Insights While Suffering

With a View to the Cross and Resurrection

by Mark Slatter (Author)
©2015 Monographs XVI, 371 Pages
Series: American University Studies , Volume 345


From the days of the early Church Christians have forged what has seemed to be a fitting kinship between their suffering and Christ’s Passion. As a result, Christians are sometimes guided by the impression that simply believing hard enough – «Have faith!» – would somehow trickle down to change their hardship. However, having faith in God does not automatically translate into know-how or wisdom with suffering. Sadly, many of us seem to improvise by trial and error with one of life’s most formative experiences.
This book sets out to explore an ethic of suffering; that is, learning how to locate the suffering on an ethical grid and, if possible, learning how to take steps to conspire with God who always desires our healing and freedom. The first part introduces the reader to some of the main theoretical and practical difficulties of suffering and Christian life through the work of three theologians who bring complimentary perspectives to the subject. The second part expands on some of the issues they raise with chapters on the properties of suffering, questions about evil, the effects of suffering on character and growth, suffering’s social and communal dimensions, the struggle for meaning and God, and the deeper moral implications of the imitation of Christ.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • General Introduction
  • Suffering “Demands to be Constantly Reconsidered”
  • Doctrine and Practice Estranged
  • Suffering and Humanity Estranged
  • Why an Ethic of Suffering?
  • Insights While Suffering
  • A Word on Methodology
  • Part One: Theologians of the Cross
  • Chapter 1. Finding the Rough (Cross) Among the (Religious) Diamonds: Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God
  • Introduction: The Liberation of a Prisoner of War
  • The “Identity-Involvement Dilemma”
  • Epistemology, Revelation, and the Ego
  • Kenosis and the Cross that Contradicts
  • Accretions of the Cross
  • Cultus
  • Mysticism
  • Discipleship
  • A Theology of the Cross
  • Christology
  • The “Trials” of Jesus
  • The Consequences of a Theology of the Crucified Christ
  • Theism and the Theology of the Cross
  • The Cross and Psychological Liberation
  • The Cross and Political Liberation
  • Chapter Summary and Conclusions
  • The Cross Contradicts Religion
  • The Problem of “Moltmann’s God” (Soelle)
  • Why is God Silent?
  • Chapter 2. Learning to Talk: The Phenomenology of Dorothee Soelle’s Suffering
  • Introduction: Hamburg and New York
  • Problems with the Individual-Social Distinction
  • Unconditioned Submission as Social Naiveté
  • The Story of Abraham and Isaac: Three Interpretations
  • The Pathology of Western Apathy
  • Language and Silence
  • The Three Phases of Suffering
  • Phase One: Accepting Suffering (What’s in a Word?)
  • Stoicism and Apathy’s Version of Acceptance
  • The Upheaval of Mysticism’s Version of Acceptance
  • Acceptance and Interpretations of Job’s Testing
  • Phase Two: Learning and Speaking
  • Phase Three: Moving To Freedom
  • Chapter Summary and Conclusions
  • Chapter 3. The Psychological Theology of Cynthia Crysdale’s Embracing Travail
  • Introduction: The Metaphor of Childbirth
  • Crucified and Crucifiers
  • Applying a Psychological Theology
  • We Are Victims and Perpetrators
  • The “Ethic of Risk”
  • Good, Evil, and God’s Omnipotence
  • Redemption and Naming
  • Five Ways of Knowing
  • Silence
  • Received Knowledge
  • Subjective Knowledge
  • Procedural Knowing
  • Constructed Knowledge
  • Redeeming Redemption
  • Critiquing the Tradition
  • Alienation and Grace
  • Chapter Summary and Conclusions
  • Part Two: Evil, Suffering, and God: A Primer
  • Introduction to Part Two
  • Chapter 4: What is Meant by Suffering? Looking Beneath a Touchstone
  • Introduction
  • The Difficulty of Defining the Experience
  • Dialects of Suffering
  • Does the Sympathetic Distance Exist?
  • Suffering or Pain?
  • Exploring the Differences
  • Progress as a Variable for Suffering
  • The “Delicate” Modern Identity
  • The Distinction Between “Is” and “Ought”
  • Chapter Conclusions
  • Chapter 5: The Evil of Suffering
  • Introduction: Why Evil?
  • Evil as the Background for Suffering
  • Metaphysical Underpinnings
  • Privatio Boni
  • Conventional Categories of Evil
  • The Conceptual Crisis of Evil at the Second World War
  • The Shift from Metaphysical Evil to Evil in History
  • Metaphysical Dualism
  • The Phenomenon of Projection
  • Self-deception
  • The Evil Personality
  • The Banality of Evil
  • Rehabilitating the Notion of Evil
  • Moral Naiveté
  • “There is No Reason”
  • Chapter Summary and Conclusions
  • Chapter 6: The Chimera of Suffering and Character
  • Introduction
  • Is There Always Growth from Suffering?
  • Extreme and Persistent Suffering
  • Examining Some Underlying Assumptions
  • Moral and Spiritual Development is Inexorable
  • Progress is Inevitable
  • Victory is Assured
  • The Point-Counterpoint of Suffering
  • What is Character?
  • A Persona?
  • A Set of Distinguishing Traits?
  • The Moral Quality of Character
  • Authenticity
  • Authenticity as a Value Conflict
  • The Significance of Suffering for Character Ethics
  • Chapter Summary and Conclusions
  • Chapter 7: What We Do to Each Other: The Social and Communal Roots of Individual Suffering
  • Introduction: Terminology and Bearings
  • The Functions of Society and Community
  • The Common Good
  • Narrative Tradition
  • A Bundle of Moral Contradictions
  • The Formation of Character
  • What We Do to Each Other
  • Responses to Adversity: Alienation and Solidarity
  • Alienation
  • The Stranger and Self-alienation
  • The Alienation of Inauthenticity
  • The Alienation of Authenticity
  • Alienation from a Community
  • Social Alienation: “Reification”
  • Addendum: The Alienation of Christ
  • Solidarity in Broad Strokes
  • Compassion and the Structure of the Moral Sentiments
  • Solidarity’s False Dispositions
  • Solidarity’s Optimal Disposition: Compassion
  • Chapter Conclusions: Reflections on Koinonia
  • Chapter 8. Founding Meaning, “Finding” God
  • Introduction: Situating the Question of Meaning
  • A Brief History
  • Meaning and Postmodernism
  • The Search for Meaning Continues Nonetheless…
  • Birth
  • Death
  • Boredom
  • Suffering
  • The Return of Is and Ought
  • The Inner World of the Question
  • The Inner World of Meaning
  • Meaningful Suffering
  • The Meaning of Suffering and God
  • Suffering and God
  • Theodicy Reviewed
  • The “Problem of Evil” Classically Articulated
  • The Critique of Theodicy
  • Chapter Summary and Conclusions
  • Conclusions: Having Insights While Suffering
  • Introduction
  • Morality and the Imitation of Christ
  • Does Imitation Produce Authenticity?
  • Whence “Insights While Suffering”?
  • Ego and Faith
  • Having Insights While Suffering
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← xii | xiii → ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

