Kuschel, K.-J. , “Ich schaffe Finsternis und Unheil”: Ist Gott verantwortlich für das Übel and Laughter: A Theological Reflection

Gross, W. and K-J. Kuschel. “Ich schaffe Finsternis und Unheil”: Ist Gott verantwortlich für das Übel. Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald Verlag, 1992. Pp. 234, ppbk.

Laughter: A Theological Reflection.[1] By K.-J. Kuschel. Transl. by J. Bowden. London: SCM Press, 1994. Ppbk. xxi + 150. *

Karl-Josef Kuschel is one of the best younger German Catholic theologians. A member of the Theologische Fakultät at Tübingen and a student and colleague of Hans Küng, Kuschel very courageously faces the challenges of postmodernism, pluralism, and the holocaust — as a German and as a Catholic. His work deserves serious attention in the United States as well.

“Ich schaffe Finsternis und Unheil”: Ist Gott verantwortlich für das Übel is a very important book by Kuschel and his colleague in biblical studies. Together, they face the question of theodicy straight on. Kuschel does not flinch from admitting the enormous evil of the holocaust; nor does he, in addressing the role of God in massive suffering, in any way deny human responsibility for evil. But the theodical question must be addressed by contemporary theologians, and Kuschel does it with honesty and scholarship.

The book is divided into five parts: Part One, “Biblical Perspectives,” is a discussion of three passages from Hebrew Scriptures. Isaiah 6:1-11, which deals with the hardening of the people’s heart by God such that they cannot extricate themselves from sin, Isaiah 45:5-7, and Psalm 88. Noting that, 45:5-7, the prophet contrasts shalom (peace) and ra’ (evil), Gross interprets ra’ as socio-political trouble (Unheil) and correctly concludes that both are created by God (45). Psalm 88 is presented as the complaint of someone who has been disabled since childhood, for whom complaint and accusation are really a very strong prayer for redress of grievances (55). In a straightforward reading of Hebrew Scriptures, Gross concludes:

The more consistently one claims the creation of the world for YHWH, the more strongly must the question of YHWH’s responsibility for the bad aspects of the world be posed (35) … Certainly, YHWH has undertaken a broad, difficult, and daily realm of responsibility; YHWH is at least co-responsible (mitverantwortlich) not only for healing but also for sickness (50)…. These people held YHWH very concretely, stubbornly, and comprehensively responsible for their fate. Only to thank YHWH for their good fortune … [while] holding these attacks away from God, was strange to them. (56)

Part Two, “Theological Perspectives,” is a summary of western teaching on theodicy drawn from Church pronouncements, Augustine, Thomas, Calvin, Leibniz, and Kant. Kuschel does a remarkable job in epitomizing these sources, noting that the classical tradition rejects evil as an ontological reality and, hence, affirms evil as having no substance. The preservation of human free will, together with unjust suffering, created the problem of theodicy (though the term is Leibnizian). The classical answers are: that evil is permitted or tolerated by God as a means to some other end; that evil is part of some larger order of the universe; and that evil is a function of human free will which has been corrupted by the fall. Kuschel concludes: “The existence of evil is regarded as an aspect of reality that has been permitted by God but for which humanity bears the final responsibility” (108, italics original). Reflecting critically on this Church tradition from within modernity, Kuschel sets the stage for the next part as follows: “In spite of all the freedom and responsibility that humanity as “player” has on the stage of the world, God who is the author and director cannot be left out of the play” (102).

Part Three, “Literary Perspectives,” starts by noting that post-war Christian theologians such as Barth, Tillich, von Balthasar, and Guardini [and Jewish theologians such as Heschel, Kaplan, Buber, Soloveitchik, Finkelstein, and Reform Jewish thinkers] acted as if they could write theology as if nothing formative had happened. Literary figures, on the other hand, tried to come to grips with radical evil and Kuschel deals with four authors. Reinhold Schneider developed the idea of God as “the co-sufferer on earth … who remains bleeding flesh through the night of the grave … [and who] is more helpful than the resurrected One” (117). This led Schneider to give up belief in the resurrection and life-after-death (117). Wolfgang Hildesheimer developed the theater of the absurd and maintained the incomprehensibility of life, the unintelligibility of meaning and, hence, the impossibility of binding responsibility (124). This led Hildesheimer to see evil as the caprice of God and to generate the term, “God’s guilt” (130-1). Elie Wiesel developed the idea of unrelenting protest against an unjust God (164-5). Harmut Lange proposes very boldly that God is guilty, that God must be forgiven by humanity, and that this forgiveness must be extended within worship to God (162-3). Reflecting critically on literary responses, Kuschel concludes:

