Tag Archives: divine omnibenevolence

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

Martin Luther King Jr. on divine goodness & human responsibility

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as relational theologian

Throughout many of his sermons Dr. Martin Luther King expounds on a variety of issues related to racial equality and social justice. He is explicit in his condemnation of social inequality and racial injustices that were happening during his lifetime . More specifically, he condemns these as not in line with either biblical teachings or true Christian values. King argues that only through truly representing the Christian faith can we finally go about the work of social justice to bring God’s kingdom on Earth. For him Christianity and the example of Christ can serve as a beacon of hope for all oppressed groups but more specifically for the experiences of racial discrimination by African Americans in the United States. Thus King’s notion of Christian hope in midst of evils that plague society comes from the way understand the connection between love and justice.

Specifically King wants to be clear in his ability identity the pain and suffering of the African American condition in 1960’s America. He writes: “Is there any one of us who has not faced the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?” (Strength to Love, 87). The relevance of the hostile environment that many African Americans lived in cannot be understated. Try and try as they might, the tension between a world that is aspired to and reality continued to persist. Hope is thus found in God’s activity in the world that we live in. For King, God is not simply some primordial being who places the world into action. God is an active part of our daily lives. Evil does not exist in this world as attributed to God’s beingness. Rather evil results as of the action of human beings, of whom God has given free will to. Accordingly we are all made in the image of God and thus are actions are a reflection of the power that God has given to us. Thus even in the worst aspect of humanity King is still able to see the work God’s image of goodness. This sets out the divine imperative to both love and to forgive. We choose to love because we see the love God in everyone and we choose to forgive because not only did Christ first forgiven us but we recognize that Christ in everyone. I would take this sentiment further and extend it to the field of ethics. King’s notion of God and his ability to understand God in the world also sets out an ethical perspective.

Much of the problems that King addressed in the 1960’s are still relevant in our society today. Institutional racism, discrimination, socio-economic injustices, and a vast array of other issues can be addressed by applying King’s notion of God’s work in the universe to our ethical perspective. If God is both reflected in our humanness as well as gives us the power to create social change then these two concepts are not separate. Thus for Christian practitioners the very foundation of the Christian faith is based on seeing the image of God in everyone. Furthermore, through seeing this image of God in everyone requires and ethical responsibility to those people. That responsibility is act as God’s servants and image on Earth through showing love and being advocates of justice. Again love and justice are not two separate concepts. They are deeply connected. For, example one can show love and justice about the tragic events that have happened in Ferguson. There have been various commentators and analyst who question the need to protest the events of Ferguson. Often the expression is that true Christians show the love of Christ and are able to forgive the officer for his action. While this may well be true love must also include just in this context. We can recognize that God’s image in everyone but we must go beyond that moment to also help other recognize God’s image in everyone else. To truly do this we must be advocates for social and systemic changes that do not seek to recognize this image in everyone. Thus by participating in protest, advocating changes, and educating others about a social order that does not recognizes God’s image in everyone we become advocates of both Christian principles of love and justice simultaneously.

 “The Christian faith makes it possible for us nobly to accept that which cannot be changed, to meet disappointments and sorrow with an inner poise, and to absorb the most intense pain without abandoning our sense of hope.” (Strength to Love, 97)

Clement of Alexandria on divine goodness

how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”-Acts 10:38

 

“Since also God Himself remains blessed and immortal, neither molested nor molesting another, not in consequence of being by nature good, but in consequence of doing good in a manner peculiar to Himself. God, being essentially, and proving Himself, actually, both Father and good, continues immutably in the self-same goodness. For what is the use of good that does not act and do good?”-Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, book VI, chapter XII

The more I think about it, the more Clement’s teaching of God’s divine benevolence fits nicely with the theme of Christus Victor atonement. I wonder what it would mean to view God’s context as being God’s own benevolence like some Womanist theologians argue? What difference what that make?

God is good. All. The. Time.