More thoughts On The Patristics, Divine Apatheia, & Divine Freedom
Content Note: brief discussion of depression
When I was a teenager, I battled depression for several years. I was unaware of God’s purpose for my life, I had few friends. I really didn’t go out that much. I struggled to reign in my emotions especially whenever my parents’ divorce was brought up. I was disappointed in ecclesial bodies and equally frustrated with the law system. At one point I was desperate, and I had no idea what to do. My mother suggested I read this book, and so I did. The first step I had to take was to recognize I was depressed, and admit that I needed the LORD’s help. While that particular book was a nice step in the right direction, it was actually a Bible passage that helped me to learn how to control my emotions rather than they control me:
“Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.”
– Isaiah 40:28-31
But really, reading and memorizing the last half of that chapter was life-changing, and I consider my experience, that summer after my sophomore year, to be one of my many conversion experiences. I really did feel like I was a new person. My Bible reading in the morning had a rather narrow focus on Bible passages that dealt with joy Yes, I even had Nehemiah 8:10 referenced on the cover of my High School Year book:
While I loved politics and U.S. government class and student council and all that jazz, in my inner-life I was oddly fascinated by celestial realities, what would it be like when I got to heaven. This was the only form of Christianity I knew, and while I was friendlier and happier, I was also just as distant from others. It’s difficult to relate to others who have real world concerns if you’re focused on trying to be optimistic all the time in order to avoid being the person you once were in the past. The problem was: I was still letting my past determine who I wanted to be, who I was.
Unfortunately today in theology where “relationality” has run wild, there are all sorts of unchecked claims being made about God, especially in the U.S. No I’m not denying that the divine is relational. What I am rejecting is the set of terms that God’s relationality is being discussed to begin with, for theological and political reasons. For example, process theologians contend that God is morally neutral, does not take sides, and to simplify the argument being made, “our tears are God’s tears.” On the more traditional side of things, unfortunately, there are a number of evangelicals and post-evangelicals who are eager to impute our desire for eternal bliss onto the Godhead as well. This view of the Trinity is not new, but it has been popularized since the days of Jonathan Edwards, and found itself in renewal in the U.S. and abroad in the “Christian hedonism” movement.
During the Spring season of this year, I dialogued with Richard Beck’s series from seven years ago on divine apatheia and the Christian tradition. I also discussed how Juergen Moltmann and Clement of Alexandria wrote about divine apatheia as God’s own self-sufficient divine liberty. Now, what I want to do is to address what does Clement of Alexandria (a Church Father) have to say about is called divine equanimity as people call it, and how does this related to Moltmann’s theology of the cross. The evidence might surprise you.
First of all, I just want to state up front that I think it is rather unhealthy for scholars to argue that they are using apatheia the same way the Church Fathers did while #1, claiming to making their own private definitions of apatheia, and #2, being motivated themselves by their experiences. Nicene-Chalcedonian Orthodoxy is not something to club your opponents over the head with; it is just one starting point for engaging in dialogue with historic Christian thought. Now unless you have been living under a rock, you (the audience) should know by now that my favorite Church Father is Clement of Alexandria for a myriad of reasons. His influence has been marginalized, his Egyptian context neglected, but his writing, his exegesis, remain all the more relevant and provocative. For Clement, there are two things of worth noting before getting into his writing: #1, God’s goodness (character) is what makes God immutable, & #2, divine impassibility is a characteristic from God that is to be shared with humanity.
As I have mentioned in the earlier posts, like most church fathers and mothers, Clement of Alexandria had to be in conversation with Greek philosophies such as Stoicism and the various Middle Platonisms (CoA preferred Jewish Middle Platonism > “secular”, other middle platonisms). Here is what Clement has to say about God’s nature as it relates to God’s emotions:
“But God is impassible, free of anger, destitute of desire. And He is not free of fear, in the sense of avoiding what is terrible; or temperate, in the sense of having command of desires. For neither can the nature of God fall in with anything terrible, nor does God flee fear; just as He will not feel desire, so as to rule over desires.”- Clement of Alexandria in The Carpets (The Stromateis), Book 4, Chapter 23
At the end of this chapter, Clement even goes on to argue that at the Cross of Christ, The Logos that bled took away both wrath and lust (for wrath is the lust for vengeance). Now, also essential to this discussion of God’s freedom to inhibit any emotion God so chooses is the way in which Clement of Alexandria describes the life of the Christian mystic , the believer whom God shares God’s own impassibility with. In a chapter where Clement of Alexandria lists cheerfulness, hunger, anger, fear, desire, zeal, and courage as anxieties of the soul, Clement argues that the Christian mystic should practice IMPASSIBILITY, and not merely moderation of passion. “The Gnostic [Christian mystic] does not share either in those affections that are commonly celebrated as good, that is, the good things of the affections which are allied to the passions: such, I mean, as gladness, which is allied to pleasure; and dejection, for this is conjoined with pain; caution, for it is subject to fear.” (The Carpets, Book 6, Chapter 9) Clement goes on to add wrath to the discussion, which has been already conquered by perfect love that was revealed on the Cross. Just as Jesus our Lord and Savior was entirely 100% impassible (apathes), the Christian mystic has no need for “cheerfulness of the mind” or rage, nor envy. Rather, in being assimilated to Christ, even the desire for joy is overcome by God’s immutable goodness that Christ has passed along to the Elect.
In a U.S. American context, Clement’s ancient and bizarre message is next to impossible. Clement’s word to us is very disconcerting, because we have always learned as Americans that happiness is something to be pursued. We as U.S. Americans are socialized into Lockean values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of
property happyness. Mainline and evangelical churches proclaim a false gospel with a politics of respectability, that believers should always have a smile on their face, while those who are depressed who suffer from chemical imbalances and external circumstances should live in shame. In the context of the Gospels, Christ uses the parables to teach us that the Holy Trinity does indeed rejoice when a person repents and is received to partake into the divine life.
God is not some PollyAnna in the sky. Neither is God a wrathful monster, or merely a “co-sufferer” of our afflictions. Rather, God is Spirit who is an overflow of unchanging, unsurpassable benevolence. Just as God can use the cheerful giver of the Pauline letters, God can also use the Elijahs of the world, angry prophets may struggle depression. The suffering love advocated by theologies of the cross (such as Moltmann) are not primarily determined by questions of theodicy, but rather are initiated by explorations into God’s own freedom to define Godself (revelation).
“And the blood [Abel’s] that is the Word cries to God, since it is intimated that the Word was to suffer.”-Clement of Alexandria, The Educator, Book 1, Chapter 6
“[YHWH] brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.”- Isaiah 40:23