Once they told Rabbi Pinhas of the great misery among the needy. He listened, sunk in grief. Then he raised his head. “Let us draw God into the world,” he cried, “and all need will be quenched.” God’s grace consists precisely in this, that God wants to… be won by humanity, placing [Godself], so to speak, into human hands. God wants to come to the world, but to come to it through men and women. This is the mystery of our existence, the supra-human chance of humankind. (Martin Buber)
Writing from the depths of Judaism, Buber and Pinhas serve to remind us Christians of the biblical truth that the One who we meet in Christ is not a God whose incarnation begins and ends with the history of Jesus. It is, extraordinarily, an eternal condition of the divine to be given within the limits of our humanity.
This is actually what traditional Christian language seeks to convey by picturing for us the ‘pre-existence’ of the logos, and by proclaiming that the one who was crucified is now risen, uniting the life we meet in the fleshly Word with the hidden and un-containable life of God. This, experienced through forgiveness and restoration, is what Christian hope is all about.
Rendered as metaphysical propositions such formulations are likely to cause us moderns no end of problems. Received as nameless encounter beyond theorising, however, they evoke that redeeming God-with-usness which returns our questioning gaze with the face of Jesus, right down to his refining, definitive anonymity in our midst (see Matthew 25).
Picking up on these experiences in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, theologian Ruth Page has suggested that ‘pansyntheism’ (God-with-all) may be a better way of expositing ‘the incarnation of freedom and love’ than either seventeenth century theism or process panentheism. The former can seem too abstract and aloof; the latter can blur the incommensurability of God and the universe in the process of seeking their ultimate congruence.
Meanwhile, what sticks out like a bloodied thumb in Pinhas’s passionate prose is his apparent suggestion that the need created by suffering within our present horizon can somehow be quenched by the invocation of God within this world.
That may be the experience of some people, but as a generalised prescription it is too easy, too definitive. Like Christian attempts to mortgage disaster and disease to sin and judgement (a move Jesus explicitly rejected), it evades the obscenity and horror of actual death and torture.
For we should surely never forget that in the New Testament the risen Christ is deliberately imaged with the wounds of crucifixion still visibly impressed upon him. They are transformed, yes. But not obliterated. Not even by the resurrection of the dead.
In a universe where love’s as-yet-unfinished possibility entails the sometimes deadly freedom of contingency, suffering cannot be effaced. Even so, those who suffer can themselves be ‘faced’, given worth, dignity and hope within the community of the living-alongside.
Moreover, the vision that God will in the final reckoning be all-in-all is, simultaneously, the promise that ‘one day we shall have faces’. We will count in our own right, but also in utter loving dependence on one another and upon God. That is what ‘the risen life’ involves.
But right now, in a world still entrapped and enthralled by the power of death, “only a suffering God will do”, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer poignantly put it. Not a God who denies, douses, justifies, inflicts or disowns suffering, but a God who embraces it (and its victims) through an unconquerable love that is beyond our control but not beyond either our imagination or our active compassion.
It is this God who comes close to us when we are so pressed that we simply do not know how to begin pray. As St Paul puts it, on such occasions the Spirit holds for us the very words we cannot find. And they tell us not that we can avoid suffering, but that with and beyond it there is the God who is our beginning, our sustenance and our end.