Monday, January 30, 2012

The Passionate God

by Desconocido Francais [GFDL]1
via Wikimedia Commons
It is an old axiom in Christian theology, borrowed from the Greek philosophers but supported by scripture, that God is unchanging. The reason for this, on the philosophical side, is that God must by nature be perfect. Any change is, however, either a change for the better or for the worse. Thus, God is immutable. Some points about that idea might be argued, but by and large I agree with it and it is not the focus of my post today.

Rather, I want to address a particularly corollary of the immutability of God according to the Church Fathers and most who came after them - that God is passionless. Passions (or emotions) are themselves changes of state, encompassing certain physical and relational states experienced by the subject. Because they necessarily involve change, the Greek philosophers would argue, the passions are necessarily imperfections, and so God cannot have passions. This led to problems for the Church Fathers, who by and large accepted the Greek vision, but who also acknowledged the genuine incarnation of God as a human person who did indeed suffer. In explaining this, the Church Fathers appealed to Christ's nature as fully God and fully man. He suffered passions as a man, but not as God.

Many, including myself, later questioned this explanation. This, in turn, leads to questions about whether or not God's perfection can in fact be understood in the manner the Greeks understood it. I think the answer is both yes and no.

I say yes to the Greeks because I do believe perfection does in fact entail a kind of immutability. God, if He is truly perfect, cannot grow wiser, for then He would be less then perfectly wise. However, I think their understanding that all change is a change for the better or for the worse is at least partially flawed. For some things, the relative virtue of a change very much depends on that to which it stands in relation. For example, if I want to go to the store, which is to the right of where I am currently sitting, a turn to the left would be bad, while a turn to the right would be good. Lacking a goal, any turn would, of course, be neutral. This, as of yet, does not defeat the Greek's point. For, that I can turn either to the better or to the worse relative to my goal and I am thus not in the best of all possible positions (i.e. perfection) in which no change could either improve or worsen by case.

What then, of passions? Passions themselves are, I believe, good or bad depending very much on circumstances. Fear is a good and appropriate emotion when faced with danger, but bad if it is in response to something neutral or helpful. Important in the world of passions is the conditioning of the emotional system. The perfect emotional being would always have the proper emotional response to every possible stimuli. Few of us, of course, have this. Even the most healthy mind might find itself experiencing fear at a needle bearing beneficial medicine. The point here is that fear is always good/right/fitting when facing genuine danger and always bad when not facing genuine danger. Though our emotional lives are often an admixture of the good and the bad, there is an ideal emotional state in which a change in emotions is not a change for the better or the worse, but simply the appropriate response to the stimuli at hand.

My contention is that God, especially an incarnate God, can in fact have passions without those passions being changes for the better or worse, but instead appropriate. It is appropriate for God to have anger at sin, love for His creatures and joy in their salvation. Moreover, if God incarnates, then it would be appropriate for Him to experience fear at the threat of crucifixion or anger at corrupt and heartless religion.

Divine passions would, of course, not look fully like ours (human language must always fall short in describing the perfect being afterall). Certainly, God the Father would not experience the physical change of state that we associate with emotions. Questions of temporality come in too, but dealing with that is outside of the scope of this article.

So is God immutable perfection? Yes, but that does not mean he is without appropriate passions. Understanding always, that until we meet Him face to face, we always see as in a mirror darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12).
1. By English: Unknown Español: Desconocido Français : Inconnu (Luis García (Zaqarbal), 27–September–2008) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0]

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Good Side of Prayers to the Saints

by Fra Angelico [Public domain] via Wikipedia
It's been quite a while since I've written a post. As I've hinted at, I've been in a time of great transition, but that doesn't excuse the disservice I've done to you my readers. I thank you for your grace and your patience. I've started grad school now, and am settling into my new home in Vancouver quite well. This, of course, means I'll be quite busy, but it also means that I'm going to have a good deal of fuel for this blog. Already today, after being remonstrated by one of my fellow grad students for the lack of new postings on my blog, I have thought of two subjects to blog on. Hopefully this will continue.

The second post will becoming soon, as well as (hopefully) an update on my life for those of you interested. First, however, I thought I would address again the topic I left you with last time - the saints. Specifically, I want to address the topic of prayers to the saints, and something I think we may have lost in giving them up.

Before I do that, however, let me stress that I am not advocating that we pray to the saints, I certainly do not. I am, as a protestant, well aware that such prayers, particularly in their form as patrons of certain areas, walks dangerously close to paganism. Indeed, while the doctrine surrounding the practice is most emphatically not worship, it all do often degenerates into syncretistic worship in practice. This is certainly the case where my sister and brother-in-law minister in central Mexico, where the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe is a more important celebration than Easter. Worse though, the practice in its actual application often puts a wall of separation between the people and Christ, denying that we can approach the throne of Grace boldly (Hebrews 4). Again, to my Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, I must stress that I understand this does not represent the practice at its best, but is a corruption of it.

However, I do not think the practice is, at least in it's general form (i.e. not in the form of patronage) as out of left field as many of those who share my confession might think. We are, as I talked about in my last post, a catholic church. Moreover, that catholicity is not merely geographical but also temporal. In Baptism we are joined under the headship of Christ to all the saints, both those living (Militant) and dead (Triumphant). Furthermore, I believe that prayer is first and foremost communal and only afterwards individual (that would have to be discussed in more detail in another post). In the communal nature of prayer, we both join together liturgically, and intercess for one another. When we do this, we join in with the Church Triumphant who forever stands before the throne of God giving Him glory and praise.  If then, I can ask my friends or family to pray for me, it seems to me not insane that we could ask those now asleep for prayers as well. Of course, this begs further questions about temporality, the state of souls before the Resurrection and much much more.

There is, of course, the question of just who stands in the Church Triumphant, which makes the patronage system of further dubiousness in my mind (though I understand that's the entire point of Canonization of Saints on the basic of attributed miracles). Nevertheless, I believe that this is largely why prayers to the Saints can be effective, because the saints are praying and (forgive me) God meets us in our weakness.

However, I think by and large the Protestant restraint on this issue is a correct move. What I want to stress to those in my tradition, however, is that in emphasizing our direct access to Christ (which we are right to do) we do lose the constant awareness of the Church Triumphant which prayers to the Saints brings. I therefore think that we, as children of the Reformation, need to be extra careful not to loose that creedal truth. In light of that, it is I think important for us to emphasize or implement liturgical practices which bring to us an awareness of that truth. Thus, for example, the Anglican Church as part of its liturgical calendar recognizes feast days for saints without and the same time praying to saints. This, as I understand it, is traditionally put forward as a way of lifting up examples of good Christians past who we can emulate. That's a worthy goal, insofar as it goes, but I think we should moreover take those times to emphasize that these Saints are (insofar as we can know) with us in our worship of God.

That, of course, is just one idea, and I'm sure there are many other ways Anglicans could express this truth liturgically, as well as ways in which other traditions might do the same.

The Lord be with you.