Speaking About God in the Midst of Suffering
Speaking About God in the Midst of Suffering

The Need to Speak of God

It may sound like an extravagant claim, but it is probably true to say that each and every one of us has a certain image of God. This is not to say that we all accept the existence of a personal reality to whom various believers have given the name 'God'. But insofar as that word evokes a certain response from us, it must mean something. And behind the particular reaction, including rejection on the part of those who profess to be atheists or indifference on the part of those who regard themselves as agnostics, must lie certain preconceptions which explain the reaction. But like many others, our own images of God sometimes remain unexplored. Or more often we take them for granted because we do not appreciate the need to scrutinise them any further. Nevertheless, they often account for the way we conduct our lives or the way we try to make sense of life. Now and then the presumptions underlying certain images of God surface when we are confronted by situations which force us to look much more closely at the way we imagine God to be. We do not always welcome these confrontations, but they serve the purpose of making explicit what we do not always advert to.

One such confrontation which can provoke us into making explicit certain presumptions regarding God is the phenomenon of atheism. The reasons behind someone's rejection of God require further exploration. Why does the atheist deny that there is a God? What model of God is operative in his or her mind? For it is not untrue to say that many times atheism is the rejection not of God but of certain claims being made by some believers, claims which should be examined more critically. Again it is not unknown for theists to align themselves with atheism so as to remove many idolatrous misconceptions about God. As Voltaire once remarked, human beings have a tendency to fabricate God according to their image. Thus, it is alleged that in order to believe in God we must first disbelieve in the gods that we have contrived; we must begin by being atheists. (IDGL, 111) But how can we know the difference between these idols and the living God?

Another situation which brings into the open certain presuppositions that we have regarding God occurs when we reflect on the relation between so-called secular matters and religious affairs. The excesses of religious leaders who insist that governments be run along theocratic lines have made us wary of linking politics with religion. And yet situations such as those in developing countries where Christians, including clergy and nuns, are taking an active role in political matters, make us question or at least take a second look at this separation between the secular and the sacred. Does it not betray an image of God whose domain is outside worldly affairs? But if God is being described as a liberating God, does that not imply that God uses every resource, even political action, to free people from all types of oppression and degradation? Such an understanding of an involved God has implications for our own conduct in the face of social injustice. (See, for instance, OIG, CP, TW, TCP).

More recently, we have been confronted by the accusation that the image of God being perpetuated by Western theism supports racial and gender bias. Theodore Walker, for instance, blames classical Western theism and its concept of God as abiding peaceably with, and even of being very supportive, of such oppressive activities as the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of native Americans. (CHCG). According to Walker, 'black theology is defined in considerable measure by its protest against the prevailing Western theological tradition.' (CHCG, also GWR). Others have complained that the classical doctrine of God contains implicit and even explicit biases and vested interests and thus poses a threat to full human liberation. In 1973 Mary Daly wrote: 'when God is male, the male is God.' (BGF, 19). It has been argued more recently by Sallie McFague and many others that the so-called patriarchal and white image of the divine being is not merely irrelevant and idolatrous, but it is also oppressive and dangerous since it may work against the continuation of life on earth. Consequently, she calls for the development of new metaphors or models of God. As she puts it, 'in order to be faithful to the God of its tradition—the God on the side of life and its fulfillment—we must try out new pictures that bring the reality of God's love into the imaginations of the women and men of today.' (MG, ix).

These situations—and there are many others—bring to the fore certain claims which require further clarification. We could, of course, ignore the demand to probe deeper into our images of God. After all, facing up to perplexing issues which demand a lot of thinking can be an onerous task. For some it may seem to be a useless exercise since it could lead nowhere; that is to say, it results in no clear-cut answers or any so-called significant conclusions.

But the danger with unexamined assumptions or claims is that they have the greater tendency to lead us astray. This is especially true with our images of God. As Terence E. Fretheim puts it, 'The images used to speak of God not only decisively determine the way one thinks about God, they have a powerful impact on the shape of the life of the believer.' (SG, 1). Although the pursuit of truth does not always lead to indisputable conclusions, we can at least be less unclear and inconsistent if we make the effort to reflect on our assumptions. We may discover that all along we have entertained beliefs which have to be discarded because they do not stand up under scrutiny or that given more information we may have to reshape our understanding of those beliefs. Or we may even continue to uphold them, but at least this time on more solid grounds.

