God’s vulnerability and our own


“He began to teach them
that the Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed, and rise after three days.
He spoke this openly.
Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples,
rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them,
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it.” (Mk 8: 31-35)

I’ve just returned this week from an interdisciplinary conference on vulnerability. Among the topics discussed was whether God can be vulnerable, or if the vulnerability of Jesus is only one experienced by Jesus in his humanity, but not his divinity. Theologically, there are certain “costs” that go along with any abstract position. If God is not vulnerable, we can preserve the idea that God is completely powerful and perfectly good; the influence of Greek philosophy on Christian theology led many thinkers to say that if God is perfect, he must be incapable of being changed, since he is already in a perfectly good state. But how is that god a god of relationship, one to whom we can pray and with whom we can experience intimacy? However, if God is vulnerable, it seems we must give up the notion that God is completely powerful, and therefore also “in charge” in such a way that all sin and all suffering are redeemed. Process theology conceives of  God as interactive and learning through history, but such a divine being is not necessarily in a position of power to redeem and to save all.

I’m not a professional theologians, but as a specialist in Greek philosophy, I also think that our own Christian theological concepts are limited by the manner in which Greek philosophy understood “perfection.” If perfection means being unaffected by change, that is one idea of what it means to be perfect. But if perfection is a perfection in Love, then many of these difficulties can be differently resolved. What it perfection is a perfection of self-gift and not one of self-sufficiency?

When Jesus tells Peter that he must suffer and die, Peter also rejects this notion, although probably for reasons that are more rooted in Hebrew expectations of a Messiah who will save this world, than in ones stemming from Greek philosophy. Jesus responds, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Here, Jesus invites Peter to let go of a certain degree of intellectual control in understanding how God acts. Peter cannot abide the idea that God will act in a particular way–one that involves suffering, loss, and humiliation–in order to save, because Peter’s concepts, like those of others around him, assume that salvation and redemption always take place through power, strength, and “getting things right.” Jesus, however, points to God’s action taking place in ways that human beings cannot grasp and cannot fully understand. As one of my colleagues at the conference asserted, we must have a very deep trust in how God acts and how God redeems. Indeed, in Greek, the term for faith and the term for trust are the same (pistis).

We all go through experiences of difficulty or suffering, whether messy relationships, uncertain outcomes to health problems of ourselves or others whom we love, personal losses, questions of meaning and purpose in our personal lives or in the larger political community. When Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me,” I think we are invited into a deepening of trust in God: although often we do not know how taking up our individual or communal crosses can be a way for God’s action to take place, we can trust that God redeems and saves. None of the disciples knew how God was going to redeem the crucifixion, yet some remained at the foot of the Cross in faithfulness of love.

Through suffering, loss, separation, and confusion, Love endures. Love remains. Love is both vulnerable and strong, a place from which we  give ourselves away and a source of renewal. We can embrace the uncertainty, messiness, and even suffering that life delivers because of this faithful renewal of Love.