Jung, Whitman, & Aquinas Walk into a Bar – Thoughts on Divine Suffering [GUEST POST]


As I’ve been outlining a Male Feminist Theology, I have said there is an aspect of Suffering-Unto Life in the very nature of God. This started some conversation on Facebook. Today, along this vein, we have a guest post by one of my dearest friends (and blog contributor), Austin Ricketts.  Years ago, he wrote in favor of God’s Suffering. Years later, he took it back in a little debate we had. Today, he offers a sophisticated sort of “middle way”. It’s more dense than most things I post here, so I’ve linked to relevant articles elsewhere to help you follow along.


If I were to set my doctrine of God down as a scene from a play, you would see the Cappadocian fathers meeting Thomas Aquinas at table, somewhere in Tuscany, while Charles Hartshorne comes in out of the Spring air from some bird watching. Thomas eats a large chicken, all by himself, while the fathers drink wine; their arms around him. Hartshorne is taken aback by the size and quiddity of the meal—how could he eat a bird, after all—so he orders a salad and sparkling water. Soon after, the fair Charles is assaulted by a paper airplane from the end of the table, and he looks up to see Augustine, who had up to that point been cloaked and hooded. After all this, the set goes dim, stage props move to reveal a completely different mise-en-scene.

The lights brighten to reveal one, Carl Jung, waking from a dream, saying “Hmm. How bout that?”

The curtains quickly close, all goes quiet, and a voice—preferably that of James Earl Jones—says, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Then, this Quaker Poet with a long gray beard and large hat comes streaking—that is to say naked, except for the hat—across the stage shouting, “I sing the Body electric. Eidolons! Eidolons everywhere!”


This is how I imagine things moving together. It would, at the very least, be an interesting show.

More boringly, I would say that the Cappadocian view of the Trinity, when it emphasizes the monarchy of the Father, is on the right track. It’s a key point. And even while Thomas says that “Person” is the most perfect kind of nature that there is, especially when considering God, there is still a sense in which Thomas has foreshortened this instinct.

Granted, the medievals worked with a logic of perfection, and few if any did that better than Thomas. Even still, the logic was more abstract than it needed to be. This is Hartshorne’s point: the logic of perfection made a good beginning while talking about being, even God’s act of existence, but it could have done better with bringing personality to play a more decisive role in the logic. For instance, when the Bible talks about God not changing it does not primarily mean anything about Being in the Aristotelian sense. Rather, it means that God will be faithful to God’s covenant. This says something about the nature or being of God, to be sure, but only by implication.

(An interesting aside could be made here about the essentially critical nature that Aristotelian philosophy has and does play in biblical interpretation. It’s a point which, I think, would be interesting to those who are opposed to biblical criticism and yet still use Aristotelian philosophy. But I won’t make the point, except as I’ve already apophatically done so.)

Returning to the point, Hartshorne would say that this immutability should be rendered as a personal characteristic, not judged simply in terms of being qua being. The logic of perfection comes in to balance the situation, showing that immutability doesn’t mean stasis. Neither does it, in personal terms, mean something like stubbornness. Rather, again, it means faithfulness, steadiness.

Upon this, I enter plea number one: Why, if we’re speaking analogically anyway, shouldn’t we speak more in personal terms? It ends up sounding a lot more like the Bible when we talk about God personally.

But as we are want to continue with metaphysics, let’s go deep…straight to the core. What if Aquinas was wrong, at least here and there? What if, starting with natural theology, we actually could prove something like the Trinity?

The thing is, I think that we actually can prove the Trinity from a natural theological stance. I’ll say that the Trinity looks like a Tri-Aspectual Unity. And I think that we can get there by going along Aquinas’ way from contingent to necessary being. Without the entirety of the argument, here’s an overview.

Given that something exists, we have to say that something has always existed. There is no logical way to get something from nothing. In other words, Lawrence Krauss doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Anyway, there has always been something. But it’s not any of the things we see in daily life. It’s not even the universe itself, which has not always existed. You eventually have to settle on something necessary and stable. This is necessary being, the necessary aspect of the Tri-Aspectual Unity.

