Divine Freedom, Apatheia, and Gentile Politics

My friends and fellow Open Theists Tom and T.C. are having an excellent discussion on the attributes of God.  Last week, I wrote Open Theism, Moltmann, Patristic Thought and Divine Apatheia, and it was well received.  In so far as the Church Fathers and Mothers REDEFINED the Gentile doctrine of divine apatheia to mean the Creator God’s complete freedom to free humanity for a relationship with Godself, they are correct and have precedent in the Biblical narrative.  What one has to say at this point is that from a Gentile standpoint, God is ineffable, because we as Gentiles do not have access to the throne of YHWH except through Christ Jesus. At the cross, as Moltmann rightfully argues, God opens up the covenant to us Gentiles so that we may partake in life everlasting with the Triune God. So, in other words, just as the New Testament calls the New Covenant a better covenant, not because of anything intrinsic that we have done, but by Grace, YHWH has chosen to include MORE people to be in relationship with Godself (in line with passages like Hebrews 7:22, and 8:6, etc.).

If I may wax Jeanine from Veronica Roth’s Divergent Trilogy, understanding the Christian life is like this: The Future Is For Those Who Know Their Place.  I have argued for years that Gentiles must know our place before we proceed forward with doing theology.  I haven’t changed that at all. What’s different is now I am finding Christian writers who have argued along the same lines, who were right under my nose.  The early Church Christians who appropriated items such as “apatheia” from their culture did so as a means to communicate with their culture, so they could relate and give witness to Christ where they stood. If there are better ways of communicating God’s freedom and dynamic sovereignty in our age, certainly we should try them, yes, rather than make Gentile concepts absolute and universal, and somehow beyond critique?

Tom helpfully clarifies my point about our Gentile context and the nature of apatheia when he referred us to Richard Beck’s 4 part series on Stoicism and Christianity from seven years ago.  If you have time, give it a quick read.  But here’s where the rubber meets the road. In part 1, Beck asked,

Are strongly relational notions of God morally and psychologically weakening us? That is, are these notions inhibiting apatheia?

Are many of our theological worries (e.g., unanswered prayer) the product of failures of apatheia? That is, rather than accepting our circumstance we wring our hands at why God is not answering us.”

So, critics of the doctrine of apatheia are reading their unanswered prayers onto God’s nature. What a humble suggestion!  Did Beck ever consider that the conclusion of critiquing divine apatheia lays as an answer to some of our prayers, rather than some spiritual failure on the part of Christians who disagree with him? Speaking of Christianity, while the series was entitled “Stoicism and Christianity,” part 2 was a citation of a Taoist parable. No New Testament or Hebrew Bible. Nothing about Christianity despite what the series was supposed to be about. What we have here is a little worrying. for those who care about Christian particularity, first and foremost.  Also just as worrying, as I may add, that a careless study of apatheia assumes that Taoist view of apatheia can be understood as compatible with Christianity as if they make same claims about the Triune God.  I find this disconcerting and problematic.  Like Clement of A, I see Truth as something where many streams lead to the same river, but I am not going to affirm light, Brogressive versions of imperialist pluralisms in order to whitewash real differences.

Part three of Beck’s series is his interpretation of Job (as a psychologist, not an exegete).  Beck speculates,

My thought is that the speeches in Job express the assumption that the God/Human relationship is, well, a relationship.”

Ummm what? We are have gone from just critiquing relational theologies as a “psychological weakness” to now “demonstrating” that God isn’t relational at all. Well, to throw this interpretation back at Beck and those who agree with him, Job wouldn’t have a proper relationship with YHWH because he isn’t a member of the assembly of Israel. Job is a Gentile, and must know his Gentile place in the story. Job must see God’s as ineffable to the extent that he remains ignorant of the God of the Exodus.

As we turn to the last post in the series, Beck discusses the idea of God as medicine, as the kind that changes us. Out of fear of a “hyper-personal” God, Beck uses an example of Buddhism, and turns the series not as one about Stoicism and Christianity, but Stoicism and God. I must ask, well, which God? And how do we Gentiles know who God is? The fretting of a “hyper-personal” or “hyper-interventionist” God as a source of human discontentment dismisses Jewish and Christian notions of God’s pathetic praxis in the world, inviting our participation in changing our circumstances. It is this liberating praxis of God that we can find our happiness and contentment rather than sitting idly by as we worship the Idol of apatheia. 

