By Tyler Been
Two days after Easter, my wife and I found out that our expected child was dead. She should have been twelve weeks along in the womb, but she measured at eight weeks, and there was no heartbeat. Her name is Sybil. This has, of course, caused me to ask all the natural questions that one asks when faced with this kind of suffering. All of these questions can be summarized by a one-word question: Why?
Over the last two semesters, I have attempted to understand the thought of the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson. Jenson’s thought is motivated by deep pastoral concerns, so naturally, I have turned to him for help to make sense of what my wife and I are experiencing. Many of his theological concerns speak to what we are going through, but here I will discuss one article that touches on a few of them, titled “The Hidden and Triune God.”
In the article, Jenson tries to think through God’s hiddenness in light of God’s triunity. The main interlocutor of the article is the great master of God’s hiddenness, Martin Luther. Jenson begins with two proposals of God’s hiddenness that he disagrees with that need not concern us here. In beginning his own proposal, he begins with an observation from Luther; God’s hiddenness is not primarily a matter of God’s metaphysical distance from us, or God’s ontological uniqueness, or even a matter of human epistemic weakness. Instead, God’s hiddenness is a matter of God’s moral agency. The hiddenness of God becomes a problem of epistemic weakness because God’s moral agency is impenetrable: “How unsearchable are his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord?” (Rom. 11:33-34). To quote Jenson, who is quoting Luther, “If we consider God’s rule of his creation, and judge by any available standard, we must conclude ‘either that God is not or that he is wicked.’”
By making God’s hiddenness a matter of agency, Jenson provides the key that unlocks the connection between God’s hiddenness and triunity. For Jenson, the doctrine of the Trinity “is simply the insistence… that God in himself is not other than he is in his history with us.” And in his history with us, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Scripture, these three are the dramatic agents that make up the one agency of God. And so, to say that God’s hiddenness is a matter of his moral agency and its impenetrability is to say that God is hidden by his triunity because his life with us is the mutual life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that makes the one moral agency of God. This means that God’s hiddenness must be considered three times, for it is only in light of the three identities of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that there is one God.
So, how do we speak of God’s hiddenness in terms of the Father? There is nothing more ultimate than the Fatherhood of God the Father. To quote one of my favorite sentences of Jenson’s, “And that God is thus in God a source of God is the possibility of God being also the source of things other than himself.” In other words, the Father is the source of deity in God, and there is nothing behind this Source, there is nowhere else to look. Therefore, for Jenson the first aspect of God’s hiddenness is that the Father makes all theodicy impossible. When one seeks the reasons for why things happen, they finally end up at the Source of all things, and in Jenson’s words, “the fact of the Father has no reason.”
To pass by the Son for a moment, what about the Spirit? In this article, and in much of Jenson’s work, the Spirit bears much of the metaphysical load. According to Jenson, “The Spirit is God’s freedom… his openness to the future.” Or, to put it another way, that will surely make most readers uncomfortable, myself included, “The Spirit is God as his own future.” Admitting that it strains the capability of our language to say so, Jenson says that the Spirit is truly a future to the Father and Son. God’s eternity is not timelessness but something analogous to time. And because eternity is such and the Spirit is the future of that eternity, God can surprise himself. To put it a bit differently, and to make it about us, because we are God’s creatures “we are involved in a play of an infinite freedom,” a play made up of three identities who make one agency: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For Jenson, this is the encompassing mode of God’s hiddenness. We don’t know what will happen next in our story that is God’s story as well.
Now to bring it all painfully back to where we started. What about when the next turn in the story is a miscarriage? In terms of the Father, we have established that theodicy is impossible. There is no answer to the question, “Why?” In terms of the Spirit, we have said that we are involved in a play of infinite freedom that is God’s story. Why is Sybil’s death a part of that story? Furthermore, when I waited for the ultrasound results and asked God, a God who we have just said is an infinite freedom with the ability to surprise, that Sybil would be alive, why did he say no? Once again, the fact of the Father means there is no ultimate theodicy; there is no answer. So what are we to say?
There is one last trinitarian identity to consider, the Son. According to Jenson, the actuality of creation hides the goodness of God, but this is not without purpose. In encountering a creation that hides the goodness of God, “We are brought to the one in, through and for whom all things are created, the Son.” For Jenson, there is only one Son to speak of, Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The Logos that God speaks to bring creation into being is Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The Logos by which God the Father knows himself is this one, Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The Holy Spirit, the bond of love between the Father and Son, is the Spirit of the Father and of the man of sorrows, crucified on our behalf. All of this is to say that the Son of God is Jesus Christ, without ifs, ands, and buts. And so, to say that all things were created for Jesus Christ is to say that creation is for the sake of redemption. Although this doesn’t provide a theodicy, a justification of God’s ways, it does begin to provide answers to my questions.
Why did God create Sybil? To redeem her. Why did her life only consist of eight weeks in the womb? I don’t know, but part of the answer is that God did not will to be God without her; to be God, according to his own self-definition, is to be the God of Sybil because to be God is to be the Father of Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified on Sybil’s behalf. If faith can say such a thing, these answers do not get God off the hook, but they do begin to answer my questions and assure me that my family’s suffering is not meaningless.
Alleluia, Christ is risen. And Sybil will rise with him too.
Tyler Been is a student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and is an aspirant in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.