08 September 2008

Followup Questions: Chronic Illness, Victim Souls, God and Suffering, etc

[[Hi Again, Sister O'Neal! Thanks for answering my questions [about a vocation to chronic illness] with more of your own story. You said, "Especially, I am no victim!" Are you familiar with the idea of "victim souls"? Do you think this is a helpful idea? What do you think about the notion that God sends suffering to one person and then eases the suffering of another as a result? I have even read where one person who has been characterized as a victim soul receives some grace and then EXPECTS to suffer because of this grace that was given. That doesn't make sense to me. Yet is it really so awful to be a "victim"? Wouldn't being a "victim soul" be a very special vocation?]]

Victim Soul Theology, an Introduction

First, let me be clear that this whole notion of victim souls is not official Catholic theology. There are some superficial precedents for it in Jewish theology of scapegoating, and superficial correspondence with Sacred Heart theology and the like. For this reason teasing out the legitimate from the illegitimate is not always easy to do. But generally, what commonly passes for "victim soul" theology is a misguided attempt to make some sense of personal suffering which is rooted in a REALLY bad reading of Paul's notion that we are to "make up what was lacking" in the sufferings of Christ. More, it is based on a terribly distorted idea of God as the one who sends suffering, and indeed, who bargains with people to accept additional suffering in order to relieve someone else's, or (worse yet) who even punishes one with suffering after gracing them with something joyful. What kind of God works this way? Not one I could ever believe in, and certainly not one worthy of worship --- at least not if worship is a function of love, as I believe it must be!!!

Also,(with the exception of the Christ Event, where God in Christ took on suffering himself and in the limited sense the word actually applies, was OUR VICTIM) to believe that God causes one to suffer (or sends suffering) and applies it to another means that one believes God is playing some great game with each of us and is in complete control of the suffering in this world. More, and even more problematical, it is a "theology" which believes that God can be convinced to relieve someone's suffering if another person is willing to undertake it in her place. It is as though there is some great quota of suffering in the world as a whole which God needs us to experience in order to be placated or satisfied or something. Even (or perhaps especially!) Anselm's theory of satisfaction never got this crude, and it was already a complete misunderstanding of Paul. Let me explain.

Another look at the Theology of The Cross: Paul vs Anselm

Despite some strands of common piety which hold otherwise, it was not Jesus' suffering per se which was redemptive (though it was absolutely essential), but rather his entering exhaustively into the realms of human sin and death while remaining obedient (that is, open and responsive) to God in spite of the depths of his failure, fear, suffering, etc. This obedience unto death, even death on a cross (that is, not just natural, death-as-transition, but sinful, godless death-unto-oblivion!) meant that God could now enter completely into these realms from which he would otherwise be excluded by human sin in order to transform them with his presence. Once this occurs, their power (which is the power to isolate and separate one from God, and thus from life and meaning) is broken definitively.

In Anselm's satisfaction theology Christ's death makes up for the infinite dishonor done to God. Christ's suffering is not a way to enter exhaustively into our situation so that situation can be objectively changed. Instead the debt of sin, a debt owed to God's honor, is paid in terms of suffering. God is offended and needs to be reconciled, placated, his anger etc, assuaged. But this, despite superficial linguistic similarities, is precisely the antithesis of what Paul provides in his theology of the cross. For Paul, the Christ Event works to overcome the objective chasm that exists between the world and God. It works to bring the world back to God and to friendship with him. It works to overcome the estrangement, alienation, and antipathy towards God, and it does all these things not by appeasing God's anger (which would be a subjective change) but by implicating God in precisely those aspects of his creation from which he has been excluded (i.e.,his death effects an objective change in reality). Thus, Jesus' suffering is necessary for he must plumb the depths of human sin and sinful death; unless he does there will remain depths of Godlessness which are not overcome by his obedience (openness and responsiveness) to God. However, it is not the suffering per se that is redemptive. Instead it is is Jesus' complete dependence on God in spite of everything which might otherwise separate him from God by tempting to sin (that is, to remain dependent upon himself and his own resources) that is salvific.

As in Christ's life, of itself suffering is not redemptive; it is our dependence upon God, our remaining open to God's grace (God's living self) in spite of and within that suffering that is redemptive, for it implicates God into the places or realms from which he would otherwise be excluded. (Realms like sin and death are also personal realms, and God cannot simply force his way into them, or overcome them by fiat; they imply human decisions to live --- and therefore to die --- without God, and thus they come to be embodied realities which are deeply personal. This is why Paul refers to "this body of death," and describes death as a power or principality with influence in our lives. God does not force his way into any area of our lives, though he is present both within and without those lives, and eagerly waits to be allowed to be sovereign over even their darkest regions or dimensions.) This is what Paul is referring to when he writes in 2 Cor 5:19 that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

