I Feel Your Pain: Compassion and Perfection

Anselm of Canterbury struggled with holding two beliefs about God in a dynamic tension.  “But how are you merciful, yet at the same time impassible?  For if you are impassible, you do not feel sympathy.  And if you do not feel sympathy, your heart is not miserable on account of its sympathy for the miserable.  Yet this is what compassion is.  Yet if you are not compassionate, where does such great comfort for the miserable come from?”

If you know anything about Anselm’s thinking, you know that one thing he could never dispense with the impassibility or immutability with God.  He could not affirm that God ever suffers with humanity or in any sense “experiences” suffering.  In Anselm’s thought, to experience something is to move from one state to another, which is only possible if one is imperfect to begin with.  But he could not deny the clear words of scripture and his own experiences, both of which told him that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.”

The solution Anselm came to is somewhat creative.  He concludes that God is “truly compassionate in terms of our experience,” yet not so in divine terms.  “For when you see us in our misery, we experience the effect of compassion; you, however, do not experience this feeling (lit. ‘are not affected’).  Therefore, you are compassionate, in that you save the miserable and spare those who sin against you; ad you are not compassionate, in that you are not affected by any sympathy for misery.”

It is difficult to find this a satisfactory solution.  Honestly, it seems more like a restating of the problem, which remains how God can be morally praiseworthy without feeling compassion for the suffering.

Another option is presented to us in the writings of Origen, in the third century.  Contrary to the patristic consensus, Origen argues that God the Father is not impassible, and can be impacted by events outside himself.  Origen reasons to this conclusion Christologically.  “[The savior] descended to earth to grieve for the human race, and took our sufferings on himself before he endured the cross and deigned to assume our flesh.  If he had not suffered, he would no have come to share in human life.  What is this suffering which he suffered for us beforehand?  It is the suffering of love.  For the Father himself, the God of the universe, who is “long-suffering and full of mercy,” and compassionate, does he not suffer in some way?  Or do you now know that, when he deals with humanity, he suffers human suffering?”

But this position also is problematic, especially in light of other passages where Origen argues aggressively that in the incarnation, the Son of God experienced no change in his “essential being, and does not suffer what the body or soul suffers.”

So the problem still remains.  In what sense can God be said to be good if incapable of sympathizing with us in our weaknesses, a mark of a virtuous person?  Or in what sense can God be said to be perfect if God can gain knowledge or understanding from those outside himself?  Is it enough to say, as Anselm does, that God “knows about” suffering without actually suffering?  Or is it necessary to say along with Origen that God actually suffers with those he loves?


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