My thanks to the support of my dear family, friends,
and colleagues at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Canada.

This work was published thanks to a grant by the
Aid to Publication Program of Saint Paul University← xiii | xiv →

← xiv | xv → ABBREVIATIONS

Major Texts

CG The Crucified God, Jürgen Moltmann
ET Embracing Travail, Cynthia Crysdale
S Suffering, Dorothee Soelle

Works Frequently Cited

DM “Dimensions of Meaning,” Bernard Lonergan
EMT Evil in Modern Thought, Susan Neiman
MMT The Making of Moral Theology, John Mahoney
MT Method in Theology, Bernard Lonergan
P The Passions, Robert Solomon
PHS Perspectives on Human Suffering, Jeff Malpas and Norelle Lickiss, eds.
SD Salvifici Doloris, Apostolic Letter of John Paul II

Other Abbreviations

AA.Vv. Various Authors
BCE Before the Christian (or Common) Era
CCC The Catechism of the Catholic Church
cf. compare
ch. chapter/chapters
Col. ← xv | xvi → Paul’s Letter to the Colossians
Cor. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians
DCST The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought, Judith A. Dwyer, ed.
DPhR Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, William Reese
DPsy Dictionary of Psychology, Toronto 2001.
DWRel The Concise Oxford Concise Dictionary of Dictionary of World Religions, John Bowker, ed.
e.g. exempli gratia (for example)
EnTh Encyclopedia of Theology. The Concise Sacramentum Mundi, Karl Rahner, ed.
esp. especially
et al. et alibi (and elsewhere), et alii (and others), or etc.
etc. et cetera
fn footnote number
Gal. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians
Gk Greek
Ibid Ibidem (in the same place)
i.e. id est (that is, for example)
Jn. The Gospel According to St. John
Lt Latin
Matt. The Gospel According to St. Matthew
NJB The New Jerusalem Bible, New York 1999.
Q Question
Rev. The Book of Revelation to St. John
Rom. Paul’s Letter to the Romans
SJT Scottish Journal of Theology
StMor Studia Moralia
ST Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas
TS Theological Studies
trans. Translator/ Translators
vo. volume
vols. volumes
WDCE The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, James F. Childress and John Macquarrie, eds.
WDCS The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, Gordon S. Wakefield, ed.

The Scripture quotations are from The New Jerusalem Bible, Standard Edition. New York 1999.


Why stare at the sun? Why stare down the Gorgon?