But you then have to realize that, well hey, these contingent things do exist. So, there’s a twofold realization that happens at this point. Numero uno: There must be some way in which these contingent beings are connected to necessary being. Nummer zwei: There is something about contingency that seems like it always was a possibility. In fact, I will presently assert that it’s an eternally subsistent reality. This is the contingent aspect of the Tri-Aspectual Unity.

And in the above twofold realization we already have mention of the third aspect. There needs to be a way in which the necessary aspect and the contingent aspect are related while remaining distinct. This is the third aspect of the Tri-Aspectual Unity, the relative or unifying aspect. My contention is that all three of these aspects are logically required, even especially in their seeming paradoxical nature. And much of the logic unsurprisingly sounds like Thomas, if I were to go into it more deeply, even if some of the terms and applications differ.

Given this Tri-Aspectual Unity, there is an aspect of God that can change, which is able to change in a certain sense at the level of being. From the contingent aspect, God can create. The contingent aspect is moldable, even while it remains eternal as an aspect. It holds within it the possibility for all kinds of beings to come forth, to live and move and have their being within the confines of this aspect. And the way it happens is that the necessary aspect relates, by means of the relative aspect, to the contingent aspect: it relates to it as other. The relative aspect, being real, makes these other beings.

Relations are real, ontologically, on my account, although not as abidingly real as other aspects of being which are modeled more closely to the necessary aspect. I hold that Thomas has mostly got the notion of relations correct in Question 28 and it’s where he’s closest to grounding things in personhood. I’m not sure how well my notion works with his notion of essence and existence as synonymous in God. I think I fit better with an Eastern Essence-Energies distinction.

Anyway, when it comes to God creating and incarnating, I think in analogous terms as Thomas does in Question 14, Article 9, reply to objection 3, with my obvious twist that God is working on God’s own being. And maybe there’s an analogy between my understanding of the contingent aspect and Thomas’ understanding of Prime Matter. But I’ll leave that to the imagination.

Now to the relevant points:

1) This contingent aspect implies change; it does not imply and certainly doesn’t necessitate suffering.

2) It opens the possibility for death in creation, apart from sin, though it doesn’t entail suffering in this.

3) Since the contingent aspect holds within it all possibilities of contingent being it implies a great deal of freedom, but this freedom is bound by the goodness of being (Questions 5 and 6 in the Summa are relevant here).

4) There is no new fact in the knowledge of God, even given the great amount of freedom. God knows all contingency as possible until it is actualized. So, there is only a change in the mode of God’s knowledge. In other words, there is only a change in the relation of God to this or that thing which is held within the contingent aspect of God. And remember: relations are real, even if lower on the totem pole of reality.

5) God yields his will to otherness for a time, though his being remains necessarily good. Any determinism, then, is utterly ontological and it is funneled toward ultimate, inescapable good, which is true freedom. God does not will the suffering of Christians in the Middle East. Those who are evil will this by misusing the good they have. But because all is upheld by necessary being, and being is good, the good will prevail by a kind of attrition. There is only so far that bad can leach on to good.

6) Most importantly, God can enter into the situation as a person and actually feel things, actually suffer. But given the supremacy of the necessary aspect of being, this suffering is not the most powerful thing. Necessary Life is the most powerful thing. That is, the Resurrection is preeminent in Christian theology, not the crucifixion. I’m with the East here, too.

Finally, this is what I mean when I have Walt Whitman yelling: “I sing the Body electric. Eidolons! Eidolons everywhere!” For old Walt, eidolons (spiritual realities) are the entity of entities. Yet they are not opposed to the body. Spiritual realities are what found everything, but they do not despise the material. The spiritual realities, God being ultimate, are alive. They move and react, but they keep their form. This is what I’m after.

