If God Doesn’t Give a Damn about Your Sin, Does God Feel?

Jason Micheli —  May 20, 2014 — 2 Comments

St Thomas AquinasFor a few weeks now, I’ve been running with this pericope from an essay by the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe:

‘Never think that if you’re contrite and pray to God for forgiveness that God will forgive you…In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’ 

Your prayer for forgiveness doesn’t incline God to forgive you.

God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.

God’s unchanging nature, God’s immunity to change we could say, is called ‘immutability.’

Understanding God’s nature as immutable has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic.

To many contemporary Christians, to assert that God does not change seems to fly in the face of their understanding of God, particularly the pathos-filled God of the Hebrew Bible. Indeed many modern theologians go even farther than insisting that God changes, making the claim that God feels. Even- God suffers.

What was formerly denounced as a heresy (patripassianism) is now, functionally at least, the new orthodoxy among Protestant theologians.

The argument typically proceeds thusly:

In contrast to patristic thought, biblical thought depicts a God who is intimately and passionately involved in the world. The ancient Christian notion of divine impassibility (that God does not suffer) is blamed on the pernicious influence of Greek philosophy upon nascent Christianity.

After all, the argument erroneously goes, it was the pagan gods who were static and feelingless towards the world, whereas the God of Israel is active, sympathetic, emotional, even to the point of suffering with his people.

Greek philosophy, in other words, led to the deterioration of an originally unadulterated system of biblical belief. Such a caricature however ignores the fact there is no uniform Greek view on the matter of God’s suffering nor is there a unified biblical view, for the same Hebrew Bible that depicts the cuckolded God suffering lady Israel’s infidelities also depicts God self-identifying as ‘he who is’ and asserting that that same God does not change (Malachi).

Herbert McCabe discusses “the involvement of God” in the world in his book God Matters. McCabe addresses this question of the impassibility of God, that is, is God involved in the world in such a way so as to experience suffering?

Many modern theologians dismiss Church Fathers like Thomas Aquinas for saying too much about God’s nature philosophically without deferring sufficiently to God’s self-revelation, Christ.

For example, McCabe cites the founding father of passibility, Jürgen Moltmann on Aquinas’ Five Ways:

The cosmological proof of God was supposed by Thomas to answer the question utrum Deus sit, but he did not really prove the existence of God; what he proved was the nature of the divine, . . . Aquinas answered the question “What is the nature of the divine?,” but not the question “Who is God?” (Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, 12).

In fact, McCabe points out this is exactly what Aquinas avoided. Aquinas believed we cannot know what God is, that is his nature. We can only know what God is not in his nature. For Aquinas, even God’s self-revelation in Christ does not change the incomprehensibility of God.

As McCabe writes:

it is extremely difficult for readers of Aquinas to take his agnosticism about the nature of God seriously. If he says ‘Whatever God may be, he cannot be changing’ readers leap to the conclusion that he means that what God is is static. If he says that, whatever God may be, he could not suffer together with (sympathize with) his creatures, he is taken to mean that God must by nature be unsympathetic, apathetic, indifferent, even callous. It is almost as though if Aquinas had said that God could not be a supporter of Glasgow Celtic, we supposed he was claiming God as a Rangers fan. (McCabe, God Matters 41).

McCabe reminds us then that we should be careful not to jump to conclusions when we read that God “cannot be changing.”

He continues:

“As with the Celtic and Rangers, it does not follow that, if God is not affected by, say, human suffering, he is indifferent to it. In our case there are only two options open: we either feel with, sympathize with, have compassion for the sufferer, or else we cannot be present to the suffering, we must be callous, indifferent. We should notice, however, that even in our case it is not an actual ‘suffering with’ that is necessary for compassion, but only a capacity to suffer with. Sharing in actual pain is neither necessary nor sufficient for compassion, whose essential components are awareness, feelings of pity and concern” (McCabe God Matters 44). 

God, McCabe argues, cannot literally be understood to have “feelings” of compassion.

McCabe explains that when we have compassion for others, when we are present to another’s suffering we want nothing less than to fully take on that suffering, but we cannot do this because we are always outside the other person.

Compassion is all we have and there is always frustration involved in remaining outside of the other person, that is, not being able to fully be with the other.

By contrast, God, as Creator cannot be outside of his creature; “a person’s act of being as well as every action done has to be an act of the creator” (44).

So, “if the creator is the reason for everything that is, there can be no actual being which does not have the creator as its centre holding it in being” (45).

McCabe holds that our compassion is a feeble attempt to be “what God is all the time: united with and within the life of our friend” (45).