As has already been pointed out, there is a need to clarify for ourselves our assumptions about God, whether these are religious or not. Life, with its ups and downs, has a way of presenting awkward questions about the kind of God we can or cannot believe in. And if we are serious about the intellectual credibility of our faith, then we should face up to the challenge to reflect on these matters. Michael Langford expresses this point well in his Unblind Faith:
Unfortunately the history of Christianity and of many other religions is sprinkled with the dire consequences of blind faith and it is the horror of this spectacle that helps in large measure the rejection of all religion by many thoughtful people. (UF, 2).
While religious belief is not a purely rational enterprise, it does contain elements which require careful, deliberate, and logical thinking.

Those of us with responsibility for the upbringing of the young, be it in our professional or domestic capacity, have an added reason for taking seriously the challenge to think through our presuppositions about God. The young have the habit of raising questions about life, questions which can at times be rather unnerving because they are penetrating. One such set of questions deals with our ideas of God. In their own way, for instance, many children ask about the problem of evil, about death and about God's involvement in life. It is a pity, not to say disastrous, if what is passed on to children are answers which have not been fully thought out. We are not referring to conclusive judgments (can we come up with any on these matters?) which we can convey to children but to ideas which have been given our personal attention. For unlike the passing on of information or the development of skills, educating the young in this context involves us much more personally.

Educators know that we have to deal with these questions at the children's level. And so we try to explain through stories, symbols and concrete examples. But it seems that what is sometimes overlooked is the development on the children's part of the awareness that our talk of God, hence our understanding of God, undergoes various stages. The initial stage when we resort to particular stories and very concrete representations of God is an important stage. Nevertheless, it is only a stage. (I certainly do not wish to give the impression that story-telling is only for children. After all, Jesus taught in parables. Much of the work that is being done by narrative theology and in literary writings is not only interesting but also called for. Moreover, story-telling, as shown in Minjung theology, can be an effective way of critiquing the ruling classes, gaining greater awareness of one's plight and finding release from the miserable situation. Nor do I wish to ignore the importance of the symbolic and the poetic. But a time should come when we can outgrow many of the things we are taught about God at a very early age. (As the Irish Bishops' document puts it: 'many are going through adult lives with ideas about religion more suitable for primary schoolboys and schoolgirls than for modern adults.' (HFH).

One wonders whether children as they grow up ought not to be encouraged to put aside their childish images of God which were called for at a certain stage of their development but which have now become irrelevant. That is to say, those beliefs and those ways of describing God, having served their purpose, should now be discarded. The reason why it is important for us to bring home this awareness to those whose upbringing lies in our hands and why it is essential for us adults to do the same is that too often we forget that like every aspect of our life, there is a need to mature in the way we think about God. It is disappointing to come across people who have developed intellectually in other spheres but still cling to infantile images of God. It is not surprising when they feel bound to abandon a certain understanding of God which they cannot reconcile with their more developed ways of thinking. We are beginning to appreciate that education does not end with schooling, but we often ignore that this applies too to the way we describe God.

The Challenge of Suffering

Perhaps the most significant challenge to our thinking about God occurs when we are faced with the reality of suffering and pain. The absurdity of the situation, especially if those who are in agony are clearly innocent victims, makes us wonder what kind of God would allow it. How can a God who is supposed to be all-loving and all-powerful tolerate so much misery in creatures? Thus, the problem of evil has challenged the minds of people down the ages. But what is causing more concern today, particularly in countries where there is wide-spread poverty and deprivation, is another dimension to this problem: the suffering of the innocent or in Adolphe Gesche's terms (and used by Gustavo Gutierrez) 'the evil of misfortune' (rather than the 'evil of guilt'). (OJ, xv.). The existence of suffering continues to make us more conscious of the need to reconcile the idea of a provident and omnipotent God with the existence of so much unnecessary and often clearly unmerited misery in the world.

Thus, suffering challenges the way we describe God. In fact, suffering or the feeling of pain, whether mental or physical, has always been a source of serious and often perplexing questioning. We cannot help but wonder why there is so much suffering in the world. At times we may know the immediate cause, for instance, someone's foolish act; but this is small consolation because the knowledge of how something has resulted in a person's affliction is not sufficient to justify his or her plight. In other words, the reality of suffering demands not just an explanation but a justification. This is why the traditional distinction between moral evil (the consequence of human free acts) and natural evil (natural disasters which are considered to be outside reasonable human control) can sometimes be unhelpful. Even when we know how the suffering came about, its very existence will continue to trouble us. For it does not make sense that creatures should be prey to so much suffering.

