Cur Deus Homo? And Other Important Questions

thomas-kinkade7
“Heather’s Hutch” by Thomas Kinkade

Cur Deus Homo

In the last post Peter kicked off Holy Week by opening up a fabulous discussion about why Jesus died. I wanted to take it back a step and ask why Jesus lived in the first place. If the primary Christian claims about Jesus are true that he is the definitive revelation of God in human history, somehow God dwelling among us, we must at some time ask ourselves: Why did God choose to operate this way in the world in the first place? Or as Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury at the turn of the twelfth century famously framed the question Cur Deus Homo: Why the God-Man? Anselm likened the sin of human beings against God to a peasant in feudalistic society insulting a king. Since the offence is against God, it is an offence of infinite disvalue. Jesus being the son of God offers a sacrifice literally unlimited in value. Anselm’s understanding left a deep impact on all of Western Christianity, the Reformed tradition most definitely included.

While Anselm and I come to somewhat different conclusions, I am convinced he was asking one of the most important questions anyone can ever ask. But Anselm was neither the first nor the last to ask the question.  Several centuries before Anselm, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria asked the same question.  His answer was “He indeed assumed humanity that we might become God.”[1] But of course Athanasius wasn’t the first to ask the all-important question either. Most of the New Testament and the majority of subsequent Christian writings are manifestations of men and women wrestling with the same question.

I used to think the Jesus question was the only question that mattered. I believed that succeeding or failing to answer it correctly was the only thing that really made a difference in the world. I now think that collectively humanity has asked a number of important questions about the God-world relationship. But more importantly, over the years I have come to see the Christ event – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth – as God’s answer to all of the important questions that we ask: Who are we and why are we here?  Why do bad things happen? And in our deepest moments of suffering: God where are you? But before I can explain intelligibly how I or anyone else has interpreted the Christ event, I must first say a few words about why anyone would claim the world is in need of restoration. Then we can talk about how this first century peasant named Jesus came to be called the Christ, the anointed one.

The World We Live In

I guess we need to start at the beginning.  Who are we and why are we here? Christians claim the Hebrew scriptures to be the Old Testament, that is the first set of scriptures that together with the New Testament point to Jesus as God’s decisive revelation in history. And so we are heirs to the stories of origin found there. In the first two chapters of Genesis we find two creation accounts with slightly different nuances. Taken together they provide a sense of orientation to our beautiful and brutal world and the unique situation of human beings in the midst of it.

Human beings seem endowed with the godlike ability to bless and curse: to make life more bearable, even more bountiful, or to expedite and exacerbate the death process.  In the first creation account in Genesis 1, God creates in a set of consecutive stages speaking things into existence. When God speaks, lights appear in the sky. Matter which was formerly formless and void becomes differentiated: waters below, waters above, dry land coming to the surface.  God says the word and life comes forth from the waters, the sky and the dry land.

And finally God says to God’s divine counsel, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”[2]   Here, humankind’s differentiation from the other living things that God called forth seems clear. We are the only creatures which are said to be created in the image of God. Not only this, but God instructs the man and woman: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  Is there any wonder the Psalmist feels at liberty to declare that human beings a little bit lower than God?

But we are also inextricably intertwined with the “stuff” of creation. The creation account in Genesis 2 has a slightly different emphasis and ordering of events. In this account no plant of the field was yet on the earth when God fashioned a man from the dust and then a second human being, a woman, from the material of the first. There is an emphasis on dirt throughout this account. Just a simple count in English[3] yields five uses of the word ground and three references to the land.[4] Human beings are made from the same stuff that the rivers flow through and the trees and plants spring up in. In juxtaposition to subduing the earth and having dominion, humanity is instructed to till the ground and keep it and privileged with naming the other forms of life that God brought forth from it. Humanity’s intimate relationship to God is preserved with a detail not present in the first account: it is the very breath of God that animates humanity.  But it is a connection to the earth that takes priority.

Taken together, these two snap shots of creation arrive at a magnificent panoramic view of our unique situation in the cosmos. It is a picture that stretches from the ground to the heavens, as humanity is made of the “stuff” of God and of the earth. We are the God breathed, divine image bearers that will one day return to the dust from which we come. And the picture is wide in its scope. We are “groundlings” if you will. We are not only dependent upon this creator God and the earth and its fruits but we are also placed in a unique relationship other inhabitants of the earth. And finally, human beings are mutually dependent upon each other: It is not good for a man to be alone. The picture that surfaces is one of mutual dependence: between humanity and God, between humanity and the earth, between humanity and the other creatures brought forth from the earth, and between the men and women of the earth.  It is a beautiful picture indeed.   But it is far from picturesque.

Taken in isolation, these first two chapters of Genesis might leave us with a Thomas Kinkade-like impression of reality. If you are not familiar, the world of Kinkade is one where the lighting is always soft. The sun’s beams break through like a partially cloudy spring day. It’s never overpowering and never dark. His paintings of winter, spring, summer and fall all manage to convey a sense of warmth. And the change of seasons from one painting to the next seems gentle. Images of cottages and cabins nestled in-between lush wooded areas and flowing streams   abound, suggesting a sense of pleasure and leisure more than shelter from the storm.  Representations of human beings are sparse in Kinkade’s work. They tend to float in and out and when they appear they are nondescript.  They are suggested more than they are seen.  Presumably we are on the other side of whatever lies behind that cottage door.