And I resonate with this sentiment from Jung:

There is no doubt that there is something behind these images that transcends consciousness and operates in such a way that the statements do not vary limitlessly and chaotically, but clearly all relate to a few basic principles or archetypes. These, like the psyche itself, or like matter, are unknowable as such. All we can do is to construct models of them which we know to be inadequate, a fact which is confirmed again and again by religious statements.

Now that’s a statement as apophatic as any Thomas would like to have made.

Peace be with you all.

[image credit: “Composition T. 50-5” by Hans Hartung]


20 thoughts on “Jung, Whitman, & Aquinas Walk into a Bar – Thoughts on Divine Suffering [GUEST POST]

  1. I think you might get along better with Bonaventure than Aquinas on the doctrine of God (he has rational arguments for the Trinity and puts a lot more stress on monarchy of the Father). Disputed Questions on the Mystery of the Trinity would be a good place to start. I am still going to have to side with Thomas on immutability but you’ve given me a lot to think about.


    • Thanks, Nathanael. It’s funny you mention that. I’ve long considered myself a Franciscan more than a Dominican. Bonaventure is always popping up in my head while I’m reading Thomas. Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts once you’ve codified them more. Peace.


  2. Like with Paul’s previous post, I don’t see how your theology proper can maintain divine simplicity, impassibility, or immutability. A denial of these doctrines constitutes a DIFFERENT God than mine (and most of Christian theology’s). What makes my God to be God is that he is not a creature. That is to say God, unlike creatures, is neither composite, an effect (passible), nor is he changeable. Really, if you alter the absolute, you will reap the relative as a result. If this is the theology proper you assume when you confess Christ to be God, I would respond that you don’t actually confess Christ to be God. You confess Christ to be a very special creature (one who is an effect) and that your “theology” has no place for God.


  3. Bob, since you’ve chosen not to dialogue and have rather chosen to imply and nearly assert that I’m a heretic, I’m going to choose to ignore you.

    I hope that you will someday learn that the way you stated things above will never earn your position a hearing. Argue against my position, fine. I like a good debate. But don’t dare imply that I worship another God than the One revealed in Christ. That’s just silly.


  4. Ok. I’ve been out of the game for way too long to be of much help here. But I guess I can offer a few things that might bring some illumination. I’ll comment on Austin’s thoughts in reverse order. I loved the Jung quote. This pretty much sums up my suspicion of Systematicians. Sometimes I wonder if they are overly confident in what they derived from “good and necessary consequences”. They might’ve been more helpful had they adopted a more conservative attitude and taken the essence of Jung’s statement more seriously. 2ndly, I was reading Bruggemann on the Sabbath. And he has this interesting thought, that in Exodus 31, when God “rested”, He was refreshing Himself. The word there is Nephesh. God was “re-nepheshing” Himself. Bruggeman argues that God was recovering a full sense of “His self” that had been eroded by doing work (pg 6). I don’t know how to square that with immutability, tho I suspect that Bruggeman’s insight is not necessarily excluded by that doctrine, especially if one ponders this through the lens of what Jung was saying. BTW, I think this also touches (however briefly) upon Impassiblity, since the erosion of self is a kind of hurtful thing.


  5. Only tangentially related, but have you looked at Peter Leithart’s newish book “Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience”?


      • Nothing in particular, but the general notion that there are structural features to the created order that point toward the Trinity resonates with Leithart’s account. I was trying to think through how what you say here might fit or not fit with his thoughts (though I’m a bit wary of carving up necessity, contingency, and relation in quite the way you do).

        Matthew Levering wrote a review that summarizes Leithart nicely that was published (oddly, of all places) in Ref21:



        • Thanks, Joel, I’ll take a look. Let me know if lights go off considering my relation to Leithart.

          Although, if Leithart has read Dooyeweerd, as I’m sure he has, then I could see where the similarities would ensue.


  6. Austin, my comment contained an argument: 1. To be simple, impassible, and immutable is what it means to be God; 2. the God you describe is neither simple, impassible, nor immutable; Conclusion: your God isn’t God.

