Thursday, September 10, 2009

Moltmann, Omnipotence and the Pathos of God

If you've been reading my blog of late you may have figured out that I greatly admire the story and the theology of Jurgen Moltmann, one of the great living theologians. I was able to enjoy a day of conversation -- well, I listened in on the conversation that others were having with him on my behalf. We have one more 1/2 day left tomorrow morning to enjoy his words of wisdom. All thanks to Emergent Village and its co-sponsors. To be here has been a blessing of incalculable worth.
Moltmann's theology is rich in part because it is so rooted in his biography. Indeed, the message of Moltmann might be that biography is theology, that our theologies are rooted in our own life experience. His is rooted in his experiences during WWII, first in surviving the firebombing of Hamburg, during which a friend was killed standing next to him on an anti-aircraft platform, as well as time in a POW camp. That is coupled with the guilt and shame felt as the magnitude of the Holocaust was revealed.
From those and other experiences a theology developed, one that had no formative center, but one that was formed along the journey, in response to the issues of the day. In this journey, his understanding of God emerged, an understanding that was formed by his engagement with Jesus. I was impressed by his confession of a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. His reflection on the cross, led him to an understanding of the nature of God that required a reconfiguring of the doctrine of divine omnipotence. It's not that God controls, but God lifts and carries the universe. He referred us to texts such as the one that speaks of God carrying us on Eagles Wings. God's omnipotence is seen in God's patience.
This leads us to the pathos of God -- or perhaps rather to that doctrine of divine impassibility, a doctrine designed to protect God, but which instead turns God into something unrecognizable as the God of the Bible. As Moltmann put it, "An impassible God is not a God, but a Demon."
Here's why.
The doctrine of impassibility is rooted in Aristotle, and his doctrine of divine apathy. Now, that doesn't mean that God doesn't care (well, maybe it does), but it means that God has no passion, no feeling, no empathy, and thus, no love. Of course this is very different from the Hebrew God who is full of pathos.
What is key for us is this -- according to Moltmann, if God is apathetic, then God is apathetic toward us. And as a final kicker, he reminded us that apathy is considered a sign of mental illness.
So, while impassibility may fit nicely with Greek philosophy, does it offer us a way to a God capable of loving the universe, including us, so as to reconcile the universe?
Finally, I do believe, very strongly that our view of God does have a powerful impact on our behavior. If God has no empathy, no passion, no love for the universe, then will the same be true of me? Will I share this divine apathy? That is the question that must be faced.


Anonymous said...

"first in surviving the firebombing of Hamburg, during which a friend was killed standing next to him on an anti-aircraft platform, as well as time in a POW camp.".

Bob, A great American had almost the exact experiences, and felt the same as he. Uncanny. One of my favorite books. A real easy read too. I read it at 13 years of age:

Ask Moltman if he ever read:

Slaughterhouse-Five. An anti-war novel, by Kurt Vonnegut. The work was first published in 1969. It's been called an American classic. Semi-autobiographical in nature, the novel is drawn from Vonnegut's war-time experiences in World War II, his survival in the basement of a slaugtherhouse with fellow inmates and guards during the Dresden firebombing as a prisoner of war in Germany.

The visitor from outer space made a
serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of
the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.

But the Gospels actually taught this:

Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn't well
connected. So it goes.

The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn't look like much, was actually the Son of the
Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought, and Rosewater read
out loud again:

Oh, boy-they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!

And that thought had a brother: 'There are right people to lynch.' Who? People not well connected. So it goes.

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had. He still got to say all the
lovely and puzzling things he said in the other Gospels.

So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn't possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought. The reader would have to think that, too, since the new Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was.

And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and
there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the Creator of the Universe
throughout all eternity. God said this From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!

* * *

Somebody in the zoo crowd asked him through the lecturer what the
most valuable thing he had learned on Tralfamadore was so far, and Billy replied, ``How the inhabitants of a whole planet can live in peace I As you know, I am from a planet that has been engaged in senseless slaughter
since the beginning of time. I myself have seen the bodies of schoolgirls who were boiled alive in a water tower by my own countrymen, who were proud of fighting pure evil at the time.'' This was true. Billy saw the
boiled bodies in Dresden. ``And I have lit my way in a prison at night with candles from the fat of human beings who were butchered by the brothers and fathers of those school girls who were boiled. Earthlings must be the terrors of the Universe! If other planets aren't now in danger from Earth, they soon will be. So tell me the secret so I can take it back to Earth and save us all: How can a planet live at peace?''

"If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed. Still--if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I'm grateful that so many of those moments are nice."
- Chapter 10

If not, buy two and send him one. He's sure to comment.- David Mc

Anonymous said...

Another Kilgore Trout book there in the window was about a man who
built a time machine so he could go back and see Jesus. It worked, and he saw Jesus when Jesus was only twelve years old. Jesus was learning the carpentry trade from his father.

Two Roman soldiers came into the shop with a mechanical drawing on papyrus of a device they wanted built by sunrise the next morning. It was
a cross to be used in the execution of a rabble-rouser.

Jesus and his father built it. They were glad to have the work. And the rabble-rouser was executed on it.

So it goes.

Mystical Seeker said...

Cobb and Hick say similar things about the problems with the idea of an impassive God in their introductory book on process theology. What kind of loving God would not be affected by our own joys and suffering? This in turn leads to a couple of ideas. First, it leads to panentheism, since the only way that God could perfectly share in all of our experiences is not through some detached or objective knowledge from the outside but through participating in our subjective experiences, and that implies that we are essentially within God. Second, it leads to the idea that since God is affected by what we do, God changes over time. That doesn't mean that God doesn't have unchanging characteristics--perfect love, for example--but that over time God accumulates our own subjective experiences into his/her being, God is always affected by what transpires, and thus the sum total of what God is changes over time.

This also leads to the idea of divine pathos as well, since a God who is affected by what we do essentially shares in our suffering as well as our joys. I am not that familiar with Vanstone, but am under the impression that perhaps he has written about God sharing in our suffering as well.

Anonymous said...

Vanstone? Did you mean Vonnegut?
He does fiction, but it has a lot of cool fictional theology. David Mc