I want to suffer, too,” Alyosha murmured (emphasis mine).
If such a response to his brother’s impassioned diatribe against God were not poignant and illustrative enough, Alyosha’s response to Ivan’s fictional “parable” of the Grand Inquisitor is even more telling.
In hopes of fully illustrating the absurdity of belief in a God who allows innocent suffering, Ivan fashions a fictional (yet all too true) tale that takes place in Seville, Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. Jesus Christ, by way of a special dispensation, has returned to earth and begins to perform miraculous healings of those Sevillians with various illnesses, just as he did during his earthly ministry. Immediately, the Grand Inquisitor, a Catholic cardinal, breaks up the crowds that have gathered around Jesus and orders the Christ to be taken away to prison for interrogation. The Inquisitor, in effect, puts Christ on trial yet again. His main accusation of Christ is that, rather than demonstrate his miraculous, divine power by coming down from the cross and making an end to innocent suffering by smiting those who cause it, the Christ desired a love of himself that was free and not coerced. Rather than bowing down to him as a grand arbiter (Inquisitor?) who violently does away with those who refuse him and despotically rules over those who bow to him, Christ loved those, both good and evil, for whom he suffered, and bid them love him fully and freely. This sort of love completely baffles the Inquisitor, who himself intends to burn the returning Christ at the stake for violating the religious edifice’s firm hold on its subjects. The Inquisitor’s religious edifice does not want these Sevillians to contemplate the mystery of the suffering Christ, his miraculous resurrection from the dead, and therefore his authority over all things, most specifically the Church (not to mention, in the context of this parable, Christ’s second coming).
After the Inquisitor’s lengthy, caustic accusation of Ivan’s (fictional?) Christ and his sentencing of Jesus to be burnt at the stake, the Christ responds in an utterly self-emptying manner.
“The old man [Ivan explains] would have liked [Christ] to say something, even something bitter, terrible. But suddenly he approaches the old man in silence and gently kisses him on his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips.”
Once Ivan is finished with his parable, Alyosha imitates Ivan’s (ironically true) Christ, and kisses his brother on the lips after Ivan asks him if he will disown him because he has accused Christ through his fictional Inquisitor. (As an Eastern Orthodox communication of the indwelling life of God between two persons, such a kiss is not at all intended to be erotic in nature.)
In both responses to his brother Ivan, Alyosha demonstrates a radical sort of suffering love that befits the Christian disciple. Indeed, Ralph Wood goes so far as to say that through such “kenotic [i.e. self-emptying] love,” Alyosha has, effectively, “[become] another self…, a person who exists only in self-giving solidarity with Christ and thereby with others” (emphasis mine). Alyosha understands the life of faith as the life of the crucified Christ, which is characterized by solidarity in suffering with the faithful and the unfaithful, the righteous and the unrighteous.
American Christians, whose “Christianity” has, according to Smith, been co-opted by a religion (MTD) with an end-goal of individualistic, satiated, suffering-free happiness, have much to learn from the theological and ethical paradigms for and the embodied example of suffering, Christlike love examined above. If nothing else, such deeply Christian reflections and actions ought to behoove American Christians of all denominations and theological persuasions to reconceive (or be reminded) of Christian faith as rooted in the life of the suffering Christ, whose salvation did not come apart from suffering and death. In so reconsidering, American Christians might come closer, as Alyosha Karamazov had, to a faith which produces a life of solidarity with particular persons, both fellow believers and those outside the fold of the church, who are suffering.
Though such a life provides no strictly logical answer to the problem of suffering and evil (both that which we perceive in the world around us and that within ourselves), it rehearses God in Christ’s own transcendently particular, salvific, and theological answer to this problem in his obedience to the point of death on a cross. Lest one forget, Christ’s cruciform answer was, as Moltmann claimed, ratified and informed by his resurrection: a resurrection that secured the eschatological future in which mourning, pain, crying, evil, and suffering have no place (cf. Rev 7). Thus can the Christian, living out the concrete example of the crucified and suffering Christ, say along with Paul, that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed” when Christ comes to wipe every tear from every eye (Rom 8:18).