A Theistic Problem

But why does suffering cause such existential questioning? Why is it problematic? Usually the reality of suffering is presented as a theistic problem in that its existence is irreconcilable with the belief in a truly benevolent and omnipotent God. It is held that an entirely righteous and loving God who has the power to abolish suffering would not wish to inflict it on creatures. Hume is commonly credited with formulating the problem in this way although earlier thinkers had already shown that suffering or evil in general is incompatible with the belief in a God possessing perfect goodness and power. According to John Hick, the dilemma was apparently first formulated by Epicurus (341-270 BC) and quoted by Lactantius (c. AD 260- c.340). Theists, therefore, have felt particularly threatened on this point. As John Hick puts it, the problem 'sets up an internal tension to disturb [their] faith and to lay upon it a perpetual burden of doubt.' (EGL, 3. To non-believers it stands as a major obstacle to religious commitment. It is understandable then that Jürgen Moltmann would claim that the question 'why do I suffer?' is the rock of atheism. (HP, 32). If indeed there is a God, how can God remain silent and inactive in the presence of such misery in the world? Accordingly, the problem of suffering has generally been discussed in the context of a theodicy. That is to say, explanations which are forthcoming are seen as attempts to defend God, not in the sense that God needs defending but rather in the sense that the believers' portrayal of their God requires validation, i.e. that despite the presence of suffering one could justifiably continue to believe in such a God. Suffering has, therefore, been an issue among many philosophers and theologians.

But it is not only philosophers and theologians who have grappled with the question of belief or unbelief amidst suffering. David Jaspers' observation that 'literature and religion are never far apart' (SLR, ix) is particularly true in this case. Literary writers have also dealt with this issue in their writings. Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novels are well-known for their religious themes. In The Brothers Karamasov, in particular, Dostoyevsky's characters represent different attitudes to the presence of so much misery in the world. Varying reactions, including belief and unbelief, are also illustrated by the characters of Albert Camus' The Plague. The novels of the Japanese writer Shusako Endo address the deep feelings of the suffering of his people. Similarly, the Korean poet Kim Chi-ha in his poem 'Declaration of Conscience' articulates the suffering of the minjung. Rejecting the false image of God perpetrated by the ruling classes, Kim shows God to be on the side of the minjung.

Perhaps another kind of protest to the theistic claim to a provident God can be seen in Santiago's experience in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and in Kino's life in John Steinbeck's The Pearl. In both books, the main characters start with an implicit belief in a caring God. Their recourse to that God seems initially to provide the answers to their hopes and aspirations only to have them dashed again. Santiago in Hemingway's novel manages to catch the giant marlin he has prayed for; but the long journey home, the struggle with the sharks and the gradual disintegration of his great prize do not suggest a benevolent God but one who is determined to make fun of the human individual's valiant efforts. In Steinbeck's work Kino's pearl seems to be the longed-for response to his request for help to pay for his son's medical treatment. But the consequences of obtaining such a miraculous gift are tragic: he loses his home and simple possessions, he becomes an outcast and he finally loses his son, though cured of his illness, to a pursuer-turned-killer. Both writers, therefore, question the theistic description of God as one who truly cares for us. Once again the onus has been laid on the shoulders of theists to defend their portrayal of God.

A Human Problem

But while theists should indeed expect to feel threatened on this point, it ought not to be forgotten that whether we believe in a God or not, we will still find suffering problematic and to a large extent absurd. We will still ask the same fundamental question simply because suffering cuts across our understanding of 'how things ought to be.' Human nature is such that we are sensitive to and disposed towards certain standards, e.g. moral or aesthetic. We may not always pursue these standards or even want to do so especially since we are not always clear as to what they are. But basically we are creatures who can distinguish between what we believe ought to be and what in fact is the case. It is this capacity to distinguish between the two and the realisation that suffering is an impediment to the fulfillment of that which ought to be that makes us wonder why it is not otherwise. Even the atheist or non-believer who challenges the theist sees the problem in terms of this distinction. Hence, we all ask: what stops the fulfillment of what ought to happen? What is the reason for its non-fulfillment? Why is the situation the way it is and not otherwise?

That the reality of suffering is just as much a human as a theistic problem should help us to see that some theistic explanations, such as that suffering is part of God's plan as if it were deliberately willed by God, are not only misguided but also insensitive. They are misguided because they give the wrong idea of God and insensitive because they belittle the tragedy of suffering. Or to regard suffering as punishment from God as Edgar in King Lear (Act v, Sc. 3, lines 171-173) does to justify the blinding of his father who had an illegitimate son is to commit an injustice to God and to ourselves. In any attempt therefore to meet the challenge of suffering we should be conscious that suffering poses difficulties for us all insofar as we are humans and not merely because some of us believe that there is a God. Suffering mars our understanding of how reality should be, an understanding that arises from being the kind of creatures that we are.

