22 July 2010

Does God have feelings and emotions?

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware lecturing at the IOCS Summer School in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this morning

Patrick Comerford

We are discussing the Passions at this year’s IOCS summer school in Sidney Sussex College this week. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, a former chair of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, asked us this morning: Can we ascribe passion to God? Does God suffer? Does God have feelings and emotions?

He pointed out that the Greek word πάθος (pathos) is linked with the verb πάσχειν (paschein, and talked about to suffer passion as an event that is experienced passively, like sleep – we often say that one is overcome by sleep.

Classical theology, under the influence of Aristotle, answered the questions he posed with a resounding No, saying God is impassible, does not and cannot suffer and cannot have feelings and emotions. This Aristotelian idea of God, the unmoved mover, has generally been accepted by Christian writers, eastern and western, but Metropolitan Kallistos said he is not sure that this influence has been entirely benign.

The entrance to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where the summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies is taking place (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Digressing, in a lecture that was filled with the characteristic humour and passion for which Metropolitan Kallistos is well-known, he told how the famous Dr Spooner of Oxford – who is attributed with sayings such as “you have hissed my mystery lecture” – once preached a sermon, and then returned to the pulpit to tell his bewildered congregation: “Every time I mentioned Aristotle, I meant Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Aristotle had given us the idea that God is pure actuality, with no imperfection, never passive but only active. Therefore, he cannot suffer, be influenced or controlled by anything outside himself. Similarly, Thomas Aquinas says God cannot be conquered by or suffer violence, God is unmovable.

This classical image of God is derived from Aristotle, but not from the Bible, where there is a very different image of God, he said.

In the Old Testament, God is passionate, cares for his people, grieves over their sufferings and their sins (see Genesis 6: 6; Judges 10: 16; Hosea 11: 8; Jeremiah 31: 20). In the New Testament, Jesus Christ feels righteous indignation, despair and sorrow, loss and absence of God. He suffers, but is this only in his human nature, as man? Does he suffer in his divine nature?

The traditional answer is that God suffers, but only as God incarnate, in the human nature of Jesus. Metropolitan Kallistos wondered whether this was an entirely satisfactory answer. He asked, what about the involvement of the pre-incarnate Christ in suffering? He recalled the story of the three young men who were thrown into the fiery furnace, and were seen to be accompanied by a fourth, who was like a son of God (see Daniel 3: 25). This fourth figure is understood to be the pre-incarnate Christ, and there he is involved in the suffering of the three young men. The Book of Revelation speaks of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. The implication is that the suffering of Christ on the cross is to be carried right back before the incarnation to the beginning of creation (Revelation 13: 8).

Melitus of Sardis believes the pre-incarnate Christ suffered with the righteous, that he was murdered with Abel, bound with Isaac, exiled with Joseph, exposed with Moses, persecuted in David, and dishonoured in the Prophets, participating with the suffering of the people in the Old Testament. Pascal says Christ will be in agony, even unto the end of the world.

The first action of the Risen Christ is to show the wounds on his hands and on his side (John 20: 20), not just for the sake of recognition, but it may also suggest that even in the glory of the Risen Christ there is still a place for our human suffering. At the Second Coming, we shall recognise him because we see the wounds on his hands and feet. Suffering passes, but the fact of having suffered always remains.

Quoting an early third century source, the story of Perpetua and Felicita, he told how Perpetua, when she was facing martyrdom, said: “There will be another in me who will suffer for me.” When we suffer, the Risen and Glorified Christ co-suffers with us. Augustine had said: “Whatever the Church suffers, He also suffers.”

He quoted from Julian of Norwich, George Herbert and William Temple, as he made his argument that Christ continues to be involved in suffering, right up to the end of the world.

Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is perfect and complete, and we cannot add to it. But the Apostle Paul talks about his sufferings being added to Christ’s suffering, so that Christ is suffering too (see Colossians 1: 24). Christ’s suffering is not limited to his incarnate life He suffered before, and continues to suffer now. We should not limit the suffering of God to the incarnation or to God the Son, for Saint Paul also said: “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God” (Ephesians 4: 30). When God the Son suffers his suffering is part of the Trinitarian movement.

Christ became incarnate to share our sufferings. “There was a cross in the heart of God long before one was set up outside the walls of Jerusalem.”

Drawing on the writings of Origen in the Homilies on Ezekiel, he said the pathos of Christ’s suffering is love, and asked: How can you say God is impassible if God is the God of Love? God suffers and God suffers with us because he is a God of Love.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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