Therein lies the “square” of the problematic of contemporary theodicy:

– silencing (Stillstellen) of theodicy by accepting a “suffering God” [Schneider];

– wearing down (Ermüdung) of theodicy by cutting off all belief in God [Hildesheimer];

– refusal (Verweigerung) of theodicy by protesting “before God” against the incomprehensible history of suffering by innocent humanity [Wiesel]; [and]

– rendering theodicy impossible (Verunmöglichung) by experiencing the guilt and withdrawal of God into mystical darkness [Lange]. (169, brackets added)

Part Four, “Contemporary Theological Perspectives,” deals with Hans Jonas, Jürgen Moltmann, and Gisbert Greshake, all of whom acknowledge radical, massive evil. Jonas rejects the omnipotent God of the tradition in favor of a God with limited power, invoking the medieval Jewish mystical tradition of zimzum. Moltmann teaches that suffering and love go together, invoking Gethsemane and the crucifixion. And Greshake proposes that suffering is the price of love and freedom.

In a series of very strong objections, Kuschel rejects this entire line of reasoning: Theologically, one simply cannot admit the positive value of suffering. Evil is evil; suffering is not good. Citing Metz, Kuschel notes that suffering is not a sign of love; it is a sign of the inability to love. Psychologically, it is no help to know that God suffers too; misery may love company, but company does not justify evil. And biblically, there is no justification for a weak or suffering God. Passages such as Isaiah 63:9, Psalm 91:15, John 3:16, II Corinthians 13:4, and Romans 5:8 are simply misinterpreted when they yield a God Who suffers or is weak. On the contrary, such passages speak of weakness and suffering as the sign of humanity, not God, and emphasize God’s sympathy with, but not co-experiencing of, humanity’s suffering (184-96).

In Part Five, “Afterthoughts on God’s Might and Power in the Face of Evil,” Kuschel moves to three reflections on the theodicy problem seen at the end of the twentieth century: First, as Isaiah 45 indicates, God is creator of evil as well as good. As such, God is also master of evil as well as good, and this is ground for Jewish and Christian hope:

God bears the responsibility for reality in all its aspects, including darkness and trouble…. Insofar as God created darkness and trouble, God is also the Master of darkness and trouble, which God can in some way use for the good (199, italics original)…. God did not spare God’s “people,” even God’s Son, the ultimate in evil, even the ultimate in innocent suffering. Rather, God let them suffer unbelievably…. [Yet] God saved God’s people again and again, and over and over gave it a new chance for life. God also did not leave God’s Son in the pillory and the grave. Rather, God took him up into eternal life and made him into lord over the universe (Phil. 2:9-11). With this, God proved Godself God, Who in the end has victory over suffering, Who triumphs over wrongdoing, and Who takes the sting from death. Evil, wrongdoing, death, suffering do not have the last word with God…. Christians and Jews live on this hope, or they cease being Christians and Jews. (206)

Second, protest is legitimate; it is a religiously faithful form of reaction to evil, an appropriate response to the theodical problem:

The experience of this evil becomes the occasion to cry one’s own suffering “into the face of God,” precisely because God is seen as the ultimate cause of this suffering and it is from God that healing is expected… The responsibility of God for evil is not rationalized away, but spoken out — in complaint and protest…. [though] this form of speaking to God does not exist in the New Testament…. The price of relieving God of responsibility is the internalization of guilt and, with that, the silencing before God of any protest against suffering…. Only one who acknowledges God’s responsibility for evil can hold God responsible for the elimination of evil (201, italics original)…. In the face of evil, theology has the task of articulating before God the experience of evil, of not silencing attacks on God, of expressing and not internalizing or appeasing protest and complaint, of holding God responsible, and self-critically owning up to one’s own responsibility — all this in the ultimate, unbroken hope that God Godself will, in God’s own time (if at all), justify Godself in the face of all evil. (213)

Third, no matter how hard one protests, “the incomprehensibility of suffering is part of the incomprehensibility of God” (208, citing Rahner).