    That’s the nub of my response. If your God were to enter into my ontology, he would enter in as an angel (a composite mutable spiritual being). Aristotle’s God would also be an angel. Because both your god and Aristotle’s are composed, they each require a causal explanation of their composition. In short, your god leaves me searching for God.

    I’d also stand by what I wrote on confession Christ as God. If we have two very different theologies of God, our similar sounding confession is in reality a completely different confession.

    I will say, that this criticism applies far more heavily to Paul’s theology than yours. Nevertheless, you still present a God who is at least mutable and is composed of necessity and contingency.

    Also, I’m sorry for my harsh comment. I reread your post and realized you were being much more light and informal than my criticism warranted. I apologize for my tone.

    That said, I would continue to emphasize the seriousness of altering your theology of God’s absolute character. Like I said, your God would indeed be appropriated as a finite being within my Christian ontology. That’s troubling.


  7. Bob, I would absolutely ditto everything Austin said above. You can’t simply quote some church fathers, assert your position, and leave it at that. What you offered was an attempt at a statement of logic (a=b, c=/=a, therefore c=/=b), but it was not an “argument”. You offered no reasoning, response, defense, etc.

    Secondly, my view is closer to yours than Austin’s is. You say God is simple, impassible, and immutable. Austin says he is complex, open to passibility (though not necessarily so), and allows room in some of his Trinitarian aspects for mutability even while grounded in immutability (am I right on all that, Austin?)

    I say he is simple (although I find Plantinga’s arguments against simplicity quite compelling), passible-unto-shalom, and immutable. Suffering-Unto-Shalom, in my view, is his unchanging nature. It is not him responding to anything or “becoming” anything. As I said before, there is no T1 and T2. Just because you can’t figure out a way to fit this into your pre-defined dogmatic categories doesn’t mean you have successfully argued your case, or proved me a heretic.

    At the end of the day, the biggest problem for your view, in my estimation, is the Crucifixion. As I’ve said so many times before, the beginning of my movement to this view begins with the question: “what is the relationship between the Cross and the Being of God?” Is suffering and death an experience added to the Divine ontology (Open Theism), did have no impact on the Divine (Nestorianism), or was it the in-breaking into history of the way God’s Being has been since eternity past (my view)?

    I am trying to be as faithful to Athanasius as possible (though line 35 still haunts me). I also know that my view teeters closely to Eutychianism and Monophysitism. I am trying not to fall into those. I would say, however, that your view, Bob, (as I hear it) flirts really closely with Nestorianism. I don’t know how you can assert what you assert with such little qualification and still take the Incarnation and the Communicatio Idiomatum seriously.

    It is responding to these questions that would constitute an actual response to my position. Not assertion of patristic or medieval theologians. And I would welcome, for once, actual responses using your OWN thoughts and articulations, and not just labels, councils, quotes, and appeals to authority.


  8. Thanks, Bob. I appreciate. All is forgiven.

    As for your point about the absolute character of God, that’s definitely worth discussing and debating, which I’m more than willing to do in a gentlemanly fashion. To the point itself, your Thomistic intuitions are correct up to a point. And I would love to discuss all three aspects that you bring up as synonymous with God’s being.

    Rather than these aspects, I hold that absolute necessity is what it means to be God. I plan to write more on this, so I won’t discuss it now. But having stated that, you might have a better idea from where I’m coming. Anyway, be on the lookout for further posts. We can hash things out then.


  9. Paul – I’ve given you arguments against your position on the basis of its incompatibility with God’s simple and immutable character, especially as the faithful savior of his people. I’ll reissue this argument below.

    But for now, FIRST, I want to address your theology as teetering on Eutychianism and your read of my theology flirting with Nestorianism. My theology is this: I confess the doctrine of the Holy Trinity which teaches that God as God is not generated, but the Son of the Father is generated. That means that I have a duality of attributes, some absolute and others relative. God as God is not from another, God the Son is from The Father. I can predicate terms of the Son that are not predicated of Son’s nature, even while I confess that the Son is IDENTICAL with the divine nature.

