Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The God Revealed in Jesus: Suchocki's Process Perspective

In this post on Marjorie Suchocki’s excellent book God-Christ-Church, I want to show how she develops a process Christology in close dialogue with the tradition. What is striking about her approach to theology is her ability to hold together a realist interpretation of the central beliefs and symbols of the Christian faith while not leaving behind her progressive, philosophically rigorous, feminist convictions.  First we'll look at Suchocki’s method and then her understanding of the the person and work of Jesus.

As a Methodist theologian, it is clear that Suchocki’s theological method is founded on the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  When she develops her doctrine of God, she especially emphasizes reason and experience. With her process Christology, she builds on this process doctrine of God to think with the Christian scriptures and tradition about the person and work of Jesus Christ. She clarifies this overall line of thought by differentiating between general and special revelation. Rightly pointing out that these are Christian categories, she then argues that because all knowledge is situated and contextual, any distinctly Christian process theology first depends on the biblical texts (as well as tradition) that shape their ultimate concerns – that is, “Special revelation…is prior to general revelation.” In this, I think Suchocki is right to acknowledge that engaging in process philosophy is not a purely objective activity for her. It is always informed by her Christian “frame of reference.” I would add that Whitehead himself was already shaped by the Christian tradition, and this is certainly reflected in aspects of his philosophy.
Marjorie Suchocki

Suchocki’s explanation of the person of Jesus as the Christ is similar to John Cobb’s Christology, although she is somewhat more pluralistic (that's for another post). She points out that process thought, unlike the creedal tradition, is able to coherently affirm that God was incarnate in Jesus, that he was both truly human and divine, in the sense that he was “co-constituted by the divine and human aim.” This was in large part because God uniquely provided Jesus with initial aims that had a special content, a “full communication of the nature of God.” This special content in the initial aims that uniquely revealed the nature of God was made possible, not because God unilaterally initiated a revelatory event, but because of the particular covenantal history of Israel that Jesus as a Jew was constituted by. This made it possible in the contingencies of history for such a decisive event to occur – “the ‘fullness of time’ is absolutely central,” Suchocki argues. Jewish covenantal history progressively revealed a God of love and justice, but first century Palestine also created messianic expectations of a reversal of the imperial order. Jesus “himself is such a reversal” of the religious status quo and imperial order. Furthermore, Jesus also had to be continuously receptive of God's initial aims in order for such a revelatory event to take place, to adopt them fully rather than to merely adapt to them as most other human beings do. So the incarnation of God in Christ occurred because the cumulative history of Israel that God was decisively working through provided God with unique possibilities to offer Jesus who then responded perfectly, adopting the divine aim as his own.

Suchocki then moves beyond the revelatory life of Jesus to consider the revelatory death of Jesus on the cross. She argues that the difficult symbol of the cross of Christ “is at the heart of the Christian faith.” But the tradition has always struggled to articulate how this is so: what does the cross actually mean for sinners and the oppressed? How is it continuous with Jesus’ revelatory life that showed a God of justice, love, and compassion? Fortunately, the church did not take a stand on a particular theory of the atonement since there are multiple images in scripture. This provides flexibility in new contexts for new understandings of the cross. Unfortunately, the tradition – especially after the Protestant Reformation – emphasized a penal model of atonement in which Christ became the substitute for sinful humanity, taking upon himself at the cross the punishment due for human sin from a wrathful omnipotent deity. But the tradition also had thinkers like Abelard in the 12th century who emphasized a 'moral influence' theory of atonement. This is where Suchocki picks up her approach to the cross.

The death of Jesus can be seen, at least in part, as a revelation of the nature of God for us. On the cross, Suchocki says Jesus experienced ‘Godforsakenness’ (echoing Jurgen Moltmann) in his incredible pain – but he nevertheless continued to model love, forgiveness, and justice in the darkest hours of his life when most would be without the ability to do so. In the midst of dying a cruel death in which he experienced the absence of God, Jesus continued to forgive his enemies and show care for loved ones. As Suchocki writes, “Jesus continues to love, through deepest pain, in a great reversal of what one would normally expect…through the cross we see not only that God’s love is stronger than death, but that God in love endures the pain of death, and that God’s love is unconquered by death.”  As in Jesus' life, he turns everything upside down in his death by embodying a 'topsy-turvy' kingdom.

A God who experiences pain is a reversal of normal religious expectations (one that the church itself has struggled to come to terms with!). If God was in Jesus on the cross, we see a God who not only suffers with us in our sufferings but also redemptively feels our sins. Every sin in society is therefore also a sin against God: “We crucify God.” So Jesus shows us that God loves even in the midst of our sins against God that, in fact, actually cause God pain: God loves in the midst of both our pain as the 'fellow sufferer who understands', and also in spite of God’s own pain due to our sins. In a process universe, the cross of Christ as a revelatory symbol of redemption and hope actually makes sense. Precisely because God in the consequent nature feels every sin and knows our situations in full, God can then graciously offer us redemptive possibilities in the next moment of our existence. Suchocki concludes, “Through God’s crucifixion, God provides us with a resurrection fitted to us in a love that demands our well-being. Who would think of a God whose love involves God in our pain? Revelation comes through the reversal of our normal expectations.”

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