To reiterate, in Paul's theology of the cross and contrary to Anselm's version, God is not in need of reconciliation: we are. God is bringing the far places we journey in and through, and our own prodigality under his own sovereignty; he is transforming godless realities within and around us into sacramental realities where he may be met face to face. God's wrath is not an all-too-human anger or emotional response, but the fact that God allows the consequences of our sins to run their course. (Dunn, Theology of Paul the Apostle) We use anthropomorphic terms to speak of divine wrath, but they are singularly inadequate. Meanwhile, Jesus' passion is not inadequate; it has dealt a definitive and terminal blow to sin and death. However, that victory must become personal to us; it must touch and redeem the sin and death we have embodied within ourselves, our lives, and all our lives touch. It is only in this sense that we are called upon "to make up for what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ". We allow the suffering and obedient Christ into our PERSONAL realm, and through him in the power of the Spirit work to bring all of it into the life of the Trinity.

So suffering does not appease or placate God. Suffering is a consequence of creation's estrangement and brokenness and one which God takes on himself. It becomes the gateway into the realms of sin and death because largely it is the result of the effects of sin and godless death in this world and tempts (or leads) us either to depend upon ourselves or to hand our lives over to God. Therefore, at the same time then, these can be gateways of grace for they open us to the need for God's love and mercy, but they do not come directly from his hand. Especially, God does not send suffering nor engage in some kind of distorted calculus of suffering where SOMEONE must suffer and the question is merely who will be made to do it. Examples of such a perverse calculus would include the following: "If I suffer willingly, God will relieve x's pain," or "If I suffer, a person a world (or era) away (and unaware of me) will be prevented from sinning," or again, "I am suffering this pain so that x's painful dying might be eased (also where x is unaware of me and we are not speaking about her being edified by my own suffering, etc)." These beliefs are superstitious, not expressions of faith.

Beyond being superstitious, what kind of God would such a calculus of suffering reveal? First, it would be a "god" who directly sends both suffering and its relief, and who, for arbitrary reasons might relieve some suffering so long as someone else can be found to take it on. He would be a "god" who bargains with his creatures, a tyrannical torturer or sadist who somehow needs a certain amount of suffering to be "satisfied" and never mind who does it. In such a scheme suffering is not merely the result, the tragic consequence of sin created and exacerbated by our inhumanities or by the brokenness and incompleteness of creation, but is the result of a God who directly punishes his creation for sin. And of course this punishment falls arbitrarily on the heads of the innocent and the guilty alike while asserting that God can PERHAPS be convinced to relieve the suffering of some and apply it to others. The notion you referred to in your question that God will grace a person and then punish them with suffering because they were graced is simply too perverse and unChristian to respond to. It sounds more like a portrait of a paranoid schizophrenic parent dealing with a child than the God of Jesus Christ. Sorry, but in my estimation, these notions are perversions of the idea of divine justice, and parodies of the God of Jesus Christ --- not one whom we can really love or worship.

Legitimate Views of Suffering?

It is one thing to act as Maximillian Kolbe did and give away bread and soup while being fed in other ways, and eventually to even ask to stand in and be executed in another's place so that that man might live and return to his family. It is entirely another to believe that one's own physical pain can/may be used by God to relieve the suffering of someone dying of cancer in a crude kind of substitution for instance. To believe this presupposes a God who could stop or mitigate a person's suffering but does not do so because the suffering is needed to fill some cosmic quota or something. (The idea that God requires our suffering to appease his being offended by sin is certainly no better.) It is one thing to accept the suffering that befalls one with equanimity and courage, and as an opportunity to share in Christ's own cross by remaining open to and dependent upon God therein; when one does this, God is implicated in one's suffering and redeems it. Again, it is entirely another thing to beg God to send suffering so that he might relieve the suffering in another, or to attribute suffering to him which is some sort of payback because he graced one with something wonderful or joyful that day. In the first instance there is some generosity involved we should honor (the willingness to suffer in another's place), but the theology involved is simply unjustifiable and possibly unconscionable.

Magical Thinking is not okay.

It is one thing to know that if one suffers well (that is, suffers patiently in complete dependence on the love and support of God in this suffering), God is allowed to dwell more fully in our world and one becomes a part of Jesus' own work of bringing the Kingdom. In such a case one's suffering may indeed touch and edify others; it may indeed convince them of the grace of a God who enters exhaustively into our reality and transforms it with his presence. It will also contribute to the healing of the whole world in the sense that personal holiness does this. But it is entirely another thing to think in magical terms, or in terms of a religious quid pro quo, or to suggest that God makes one suffer so that he may have mercy on someone else and relieve their suffering. As one friend of mine points out, such a God is not the God of Jesus Christ; he is Moloch! (And, should you doubt that there are those who hold such views, search the web; this kind of nonsense is not hard to find. It is a holdover of some of the very worst French Revivalist piety and deserves a quick and deep burial.)