    In the incarnation and passion of Christ, according to the communicatio idiomatum, I can predicate, on the basis of the ASSUMED HUMAN NATURE, suffering to the Son of God. The Son qua human nature suffers. God qua Son united to the human nature suffers. But God qua God doesn’t suffer, nor does Son qua Son suffer. The locus of suffering is the assumed human nature.

    What I perceive in your teetering towards Eutychianism and your suspicion of my Nestorianism, along with your theology of the suffering God, is a theological reflection on the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ that is INSUFFICIENTLY TRINITARIAN. You reason straight from the suffering of Christ to the suffering of the divine nature without comprehending that certain predicates may be made of the Son of God that are not made of the divine nature (e.g. generatation; e.g. incarnation). God suffers qua Son; Son suffers qua man. God doesn’t suffer qua God (doctrine of impassibility maintained), Son doesn’t suffer qua Son, but only as man. The only reason you would think me Nestorian is because you have no middle predicates between God’s nature and the Human nature. There are such predicates that may be made of the Son of God but not the divine nature. I can’t stress enough how your theology of the suffering God is insufficiently Trinitarian.

    If you would like to profess that God eternally suffers given that the Son is eternally united to a human nature, then you must profess that finite created natures have eternally existed. Which, of course, is heresy.

    SECOND, your blog post stated this: “Divine Suffering never “persists” and never simply “is”. God’s pain is always in a movement towards life.” If you think God moves from pain to life, then there must be some part of God that has changed. The “movement” of which you speak is what causes your theology to inevitably deny divine simplicity and immutability. Beware, I know what finite/creaturely forms of simplicity and immutability look like.

    In summary the first point is that the classical doctrine of Christ expressed above allows for divine suffering and divine impassibility, each in different senses. It is wholly different the theology you expressed, which skips over the TRINITARIAN distinctions between God’s nature and the processions of the divine persons. Second, your confession of divine “movement” I don’t think can be reconciled with a DIVINE ABSOLUTE definition of simplicity and immutability (don’t try to pass of a creaturly form of simplicity and immutability as becoming of God! Aquinas has taught me too well to know that these are more appropriate for angels than God).


  10. Bert and Paul, If I could jump in here, while I probably have a Trinitarian theology closer to Bob’s (though not because of deep reflection), I wonder if your 2nd point needs to loosen up a bit. The incarnation and subsequent unity between Jesus and The Holy Spirit seems to demand so. I remember Gaffin arguing that in 1 Cor 15:45, when it says that “Christ became a life-giving Spirit”, it meant that somehow, a unity now existed between the Trinitarian persons that did not exist before. He went on to say that this was not a change in ontology, but I was never clear as to how that could be, especially since this is most certainly more than a mere change in Function. Is there a way for God, via the Son, to move from pain to life, in a way that doesn’t violate His immutability? I’m just wondering if your categories are a little too strict. (hehe…says the guy who used the word “demand” in 2nd sentence!) 😛


    • Joe – There is a “movement” in redemptive history at the resurrection of Christ and him, as last Adam, BECOMING a life giving Spirit. But such movement is predicated of the human nature of Christ . The union of operation of Spirit of him who raised Christ from the dead and the Son is not a union of Spirit and Son qua Son, but the Spirit and Son qua man. Its the Son qua second Adam that becomes identified operationally with the life giving Spirit, not Son as Son (generated from the Father).

      There is no way for the God via the Son to move. The only way something like that could be allowed would be if you were to confess that the generation of the Son was something FINITE added to the Godhead (in an manner analogous to the human nature of Christ being added to his person). But the Son qua Son is not finite, He is the infinite God, nor is he added to God, he is God.