27 thoughts on “Divine Freedom, Apatheia, and Gentile Politics

  1. Richard Beck

    Thanks for engaging those old posts of mine. I think your criticisms are very valid and in the seven years since I wrote those posts I’ve come to a position very similar one you articulate here. Also through reading theologians like Moltmann, Cone and Gutierrez.

    In my wrestling with the problem of suffering in 2007 I was writing from a place that envisioned God as an impersonal force. I was reading a lot of Buddhism, Spinoza and stoic philosophy. The series I wrote reflected those influences. I was probably more Buddhist than Christian in 2007. But I think about those things very differently now.

    What I find potent in your critique of stoicism is how it mutes the prophetic cry and struggle for justice. The oppressed are asked to accept their fate impassively, stoically. That is hugely problematic.

    In the end, that’s the reason I moved on to embrace the passionate God who suffers alongside the oppressed in their struggle toward liberation.

    Reply
  2. yieldedone

    Hello, Mr. Beck. My name is Dwayne Polk and I am the person who referenced your earlier material. Thanks for clarifying the theological development that has taken place in you since then. Since you are here, I wanted to ask you some questions about your change of position, if you don’t mind. I think something that will help me will be how you see this passage, both in light of what you said in 2007 and in light of what you think now:

    “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
    Philippians 4:11-13

    Reply
    1. Richard Beck

      Hi Dwayne. I know I’m stepping into an ongoing debate so my apologies if my comments are off the mark in various ways.

      For my part, I’d probably try to insert one affirmation and then two different distinctions.

      The affirmation: as to what I wrote in 2007 and the Philippians text I do think there is overlap between stoicism and the Christian virtues. The Philippians text is, perhaps, the best example. I think it’s emotionally healthy to be “apathetic” about many, many things in life and in the world. In this I see overlap between stoic apathy, Buddhist detachment and various Christian virtues (contentment, self-control, “do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth,” kenosis).

      But the first distinction: There is a difference between virtues of self-control and the divine nature. Revisiting my 2007 series I’d still stand by any connections between the virtue traditions, but I’d back away now from importing apathy into the divine nature.

      The second distinction: when we think about being stoical in the face of suffering I think we need to make distinctions between things like lack or misfortune versus oppression. In Philippians Paul is speaking to contentment in a situation of want or lack. Insofar as Paul is preaching a form of stoicism in facing lack–and I think he is–then I don’t see a problem.

      In 2007 I think I’d also have argued that stoicism is also a healthy virtue in the face of misfortune. I’d debate that point now. In 2007 I would have argued that being stoical in the face of, say, death is a good thing. Today I think lament and rage are more Christian and biblical.

      But let me say this, while I don’t think stoicism in the face of death is Christian–the distinction between the stoical Socrates drinking hemlock and the weeping Jesus in the Garden is the relevant contrast–I don’t think such stoicism is wholly unbiblical or that it necessarily implies support for oppressors. For example, Ecclesiastes preaches a stoical approach to death because everyone–rich and poor, oppressed and oppressors–all die. Death gets everyone. So be stoical about it. Such, it seems, is the message of Qoheleth.

      True, Ecclesiastes is an odd book. But it does insert into the biblical witness a stoical approach to death and misfortune.

      All that to say, while I think it would be lacking in certain ways, I do think a stoical and biblical perspective can be articulated regarding how we approach want and misfortune.

      But a great deal of want/lack and misfortune is due to oppression. And I don’t think that the biblical prophets (I include Jesus and John the Baptist in this tradition) were endorsing stoicism in the face of that sort of suffering. Quite the opposite. And in expressing their rage at oppression the prophets channeled the pathos of God. And it’s that vision of Divine pathos that I’ve come to embrace since 2007.

      So, in sum:

      1. I believe there is overlap between the Hebrew, Christian, and Greek traditions regarding apatheia (from Ecclesiastes to Jesus’s “do not worry” to Paul’s contentment in Philippians 4).