Norelle Lickiss, Perspectives on Human Suffering

Suffering “Demands to be Constantly Reconsidered”

Members of a previous generation used to commonly put to one another the question, “Where were you the day Kennedy was assassinated?” For us the incident seems to be one in a caravan of violent acts that characterize our history, but at the time Kennedy’s death evoked a powerful and entirely unpredictable collective shift of consciousness. As the great British historian Geoffrey Barraclough later wrote, that fateful day spontaneously crystallized into a symbol for the end of an historical era and the beginning of something new.1

Every generation seems to have emblematic flashpoints. Many of us remember where we were on 11 September 2001 when terrorists instigated a series of attacks on American soil. In a moment people knew that the world had changed. To be sure, we have seen how subsequent declarations of war have become conductors for the proverbial clash of civilizations between the so-called “Islamic East” and the “Christian West”. We now picture a future ← 1 | 2 → with many uncertainties and wonder if these and the simmering deeper issues have set the tone for global politics for the next 100 years. Will the blood-bath of the previous century be repeated in this one, perhaps taking us to darker precincts of suffering?

This anxiety is allied to other trends that likewise seem to be coming to a critical crossroads. It is difficult to not be dismayed by the sight of the deplorable political and economic conditions of too many developing countries which go far beyond the normal birth pangs of nation building. A case in point is Africa, a continent that is chronically dogged by catastrophic famine, government corruption, civil war, a tragic susceptibility to epidemics and a host of health-issues—and all the while seemingly immune to inner reform and international aid. We are acutely aware of irreversible global climate changes that in the centuries to come may constitute the single greatest challenge to humanity. “Water-wars” might be the new geopolitical dynamic.

Closer to home in our relatively safe neighbourhoods and functioning societies, we too suffer. Children today seem to lose their innocence at an increasingly younger age by their socialization into a crass mass media culture. Teenagers’ general scepticism about life (more than the usual adolescent angst) reflects the larger social crisis of familial instability, the undervaluing of children, and institutional inauthenticity. The life-spark for many young people falters under the omnipresent postmodern insouciance that insists that one decision is just as good as any other, and that to speak of good and poor choices is really a matter of taste and certainly not a tone-setter for what was once identified by philosophers as “the good life”. We see family members and close friends tolerating inanimate and abusive marriages, or going through acrimonious separations and divorces. Most of us know at least one person who is on stress leave or recovering from burn out. Institutional energies seem to be channelled more toward maintenance and putting out personnel fires than the missions for which they were founded. We see the solitude and alienation of the elderly, and few of us are unacquainted with the awful, cold ache of loneliness that touches even the happiest and well-adjusted. In most of our major cities the rate of poverty is increasing and the problem of the homeless is debated in city halls across the country. Men and women are suddenly forced to adapt their lives to a chronic disability or a major financial setback. The range of our emotional life seems to be narrowing because the dispatches from our inner life demand too much self-reflection. So many of us hobble through our lives with unattended psychological wounds, neuroses, incapacitating fears, ← 2 | 3 → depressiveness, mental illness, bitterness, simmering chronic anger, resentments, and crushed hopes. This list could continue indefinitely.

Some might object: “This is not life’s whole picture! You’re being too gloomy!” I would say in response: how can suffering be correctly proportioned or put in its proper place by appealing to the whole picture, as if our adversities might be neatly contained by the metaphor of a frame? Suffering breaks the frame. It spills into the whole picture.

And for what purpose do I bother with this litany of pain, tragedy, and failure, as if you, the reader, should be more deeply moved by the measure of quantity? The problem with pointing to suffering’s toll is that it ought not strike us because we are overwhelmed by its voluminous magnitude. We should be moved by its singularity since “there cannot be suffering of the many without the suffering of the one.”2 It is the singularity of the immeasurable value and dignity of a human being who is the “I” of suffering. To paraphrase Bernard Shaw: in one person’s suffering is contained a whole world, and if I want to understand a world that includes suffering then I need look no further than an individual’s anguish who is “but a single sorrow, illusorily multiplied in many mirrors.”3 The danger with lamenting a world of suffering is overlooking this singularity.

This problem of trying to identify or catalogue suffering has a corresponding vulnerability in many solidarity and social justice movements where we must walk in worlds of abstraction by the social analysis that is required to identify the precipitating structural dynamics of individual suffering. Somewhere along the way the original moral impetus to alleviate affliction can through the necessary social analysis lose sight of afflicted human beings: “Who suffers is not a number, not a population, but a singular human being—even when there are many such… to be overwhelmed in that way is to lose one’s own sense of the suffering that is at issue—it is to be overwhelmed by a multiplicity that does not itself reflect the genuine suffering undergone.”4 In other words, the proposed remedy that comes of social analysis is systematized as a policy, sometimes translated into an institution such as a soup kitchen or an outreach program where the interactions among the advocates becomes the primary object of attention and increasingly removed from the constituency for which the institution was founded. Efforts at social change always risk becoming moral bullying, an ideology, the fist of programmes, and self-absorbed bureaucratic units. Statistics, numbers, populations, The Issue, The Cause, The Problem—any of these can be euphemisms for avoiding becoming the kind of human being that is capable of having compassion for individuals. ← 3 | 4 → “For when we look at suffering in this way,” Jeff Malpas writes, “the real fact of suffering all but disappears.”5 The institutionalization of concern may create personal apathy.