As in any book in theology, there are some points which can be disputed; I shall list four comments and two objections. First, Kuschel’s presentation of Wiesel is excellent but his criticism of Wiesel as a “refusal” of theodicy (169, 209) seems incorrect. Wiesel’s position of unrelenting protest acknowledges real and unjust suffering, affirms a real and unjust God, and binds the two together in a covenantal commitment which does imply a concerned, merciful, God of pathos. True, the theodical question is not “answered” but the eschatological hope is, indeed, affirmed, as Kuschel himself notes (210-13).[2] Second, Jonas’ zimzum is well presented but it has two faults not noted by Kuschel. It is wrong, or rather, it is a modern radicalization of the traditional concept, and it proposes a limited God which, however, also limits the possibility of retribution, without which there can be no full theory of evil and good. Third, reading Moltmann’s pain of the father (179) in the light of Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good is a devastating move. And fourth, the exegesis of Isaiah 63:9 used by Kuschel is based on the Septuagint and not on the massoretic text, which itself contains a qeri and ketiv. In any case, the rabbinic (though not biblical) sources certainly do read Isaiah 63:9 with Psalm 91:15 as implying that God co-suffers with Israel (Talmud, Sota 31a; Mekhilta, Bo’, 14).

Two objections: In confronting God’s omnipotence, benevolence, and comprehensibility, Jonas chose to question God’s power and Kuschel correctly objects. However, Kuschel chooses to question God’s comprehensibility (208), even limiting the theologian’s freedom in the process (218). This seems to me to be a serious error. Incomprehensibility is no excuse for unjust behavior and limiting one’s freedom to say so is no solution. Rather, it seems to me, Kuschel should follow his penchant for leaving the question of theodicy open in favor of protest (210) which problematizes God’s goodness, not God’s power or comprehensibility — surely, a very biblical position. Finally, in shifting the tenor of the discussion to the hope of salvation / resurrection (206), Kuschel is certainly correct. Yet, there is a terrible danger that hope will quash protest, or that hope will become a fantasy undermining resistance to evil. Even hope needs to be contextualized by the moral imperative of prophetic protest.

In sum this is a very courageous book. Kuschel confronts the holocaust as a young German and as a theologian, asserting vigorously human and divine responsibility. He also reaches outside theological discourse into literature in search of insight and truth. This book is a definite contribution to the theodicy discussion at the end of the twentieth century.

Laughter – A Theological Reflection is a fine weaving of literature, biblical scholarship, and Christian theology. Like Kuschel’s earlier work, “Ich schaffe Finsternis und Unheil”: Ist Gott verantwortlich für das Übel co-authored with W. Gross, this is a thorough and imaginative study. In response to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, it draws on philosophic, theological, and literary traditions and, then, reaches a theological conclusion.

Part One surveys the philosophic tradition, which problematizes laughter. For Homer, “… the laughter of the gods knows no compassion for the weak, no mercy for the afflicted, no sparing of the innocent, no solidarity with the victims…. rings out over the battlefield with its piles of corpses” (6-7). For Plato, laughter is a mixture of anxiety and pleasure, a Schadenfreude. Ethically, therefore, laughter is to be avoided and “`persons of worth, even if only mortal men, must not be represented as overcome by laughter, and still less must such a representation of the gods be allowed'” (15). For Aristotle, on the other hand, laughter cannot be condemned because it is a natural characteristic of human beings; but, it should only be used to refresh and relax, as well as to confound opponents (21-22). Noting that Eco’s book revolves around the lost second half of Aristotle’s Poetics which dealt with laughter, Kuschel points out that, “if the poetics of postmodernity is a poetics of play …then this poetics corresponds to an aesthetic of laughter: laughter at the fact that one is free from all binding ties, values, and norms … If nothing is binding any more and everything is fluid, if the `as if’ reigns, then in fact laughter can be a congenial expression of this poetics” (36-7).

Part Two begins with the Christian condemnation of laughter and the praising of weeping in Augustine, Chrysostom (“Christ never laughed”), and other church fathers as well as in the monastic tradition: “weeping alone unites with God, while laughter leads a person away from God” (47). Kuschel, then, returns to the biblical texts. Humans laugh. Sarah and Abraham see the discrepancy between their bodily capacities and God’s promise of seed and laugh “the laughing doubt of God.” They are not punished; rather, God proceeds with his plan and laughs with the doubters (52). God also laughs a “laugh of partisanship and superiority” at the wicked, as in Psalms. Further, God laughs an “enigmatic, arbitrarily uncanny” laugh at the suffering of Job (62). There is also the human laughter of the fool.

