Paper: The Awe-Filledness of Awfulness: Experiencing God in Suffering

This post is another in a series of posts describing papers delivered at the “Wondrous Fear and Holy Awe” conference held at the University of Notre Dame earlier this summer.  The paper described below was by Hans Gustafson, Associate Director, Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning, Adjunct Professor, Theology University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) and St. John’s University (Minnesota).  A copy of the paper is available by contacting the moderator. The paper’s abstract follows:

This paper assumes a pansacramental spirituality which maintains that God can be experienced in all things, including the often disturbing experience of suffering. Here spirituality refers to the lived religious experience of a particular individual in the world, and sacramentality refers to that element of the Christian tradition which accounts for the presence of God in the world (in some manner). As such, sacraments mediate between God and world. This broad view of sacramentality entails an infinite number of potential sacraments. As a result, I do not intend to reduce sacraments to a fixed number (whether one believes in seven sacraments or two). In this way, all things hold the potential to mediate God in the world. Therefore, I propose a pansacramental understanding of the cosmos in which God is experienced via pansacramental spirituality. In wrestling with the challenge of taking seriously the possibility of the sacramental (re)presentation of God in all kinds of suffering, I realize that the claim that God is sacramentally revealed in suffering can potentially scandalize classical Christianity and its tenets. However, any serious pansacramental spirituality should not be shy about maintaining the possibility that suffering authentically reveals God in sacramental fashion. Drawing on the theologies of five thinkers, I offer a constructive proposal for approaching the spiritual experience of God in suffering. They consist of Aquinas’ classical theology, Martin Buber’s sacrament of suffering, Abraham Heschel’s and Jürgen Moltmann’s theology of divine pathos, and John Polkinghorne’s realized eschatological panentheism. If the sacraments represent God in time and space, and invite participants to commemorate God’s acts in history, and if all things serve as potential sacramental mediators, then how does suffering function as a sacramental mediator of God in the world? This is the question I tackle with the assistance of the aforementioned thinkers.

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