Suffering as a Theoretical Issue and a Practical Demand

For theists and non-theists alike, therefore, the reality of suffering creates difficulties. Its existence is to some extent an intellectual puzzle for human beings. Because human beings are thinkers, they are being called upon to resolve certain inconsistencies caused by the reality of suffering. Hence, we need to find an answer. (WBTHGP, 154). In this sense the search for an answer is really a search for a solution, i.e. an explanation that would establish the logical soundness of our claims. David Griffin is perfectly right in arguing that 'a great amount of evil is aggravated by the thoughts and feelings that we have by virtue of our rational capacity for generalizing and comparing what is with what might have been' and in stressing that 'questions about evil always implicitly contain theoretical affirmations.' (GPE, 15-16).

But we are not just thinking beings who have the need to reconcile contradictions in our thinking, to untangle the knots, as it were. We are also agents. This is why the reality of suffering demands a practical answer from us; that is, a response to change the situation. We are being challenged to take effective measures, if not to eliminate it completely, at least to minimise it. Neglect of this side of the problem can result, as indeed it unfortunately has, in an endeavour to meet the intellectual challenge of suffering by saying that we need not be overanxious about its presence here because everything will be rectified in the next world. (Shakespeare's sonnet 146 gives that impression). Although this may not have been intended by the belief in an afterlife, it conveys nevertheless the mistaken impression that we do not have to face up to our responsibility to make this world a happier place for everyone to live in. As agents, we ought to do something about the suffering, misery and sad plight of countless individuals. And many times we are in a position to remove the causes of such suffering. We should—because often we can—reduce the gravity and extent of suffering also brought about by the action of other creatures and by natural phenomena.

At times, however, taking up the practical challenge of suffering will take the form of siding with the victim. For Tarrou in Camus' novel, The Plague, this is the only possible response to the suffering in the world. For Job's friends, the silent sharing in his misfortune showed an attitude of respectful compassion and a manifestation of fellowship. The amount of good that results from the way some people react to tragedies is another way of meeting the practical challenge of suffering and of rising above its absurdity. Solidarity with those who are suffering, victimised or alienated is not an empty gesture. The lives of many people are an eloquent testimony. It is to their credit that what initially was a handicap became the means for transforming their own and other people's lives.

A Suggestion: Reflection Upon Praxis

Over the years the existence of suffering in the world we live in and its challenge to our images of God have engaged my attention. My interest in this topic has been stimulated by the experiences of those with whom I worked and lived or whom I taught. Often their lives were shattered by the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' but they found in their God not only comfort but also the motivation to transform the situation. The commitment and dedication of these individuals and groups inspired me when I myself was caught up in the maelstroms of life. I felt, and continue to feel, challenged by people like Victor and Irene Chero who said to John Paul II: 'We suffer affliction, we lack work, we are sick. Our hearts are crushed by suffering as we see our tubercular wives giving birth, our children dying, our sons and daughters growing up weak and without a future. But despite all this, we believe in the God of life.' (GL, xi). Countless others have made and continue to make the same profession of faith. Sharing in their concerns, I have reflected on their questions. I have listened to their answers and developed them by bringing to bear on their insights the academic disciplines I had been trained in. As I tried to learn from them, they also heard and sometimes heeded my voice.

I am suggesting another approach to the challenge of speaking of God amidst suffering, which I call 'reflecting on praxis' and which has been stimulated by the experiences of those ordinary believers I mentioned earlier. Whereas atheism, given the presence of considerable misery and evil in the world, protests against belief in God, my aim is to give due regard to the experiences of many people who continue to believe in God despite suffering, impoverishment and oppression. But unlike traditional theism, this suggestion starts not with a developed concept of God but with reflections on the experience of suffering and on our responses to it and asks what this approach can disclose about God. This methodology has led to a conceptualisation, different from that of classical theism, of the images of God which emerged from these reflections.