Part Three deals with the Christian sources. The apocryphal and gnostic gospels depict Mary laughing, and Jesus, and others too. And there is the “messianic jubilation,” the joy and healing of the Christian message, including God’s acceptance of sinners. This leads to the first of Kuschel’s three theological theses which he begins with a kind of talmudic a fortiori argument: “Could the one of whom his opponents asserted that he was a `glutton and winebibber,’ a `friend of tax collectors and sinners,’ have made laughter a tabu? That is inconceivable…. Instead of any ambiguous laughter of God, the New Testament knows God’s joy, a joy which must necessarily express itself in laughter, but one to which laughter is not alien” (74-5).[3] “The provocative joy, the kingdom of God theology which extends frontiers and breaks tabus, manifests itself in the way in which Jesus uses grotesque imagery … bold parables … disarming answers … radical paradoxes … perplexing beatitudes” (77). This theme of messianic laughter and joy formed the core of the risus paschalis, the Easter laughter, which was a German preaching tradition that allowed the telling of even off-color jokes and stories on Easter as a way of rejoicing in the triumph over death that Easter embodies (84-7). Kuschel concludes by noting that Jesus was also laughed at, which gave birth to the tradition of the Christian as the fool of God.

Kuschel concludes Part Three by reviewing his first thesis: “… the foundation of Christian existence is the new joy made possible in the `event of Jesus Christ’ in and to God and the world, a joy which need not always express itself in laughter, but which becomes concrete in laughter…. has the character of liberated and redeemed joy which breaks down barriers and brings integration…. especially in the interests of those who are marginalized and excluded … It is laughter in trust that God’s laughter is … a laughter of boundless goodness and joy in his creation and creatures…” (92-3).

Part Four addresses Kuschel’s second thesis: “For Christians whose laughter stems from the spirit of joy and happiness, and who feel particularly committed to the despised and outcast, there are limits to laughter; they have an ethical commitment to refuse to laugh….” (122). Noting that laughter and jokes had made it easier for Germans to go to war and to gas Jews in concentration camps, Kuschel, writing in German as a Catholic theologian at Tübingen, concludes: “A Christian theology of laughter protests above all against a laughter from above; at the cost of those who in any case are weak, exploited and socially despised; laughter at the expense of human dignity; laughter as a kind of further delimitation and declassification” (124). “Laughter and ethical self-restraint belong indissolubly together for Christians” (93).

Finally, Kuschel argues, “… a Christian theology of laughter … will also speak out against the absolutizing of laughter, as happens in Umberto Eco’s novel …” (127). For “it is impossible for the believer, the Christian, to remain permanently in the aesthetic sphere … to leave decisions open, to replay the game ad infinitum, to keep exchanging the masks and roles for new ones and continually enjoying … Rather, believers feel challenged to a basic decision about their life and death, an ultimate seriousness and an infinite wager: discipleship of Christ, and thus trust in the God who has shown himself in Jesus Christ” (131).

As an outsider to Christian tradition but, nonetheless a sympathetic reader thereof, I concur with Kuschel’s three theses: First, God certainly does have a sense of humor. God laughs with us and we with God, in faith and in loving trust. Jewish tradition has long recognized this. I think, though, that I would argue that laughter is part of the image of God in which we are created, using Aristotle’s theory of human nature and Heschel’s biblical-rabbinic theology of the divine pathos. (One might also reason from common sense: Can any two beings in a covenantal relationship get along for an extended period without laughter?) For me, the musical rendition of the gospel stories in Godspell captured very well the Christian message of love and humor. Second, laughter surely must be subordinate to the ethical. We cannot really be free to laugh at the oppression of others. And third, laughter must surely be within the framework of meaning and values, even if that implies a logocentric system. The evils of logocentric hierarchicalism, patriarchalism, etc. are legion; they need to be corrected. But one should not throw out the baby with the bathwater.[4] Religion still has the ability, especially in its prophetic and spiritual dimensions, to invest all of life — even laughter — with meaning, love, and justice.

* Appeared in Cross Currents (Summer: 1995) 243-9.

[1] Unfortunately, the title on the cover does not match the one on the title page, Laughter: A Theological Essay, though neither really translates, Lachen, Gottes und des Menschen Kunst.

[2] See my Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville, KY, Westminster / John Knox: 1993) for an extension of this argument.

[3] Something is wrong with the syntax here. Either “which must [add: `not’] necessarily … but” or, “which must necessarily … [delete: `but’].” The argument is the same, though slightly stronger in the latter form.

[4] See my review of Mark C. Taylor’s Erring, entitled “But Rabbi David Says,” Cross Currents (Winter 1988-89) 468-74.

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