Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Emotions of God - pt 1

I have wanted to tackle the subject of the emotions of God for some time now, but I have found the challenge entirely too draining.  However, it seems that perhaps the time has come to gird up the loins of my mind and begin to move towards the task.

When we use the term God with a capital G, and not with a small g, we are referring to the being about whom there is a great deal of consensus throughout the classical religions of the world.  This does not mean that the great classical religions agree on every point, that would be untrue and belittle each tradition beyond what would be acceptable to their adherents. Nevertheless, when it comes to the philosophical challenges presented by the assertion of such a God, then the philosophical agreement is almost unanimous.  This claim of unity is especially true in the area of philosophy we call “ontology,”  or ontological inquiry.  In ontology, philosophy studies “being.”  

Ontological Impassability

All of the classical religions refer to God as the “Being.”  In other words, the one true being, possessing the fullness of being, from which and wherein all other beings find their being.  The assertion is that God is the fullness and perfection of all that is perfect and thus is dependent or contingent upon nothing but himself. As the fullness of being, God possesses certain attributes in their completeness, and thus beyond a limited creatures capacity to rationally exhaust his understanding of these attributes. In the words of Orthodox Christian Archpriest Thomas Hopko, of blessed memory, “you cannot know God, but you have to know Him to know that.”

Nevertheless, there is great agreement by all the classical religions regarding these ontological attributes. Why? Because this agreement items from a philosophical necessity and theological necessity. For a more complete treatment of universal ontology, I commend the book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, David Bentley Hart - Yale University Press.  

The specific area of agreement I would like to address is the attribute of God called  impassability. The term comes to us in English from the Latin in, "not", passibilis, "able to suffer, experience emotion”. The term describes the concept that God does not experience pain or pleasure from the actions of another being because he is not subject to, dependent upon, or affected by any other being. God is the fullness of being from which every being receives their being. If he could experience emotions that could change Him, then He would not be the fullness of being but instead by dependent.
This is a consistent belief within all classical expressions of Christianity, both east and west. In each of the traditions we find the full affirmation that God is impassible. What is arguably the most classic of Western Protestant confessions, the Westminster confession of faith expresses it this way: 
There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory. (WCF 2.1)

The New Catholic Encyclopedia says it this way:
Impassibility is that divine attribute whereby God is said not to experience inner emotional changes of state whether enacted freely from within or effected by his relationship to and interaction with human beings and the created order. More specifically, impassibility means that God does not experience suffering and pain, and thus does not have feelings that are analogous to human feelings. Divine impassibility follows upon His immutability, in that, since God is changeless and unchangeable, his inner emotional state cannot change from joy to sorrow or from delight to suffering.

Orthodox Christianity, has held on to the necessity of God’s impassability with unwavering commitment, and with careful accuracy. Orthodox theologian Dimitru Stanilou expresses it in this fashion:
“God can be said to be the tripersonal superessence, or the superessential tripersonality.  What this superessence is, we do not know. But it exists of itself; like any essence, however, it is not real except by the fact that it subsists hypostatically, in persons.  As superessential hypostatic existence, however, God is not encompassed by any category of existence as this is known or imagined by us, but transcends it.  For all the things that we know as existing have their existence from something else, and, in their existence, they depend on a system of references. This points to a relativity or a weakness of existences. He who exists of himself, however, has an existence free of all relativity. He is not integrated within a system of references and he has no weakness at all. He is existence not only in the highest sense, but he is also a superexistent existence.  As such he does not sustain existence passively, nor is he subject to any passion or suffering. This is the meaning of the Greek word [apathes] applied to God; it does not have the meaning “indifferent.” The entire life of God is act or power.  All his attributes he has of himself, hence not through participation in some other source.  That is why he possesses them all in a mode incomparably superior to that of creatures, for all these possess their attributes through participation in the attributes of God, through his operations.”  (The Experience of God Vol. 1, Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998, 129-130.)

The consensus within historic Christianity is clear, God cannot be moved by emotions caused by the actions of beings outside of Himself, God is perfect being, consciousness, and bliss.  He is uncreated light and life. As the great thinker and saint, the apostle Paul stated, “it his in Him that we live and move and have our being,” and not the other way around. 

It seems clear from the above that to ascribe emotional changes in the Godhead brought about by the actions of mankind is a fallacy.  So then, what are we to do with the places in scripture and in the tradition where the emotions of God are presented to us?  This is where the rubber hits the road for the Christian and for their understanding of theological doctrine or dogma.

Moreover, what are we to do with the doctrines of the anger of God, the wrath of God, not to mention the cursing of God, or the need for satisfaction by God, and so on?  Are these not emotional needs, and are these needs not caused by the actions of mankind?
It seems that the way forward is to first of all consider what God is like, or what is His character like?

To be continued...

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