God in Pain

Simon Perry

10th March, 2013

A recent study conducted by neuroscientists at University College London set out to find the Neurological basis for empathy – that is, the capacity to enter into another’s pain.  Using MRI scanners scientists observed the brain’s reactions to feeling pain in both men and women.  A small electric shock was given to the woman – with the result that a certain area of their brain would light up to indicate the experience of pain.  However, when these women saw their male partners receive precisely the same kind of shock – the same area of their brain would light up to indicate that they literally felt the pain of their partners as if that pain had been inflicted upon them.

When the same experiment was repeated on men – sure enough, when they received the electric shock, and felt their own pain -  their brain lit up in the same area.  But – when the men watched their female partners having pain inflicted on them… Nothing!  No lights coming on.  No empathy! Proof, it seems, of gender differences! 

This term we have looked at the issue of human suffering and divine indifference.  And most of our invited speakers, whether speaking about the Holocaust, or Crucifixion, or Cancer, inverted the order – and spoke of divine suffering and human indifference.  What does it mean for God to suffer?  Can god suffer?  What does it mean for god to enter into the pain of another?

Evolutionarily speaking, it is still very recent history where the caricature of the man as hunter-gatherer and the woman as nurturing home-maker were a stark reality.  And it is widely concluded that this is why women’s brains developed certain sensitivities, peripheral awareness and the capacity to multi-task – that men simply hadn’t developed.  If your role is to protect the homestead from predators, you need a different set of abilities to your role if your job is to seek, locate, hunt, kill.  So, it is thought, that women are more sensitive to the pain of those whom they protect and care for, more able – that is – to empathise.  Empathy, it seems, is an essential aspect of nurturing, protecting caring.

Stated differently, to offer care, protection, love – is to be ready to enter into the pain of those we love.  If you want a life free of suffering and pain – then be sure that you never love anyone or anything.  To love is to root your own wellbeing in the wellbeing of those you love – those for whom you care.  Whatever pain they face, you face.  To love at all, said C.S.Lewis, is to be vulnerable.  Love anything at all and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.  God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son

Richard Dawkins points out that – if God really is all knowing and all powerful, could he not come up anything better than cramming his eternal glory into a human being, having him tortured and executed, raising him from the dead and declaring sinners forgiven.  Could God really not come up with anything better than that?

Of course, there is a different way of reading Scripture and Nature – that does not trade in caricatured versions of omnipotence, and sin and forgiveness and atonement.  In scripture, life is a gift, a precious gift, that we honour most fully by engaging most openly with that which is ‘other’ or holy.  In a violent world, the creator God does not simply wind everything up, get it going, then hurry off radar when his people need his support.  This is a God who is intimately and actively involved with his people – a God who defines empathy.

Empathy- strictly speaking, is the capacity to enter into the suffering of another.  Sympathy is the readiness to come together with those who suffer.  Apathy – is the incapacity or refusal to suffer.  Empathy is to enter into that suffering.  That is why the events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus are called, the Passion.  It is the same root as em-pathy – the ability to be passive, to be on the receiving end, to suffer … for the sake of something or someone greater.

Of course, passion means something different nowadays to what it used to mean.  As David Mitchell points out, nowadays – we are confronted with adverts telling us that various commercial companies are passionate – Employees of Moodies’ Tax Advisors are passionate about Tax Optimization, “Wow,” says Mitchell, “imagine being so in touch with your inner emotional core that you can be passionate about tax, and not just tax, but tax optimization!”

Hammersmith and Fulham Council are passionate about improving customer focussed services; SCS furniture company are passionate about sofas! And, most impressively, John Hopkins University assure us, they are Passionate about everything they do!

I don’t think this is the kind of passion that is generally anticipated during the season of Lent.  When we see Jesus sweating drops of blood because of what awaits him after he is arrested.  What kind of passion is this?  This is not a passion designed to convince us that we should worship god because he really cares about what he does.  This is a passion that is woven through the fabric of the cosmos:

That is – as humans, there are a million possible ways of getting things done, a million possible means of achieving our own ends; a million different strategies for making the world a better place.  And if we are obsessed with an omnipotent God – then all those options are available.  But the god of Scripture instead is a God whose being is revealed most fully in passion – in entering into the plight of others.  In becoming human, in suffering, in experiencing failure and frustration and defeat.  Faith – is the ability to follow this God on his journey to his passion.  When Jesus said follow me, he was on his way to the cross.

And yet – it was through this radical empathy, this suffering with others, this entering into the world of another – that, whilst resembling failure in the short term, led to a radical restructuring of social and political reality in the longer term.  Bearing all the hallmarks of failure, the crucifixion is nevertheless the expression of a God who suffers with his people in order to remake the world.  Because, according to the Christian narrative, the crucifixion is not the end of the story.

However, the temptation is to skip over that which looks negative and accentuate the positive; to downplay that which resembles failure and highlight success, to fast-forward through the passion of Christ to arrive at resurrection.  But the point of Lent is to slow down, and to tarry with the negative, to enter into the suffering of God with empathy – and in so doing to be exposed to a different understanding of the mechanics of the cosmos.  The point is not to be bogged down in guilt at the death of God, but to encounter our world, and its creator and ourselves in a way that allows genuine hope and light and freedom to reach into the real depths of who we are and what the world is.  Lent is where we learn to tarry with the negative, faith is where we learn the courage to endure suffering, and passion is where we embrace the pain of another.