The final words in the first part of the Apostles' Creed are these:
...the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.In the last two posts we've been discussing the psychological literature regarding the notion that God is "Father." In this post (and all these posts are following the sections of a recent book chapter I wrote) we take up the notion that God is "almighty" and the "creator of heaven and earth."
There is a experiential tension created when we confess that God is omnipotent and the creator of heaven and earth. Specifically, the Creed prompts us to make God responsible for the world, at least for its origins. This is troublesome given the chaos, disorder and suffering we experience in the world. However, even if God isn't the proximate cause for suffering and pain (although as creator God may be distally responsible) we also confess that God is "almighty." Which makes us wonder if God should not intervene more to alleviate the most horrific of our sufferings.
In short, the confession that God is both "almighty" and "creator" throws up all the classic issues related to the "problem of pain" and theodicy. However, my concern in the chapter I wrote wasn't focused on our theological attempts to reconcile our experience of pain with the creedal assertions. My focus was on the psychological experience associated with the problem of suffering.
In the bible the "experience of theodicy" is observed in lament, the psychological turmoil created when our experience of pain clashes with the theological assertions that God is good and the sustainer of the cosmos. The spiritual literature related to lament, with the classic work being St. John of the Cross's The Dark Night of the Soul, is enormous. This makes sense given that, as most of you know, most of the songs in the the book of Psalms are cries of lament. In short, the experience of lament is central to the faith experience and is, in fact, a sign of mature religious functioning.
So what have the social scientists done with the experience of lament? Not much, although there is a small literature that deals with complaint and anger toward God.
The point that interests me in reviewing the social scientific research regarding lament is that it seems to make the mistake that I think a lot of churches also make. Specifically, the assumption is that lament is pathological, a symptom of spiritual disease. No doubt, anger and disappointment with God is a symptom of spiritual distress, and it can be a precursor to a loss of faith. But the assumption that lament is spiritually immature or pathological is deeply problematic, a mistake made in many churches and one, it seems, that is also made by social scientists. I've found this assessment from Walter Brueggemann to be particularly helpful on this score:
It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented…It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to me, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the larger number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about an incoherence that is experienced in the world…I believe that serous religious use of the lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought that acknowledgement of negativity was somehow an act of unfaith, as though the very speech about it conceded too much about God’s “loss of control”…The point to be urged here is this: The use of these “psalms of darkness” may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith…Brueggemann helps us see the underlying problem found in many churches and in the social psychological research. Specifically, when people examine the faith/lament relationship they tend to work with a polar model with faith and lament placed on two ends of a continuum. That is, as faith increases lament/anger/complaint toward God is believed to decrease. In this view, faith is the absence of doubt or complaint. Conversely, as doubt, lament, anger, and complaint increase faith is believed to decrease. These experiences are symptoms of a failure or lack of faith.
In a variety of articles I've argued that social scientists (and churches) need to replace the polar model of lament/faith with a circumplex model where faith and lament are seen as separate, orthogonal dimensions. In this model I've labeled the vertical dimension "communion," as it reflects engagement with God. The horizontal dimension is labeled "complaint" as it captures the experience of doubt, lament, anger and disappointment with God. The two models--polar and circumplex--are compared in the figure below:
The value of the circumplex model is that it allows communion with God to exist independently of lament. That is, one can be passionately engaged with God (i.e., have "faith") while being in the middle of spiritual distress and turmoil. Complaint doesn't imply a lack of faith. Rather, as Brueggemann suggests, complaint can reflect an "act of bold faith." Perhaps the classic articulation of this experience is Job's assertion:
Though He slay me, yet will I hope in him. (Job 13.15)This is the classic high communion/high complaint moment: God, you're killing me, but I still trust you.
In summary, having looked at the social scientific literature regarding the experience of lament, my recommendation is that researchers examine the models they are working with regarding the relationship between faith and lament. My assessment is that, to date, researchers have fallen into the trap many churches have. They have adopted a polar model of faith/lament and, as a consequence, can only see compliant, anger, doubt and disappointment with God as diseased and spiritually immature.