      2. I think there is a distinction to be made about human apatheia and the divine nature.

      3. Any practice of apatheia will require a hermeneutic of suspicion so that “contentment” isn’t being preached at victims.

      Reply
      1. yieldedone

        Thank you SO very much for the time taken for this, Dr. Beck. Means a lot. Allow me to address your points in order.

        ****************************

        Dr. Beck:
        So, in sum: 1. I believe there is overlap between the Hebrew, Christian, and Greek traditions regarding apatheia (from Ecclesiastes to Jesus’s “do not worry” to Paul’s contentment in Philippians 4).

        Dwayne:
        Completely agree!!! 🙂 And I think this is *very* important for the discussion that Rod and I are having. It is this overlap that I was talking about being valid, even to this day. In fact, I would say that this overlap is precisely why and how the early Church Father felt comfortable in using the term to express Christian faith in their context.

        ————————

        Dr. Beck:
        2. I think there is a distinction to be made about human apatheia and the divine nature.

        Dwayne:
        I would agree. At the same time, I do see an analogical connection: the Holy Spirit-borne PEACE of God. The peace that Jesus and Paul both talk about. In other words, I believe that God given peace is what empowered both Jesus and Paul to do what they did prophetically. It’s what grounded the lack of worry Jesus speaks about (think Jesus in the boat with the disciples in the storm) and the equanimous contentment of Paul. We can definitely tell this with Paul because he is the one who talks about the peace that passes all understanding which guards the heart and mind earlier in the same letter to the Philippians. This “peace” is provided by the working of the Holy Spirit, which IS God’s Spirit; Paul says this specifically when he talks about the fruit of the Spirit, one of which is peace. In short, having Holy Spirit-borne peace does not seem incompatible with prophetic emotional responses or actions. And this peace can and does exist within the context of either lack/misfortune OR oppression. This seems evident by how Paul was speaking about these very things to his persecuted Christian brothers and sisters. Would you agree?

        So, I would want to say that the similarity between human apatheia and the divine nature is the “peace of God” that exists in both by the Holy Spirit. God has this peace naturally…that he bestows to us in grace. It does not remove divine pathos (ie zeal for justice, compassion for the oppressed) to affirm that God has divine peace and freedom from dysfunctional emotional disregulation by his Holy Spirit.

        ————————-

        Dr. Beck:
        3. Any practice of apatheia will require a hermeneutic of suspicion so that “contentment” isn’t being preached at victims.

        Dwayne:
        Agreed. I would say that, Christianly speaking, only the apatheia empowered by God via the Spirit (that which Paul specifically is talking about) is meet for what we are talking about. As I see it, this insures that we the “contentment” we are dealing with is NOT merely self-pacification without any of the other fruit of the Spirit, including goodness and faithfulness. Again, neither Jesus nor Paul relinguished their prophetic activities with the contentment and lack of anxiety they had. As a matter of fact, the “contentment” was meant to EMPOWER those who were victimized, not further victimize them.

        **************************

        Would it be fair to say, Dr. Beck, that the essence of what you were intending to convey in 2007 (ie. taking care not to relinquish the spiritual importance of apatheia) is still valid today?

        Reply
        1. yieldedone

          Just thought about something: Self-control is one of the fruit of the Spirit! It would stand to reason that God has this Spirit-borne self-control as well. 🙂

          Reply
        2. Richard Beck

          Those are great points. This is a really interesting and I think important conversation.

          The thing I would reject most from 2007 are those moments when I argue for divine impassibility, God being impersonal, impassive and non-relational. That’s the part of Rod’s post above where I now agree with him.

          Regarding the personal practice of apatheia as I articulated in 2007, yes, I’d still hold to much of that.

          So I think the key question is what is the role of apatheia in resistance?

          I like your idea of empowerment. I’m put in mind here of Thomas Merton and his observations regarding the contemplative roots of resistance. The askesis of resistance. Gandhi and MLK come to mind here as well.

