(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Dorothee Sölle draws on Simone Weil’s philosophy to explore the phenomenon of suffering as “affliction,” involving three distinct dimensions. First is physical pain, but this is the least, because once it is gone, it is as if it never occurred. Second is psychological pain, the sense of being poured out, empty, or numbed and imprisoned by pain. These two dimensions alone do not rise to the level of affliction, however, without the third pole, social degradation, in which the sufferer is abandoned or worse, ridiculed, blamed, and despised for one’s suffering state. According to Sölle, Christianity’s response too often has been a type of theological sadism.God comes to a sufferer only with pedagogical intent. Brutality and salvation become brothers, suffering serves to teach obedience and there is a perfect alliance between repressive theism and repressive society.

Sölle traces three possible interpretations of the suffering in the story of Abraham and the (near) sacrifice of Issac: First, God takes delight in annihilation; second, religious devotion requires obedience up to the sacrifice of one’s life; or third, the story writer is attempting to overcome the idea that God may be pleased with human sacrifice.

Ironically, at the same time, Christians in society assiduously avoid suffering, and therefore people become increasingly insensitive and indifferent to the suffering of others.People stand before suffering like those who are color-blind, incapable of perception and without any sensibility. The consequence of this suffering-free state of well-being is that people’s lives become frozen solid.

Even while Christianity has promoted a theological sadism, at the same time it has proclaimed an apathetic God, in other words, a God incapable of suffering. The worst form of apathy is found not at the personal but at the political level. Sölle connects the history of the Nazi period as a foretaste of the “inability to suffer” that only became clearer in the history of Vietnam.

Sölle furthers Weil’s exploration of the suffering of the oppressed working classes through meditation on the story of...

(The entire section is 882 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Hall, John Douglas. God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in Theology of the Cross. Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg, 1986. A fully developed Lutheran Christian theological exploration of the question of suffering and its relation to Christian salvation and life. Appendix outlining alternative understandings, index.

Perkins, Judith. The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era. New York: Routledge, 1995. An interdisciplinary study of the rise of the understanding of the self as sufferer in the early Christian period. Bibliography, index.

Weil, Simone. Waiting for God. New York: Harper, 1973. “The Love of God and Affliction” contains Weil’s threefold description of affliction, and “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies” describes Weil’s focus on prayer and attention. Weil’s philosophy lays the foundation for Sölle’s description of suffering.

Williams, Rowan. Writing in the Dust: After September 11. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002. Bishop of Canterbury’s narrative theological response to September 11. Readers will find his description of the Christian response to unfathomable suffering similar to Sölle’s.