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Suffering, Innocence and Love

by Jeffrey G. Sobosan, C.S.C.

Father Sobosan, C.S.C., is currently engaged in postgraduate study at the University of California, Berkeley. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 10, 1974, pp. 397-398. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Every person possesses some secret desire which he holds prisoner in his heart, for only there can it dwell in the sacredness which secrecy alone provides. For the virgin it is perhaps the desire to bear flesh from her flesh, for the faithful husband it is perhaps the desire to once -- just once -- be unfaithful, to taste the opposite of what has become a life style. The attraction of opposites is a mental as well as physical phenomenon. The cowed individual of religious creeds harbors a secret wish, perhaps frequently made conscious, to hurl a defiant No! into the face of God, to jam the vinegar-soaked sponge down his throat and twist the nails in his feet. We are a composite of opposites, a coniunctio oppositorum, as the old masters would say -- only they were speaking of God. We are plagued to enjoy a doomed beauty and pursue a purposeless meaning, to live a life-death into which seemingly autonomous and contradictory forces constantly intrude.

Is it possible for autonomous forces to enter into one’s life? Carl Jung, among others, would answer Yes, and say that this possibility is in fact a whole process of life in which a universal unconscious gradually makes itself known to individual lives and eventually brings a conscious insight into their meaning. He calls this individuation, the process of becoming an individual. There seems, for example, to be evidence that "religiosity" was present in peoples whose awareness on a conscious level was minimal. Even in the 20th century world in which people have disclaimed all sense of transcendence, Jung found in his experimental analysis a tendency for archetypes (symbols and myths) to reappear unconsciously in a person’s life.

Camus and Christianity

The possibility of autonomous forces’ exercising power within a concrete human life is also offered by Christianity. Kaliayev, in Camus’s The Just Assassins, says that the suffering of life separates people and that only death can reunite them. Death is their final bond in sorrow, after which there is nothing. He tells the duchess, the wife of the man he murdered, that Christ died in suffering with his fellow creatures, which is all that any man can do. The duchess replies that one always dies alone. She says that dying separates people, that only God can save and reunite them.

The alternatives offered by Kaliayev and the duchess are equally unsatisfactory. Either one suffers with God, which doesn’t make suffering worthwhile: or one ignores suffering and injustice in the hope of a spiritual salvation. Neither alternative gives a meaning to suffering, and neither is particularly Christian. Rather, a Christian alternative to these proposals might be the understanding of suffering on the concrete level, especially in the life of Jesus. and through this understanding coming to experience the autonomous creative forces of life.

Someone like Camus, in The Rebel, would say that one is basically innocent in that no matter how good he is toward others and sincere toward himself he still must die, and that the order of the world is therefore unjust. Others, however, like Camus in his later work The Fall, hold that no one is innocent. The narrator of The Fall thus explains the death of Jesus in light of an inherent human guilt: it was just as impossible for Jesus to justify his existence as it is for any one, so that the real reason why he went to his death is that he knew he was not altogether innocent. Becoming man meant that he. God, was doomed to suffer.

This particular position is developed as follows: An encounter with one’s individual death leads to an awareness of the limits of human existence. One can understand these limits (guilt/innocence. etc.) as both positive and negative: or one might approach them so as to live as if life were solely one or the other. Some opt for the former position. They recognize the ambiguity of life and, believing that one does not have the power to construe or make his life completely, conclude that he is not wholly innocent. They fail, however, to take one further step. For if one would accept that the dark and negative side of life is irretrievably present, that the human situation is inherently ambiguous, he could then go beyond the guilt associated with any attempt to construe life so as to eliminate its dark side.

From Nothingness to Being

The basic question being asked is: Why does suffering occur in an individual’s life? The life and death of Jesus -- that is, the story of God’s becoming an individual man -- is an attempt to answer this question. It is not that Jesus acts with or for all persons, but that he acts as an individual man. His life is an example of the way in which an individual life might he lived. As a man, he finds darkness and negativity in his life, but he trusts in the darkness, and his trust transforms it into light. This trust indicates that though he is looking for something greater than his individual life, he knows that this something can only be discovered within the life process. Seen in this perspective, the life of Jesus is similar to Jung’s idea of the individual life, and the risen Christ is comparable to Jung’s fully individuated man.

Jesus the man reveals Jesus the God in that he does humanly what God does. Jesus does not impose meaning on or construe his life; he allows his life to become. And in this sense the God present in Jesus can be seen as an autonomous creative force which lets life be what it is. In the way he lets his own life develop, therefore, Jesus becomes for the Christian the paradigm of the human being actively open to the creative power within him, which is God. Jesus’ individual life can be seen as the way in which all individuals inust pursue the search for their own meaning. Which is to say that the path which the individual life must take is one of growth from nothingness to being, by attempting first to understand that one’s life situation is ambiguous; second, by opening oneself up to the creative God-power within oneself and waiting for its revelation, however gradually it may come; and third, by acting upon its discovery.

Jesus reveals not that God will love a person if he acts this way or that, but that God loves humankind unconditionally. But to love unconditionally is to love the concrete, including both good and evil. The Christian must therefore attempt to understand sympathetically the life of Jesus: that is, attempt to experience his life as he experienced it, and learn from his experience. This is possible, of course, only to the extent that there is a common basis for experience in all people. And if there is such a common basis, if all people are concrete individuals, then one can complete his understanding only by returning again to his own individuality. For simply to re-enact the life of Jesus is but half the task.

The Way to Become Whole

Unconditional love, or the attempt to love unconditionally, is thus an opening of oneself to guidance in the face of life’s paradox and absurdity. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, Jesus returns from the wilderness to begin his mission of preaching repentance and the kingdom of God. and finds that John the Baptist has been imprisoned. He thus begins by taking the place of John. But when John is put to death, according to Matthew, Jesus withdraws. Was this because he realized that he was risking death, that his "life-project" of converting Israel might fail? Perhaps. But this discovery of the possible absurdity of his task did rot cause him to abandon it. Rather, he continued to rust that there was a meaning beyond his perception, as death is necessarily beyond the perception of man. And that he died still teaching and still trusting in the darkness of this possible absurdity is clear: on the cross, we are told, he said: "Into your hands I commend my spirit." Only after his death is the man Jesus recognized as the "Lord." He saw darkness at the end of his life and trusted in it.

The insight gained from the life of Jesus is that the task of becoming a human being, as God became a man, involves death. But only if God is viewed as unconditional love is it conceivable that he would become a man and live a human life. Only in this way, too, is it possible to understand why, rather than attempting to achieve a goal -- that is, attempting to become a god -- Jesus revealed that the way to become whole is to become a person. The possibility which this revelation offers us is that the individual life is greater than any particular life project. But only if one does not give up after failure can he open himself to this insight, within which is found a creative power working through life, bringing it out of nothingness toward Being.


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