Like Augustine and Aquinas before him, McCabe affirms that it’s in being transcendent that God is intimately involved with each creature much more than creatures could be with one another.

McCabe then goes on to argue that the popularity of a suffering God goes hand-in-hand with a misunderstanding of the incarnation.

McCabe looks back to the Council of Chalcedon, which affirmed the one person of the Jesus as truly human and truly divine.

The Chalcedonian formulation, McCabe points out, allows us to say “quite literally that God suffered hunger and thirst and torture and death” (46).

The traditional doctrine of the incarnation allows us to affirm that the Son of God assumed a human nature and therefore God suffered in his human nature.

But this is not the same thing as saying God suffered in his nature.

We can say “The Son of God died on the cross” and also “God died on the cross,” but while God signifies Jesus’ divine nature, McCabe reminds us, it refers to what has this nature, that is Jesus of Nazareth.

 

Jason Micheli

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2 responses to If God Doesn’t Give a Damn about Your Sin, Does God Feel?

  1. Jason, I know we don’t know each other but I find your blog interesting and will continue to comment, I guess as your resident heretic by the definitions you posit in your latest post. 🙂

    As I have mentioned before, my starting point is the Bible (not Patristic theology). I do not contest that you misunderstand them. You probably understand classical theology better than 99% of folks in the church. I simply say that they (the Patristic theologians) developed a theology which departed from the many depictions of God in the Bible. Yes, there are verses that point to immutability, but there are huge stories which point to a God who cares, feels, is involved in creation, and one who interacts with us. What does it mean to be in relationship with one who does not change? If God is within us (which I absolutely affirm) how can the unchanging within the changing and remain impassable, unemotional, and uncaring? As I have asked before, what does it mean to be made in the image of the immutable? If your bottom line is that God loves us, how does one love without that love being living, alive, and dynamic? How does God think if God is unchanging? The very nature of thought is sequential. There is a before and an after. If there is no before and after to God then so many Biblical stories got it fundamentally wrong.

    I accept totally that I cannot understand God. God is infinite and eternal. Yet, a fundamental belief the church has always maintained is that we know all we need to know about God through Jesus. Jesus was God among us. It is the fundamental Christian affirmation. And Jesus cared. Jesus felt. Jesus loved. Jesus interacted. Jesus was changed. Jesus was not the same as a baby, as a twelve year old, as a rabbi starting his ministry, as a preacher and teacher, as a healer, as a Savior on the cross, and as our resurrected Lord. He surely was not just like one of us. He was different. He was holy. He could do things none of us ever could. But he was not unchanging. And, he did care about people’s sins.

    Ah well. I know we won’t agree. But blogs by their nature allow dissenting voices. I agree with you on may things I have read that you have written over time. But this one just kind of punches my buttons (as you can tell by my frequent responses..lol). I truly believe it is not a tertiary thing but a vital thing to teach people that God is within them and with them, understands what they are feeling (because God himself felt and feels many of those same feelings) and went all the way for them. God is there in the midst of their suffering and God wants more for them. In Jesus Christ, God came and lived among us. And it is that relationship that we live and move and have our being.

    It’s about relationship and what our loving parent in heaven has done and continues to do for us. The story of the Bible isn’t just a story about an immutable God. It is about our eternal God and his relationship with all of us.

    All the best,

    Tom

    • Jason Micheli May 20, 2014 at 10:39 PM

      Tom, don’t take the brevity of my responses to be indicative of the quality of your comments! While I’m all in on this particular matter, I won’t pretend it isn’t something the Church has debated.

      As an aside, you should check out Healey’s new book on Hauerwas. In it, he makes a good case that Hauerwas’ shortcoming is his negligence in accounting for precisely these sort of foundational patristic ideas.

      Yes, Jesus was God among us but, really, just saying that alone is already moving beyond just the text of the bible and into theology. I mean, it’s doubtful that how we hear that is how John intended it. Even so, to say Jesus was God among us doesn’t eliminate Jesus’ two distinct natures. The Son in his human nature changed. For me, the best analog I have for understanding this is actually one which those who disagree normally play- the analogy to relationship. An unchanging God can’t be ‘loving’ because that bears little resemblance to our loving relationships; however, as a father I can say my love for boys is as ‘immutable’ as anything I can approximate in this finite existence. Same is true of two trusty but ill behaved Australian Shepherds. Literally nothing they do pro/con can change how I feel about them. I actually think this is a good (better, at least) parallel in that the inherent inequality between me and my kids or me and dog echoes the unequal relationship between the Creator and his creatures.

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