          There is a certain degree of stoical self-mastery and loving self-control that has to be in place for non-violent resistance to remain non-violent and to keep love ever in view. The self must be controlled before one engages the oppressor if the resistance is to conform to the Sermon on the Mount. Resistance based on anger will eventually lead to dehumanization and violence.

          In this regard, I think the work of MLK is the answer to the volatile tensions inherent in liberation theology.

          Reply
          1. yieldedone

            Thanks so much for engaging, Dr. Beck. By the way, Tom and I really like your blog. We have you on our blogroll at “An Open Orthodoxy”. ( http://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com/ ) Stop on by sometime! 🙂 Now, to continue the convo…

            *************************

            Dr. Beck:
            The thing I would reject most from 2007 are those moments when I argue for divine impassibility, God being impersonal, impassive and non-relational. That’s the part of Rod’s post above where I now agree with him.

            Dwayne:
            This is an excellent movement. Just to clarify, neither Rod, Tom, nor myself hold to God being impersonal, emotionless, non-relational, or in no way affected by Creation. Such a view is simply not biblical. At the same time, Christian takes on divine apatheia from the early Church Fathers never held such views either. They believed that God’s relationship with the world had emotional content. They much more believed that God had emotional equanimity/contentment such that God had divine peace and freedom from dysfunctional emotional disregulation. So, this is just to say, there seems to be no real reason that divine apatheia is incompatible with divine pathos. We talk about this a bit on our blog. CHeck it out.

            ——————–

            Dr. Beck:
            Regarding the personal practice of apatheia as I articulated in 2007, yes, I’d still hold to much of that.

            Dwayne:
            Sweet. Like you, we believe it is extremely helpful for human existence.

            ———————

            Dr. Beck:
            So I think the key question is what is the role of apatheia in resistance? I like your idea of empowerment. I’m put in mind here of Thomas Merton and his observations regarding the contemplative roots of resistance. The askesis of resistance. Gandhi and MLK come to mind here as well. There is a certain degree of stoical self-mastery and loving self-control that has to be in place for non-violent resistance to remain non-violent and to keep love ever in view. The self must be controlled before one engages the oppressor if the resistance is to conform to the Sermon on the Mount. Resistance based on anger will eventually lead to dehumanization and violence.

            Dwayne:
            I really agree with you here. To me, this clearly shows that it is false that apatheia *necessarily* leads to either passivity before oppression or exacerbating oppresion. I would go a bit further and say that something analogous holds for God as well. 😉

            **********************

            Thanks for all the time taken with this. God richly bless you! 🙂

          2. h00die_R (Rod) Post author

            Uh huh. Uh Huh.

            One minute someone is praising a blog post from his blog dismissing liberation theology as “Marxist” (as if that’s like an insult), and then the next, acting like they are now stans for Beck’s and my liberationist perspective.

            Uh huh. Uh huh.

    2. yieldedone

      Dr. Beck. If I may.

      While you are thinking about Philippians 4:11-13, I have another question you can consider at the same time. Here’s a quote I cited from the last post in your 2007 series in question (http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2007/08/stoicism-and-christianity-part-4.html):

      “In my first post in this series I wondered aloud if notions of a hyper-personal or hyper-interventionist (nod to Matthew here) God are interfering with psychological well-being. I think now, in this post, we can see why I’m puzzling about this. Basically, I’m wondering how many Christians are like Kita Gotami, seeing God as Medicine. Not a medicine to heal, but to change, as a continually lingering source of reversibility. Those hyper-views of God place the believer in a situation where God can be appealed to to change or reverse circumstance. Thus, rather than learning to be content in all circumstance we appeal to God to change our circumstance. And this prospect of change, of reversibility, if the the psychological research is true, keeps us miserable. We fail to reconcile ourselves, as the stoics suggested, to life as it stands.”

      Dr. Beck, you mention psychological research from Daniel Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness”, that spoke about our “psychological immune system” and it’s workings. You said the following:

      “The conclusion is this: We unwittingly undermine our own happiness by building in too much reversibility. We think reversibility is a good thing but it actually stalls the psychological immune system, those psychological mechanisms that bring a degree of peace and equanimity. In short, many of this are making ourselves miserable because we are misinformed about the mechanics of happiness.”