Liberation theologies, particularly in Latin America, have acknowledged the centrality of this topic by claiming that knowledge of God today is discerned in the midst of suffering. Gustavo Gutierrez expresses this very forcefully:
How are we to talk about a God who is revealed as love in a situation characterized by poverty and oppression? How are we to proclaim the God of life to men and women who die prematurely and unjustly? How are we to acknowledge that God makes us a free gift of love and justice when we have before us the suffering of the innocent? What words are we to use in telling those who are not even regarded as persons that they are the daughters and sons of God? These are key questions being asked in the theology that has been forming in Latin America and in other places throughout the world where the situation is the same. (OJ, xiv).

God as Co-Sufferer

As has been pointed out, the existence of suffering challenges us in many ways. One practical response to that challenge is to show solidarity with the victims. Being united with them can be a healing process for both the comforter and the sufferer. It is surprising that many times tragedies do unite people and bring out the good in them. Even when a kind gesture does not always last, the instantaneous response of good-will has a way of easing the burden. When it is followed by practical measures, the relief can be more effective. There is much truth in the belief that much comfort is derived from the realisation that one is not alone in one's distress. Psychologists tell us that the deepest need of a human person is the need to overcome separateness. That need is intensified in moments of misery. The lack of companionship in affliction adds greatly to one's unfortunate situation whereas when others come to one's aid, the burden is less onerous. One is given hope. Because people can be touched, much good work occurs. If love means caring about what happens to others, then caring implies being affected by them. Our feelings for them motivate us to respond positively.

Communities, whether primitive or sophisticated, have realised the value of putting people in touch with one another at times of misfortunes. For example, various rituals, religious or not, taught people to share experiences with one another at times of sorrow, such as someone's death. As Rabbi Kushner explains, the Jewish custom of sitting shiva, the memorial week after a death, like the Christian wake or chapel visit, grows out of our need to share our fears and our grief. It reminds us in our moments of need that we are part of a community, that there are people who care about us. (WBTHTGP, 126-127).

The knowledge that others care, made explicit through rituals or concrete help or mere presence, can be therapeutic. All this is made possible because we can sympathise, that is, share the unpleasant feelings that others are experiencing and the pain that they are undergoing even if not always on the same scale or intensity. We are after all co-sufferers. Hence, the more we have suffered, the more we can sense the agony of others and the more likely we are to help.

If we put so much value on sympathetic compassion as a way of dealing with the suffering around us, could we also say that God ought to be conceived as capable of sharing in our sorrows? Sympathy is usually distinguished from empathy. Empathy means putting ourselves into the inner world of others, recognising their needs but without letting their suffering overwhelm us. In so distancing ourselves we are said to be in a position to help. This distinction is often employed by some defenders of God's impassibility. God is said to empathise rather than sympathise with us. According to them, to claim that God sympathises with us is to bring God down to our level. Thus, the idea of God, at least in some Western theists, tended to exclude sympathetic suffering in God.

For example, Anselm's concept of a perfect God made him rule out any passion in God. Yet he wanted to uphold the belief that God is compassionate. Anselm then considers how God can be both. He formulates the paradox in this way:
For, if thou art passionless, thou dost not feel sympathy, thy heart is not wretched from sympathy for the wretched; but this is to be compassionate. But if thou art not compassionate, whence cometh so great consolation to the wretched? (P, 13-14).
Anselm answers his own query by stating that God is compassionate in terms of our experience, but not so in terms of God's being. While we experience the effect of God's compassion, God does not.

Commenting on this passage, Charles Hartshorne and William Reese write that Anselm's analogy with experience fails to illumine in that he has merely shifted the difficulty since the question of how God 'beholds our wretchedness' has still to be faced. They ask: 'How can a being know what wretchedness is if no shadow of suffering, disappointment, unfulfilled desire or wish, has ever been experienced by that being?'. (PSG, 103-106). Anselm's description of God, it would appear to these critics, does not give us the right to believe that God sympathises with us. It is a mockery to claim that we feel the effects of God's compassion since the supreme effect of compassion is to give the awareness that someone really and literally responds to our feelings with sympathetic appreciation. Compassion implies that one is truly, and not merely apparently, moved by our plight.

If compassion, i.e. sympathetic suffering, is a value which prompts us to alleviate the suffering of others, it is hard to see why ascribing it to God is seen by Anselm as limiting God. Rabbi Kushner makes an eloquent point:
I don't know what it means for God to suffer. I don't believe that God is a person like me, with real eyes and real tearducts to cry and real nerve endings to feel pain. But I would like to think that the anguish I feel when I read of the sufferings of innocent people reflects God's anguish and God's compassion, even if His way of feeling pain is different from ours. I would like to think that He is the source of my being able to feel sympathy and outrage, and that He and I are on the same side when we stand with the victim against those who would hurt him. (WBTHTGP, 92-93).
Kushner believes that his offer of sympathy became acceptable when people realised that he too had suffered (from the death of his son) whereas as a young rabbi, healthy, gainfully employed, his efforts to aid people in sorrow were resisted. Now that he was really a brother in suffering, they were able to let him help them. There is a strong tendency in us to think that those who have had similar experiences are in a better position not only to understand us but also to offer help. Why then is there a reluctance to extend that observation to our understanding of God's character?

