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Jesus’ cry of forsakenness on the cross is by some considered to be the pinnacle of his suffering and therefore of God’s self-emptying and self-giving love. It is a moment in Jesus’ life that has attracted many and that many have reflected on and meditated on. Among the latest of these is the atheist philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who, in a book co-authored with the Lutheran theologian Boris Gunjević and entitled “God in Pain”, presents a particularly insightful analysis.
Žižek approaches Jesus’ forsakenness on the cross by first posing one of the most perennially challenging questions in Christianity, and in any religion that posits a loving God, which is that of evil and suffering:
“Every theologian sooner or later faces the problem of how to reconcile the existence of God with the fact of the Shoah or some similar excessive evil: How are we to reconcile the existence of an omnipotent and good God with the terrifying suffering of millions of innocents, like the children killed in the gas chambers?”After dismissing two unsatisfactory answers (the first being an argument from mystery and the second from God self-imposing limitations that effectively lead to dualism), Žižek proceeds to present a, to his (and my) mind, credible response:
This brings us to the third position [...]: that of a suffering God — not a triumphalist God who always wins in the end, although “his ways are mysterious” since he secretly pulls all the strings; not a God who exerts cold justice, since he is by definition always right; but a God who — like the suffering Christ on the cross — is agonized, who assumes the burden of suffering, in solidarity with human misery. It was already Schelling who wrote: “God is a life, not merely a being. But all life has a fate and is subject to suffering and becoming. … Without the concept of a humanly suffering God … all of history remains incomprehensible.” Why? Because God’s suffering implies that he is involved in history, affected by it, not just a transcendent Master pulling the strings from above: God’s suffering means that human history is not just a theater of shadows, but the place of a real struggle, the struggle in which the Absolute itself is involved and its fate is decided. This is the philosophical background of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s deep insight that, after the Shoah, “only a suffering God can help us now” — a proper supplement to Heidegger’s “Only a God can save us!” from his last interview. One should therefore take the statement that “the unspeakable suffering of the six million is also the voice of the suffering of God” quite literally: the very excess of this suffering over any “normal” human measure makes it divine. Recently, this paradox was succinctly formulated by Jürgen Habermas: “Secular languages which only eliminate the substance once intended leave irritations. When sin was converted to culpability, and the breaking of divine commands to an offense against human laws, something was lost.”I believe that Žižek makes two key observations here: first, that God’s suffering is born of solidarity with human suffering, in other words, that it is the result of mercy, and, second, that it is God’s suffering that is a key to beginning to understand the suffering of others and suffering itself.
Which is why secular-humanist reactions to phenomena like the Shoah or the gulag (amongst others) are experienced as insufficient: in order to reach the level of such phenomena, something much stronger is needed, something akin to the old religious topic of a cosmic perversion or catastrophe in which the world itself is “out of joint”—when one confronts a phenomenon like the Shoah, the only appropriate reaction is to ask the perplexed question “Why did the heavens not darken?” (the title of Arno Mayor’s book). Therein resides the paradox of the theological significance of the Shoah: although it is usually conceived as the ultimate challenge to theology (if there is a God and if he is good, how could he have allowed such a horror to take place?), it is at the same time only theology that can provide the frame enabling us to somehow approach the scope of the catastrophe — the fiasco of God is still the fiasco of God.
Furthermore, Žižek also sees Jesus’ abandonment on the cross as the key to man transcending his animal origins and as a bridge over the otherwise insurmountable abyss between God and man:
“The crucial problem is how to think the link between the two “alienations” — the one of modern man from God (who is reduced to an unknowable In-itself, absent from the world subjected to mechanical laws), the other of God from himself (in Christ, in the incarnation) — they are the same, although not symmetrically, but as subject and object. In order for (human) subjectivity to emerge out of the substantial personality of the human animal, cutting links with it and positing itself as the I = I dispossessed of all substantial content, as the self-relating negativity of an empty singularity, God himself, the universal Substance, has to “humiliate” himself, to fall into his own creation, “objectivize” himself, to appear as a singular miserable human individual, in all its abjection, i.e., abandoned by God. The distance of man from God is thus the distance of God from himself.”Žižek then argues that Jesus’ abandonment is the key to union with God since in that moment God makes what separates man from Him part of Himself. The gap that separated us from Him becomes part of Him and makes us immediately adjacent and no longer at a distance:
“In Christianity, the gap that separates God from man is not effectively “sublated” in the figure of Christ as god-man, but only in the most tense moment of crucifixion when Christ himself despairs (“Father, why have you forsaken me?”): in this moment, the gap is transposed into God himself, as the gap that separates Christ from God the Father; the properly dialectical trick here is that the very feature which appeared to separate me from God turns out to unite me with God.”Finally, Žižek claims the forsaken Jesus for himself by conferring on him his own atheist identity and he does so also through the words of G. K. Chesterton:
“[I]n Christianity, when, dying on the cross, Christ utters his “Father, father, why did you forsake me?”—here, for a brief moment, God himself does not believe in himself—or, as G. K. Chesterton put it in emphatic terms: “When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.” (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 145.)”Žižek’s “God in Pain” is a book that I wholeheartedly recommend to read in full, since it is a rich source of profound reflection on a variety of questions, from among which the above are the highlights of his insights into the forsaken Jesus. Personally, I find his perspective very enriching in that it provides a view from a vantage point that is close to the event of Jesus’ abandonment and that spells out aspects of what that experience might have been “from the inside.” Žižek’s insight that Jesus’ taking on what separates God from man is what builds a bridge is particularly striking and also an invitation to radical dialogue. By emptying myself to receive what separates me from you, we become one.
I can’t not mention another outstanding feature of “God in Pain”, which is the deeply beautiful re-telling and analysis of St. Mark’s Gospel that Gunjević presents in the book’s final chapter, entitled “Pray and Watch — The Messianic Subversion.” It alone is worth the price of admission.