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Theology and Suffering

By December 16, 2006 No Comments
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This is a book born out of affliction. Wendy Farley, who teaches theology at Emory University, wrote it in the wake of domestic crisis and physical suffering that left her unable to read for eighteen months. The result is theological writing “at variance with the customs of the academic world” (ix), drawing on the Christian theological texts that had embedded themselves in her memory, her years of Buddhist contemplative practice, and favorite folksongs. (Excerpts from the CD made to accompany this book can be accessed at Farley culls her theological illustrations without apology from her everyday experiences of balky computers, plastic children’s toys, and Atlanta traffic. She muses about “the great gift non-reading has been” to her (x), especially in its reminder of the stark inadequacy of words and arguments in theology. She aligns herself with the “underground railroad” of Christian mystics like Julian of Norwich and Mechthild of Magdeburg, who exhibit “the strength and beauty that shine from those who have passed through the dark night of affliction and found Christ there” (143).

Appropriately, the book jacket describes Farley’s work as “a theological memoir”: The Wounding and Healing of Desire is far more autobiographical than most theological monographs. Yet at the same time the book sets forth a bold theological anthropology, a Christian account of universal human flourishing that draws its persuasive power not from argument but from acute phenomenological description. Over and over again Farley invites us to see ourselves in her vivid depictions of the human condition. “Doesn’t this ring true? ” she seems to ask. “Isn’t this what it’s like to be human?” Book Cover In the balkanized terrain of theology, in which so many theologians attempt to speak only for their own tribe, however defined, it is refreshing to witness Farley’s con- fidence in the power of the “grand narrative” of Christian faith–creation, fall, redemption, and eschatology–to illuminate “our nature and condition” as human beings (31-2). She recognizes that other faith traditions also wrestle with “our deeply contradictory nature,” and at times assumes an easy commensurability between Christian and Buddhist anthropologies. But it is clearly “the Christian version” of the human story that guides her reflections (21).

Farley’s account of the human condition is deeply Augustinian and echoes themes from her earlier book, Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion. At the core of our existence as creatures is restless desire that cannot find full and lasting satisfaction in any finite thing. This flame of desire is “the longing of the soul for God” (21). Our yearning for God does not lead to a renunciation of our earthly loves and desires; rather, our quest for earthly joy and beauty is a doorway to the Divine Eros at the heart of all things. As Farley puts it, “desire weaves together heaven and earth, negating neither but enriching each” (21). Our desire orients us toward what God intends for humanity: love, beauty, and happiness. But our earthly lives are marked by terrible suffering because human beings find “ways of inhabiting desire that are deeply harmful to ourselves, the world, and one another” (11).

At the center of Farley’s theological anthropology is an extended and powerful account of human woundedness and bondage. As beings caught on “the fangs of affliction,” our lives are marked by terror, rage, and addiction. In our hopeless egocentrism we fall prey to deception, illusion, and seduction. Our redemption lies in the ecstatic power of Divine Eros, the source of life and beauty, yearning to be “knit and oned” with the fragile and maimed creation (102). The Divine Eros is “embodied as completely as possible in human form” by Jesus (101), whose life manifests “the bizarre coincidence of ef- ficacy and impotence” (106) that characterizes God’s presence in our midst. In Christ we do not find the freedom from earthly suffering that we seek. We encounter instead the “mystery of an ef- ficacy that overpowers nothingness but endures the mortification of everything created… . Divine power seems to be equally outrageous in what it can do and in what it cannot do” (103). Farley urges contemplative practice as a healing path to making “manifest the Glory of God that is within us” (147).

Though her book was nurtured by folksongs like “Power in the Blood” and “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord,” Farley flat-footedly eschews what she sees as classical theology’s preoccupation with sin, guilt, sacrifice, and punishment. She articulates standard feminist critiques of how these theological categories have been used in ways that harm the most vulnerable members of a community, including women. But her preemptory rejection of these categories brings its own theological liabilities. It is understandable that Julian of Norwich, writing at the time of the Black Death, would largely set aside categories of guilt and sin. In so doing, she illumined new facets of the Augustinian theology of redemption and grace. But Farley goes beyond Julian’s alternate emphases to a polemical rejection. It is not clear, however, that a North American Christian in Farley’s position, knowing both suffering and privilege, can afford entirely to throw out these categories. One consequence of setting aside notions of sin and guilt is that Farley’s anthropology has little room for the theological categories of forgiveness and reconciliation. But as contemporary examples like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission make clear, these categories still have enormous power to restore human dignity and effect personal and national healing. Readers can benefit from Farley’s deep theological insights into the human condition without assuming that her account nullifies all theological alternatives.

Feminist theology was born in part out of awareness that it is theologically dangerous to mistake the particularities of our context for universal conditions and givens. That this theological corrective is still needed can be seen from a recent theology textbook that lumps feminist, womanist, and liberationist writings together under the heading of “local theologies,” implying that other contemporary theological efforts somehow transcend these limitations!1 But feminist appeals to experiences of suffering and oppression as an unassailable theological norm are also methodologically problematic. Furthermore, the appeal to particular experience can shut down honest theological conversation. As James Kay has recently written, “It is hard to challenge someone’s theology if it is taken as synonymous or coterminous with his or her own experience, biography, or identity, whether self-constructed or self-embraced.” 2

Farley’s book presents a vision of universal human flourishing self-consciously rooted in the particularities of her own experience of affliction. Her efforts to hold together these two aspects of theological reflection are commendable: denying the particularity of experience and foregoing all attempts at a universal vision are unpalatable theological alternatives. Farley’s appeals to her own particular experience do not render her theology immune from criticism. But Farley is entirely in her rights as a Christian theologian to put forth a vision (not the vision) of universal human flourishing that has been shaped by this experience. Christian theology is an ongoing, collaborative venture, and we are fortunate to have Wendy Farley as a fellow traveler.