The paradox is that despite our refined sense of moral obligation and the unprecedented array of capacities to alleviate suffering, would we want to succeed in avoiding it altogether, at least for ourselves? One response might be, “that depends”. We know that suffering also reveals what it is to be human, and if we look into our own journey we might say of some of our adversities, but surely not all of them, “Who would I have otherwise become?” Self-knowledge in isolation from questions of suffering is like a laboratory experiment that has no proven track record, or like Saint Peter’s conviction that he was incapable of betraying Jesus. All the same this should not in any way be read as a justification or tacit sanction for adversity. That is the paradox. “Maybe all that we can know or understand about human suffering has been said or written,” writes Norelle Lickiss, “but there appears an imperative in every age, and our times, to enter into an exploratory relationship with it…”6 Pope John-Paul II offered a similar observation in his Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering): “[it] demands to be constantly reconsidered.”7

It should come as no surprise, then, that from the days of the early Church Christians began to forge what seemed a fitting kinship between what they suffered with Christ’s Passion. The superlative expression of this kinship eventually found an expression in Saint Paul’s cryptic assertion, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20). Unlike other periods and famous personages of history that are inaccessible by the barrier of time, the person of Christ in his death and resurrection transcends the quantum laws of time and space: “He suffers, not as an individual in isolation, but as the caput, ‘head’, of a new humanity—what Paul terms the ‘new’ or ‘second’ Adam.”8 This intuition of an intrinsic connection between the suffering of his crucifixion and human suffering has been carried forward in various forms in Christian Tradition.9

Among the world’s religious and philosophical responses to suffering the Christian response is audacious, original, and offers an unsurpassed soteriological differentiation that reveals the self-transcending dynamism of human subjectivity. Is this assertion religious hubris? Many think not.10 From the outside, as it were, the cross is publically recognized as Christianity’s universal symbol, but from the inside the community of believers recognize it as a kind of Rosetta or Philosopher’s Stone that decodes the faith dynamism more fundamentally as a trust in God’s promise that the Death and Resurrection of ← 4 | 5 → Jesus is The Undercurrent underneath our lives’ undercurrents. It is God’s unequivocal initiative in history to take up the height, breadth, and depth of every conceivable type of human misery, frailty, and experience of evil: “Human suffering has reached its culmination in the passion of Christ”, wrote John Paul II.11 This includes the Gospel imperative to assuage suffering, a mandate which historian Wayne Hudson suggests was “a comportment which could sometimes be seen as new and remarkable in the Roman world.”12

But what do these faith affirmations about suffering look like concretely?

Doctrine and Practice Estranged

The great Canadian philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan once noted that the history of Christian doctrine is dogged by periodic lapses of decay and stagnation, such as when a believing community or theological vision becomes insular and increasingly impervious to the risks and pain that accompany creative interaction with those who do not believe and think as we do, including the sometimes difficult interactions with a not-always-obliging society:

They [doctrines] exist, but they no longer enjoy the splendid isolation that compels their acceptance. We know their histories, the moment of their births, the course of their development, their interweaving, their moments of high synthesis, their periods of stagnation, decline, dissolution. We know the kind of subject to which they appeal and the kind they repel… But such endlessly erudite and subtle penetration generates detachment, relativism, scepticism. The spiritual atmosphere becomes too thin to support the life of man.13

This last sentence, “The spiritual atmosphere becomes too thin to support the life of man”, speaks to the present discussion.


XVI, 371
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (May)
Christian suffering Cynthia Crysdale kinship
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XVI, 371 pp.

Biographical notes

Mark Slatter (Author)

MARK SLATTER, a priest with the archdiocese of Ottawa, Canada, obtained his doctorate in moral theology from the Gregorian University in Rome in 2007, and has worked with Ottawa’s homeless and drug addicts since 2000. He is Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at St. Paul University in Ottawa. His academic interests include the work of Bernard Lonergan and the relationship between interiority and ethics. His special areas of research and publication include topics such as suffering and growth, the nature of greed, the role of compassion in moral argument, poverty and ecclesial renewal, and differentiating conversion from growth. He was a recipient of the 2011 Ottawa Capital Educators’ Awards.


Title: Insights While Suffering
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