Kazoh Kitamori in his book The Theology of the Pain of God writes that there is something in Japanese culture which allows for a fuller understanding of divine suffering insofar as even common people are appreciative of tragic themes in their drama. For example, the idea of tsurasa is realised when one suffers and dies or makes his beloved son suffer and die for the sake of loving and making others live. Moreover, the impact of Buddhism on Japan (with its concern for alleviating human suffering) has led to an understanding of 'the sickness of great mercy'. Consequently, Kitamori's Japanese background has led him not only to affirm divine sympathy but also to talk of divine pain, different from human pain, but just as real. He argues that pain is the essence of God, not merely in the sense of sympathy or empathy with the miseries of human beings, but in the sense that it is constitutive of the Godhead. Moreover, divine pain, he says, is God's response to human sin. Jung Young Lee, a Korean, maintains that the idea of a God who suffers is the logical conclusion of an Asian metaphysics. In his God Suffers for Us, therefore, he develops the idea of divine empathy based on the I Ching (Book of Changes). He writes that God does not merely feel with (sympathise) the human situation. God feels into (empathise) the human situation and actively participates in it.

The relevant point here is that since one valuable response that we make to the presence of suffering in others is to have sympathetic feelings towards them, then ought we not to say that God too must be affected by all the suffering around us? If indeed we are to portray God as one of love, God must be said to be capable of identifying with our plight to the extent that God too suffers. This should not, however, be mistaken to mean that God suffers in exactly the way we do. (It is not specific forms of sympathetic suffering which are at issue but simply being touched or moved. How God will be touched or moved will depend on God's nature). After all, even our own sympathetic feelings vary in accordance with the kind of person that we are. God is affected in a way which corresponds to God's nature, as the worshipful reality. (GPT, 35f).

A possible objection here is that we seem to be implying that even God must accept the inevitability of suffering. Surely God's perfection is being threatened. Is God not competent to abolish it in the first instance? As Schillebeeckx observes, 'A God who only shares our suffering leaves the last and definite word to evil and suffering.' (FSG, 90). The question then which demands our further attention is: how can a sympathetic God also be said to abolish suffering?

Another possible criticism is that by conceiving God as affected by suffering, we are conceding that there is such a definite reality capable of making God suffer. This is an objection that requires a nuanced answer. There is no such thing as suffering itself as if it had an independent existence challenging God in the way some dualistic systems portray the reality of evil. It is people and other creatures who suffer (as well as rejoice). Insofar as they are real, they are capable of touching God in their sorrows and in their joys.

God as Liberator

Let us now examine another response to suffering: liberating ourselves and others. Here we shall be concerned too with the question: Why should a sympathetic God also be said to abolish suffering?

The suffering of countless others calls for some form of liberation because they are dehumanising. To try to justify them is to turn a blind eye to the hurt and pain which can sometimes lead to what can only be described as an inhuman kind of existence. This is particularly true of the misery and the degradation experienced by the poor. We may try to impart a theological, biblical or spiritual meaning to their plight, yet we cannot escape the economics of it. Nor can we ignore its psychological consequences. Poverty is extreme need or destitution. It means the way of life of the slum-dwellers or the homeless of Latin America or of the Philippines, of over-populated India, of the ghettos of America and elsewhere, of famine-stricken Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia. Poverty hurts and oppresses people because it deprives them of the necessities of life. It creates the gap between the rich, over-fed landlord and the hungry, grief-stricken tenant. It makes a parent worry over the next crumb for the family. It forces a man or woman to stand in line at employment agencies in spite of the very slim chance of getting a job. Poverty is what causes grim-faced children to peer into restaurants to watch the more fortunate ones partake of life's bounties—as if the mere sight of food is enough to ease the hunger they feel. Poverty is certainly not a welcome word, and its effects are to be dreaded and avoided. Hence, it is crucial that we work towards the removal of the causes of this kind of suffering. We ought to use every resource at our disposal to transform the situation.

