Archives For God Doesn’t Give a Damn about Your Sin

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.


image001A few weeks ago I posted a reflection on the ancient Christian doctrine of God’s immutability, God’s unchangingness. Admittedly the jumping off quote from the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe, was a rhetorical stick of dynamite:

‘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.

In the posts that followed the initial reflection, I’ve become increasingly convinced that retrieving the first Christians’ speech about God could pull away some of the cobwebs believers and nonbelievers get tangled up in today.

Just as immutability was a surprise to many, I think many Christians would be surprised by what we mean by ‘Creation’ and how that impacts our speech about ‘miracles.’

The Apostles’ Creed begins seemingly innocuously: ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.’

But already in that first breath most believers have already gotten off on the wrong track. The creed’s beginning is neither innocuous nor, it seems, self-evident, for most Christians mistakenly assume that by calling God ‘Creator’ we refer to God’s prior activity that we can locate at some debatable point in the past (millions or thousands of years, depending on whether or not you’re ignorant).

Those same believers erroneously assume that by calling God ‘Creator’ we mean that long ago God rolled up his sleeves and worked on some-thing called no-thing which resulted in creation. Once set in motion, God stepped back and, as though on a cross, declared it is finished. Like a watchmaker, God could hang up his ‘creator’ hat confident that the atomic and evolutionary gears would hum in perpetuity. Or, if not a watchmaker, God could step back and like Santa watch us from afar, keeping track of who is naughty and who is nice and occasionally intervening in creation to answer a prayer, smite a sinner or take responsibility for insurance claims.

To profess the first line of the creed with this in your head is to get the ‘Creator’ exactly wrong from how the ancient Christians so thought of God. For them, to call God Creator is to believe that God is the One who makes things to be without there being anything prior to his creative act save himself. For God to create is to make it be that something simply exists. When we name God as Creator, we confess that without God there would not be anything at all.

Whereas the watchmaker makes it be that there is a watch out of all the disparate parts that were prior to the watch, God makes it be that things just are- from the quartz in the clock to the simplest raindrop.

By calling God Creator we profess that God is the reason there is something instead of nothing, and this is a confession that quite obviously renders any debates about the earth’s age or the mode of creation forehead-slappingly irrelevant. To say God the Creator is the reason there is something instead of nothing is to say that God makes it that things are at all moments of their existence, past, present and future. Without God, all things would cease to exist in an instant.

The ancient Christians so emphasized this ongoing, continual, present creative act of God that they even believed it was irrelevant whether or not the earth had a beginning.

This is the ancient doctrine of creation that God is the reason there is something instead of nothing- a question beyond the bounds of the material world and thus a question science could never answer in the affirmative or the negative. According to this ancient doctrine of creation, everything other than God is completely dependent on God for its existing and for being as it is; therefore, God’s presence is nearer to every thing and every creature than believers today often suppose. God is everywhere, closer to us than we are to ourselves, for God is the one making it that we exist at all. God is not everywhere in the sense of taking up physical space but everywhere in the sense of causing the existence of all things.

According to the doctrine of creation, God is always everywhere, always present to creatures.

This means, in a certain manner of speaking, that there is no such that we commonly call ‘miracles.’

imagesWhat we mean by ‘miracles’ are those occasions when (the distant watchmaker) God intervenes in the created order. Implicit in our use of the word ‘miracle’ is the Enlightenment presumption that God otherwise is set apart from creation; that is, you can only intervene where you were not previously present and active.

To intervene, as Herbert McCabe says, you have to be an alternative to, or alongside what you are interfering with.

But if God is present everywhere, in everything, at all times the reason there is something instead no thing at all then there is no thing that God is alongside of or apart from.

There is no such thing we call ‘miracles’ because

you cannot intervene in what you yourself are doing.

To call God Creator is to name the most mysterious miracle of all- that there is something instead of nothing. This is a miracle that then determines what we properly mean by the word ‘miracle.‘

A miracle is not when God intervenes in our lives from outside our lives to act upon us. A miracle is when only God- and no other secondary causes- is acting in our lives, not from beyond but from the nearness where God has been all along.