To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee to we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn, then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Thus Catholics pray the Salve Regina. These lines reaffirm a traditional view of God the Creator who reigns over the created world. Through prayer the faithful beseech the Blessed Mother to elevate their prayers to God who, existing above and beyond time and space, does not suffer the faults, failings, and, ultimately, the finitude, of the world. The entire world belongs to God and the faithful, believing this, ask God through Mary to save us from accepting on face value that this world, with all its decay, is the only one.
Nothing surprising there—it’s a traditional view, one criticized by the likes of Marx, who believed other-worldly belief sanctioned all sorts of injustice, and Freud, who viewed all religious belief as self-deception, and the “New Brights” whom Father Robert Barron rightly criticized for their arrogance. The critics’ arguments rely heavily on the notion Sunday January 25th’s readings include in I Corinthians 7:31: “For the world in its present form is passing away.” Time, St. Paul chides the Corinthians, is running out. Those weeping or rejoicing should act as if they were not, for something new is coming.
Popular culture teems with songs about life’s illusory nature; “what you once thought was real has been shown to be unreal” sounds so philosophical, but the same point can be made quite catchy in so many ways. Traditional voices grasp this point, too. Buddhism’s Dhammapada reiterates frequently that the wise understand the world’s transience, but fools mistake the temporary as permanent. Even when surrounded by wisdom, the fool does not know, much like the spoon never tastes the soup (5:64). According to Heraclitus, we never step in the same stream twice. Still it is a hard message to take. Perhaps why that is why there are just as many songs seeking shelter or some safe harbor.
Recently Wesley Hill ascertained a “new new orthodoxy” that addresses just this particularly unwelcome reality. The twentieth century, filled with human-engineered bloodbaths, became the century of the suffering God, theologically-speaking. Not only do we humans suffer, but God does, too. This became “the new orthodoxy,” and with it came a quick dismissal of theologies extolling divine impassibility. Hill recognizes in this rejection a thorny problem:
From another angle, defenders of the Church’s creedal heritage have worried that unqualified talk of divine suffering forfeits our reason for worshiping God as Other, as wholly and radically transcendent. If God is a fellow-sufferer with us, full stop, is God then no longer the one lauded by the Hebrew prophets as the Creator who is fundamentally unlike us?
Scripture’s testimony is clear: the God who creates in His own image, chooses Israel, and then become incarnate in Jesus—all life-affirmation actions God initiates—also possesses radical difference, infinite and qualitative as Kierkegaard and Karl Barth argued. In fact, Hill suggests, our salvation rests in God’s difference and transcendence, not immanence.
It is one thing to confess that God has seen and known firsthand what life is like in our prison cell. To be sure, there is a certain comfort in that confession. It is another thing, however, to know—as the early Church did—that in entering that cell, God brandished the key to unlock its door and lead us out. For the latter to happen, we needed not only a fellow-sufferer who understands but a Creator and Redeemer whose deity is made manifest in and through his humanity, whose power is revealed in his death and resurrection.
So maybe the Goo Goo Dolls are partially right when they sing “Here is Gone.” Hill’s review of the “new new orthodoxy” reminds us that God, though, is here, will be, and has been. The Salve Regina focuses the devoted mind and soul towards the ultimately Real, not the immediately-but-only-apparently real. “Here we have no lasting city, but we wait for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).
Jeffrey Marlett teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.