Tag Archives: divine apatheia

on the move

For a few years, a group of friends and acquaintances have been playing theological volleyball it seems, arguing the same points about the Cross, biblical interpretation, open theism, and the attributes of God. We’ve shared meals together, Skype chats, Google Hangouts, email exchanges, long, drawn out Facebook “conversations,” but I just feel like I needed return to writing and reading about theology again. I guess this is the best way since I hadn’t blogged in forever, but here goes, really briefly.

Team Zeus, the group of theologians who wish to prioritize Greek metaphysics over special revelation such as the Prophets argues that our understanding of divind abandonment is wrong. Jesus is not saying that God has forsaken the Christ on the Cross, it’s just a cry of pain and despair. Furthermore, our interlocutors continue to suggest that God is both immaterial and equally omnipresent at ever place in the world. Divine abandonment they have even suggest in their poems and continuous conversations online is also a not very pastoral approach to theology. We wouldn’t want a depressed person to learn that God has left them to deal with their emotional bouts, do we? That’s not nice, it’s not politically correct, I mean pastoral.

What to make of all of this? Is divine abandonment an offensive theology that doesn’t give people hope? In the words of Rosa Parks, I say, Nah homey. Not in the least. I refuse to be moved by my former and current position I once held defending God’s freedom to move. My pushback against the priority of Greek metaphysics in the reading of Scripture isn’t some personal vendetta against a few Church Fathers after Clement of Alexandria; it’s about, as I have maintained about the freedom of YHWH as God has revealed to us. Team Zeus does not like the idea of God moving from place to place, and they also don’t like the idea that God has a glorious presence that was with the Hebrew prophets and priests in the tabernacle and who enlivened the very anatomy of the Messiah (John 1). For Team Zeus, every tribe and nation gets a participation trophy and a piece of God’s presence. And in some sense, it is true, to co-opt Clement of Alexandria, God is like a river and pours out many streams. Rivers, however, must have a particular spring or bank with which they start to feed into these streams. For Christians, we must not look the Greek mythology or categories, but to the prophets. It is there that the prophets pray to God not to abandon them, for example such as in Nehemiah (chapter 1, verse 9); Is Nehemiah ignorant of the one true God? Is he being disingenuous? In either case, if we go with Team Zeus, we have no reason to trust Nehemiah’s testimony, do we? God chose out of mercy not to abandon the Israelites, but God was fully capable of doing so. But then in chapter 9, verse 28, Nehemiah describe the events of the exile as divine abandonment. What do we make of this?

One can even see in the words of Ezekiel that God took up God’s Shekinah presence, the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and left Jerusalem. King Saul was once filled with the Holy Spirit, and was a man who desired justice (1st Samuel 11) just as the God who chose him did, but what happened? Saul was disobedient and God’s Spirit left him (“Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul.” 1st Samuel 16:14). In each case, we see God is on the move. If a person doesn’t want to play by God’s rules, fine. God wipes off the dust off of God’s feet and leaves. Only in the context of divine mobility we see taught by the Hebrew prophets can we understand the fullness of Jesus’ cry of divine abandonment. Elvis has left the building; The Shekinah Glory has left the Temple (Jesus’ body) at the Cross. The Divine-Person, the Second Person in the Trinity now has the fullest experience of being human, that is experiencing the curse of Death. That is before breaking it, and remaining victorious over the Powers.

Lastly, I want to address the “pastoral” issue of divine abandonment. Now, one member of TZ suggests that we cannot tell a depressed person that God abandons people, for this would be offensive and not very hopeful. First of all, this is a TERRIBLE, condescending view of people who are suffering from depression. No one one whose read Scripture correctly would suggest God abandons people because of their emotions. No, in each and every case, God leave because of people’s moral choices. God’s being is not determined by how we feel. Such an emotional argument based on experience is very manipulative, and might I add, down right suspicious. The god of the Greek metaphysicians is a snowflake who couldn’t stand up to the passionate God of the prophets. The God we learn of in Scripture is incredibly free and mobile. The defense of divine mobility is a pastoral theology because God is free to move up and down, from heaven to earth, and back again; to the lowest rungs on the social ladder to the highest. God is free to be with humanity when we experience the most misery with victims and God is free to be with those who experience the joy of liberation and holiness. All of this is because of the freedom God chose on Golgotha.

The Good News about God's Emotions. And Ours.

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:

schs yrbook1

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.

hi 5 angels

 

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

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.