Rejection of the Term "Victim Soul"

Even when I think of Maximillian Kolbe I can't accept there is a place for the category "victim soul" and I especially doubt it is a phrase or status someone like Fr Kolbe would have applied to himself (or that anyone living should do), particularly given the degree of suffering that went on all around him in Auschwitz. What defined Fr Kolbe was not his suffering, though that was plentiful and profound; what defined him was his love of God, his own experience of God's love, and his authentic humanity and selflessness in spite of his suffering. He was known for and was transparent to being nourished, fed, and consoled in ways which make the term victim particularly inadequate, I think. Ordinarily, as the Bishop of Worster noted in regard to a celebrated case of a comatose girl in his diocese who was "billed" as a victim soul, this is a term the Church herself uses for Christ alone; at best we can use it for others only with very great caution.

Generally, at least when it is self-applied, it is often an arrogant term associated at best with people who simply have suffering in their lives and must deal with it as we all must; too often these persons are unaware of how much suffering others undergo on a regular basis. At worst such a self-applied designation is associated with unstable narcissists struggling to find a way to give meaning to the suffering in their lives (which, historically at least, they often willfully exacerbate) while inadvertantly denigrating or distorting the God of Jesus Christ in the process. This is especially true when it is based on theologies which see God as the sender of suffering who doesn't care who does it just so long as the cosmic quota of pain is met, or when it assumes one's own suffering makes one special and allows one to forego ordinary treatment and prudent behavior to minimize it. It is also especially true today when everyone is tempted to see themselves as a victim in one way and another, and when victim status is one of the most disedifying and truly "worldly" dimensions of our society. Since the phenomenon of the "victim soul" is particularly linked to women, many of whom were completely oppressed in one way and another, and often have a history of self-mutilation, cutting, binding, etc, it is one of those phenomona about which the Church is indeed right to be skeptical, or at least VERY CAUTIOUS.

We ALL Share the Cross of Christ

It should go without saying that we are all called upon to share in the cross of Christ. We are called upon to bear the suffering that comes our way in union with him and in complete dependence upon his Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. Also, we are called upon to believe that our own suffering and its redemption has dimensions and scope which transcend our own private world. It contributes to the perfection and fulfillment of God's creation, and when undertaken in faith, can edify others who come to recognize the victory of God in the transformation of one's life and the transfiguration of one's pain. We join ourselves to the crucified and risen Christ and in this sharing of HIS life our own pain becomes a holy space where light may be brought forth from darkness, life from death, and meaning from absurdity. Suffering in this way implicates God more fully into the pain and brokenness of the world. It allows even pain to become sacramental. This is a completely legitimate theology of suffering.

Once again, Suffering Does not Appease or Reconcile an Angry God

But note that what suffering in this way does NOT do is make up some sort of cosmic (or Divine) quota, as though there is a fixed price for sin which God exacts, and nevermind who pays it.  As I noted above, God does not need to be reconciled; we do. It is not the case that God needs us to suffer to be placated or appeased or in order that "payment" be made for our own or others' sins. (The question of why Paul uses such terms in his theology of the cross is another question, but for now let me say he has been misread more often than not.) If someone is dying of cancer, for instance, I cannot bargain with God to ease their pain and give it to me instead. I cannot treat God as though he is the cosmic distributor of suffering, or some sort of punisher. What I CAN do is sit with the person through the pain of their illness and dying, and share in that. I CAN and SHOULD bring Christ to her in whatever ways possible. Sin has consequences and suffering is certainly one of them, but this does not make God the direct dispenser of pain or the One who demands retribution. This is a completely illegitimate theology of suffering. Much commonly-held Victim soul theology is at least implicitly based on such a perverse notion of God and those who claim to be victim souls need to consider this.

Victim Souls, a Special Vocation?

As for whether this is a special vocation I have to disagree. We are ALL called upon to accept and join our sufferings with Christ so that they and our world may be redeemed (that is brought to wholeness and perfection by being reconciled and transformed). Do SOME suffer more in this world than others? Undoubtedly, but how really are we to either quantify or qualify this? More, are they victims? Of what or whom? Certainly not of God! Personally, I find the entire terminology objectionable. As I noted above, our world (especially the 1st world portion of it) is too enamored of victimhood. Everyone is a victim, and they exalt in it! It becomes their whole identity, and that is truly tragic. The notion of a victim soul in such a milieu is particularly unacceptable or objectionable. What this world needs are martyrs (witnesses to the grace and Gospel of God that brings wholeness and peace in spite of their suffering), or prophets (those who speak God's Word into the present situation with a power that transforms it). What we need are men and women with the courage to be something other than victims!!! We do not need more victims, especially those who dress up such status in perverse piety and the notion that somehow such perversity glorifies the infinitely merciful God of Jesus Christ.