Gods Real Plan

Created for Joyby By Sidney CallahanCrossroad. 246p $19.95 (paperback)
Sidney Callahan dedicates her lovely and wise book Created for Joy: A Christian View of Suffering to an infant and a child. The infant, her fourth son, died of sudden infant death syndrome when not yet two months old. Thirty-five years later, on the very same day, came the healing joy of her granddaughter’s birth. Yet joy and sorrow intermingled once more, when the newborn’s mother died of an undetected blood clot. Callahan’s reflections, though rich with theological and psychological insight, are primarily forged in the fire of human experience and Christian faith.

Theologically, Callahan has clearly learned from such feminist thinkers as Elizabeth Johnson and the late Catherine Mowry LaCugna, C.S.J. She sensitively evokes images highlighting God’s feminine face. Thus, within the context of an evolving universe, she stresses that God’s action is not controlling and coercive, but, like a parent, guiding and persuasive. Yet the feminist perspective she favors is never one-sided: a stress on God’s pervasive immanence does not compromise, but requires acknowledgment of God’s total transcendence.

Callahan—an award-winning author, professor and psychologist—draws suggestively upon the renewal of Trinitarian thought in contemporary Catholic theology. She gives special attention to themes of relationality, communication and communion among persons. The triune God of Christian faith is not distant and unaffected. God knows our suffering. In a real sense, such knowing becomes a sharing.

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Here Callahan refers to psychological studies about the positive role of emotion in human life to underscore the concept of empathy. The book, in effect, rehabilitates “emotion” for spirituality and theology. She insists that “love always includes empathy and mutual union, along with a desire to alleviate another’s suffering felt as one’s own. Thus empathy is the foundation of justice and morality, since it moves one to take the role of the other and consider her well-being from her point of view.” And she boldly declares: “So too with God: it is the suffering engendered through expanded empathy that characterizes our divine Lover, Parent, Friend, and Creator.”

Though she does not pepper her text with reminders that all talk of God is “analogous,” the author clearly asserts that “God’s joy is not curtailed or stunted by empathetic suffering: infinite empathy does not preclude infinite joy.” One could have wished for a more sustained development of the point (and a quick allusion to God’s “di-polar nature” does not greatly illuminate). But the intuition seems to me sound: the Triune God of love desires with passion the good of creation. Sidney Callahan can surely enlist Pope Benedict XVI as an ally in affirming both eros and agape in God.

Callahan viscerally recoils from any intimation that God sends suffering as pedagogy, much less as punishment. She engages in a sustained, respectful exchange with C .S. Lewis, whose classic The Problem of Pain she now finds unconvincing, though she admits: “I have been intellectually shaped by his work, even though I now disagree with many of his views.” Her un-swerving conviction is that “love engenders life and joy. God does not harm or hurt or rule by pain and terror.”

The issue, of course, becomes most pointed when one confronts the cross of Christ. No doubt there have been, in some theological and catechetical circles, understandings of the cross that seem to suggest that punishment has been inflicted upon an innocent victim to satisfy some cosmic debt. This is a view that in the minds of many today, leads to exalting suffering and promoting passivity before injustice, in a way incompatible with the Gospel of salvation.

For Callahan the passion of the cross can never be separated from the compassionate life and ministry of Jesus, nor from the joyful proclamation of the one who is the firstborn from the dead. Still, it does not seem to me that Callahan marginalizes the cross in this book, as is done in some versions of feminist and liberationist theology. As I read her, the cross is not merely a consequence of the provocative life of Jesus. It brings that life to consummation. She writes, “Since Jesus lived in readiness for everything that his work and love of God would bring, he freely gave over his body, blood, mind, heart, and life for God and his people.”

The name, unmentioned in the book, but which to some represents a view of Christ’s atonement that verges on the abusive, is that of St. Anselm. My own persuasion is that scholarly as well as popular approaches to the atonement have distorted Anselm’s theological vision. After all, the often maligned Anselm tenderly evoked “Jesus our mother” centuries before the much-admired Julian of Norwich did so. Even more to the point, in the following heartfelt avowal, Callahan sounds a note not alien to Anselm:

In empathy and love Jesus suffers not only his own pain and distress, but all the world’s past, present, and future travail. Moreover, as we have seen, empathy can be felt for the ignorant and deformed evildoers who in their moral wickedness reject the light and remain in darkness. In this sense Jesus bears the burdens and sins of humankind. He is innocent, but through loving empathy can suffer for the lethal and sinful lapses of his people. His bearing of the sins of the world is not a passive punishment laid on Jesus by God, but rather it is a voluntary act of love and empathy for the human family. A mother mourns and suffers vicariously in and with her children’s destructive sins, and so Jesus suffers for us.

I have cited this passage at length, because I think it recapitulates the heart of Created for Joy. The heart is Incarnation. God so loved the world that God gave the beloved Son. Jesus so loves us that he continues to give himself, sharing our sufferings that he might in turn share with us his life. Sidney Callahan’s book, in plumbing suffering’s depths and celebrating joy’s heights, is, first and last, a love song to this loving God who creates us for joy.

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