Theological Reflection from CPE

During this CPE unit I have been wrestling with the intersection of divine activity and human responsibility. Who is God anyway, and how does God work?

As Lutheran clergyman, I have been trained to look for and to find God right in the middle of human suffering as a com-passionate co-sufferer with people. Lutherans call this the Theology of the Cross (from Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 20, “He deserves to be called a theologian… who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”) The Lutheran suggestion is that God’s love is most clearly revealed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth hanging on the cross. (See, 1 John 4:9-10.) The implication of this for human suffering is that God is with us revealing Godself to us through our experiences of suffering. In other words, suffering can help open us to the experience of God’s love. This raises the important question of the cause of human suffering.

The Buddha taught that we humans are responsible for our own suffering through desire (attraction/aversion and ignorance/delusion) and that through letting go of our cravings we may experience freedom. (See, The Four Noble Truths.)

There are also external forces such as weather, violence, illness, and death that bring hardship on people. However, we tend to make our suffering from these experiences even worse by our reactions with attraction/aversion or based in ignorance and delusion.

As a follower of Jesus, I am receiving the Buddha’s wisdom and trying to apply it to myself and the people I encounter in the following way: I do think we can ease our own suffering by paying better attention to our desires and the ways we complicate our own lives and our relationships. I have found detaching and letting go with love to be tremendously helpful practices. However, I don’t think we can actually completely eliminate all suffering (our own or other people’s) without the experience of loving and being loved. As much as “compassion for all sentient beings” is beautifully utilized by Buddhists in their practice, there is a conspicuous absence of the “being loved” part in Buddhist philosophy (caveat: in my limited exposure so far). Jesus invites all people into an experience of the love of God as the source and ground of being human as well as the basis for coming to love God, ourselves, and all living things.

In Twelve-Step language, “we came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” (Step 2). This is the power of love. It is greater than us, and it is inseparably part of us. Christians call it God. Others call it Love or something else. Or nothing. It doesn’t really matter. But it is real. And it really affects suffering people depending on how we choose to use it. Some reject it and are closed up into resentment and self-absorption. But some receive it and are transformed into loving beings bit by bit.

As a pastor and a chaplain, I have the privilege of serving people with that Love and helping to facilitate their interactions with it. Often however, it is the people I thought I was serving who end up facilitating my participation in and transformation by this Love.

The foregoing analysis represents a major shift in my theology over the past 10 years or so. I used to think the whole point was God, then I met my daughter + teacher and many other beautiful people whom she helped me become open toward, and now I think the whole point is people. Ironically, God apparently made this same shift by becoming a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who then said, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40.)

Love One Person

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