But this is not the world we live in. To be sure, the world we live in is good.  It can be a place of wild and mesmerizing beauty that enchants the day dreamer, acts as muse for the painter or songstress and causes the heartbeats of children to increase pace at the first signs of spring.  Golden yellow dandelion florets dance in the wind and glisten in the summer sun. The stars give light by night as the moon plays with the ocean causing its waves to rise and fall.  Roses and lilies bloom with intoxicating aroma and inspire the poetry of lovers. And human beings at times act with amazing care and benevolence towards each other and the world we live in.

But the world we live in can also be a brutal and desolate place. Those same dandelions that dance in the wind are an aggressive weed that take over the farmer’s crop and increase his toil.  The sun that glistens on them does not let up but beats down and contributes to drought and famine as rains recede.  The stars fall from the sky. The moon is thought to have adverse effects on the human psyche, while the ocean waves rise to a colossal crescendo in the tsunami and crush tens of thousands of human lives. Roses bear thorns and lilies fade away. Human beings let love die while hurt, ignorance and hatred fester. We use words, swords and F-15’s to terrorize the lives of others.  And time has also shown that no other force in nature has wreaked as much havoc upon the rest of creation as humanity.

Why So Much Suffering? Why So Much Pain?

It is only natural that we ask: Why do so many bad things happen? The first two chapters of Genesis must be read in concert with Genesis 3. In many ways Genesis 3 is the first attempt in in the scriptures that my community holds dear to take a stab at this why question. God had placed the man and woman in the center of a garden, instructed them to care for it and eat freely from its fruits except for one tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  God had declared that if they did eat from it they would die. But now the woman has a conversation with a serpent who tells her that they won’t die but rather will become like God, knowing good from evil. The man and the woman decide to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. This disobedience occasions several reactions from God. God pronounces a series of judgments essentially declaring enmity between human beings and the land, human beings and the earth’s inhabitants (in particular the serpent), and between men and women. Finally God removes the man and woman from the garden lest they take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever. Here human rebellion clearly comes into focus as one explanation for the problem of evil, suffering and death. And a valid explanation it is, even if it is a partial one.

As the biblical drama unfolds though, various answers are offered. As in the Genesis account, we often find human freedom posed as an explanation: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”[5] The deuteronomic historian surveys the song God is singing over creation and hears something similar to the author of Genesis. Other times there is suggestion that some human suffering, more than mere result of human sin, is a form of divine punishment.  The prophets suggest that God rises up one nation to punish another, even punishing God’s chosen people when they sin.  God’s will, for an as of yet unknown, better tomorrow is also offered as a suggestion to the problem of suffering. The book of Job gives us an amplified example of human suffering. And the book’s protagonist gives us perhaps the best example that can be found in scripture of laying our laments before God and boldly wrestling with the why question.  But in the end Job declares, “I know no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”[6] Similarly in the Gospel of John when Jesus encounters a man who was born blind and heals him, his disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered them, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”[7]

Job and Jesus frustrate our attempts to blame the problem of suffering, death and pain all on the sins of human individuals. I am not sure that tracing the blame backwards from the man who suffers, to his parents or even to our figurehead first parents in our creation myth does us much good. On the one hand this is what Paul seems to do on the surface in Romans 5 when he talks about all dying in Adam and being made alive in Christ. But as Paul himself presses deeper into the mystery, deeper into a question of suffering that plagued him: Why have my people, the Jews, seemingly rejected this Jesus whom I believe God has revealed as savior? Paul’s answer: “All creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”[8] Indeed, if we seriously engage the biblical drama at all, it is hard – if not impossible – to pinpoint a one size fits all answer for the problem of evil and suffering.  And perhaps even more difficult is trying to discern God’s active or complicit role in it.

But we continue to cry out to God about the state of our world, and our own helplessness in times of personal suffering. And this is good.  If Job’s story illustrates anything it is that God is big enough to handle our tears, our mourning and our toughest questions.  And so we bring them.  Though, often we remain befuddled. But what drives scripture, Old and New Testament alike, is not our inquiry into why bad things happen but the revelation of what God is doing about the problem of suffering, death, pain and the sin that compounds and intensifies the sting of these mysteries. That answer is Jesus. So who is this Jesus? Lets continue by exploring this further together with one more post on Good Friday.


[1] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. A Religious of C.S.M.V. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, 1953), 93.  By this Athanasius did not mean that the ontological distinction between creator and creature are ever blurred.

[2] Genesis 1:26

[3] In this case the NRSV

[4] This as opposed to one reference to ground and two to land in Genesis 1.

