As part of my last unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), I needed to explore the theology of suffering. What is suffering? From where does it come and to where does it retreat? Is there a purpose to suffering? If so, what could it possibly be? These are large questions that don’t have answers. There is Mystery in them. Still, as a chaplain, it’s important to be able to come along side patients with a framework in which to understand and work with suffering. Rather than land on traditional theological methods, such as theodicy, I ended up proposing an alternative way of looking at suffering drawn from my experience in Witchcraft. I proposed a relational and transformative approach to understanding suffering, which I called thealogy.
The Problem of Theodicy
Theodicy is problematic for me. The age-old questions of “why do bad things happen to good people” and “why would a loving god let this happen to me” just don’t make sense in my worldview. My quick and honest answer to these questions is “why not?” Statistically, these experiences must happen to someone. So why not you? What make you so special that you could avoid the numbers? Obviously, this is not usually a very comforting thought—I mean, it is for me, but I wouldn’t go volunteering this answer to my patients.
Theodicy can be defined as the “explanation of why a perfectly good, almighty, and all-knowing God permits evil” (Encyclopædia Britannica, n.d.). There are several problems with this concept for me. First, I do not accept the dichotomy of good and evil. I understand these to be purely subjective constructs. As Morticia Addams says, “What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.”
Secondly, theodicy assumes omnipotence, that God is all-powerful and therefore able to permit or to stop evil. I don’t believe that divinity is all-powerful, at least not in the same sense. I agree with theologian Carol P. Christ on this point: “The divine power is always a power of love and understanding, but this power is the power to persuade or inspire, not the power to cause or coerce the outcomes God might prefer” (Christ & Plaskow, 2016, p. 159).
For me, the omnipresent yet not omnipotent nature of divinity is founded in panentheism. Pagan educator Judy Harrow sums up panentheism as “the belief that Spirit both pervades and transcends the World of Form; the two are like concentric circles. In short, panentheism holds that Deity includes the entire universe – and more” (Harrow, 2002, p. 27). Thus, it is not just the transcendent divinity that makes decisions on what can exist; it is also the immanent, embodied divinity (which includes humans, animals, inanimate life, and even ideas) who creates and allows. So, why does God let bad things happen? Because all of us, including the bad things, are God.
Proposing a Theadicy
Theodicy does not work in my worldview. Yet suffering still exists, and we still must reconcile with it. How do I do this? Rather than situating myself in a theodicy of transcendent, omnipotent good versus differentiated evil, I propose a new approach: theadicy.
Thea comes from the Greek for “goddess,” and its use in theadicy is a reference to thealogy. Thealogy is a theological method that comes from feminist theologian Carol P. Christ. Whereas theology is often situated in a culturally male view, interpreting God through a bureaucratically rational lens, thealogy is focused on a culturally feminine perspective and examines God (or Goddess) in a phenomenological way. Thealogy relies on an embodied theology “that seeks both to demonstrate the connection of theology to experience and to show the complexity of the relationship between them” (Christ & Plaskow, 2016, p. xv). Thealogy says we come to know Goddess through interaction with the panentheistic, embodied world rather than through abstract, rationalistic knowledge.
Drawing from thealogy, I propose theadicy as an embodied and relational way to understand divine justice. The question of “why does God let bad things happen” thus is turned to “why do we let bad things happen.” And the question of evil transforms from “why does evil exist” to “why do I experience this part of divinity as evil.” In theadicy, we are not questioning the transcendent other. We are looking at the relationship between all the transcendent and immanent parts of the divine, ourselves included.
Important in understanding theadicy is that we are in relationship with more than just the physical. We are also in relationship with ideas. Ideas are symbolic eruptions of archetypal energies into the conscious mind. While archetypes may be symbolled in culturally specific ways, they are nevertheless autonomous energies that exist outside of cultural symbology. Carl Jung noted that archetype “is not meant to denote an inherited idea, but rather an inherited mode of psychic functioning” (Farrar & Farrar, 1984, p. 152). Our ideas are manifestations of our relationships with these patterns of human experience, and these patterns of experience, these archetypes, are also divine.
Suffering is Relational
Suffering can be defined as “the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship” (Oxford Languages via Google). Suffering is thus different from the pain, distress, or hardship that triggers it. Suffering is instead a relational quality to these stimuli. Like all other forms of existence, the object of pain is a manifestation of divinity. Suffering is a form of relationship with the divine.
Why does this matter? Well, if we go back to Christ’s observation that “the divine power is always a power of love and understanding” (Christ & Plaskow, 2016, p. 159), this means that there is a love and an understanding in the object of our suffering, and that suffering, itself, is a manifestation of love and identification. Christ gives a powerful example of this dynamic when she recounts, “I found that the more I love the world, the more I suffer when parts of it are destroyed” (Christ & Plaskow, 2016, p. 164).
Suffering can be Maladaptive
Like all other things, suffering is not inherently good or bad. Suffering becomes a hinderance when lose sight of the fact that suffering is an aspect of love. In other words, when we lose sight of meaning in our suffering. If the divine is the power of love, then when we forget the love in our suffering, we forget the divine nature of the object of our suffering. We fall out of relation with the divine. It’s at this point that suffering become a problem.
Healing the Relationship with Suffering
The object of our suffering, and therefore the object of our love, is always inside us. One of the common issues we face is trying to locate the object outside of ourselves. Yet, thealogy reminds us that “love is not a disembodied feeling but always occurs in and between bodies” (Christ & Plaskow, 2016, p. 157). Thus love—and also suffering—are situated within in our experience and within ourselves. For example, a person who mourns the loss of a loved one is really mourning their own perception of how their loved one seemed to them; they are mourning an internal concept.
To heal the relationship with this object of suffering, I propose a threefold understanding, drawn from my experience as an Alexandrian: beauty, compassion, and love.
The first challenge in navigating suffering is to find the object of our suffering inside ourself. We do this by finding moments of beauty, moments of awe that reframe and shift our perspective. In the example of mourning a loved one, this may be shifting the perspective to reflect on joy that the loved one made you feel and the richness they brought to your life, and how those feelings came from inside of you and are still there. This moment of beauty shifts the attention to the actual object of suffering: the internal experience of love and joy.
This identification allows for the next step in healing our relation with suffering: compassion. The reframing of suffering as a moment of beauty allows us to be gracious with the object of our suffering. While you may miss your loved one, you are glad for the joy and the memories they filled you with; your life is richer because of them and you can appreciate that. You give your suffering meaning. This is compassion.
Compassion may then move us to the final step: love. Once we are compassionate with our object of suffering, we can begin to understand it again as an object of love. You love what your loved one left you with; you will always cherish it. You remain in relationship with this love inside yourself. Since thealogically the divine is “the intelligent embodied love that is in all being” (Christ & Plaskow, 2016, p. xiv), you have moved back into relationship with divinity. You have become reintegrated.
Christ, C. and J. Plaskow. (2016). Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Fortress Press.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. (n.d.). Theodicy. In Britannica.com. https://www.britannica.com/topic/theodicy-theology
Farrar, J. and S. Farrar. (1984). A Witches’ Bible: The Complete Witches’ Handbook. Phoenix Publishing.
Harrow, J. (2002). Spiritual Mentoring: A Pagan Guide. ECW Press.