      My question is this: Has there been a dramatic reversal in the psychological research from Gilbert that you referred to in this quote? The reason I ask is that it seemed that this was a significant reason why you held the beliefs about contentment and reversibility that you held back then. So I think it would be very important to know if Gilbert’s findings that you cited have been dramatically overturned, as far as you know. This seemed helpful: http://www.npr.org/2012/04/27/151361554/what-makes-us-happy

      Thank you so much for this engagement!

      Reply
  3. yieldedone

    And let me get some things out of the way:

    1) It seems that we all agree in divine passibility. That is so say, that God has freely chosen to have mutually influential relationships with created beings…and, accordingly, said relationships have emotional content for God.

    2) It seems that we all agree that God actively pursues justice for all and opposes oppression which dehumanizes his beloved images.

    3) It seems that we all agree that *absolute* stoicism *can* lead to oppressed people (or their oppressors) refusing to do anything about their situations.

    Again, just want to get this out of the way. 🙂

    Reply
    1. h00die_R (Rod) Post author

      Yes, we agree on all three of those points.

      The difference is how helpful is the language of **apatheia** or **impassibility** and how radically did the Church Fathers change/redefine these words in the encounter with Jesus, the Dabar YHWH/Logos of God.

      Reply
    2. yieldedone

      Oops. One more…

      4) It seems that we can all agree that “apatheia” does **NOT** mean absolute emotionlessness or indifference; it much more refers to an emotional state where there is no dysfunctional emotional disregulation.

      Reply
        1. yieldedone

          I want to stick closely to what I quoted Mr. Beck as saying in 2007:

          “I’ve always been deeply attracted to stoic philosophy. The aspect of their thinking I find most appealing is the notion of apatheia. Apatheia is the root for our word “apathy” (i.e., indifference), but the ancient meaning of apatheia is closer to equanimity than indifference.”

          This coheres with Wikipedia’s current take on it…

          “Apatheia (Greek: ἀπάθεια; from a- “without” and pathos “suffering” or “passion”) in Stoic philosophy refers to a state of mind where one is not disturbed by the passions. It is best translated by the word equanimity rather than indifference. The word apatheia has a quite different meaning to the modern English apathy, which has a negative connotation. According to the Stoics, apatheia was the quality that characterized the sage.”

          Reply
  4. tgbelt

    I’m not here to preach Stoicsm as the gospel or anything. But with Dwayne, I do advocate (to use John Sanders’ term) a weak-impassibilist view of the divine nature. I don’t think God has fits of rage, bouts with depression, anxiety or other privating emotions.

    We linked Richard’s series on Stoicism because we thought it was interesting to see someone attempt to integrate Stoic virtues with Christianity. That’s always good to see. I’m happy Richard is happy having moved on to a view he finds more biblical, especially if it means leaving a view of God as an “impersonal force” as he says.

    But it’s simply false historically to say that ancient Stoicism “mutes the prophetic cry and struggle for justice” by “asking the oppressed to accept their fate impassively.” I agree Stoicism is an incomplete worldview in many ways, but it’s simply not true that they had no concern for social justice or weren’t committed to social activism or asked victimized people to do nothing to secure a more just society. They in fact were active. This is well-known about ancient Stoicism. Read some Nussbaum. It’s not encouraging to see conversations go on and on based on gross inaccuracies.

    Tom

    Reply
    1. h00die_R (Rod) Post author

      Tom: “But it’s simply false historically to say that ancient Stoicism “mutes the prophetic cry and struggle for justice” by “asking the oppressed to accept their fate impassively.”

      Rod: I would encourage you to read Clement of Alexandria. An actual Church Father.

      Reply
  5. tgbelt

    Dude, seriously? You’re not going to consider what Stoics actually said and did? Look, no doubt Stoicism as such deserves critiquing. The question is, were Stoics generally, per their philosophy, led to disengage from political and social activism? The answer is clearly ‘no’. Ancient Stoicism did not in fact mute all struggle for justice or simply encourage the oppressed to accept their fate and do nothing about it.

    Reply
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