[5] Deuteronomy 30:19

[6] Job 42:2

[7] John 9:1-12

[8] Romans 8:20-21

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4 thoughts on “Cur Deus Homo? And Other Important Questions

  1. Wayne,

    I don’t have much to say here, simply because I got lost in the beautiful poetry of your writing, rather than turning on my lawyer-brain and examining it from every angle. I will say this though. I’m leading my adult Bible study through the book of Job right now, and one of the things they really seem to struggle with is that there is no one pat answer to the problem of suffering. They keep trying to insert a nice and neat answer, and can be a challenge for me to not get frustrated, but to patiently say, “No, the problem we’re confronted with in the book and in life is more complicated than that.”

    To be honest, I wasn’t always comfortable with this answer either. But then I had a vision of Jesus (I’ve only ever had a couple), on a day when I was racked by the question, “Why, God, why? If I could just know why, I wouldn’t be in so much pain.” And Jesus came to me and said, “It is not for you to know why, my child. There are some things that only I can know, and you need to be okay with that. You need to trust me. And you need to accept the fact that even if I did tell you why, you wouldn’t be satisfied by the answer, and the answer would not make your pain go away. Only you and I can do that.”

    It seems like such a “non-answer” (much like God’s replies to Job), but it was the only answer I’ve ever been given. And as I’ve grown more into the mystery of God, it’s an answer I accept, nay, am grateful for. Because even in that answer, Jesus’ tender protection of me is evident.

    This entire thread leads directly into the other vision of Christ I’ve had, but that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say that the significance of Jesus, the God-Man, is multi-layered, and you’ve offered a wonderful synopsis.

    • Jill…your reflections in light of Wayne’s words really captured me tonight. I have a terribly difficult time not being told why. I am a “need to know” person, and even though I know I can’t know everything, that is tremendously difficult for me to deal with. I hope I’m improving at sitting with the questions, but it will always be tough. Thanks for sharing. Your reflections have helped me think more about what Wayne has posted here.

      Wayne, I just wanted to say thanks for being you. You have a way with thinking and with words that really compels me. My brain isn’t quite up to deep theologizing this evening, but I want you to know I really appreciate this post.

      • Ladies, thank you both for your kind and affirming words about my writing. This whole “no simple explanation” and “mystery” thing has not been an easy journey for me either. I remember the summer I turned 18 sitting in a car every night in the parking lot of the grocery store where several friends and I worked and talking about creation (which at that point we all of course interpreted to be a historical account), the “fall” and omniscience. I remember being the odd man out arguing that there was no way God could have known that “Adam and Eve would fall” and that it would lead to so much suffering and pain, etc. If God had known and made us anyway then that God is not good I insisted at the time.

        Fast forward about 7 or 8 years I am (or think I am) a Supralapsarian, Calvinist of the 5 point Dort variety. By this time I have embraced “popcorn predestination” meaning every single thing good or bad that will ever happen was preordained by God before the foundations of the earth when he put the pan full of kernels to the flame. There was some comfort in a notion of God with absolute complete control over all things. Then my mom died! For the first time I knew suffering and grief beyond my own. For the first time I felt other’s pain and felt it deeply. For the first time I allowed my self to question the death of a friend a few year previous who I believed had “not been right with God.” For the first time I began to worry about my Father’s potential death some day and the fact that I was not sure if he was a Christian. I went to one of my professors at my small fundamentalist Bible college in the Reformed tradition and got the 5 point Calvinist pat answers.

        So, I transferred to Calvin College (which ironically encouraged more free thinking and much less Dortian style Calvinism in their religion department). I became (or again thought I became) an Open theist. The gut instinct of that kid in the car years early returned. Again I had it all figured out, God was just as surprised by our pain and suffering as we are. There was some comfort in God suffering with us. But as time went by I became increasingly uncomfortable with the bumbling God I was left with: a God of trial and error who was learning along with me. God as “best guesser” as open theists and some process theist are comfortable claiming.

        Next round of suffering: seminary. A friend (and former youth leader) denounced me as a brother and as a Christian because of the big questions I was wrestling with; but mostly because he found out my theological convictions led me to more left leaning political positions than him. Next Ryan died and I was one of the last people to see him alive as he stumbled drunk out of my neighbor’s apartment from the red bricks. I blamed myself. I blamed God. I blamed Ryan. I was angry at everyone. Angry about the God-world situation with so much suffering “below Heaven.”

        As I processed all of this suffering throughout my last two years of seminary I almost left the faith. Then something broke loose. I continued to find (especially guided by Moltmann and his life story) a God who suffers with us in the cross. But as my notion of God in Christ suffering with us became more and more solidified my notion of God as Trinity became less and less anthropomorphic. It didn’t matter or even seem a relevant question to me anymore when God knows whatever God knows of our suffering. I began to think of God less and less as a cosmic, detached brain or mighty hand somewhere “out” or “up” there and began to think of God much more as the one in whom all things exist. The cross is not only God suffering with us, but maybe God’s feeling of the birth pangs as all of creation cries out to be made new and for the children of God to be revealed.

        At least, that is where I find myself on the journey these days.

  2. Wayne,

    In basically the same spot you are. I have grown more in my faith as I’ve begun to see God as “the one in whom all things hold together”, even if I don’t understand exactly how that works.

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