      • This was a pretty good answer. It resonated with me largely because I’m still very Westminster in my ST. In fact, the Historia Salutis argument would’ve been the way that I critiqued Paul’s position had I been inclined to do so (hehe, I guess I’m doing that now!!). Historia salutis allows for a whole bunch of creative predications that otherwise would be labeled heterodox. I understand that Paul is using a Barthian (and maybe Torrance?) Christology. Given the fact that I don’t know Barth’s Christology well, I have no good way to jump into that debate. And so my point then is I think I can get to the same place that Paul is, by using HS categories instead of ST proper ones. If that were the case, Robert, would you have had as much of a problem with all of this then? (No offense Paul. Just posing a hypothetical). smile emoticon


  11. I will say this, Bob, THANK YOU for offering a fuller articulation of your thoughts rather than dogmatic assertions. You’ve given me a lot to think about over the past few days, and I think you have articulated your view contra mine quite fully and quite well. I do agree with Joe that you draw the lines and categories far too sharply. Even the Creeds from which the Church builds our Trinitarian confessions allow for more flexibility here.

    I think I am perfectly in line with Athanasius while you seem to prefer Chalcedon in your articulations, although the text critical issues with Chalcedon give a little more wiggle room for me (whether the original text says Christ was “acknowledged [FROM or IN] two natures”. It seems the original Greek text was of the former, but in its Latin translation, it became the latter). Secondly, the word συντρεχούσης , to me, emphasizes a concurrence between the Natures so that there is closer to a 1-to-1 continuity than discontinuity. I simply don’t think you can bifurcate Christ and say that some things were involving/impacting/expressing his “human side” and not his “divine side”. I think it is entirely Un-Athanasian to separate God qua Son and Son qua humanity. Yes, I’m a little Orthodox in my Theosis leanings, but hardly heretical.

    I’m also quite Barthian (which is a non-starter for you, I know) in this. I do not believe in a Logos asarkos, but rather Logos incarnandus (and not a Logos ensarkos, which as you said, is clearly wrong). Especially for the Reformed, election and predestination necessitate a Logos incarnandus from eternity past, and Divine Simplicity insists that this not simply be anticipatory or act of future will, but a revelation of Divine ontology. Just as in act and nature I cannot divide Jesus the Christ, I will not divide the decree and being of the Logos. And further, if his begotten-ness IS God-for-us, then this Suffering-Unto-Life ontic reality of the Logos incarnandus IS the Son qua God, and not simply qua humanity. Even if you disagree with it, does that logic make sense?

    You also keep stressing my use of the word “movement”. If this trips you up, I’m sorry. I do not mean “movement” as in process, progress, or change, but in the sense of perichoresis. I blog for the layperson, and so I chose to use the word “movement” (which, by the way, is a characteristic FAR more testified to in Scripture rather than the distant, cold, passion-less deity of the Greeks) than various declensions of the word “perichoresis”. Do you think that doctrine is heresy or describes not-your-God? How do you think of or describe the perichoretic “dance” of the Trinity if there is nothing you would dare call “movement”?

    Lastly, I would say that the way you talk–whether intentionally or not–really seems to fall into the very Anti-Athanasian heresy of subordinationism. There is a mutuality within the Trinity such that there is not as much distance between the economic and immanent Trinity as you seem to stress (I would almost go as far as Rahner to find the distinction unhelpful altogether). I fear you also treat the monarchy of the Father as it is primarily a description of ontology than one of relations–a move on which I don’t think the Cappadocian Fathers would follow you (or Austin, for that matter). I’ll end with this summary from McCormack of Barth’s view that I think sums up well all that I tried to write:

    “The electing God, Barth argues, is not an unknown ‘x’. He is a God whose very being–already in eternity–is determined, defined, by what he reveals himself to be in Jesus Christ; viz. a God of love and mercy towards the whole human race.”

    With all that said, know that I really, really appreciate the response Bob. You gave me a lot of pause since you posted that, and I almost was convinced in your critique that I wasn’t being Trinitarian enough. But in the end, know that yes, we do worship the same God. I tend to stress the unity, and you (seem to) stress the distinctions. I still think we are both within the bounds of the relevant Creeds and have a freedom to critique and sharpen without throwing around accusations of heresy.


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