In claiming that we must root out the causes of this kind of suffering whenever possible—as another practical response to the challenge of suffering—I am asserting that God is not its cause. It is unfortunate when poor people are simply encouraged to 'accept their poverty' as the lot assigned to them by God. This is really to ignore that often the real causes are the actions and policies of people. The most appropriate loving response then is to identify and remove these causes as part of our struggle to construct a just and peaceful society in which all—and not just the powerful few—can live in dignity and be masters of their own destinies.

Third-world writers, for instance, are becoming increasingly conscious of the obstacles put forward by certain economic and social aspects of Western society to the complete fulfillment of their people as human beings. They are critical of the growing dehumanisation brought about by structures which are in fact structures of domination. These structures may bring about an accelerated pace of development, but it benefits only a small minority. They speak therefore of the need to liberate those who are its victims, the oppressed majority. It is understandable that in these countries there is a conscious effort to respond to suffering in terms of 'setting the poor free.' Gustavo Gutierrez puts this point across:
The poor person is the byproduct of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. He is the oppressed, the exploited, the proletarian, the one deprived of the fruit of his labor and despoiled of being a person. For that reason the poverty of the poor person is not a call for a generous act which will alleviate his misery but rather a demand for building a different social order. (LCEF, 25).
The experience of Latin Americans (and various groups in different countries who are experiencing oppression and exploitation) has helped focus on the image of God as Liberator. The challenge for them—but one may add, to us all no matter where we are—is 'how to find a way of speaking about God that springs from the situation created by unjust poverty in which the great majority of the people live' and 'to find language that talks of hope which buoys up a people struggling for its liberation.' (C, 30). They have turned for an answer to God the Liberator who favours the poor and the oppressed and assists in their struggle. Such a turn necessarily entails the repudiation and removal of false gods.

The reality of poverty and oppression, it seems, demands that we go further than Kitamori's and Lee's answer to the question of how God liberates us from our suffering. For Kitamori, a recognition of the pain of God will overcome human pain. He writes: 'When the pain of man becomes the symbol of the pain of God, man's pain is in turn healed. What heals our wounds is the love rooted in the pain of God.' (TPG, 64). Lee holds that God overcomes our suffering through God's suffering. 'Faith,' he maintains, 'emancipates us from suffering alone to be suffering with.' (GS, 81).

There is a sense in which such a reaction to suffering, as affirmed by Kitamori and Lee, can be liberating, particularly if its prevention is beyond our reasonable control. However, it could also lead to the kind of passivity and even fatalism that characterises the thinking of some who regard suffering to be inevitable since it balances the good to produce harmony. Unfortunately, the reality in Latin America and in Asia (and in other countries) is that much of the suffering is counterproductive. According to Virginia Fabella, Peter K. H. Lee and David Kwang-sun Suh, even though Asians have known suffering to be conducive to spiritual growth, 'suffering becomes a constructive element in liberation spirituality only if it strengthens the character and spirit of the one who suffers, and at the same time transforms the forces that cause the pain.' (ACS, 8). Noting that in Asia there exist two worlds, that of the privileged and that of the marginalised, these writers correctly note that:
No spirituality that claims to be Asian can disregard the plight of these marginalised and suffering millions, for they are the majority of Asia's people. To be relevant, spirituality in Asia cannot be an elitist or a 'pie in the sky' spirituality, but one that responds to people's needs and situations. It must concern itself with people's struggles against dehumanising economic and political conditions, as well as with their aspirations for a more humane and egalitarian society. It must concern itself with countering those cultural and psychological elements that demean and subjugate, and with creating new patterns of relationships that make life worth living. In a word, spirituality in Asia must be a liberating spirituality. (Ibid., 1-2).
Given these realities, what is implied when we speak of God as Liberator, as one who gives life and hope in the midst of suffering? It seems to me that it is to recognise that a task lies ahead of us to change the situation whenever it cripples and even kills rather than frees people. Theodore Walker makes this point from the perspective of black theology: '...black theology knows, from the data of human experience, that the experience of suffering from oppression entails a desire to be liberated from such suffering. Hence, it follows that the God who experiences the suffering of the oppressed also desires their liberation.' (CHCG, 1). It means that siding with the victims of suffering does not mean inaction. Instead, it should spur us on to participate in God's work of liberating us from all kinds of oppression. Or as Gustavo Gutierrez puts it, 'Yahweh too has limits, which are self-imposed. Human beings are insignificant in Job's judgment, but they are great enough for God, the almighty, to stop at the threshold of their freedom and ask for their collaboration in the building of the world and in its just governance.' (OJ, 79). Victorio Araya echoes this point: 'The true God does not replace human beings in the task of re-creating and transforming the world.' (GP, 150). Here too Schillebeeckx's words are particularly apt: 'What is at stake here is not simply the ethical consequence of the religious or theological life; rather, ethical praxis becomes an essential component of a life directed to God, of "the true knowledge of God"...God is accessible above all in the praxis of justice and love.' (FSG,, 101-102). In short, it is through us and with us that God liberates others from their miserable situation just as it is through others and in others that we experience the reality of God's sympathy. How and to what extent we are called upon to participate in God's work of liberation will, of course, vary depending on our circumstances.

This question of how to talk of God's work of liberating will continue to challenge us. No doubt, it is a difficult task since any attempt to answer this question seems to be betrayed by the facts. That is to say, in trying to describe God's activity we will have to reckon with the need to show plausibly and realistically that God is actively working for our liberation from oppression despite the obvious presence of so much undeserved suffering in the world. This is not, of course, a new challenge but as we become more and more aware of unjust and dehumanising situations the world over we need once again to face the issue.


ACS = Fabella, V., et al., Asian Christian Spirituality: Reclaiming Traditions (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1992).
BGF = Daly, M. Beyond God the Father (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973).
C = Gutierrez, G. 'Speaking about God.' Concilium, 171 (January 1984).
CHCG = Walker, T. 'Hartshorne's Neoclassical Theism and Black Theology' in S. Sia (ed.), Charles Hartshorne's Concept of God: Philosophical and Theological Responses (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989).
CP = Bacani, T.C. The Church and Politics (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1987).
IDGL = Araya, V. 'The God of the Strategic Covenant', in The Idols of Death and the God of Life: a Theology, trans. Barbara Cambell and Bonnie Shephard (Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books, 1983).
OIG = Segundo, J.L. Our Idea of God (Gill and Macmillan, 1980).
TW = Metz, J. Theology of the World, trans. William Glen-Doepel (N.Y.:Seabury Press, 1969).
TCP = Sobrino, J. The True Church and the Poor, trans. Matthew J. O'Connell (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1984).
EGL = Hick, J. Evil and the God of Love (Collins, 1979).
FSG = Schillebeeckx, E. For the Sake of the Gospel (London: SCM Press, 1989).
GL = Gutierrez, G. The God of Life, (Orbis Books, 1991).
GP = Araya, V. God of the Poor Orbis Books, 1987).BR> GPE = Griffin, D.R. God, Power and Evil (Westminster Press, 1976).
GS = Lee, J.Y. God Suffers (Martinus Nijhoff, 1974).
GPT = Sia, S. God in Process Thought. (Martinus Nijhoff, 1985).
GWR = Jones, W. Is God a White Racist? (N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973).
HFH = Handing on the Faith in the Home, Irish Bishop's Document, (1980).
HP = Moltmann, J. Hope and Planning (SCM Press, 1971).
LCEF = Gutierrez, G. 'Faith as Freedom: Solidarity with the Alienated and Confidence in the Future,' in Living with Change, Experience, Faith, ed. Francis A. Eigo (Villanova, Pa.: Villanova University Press, 1976).
MG = McFague, S. Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (SCM Press, 1987).
OJ = Gutierrez, G. On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, trans. Matthew J. O'Connell (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1987).
P = St. Anselm, Proslogium; Monologium; An Appendix on Behalf of the Fool by Gaunilo; and Cur Deus Homo, trans. S. N. Deane (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court Publishing Co., 1903, 1945)
PSG = Hartshorne C & Reese, W. R. Philosophers Speak of God (University of Chicago Press, 1953) Midway 12 Reprint.
SG = Fretheim, T.E. The Suffering of God: an Old Testament Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).
SLR = Jaspers, D. The Study of Literature and Religion: an Introduction. Studies in Literature and Religion (London: Macmillan Press, 1989
Moltmann, J. Hope and Planning (SCM Press, 1971).
TPG = Kitamori, K. Theology of the Pain of God (John Knox Press, 1965).
UF = Langford, M. Unblind Faith (SCM Press, 1982).
WBTHTGP = Kushner, H.S. When Bad things Happen to Good People (Pan Books, 1982).

© Santiago Sia, 1996.

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Santiago Sia, Ph.D.,
Professor of Philosophy,
Loyola Marymount University
7900 Loyola Blvd.,
Los Angeles, CA 90045, USA.

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