Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Reason, Passion, and God

For you theologs out there, I would recommend that you check out Paul Helm's blog. Helm has consistently practiced solid Christian philosophy, and his writings will challenge you to scale the heights of truth in ways you may not have done before.

His post entitled B. B. Warfield on Divine Passion will reward the mental effort it requires with a greater appreciation of who God is and who we are. Here is an extended quote I found stimulating.

Although God is simple, without parts, without division, there is
nevertheless a complexity in the mind of God, but this complexity does not
depend on something other than him. The classical Christian tradition readily
recognizes this. God knows many things and we may think of God’s 'feelings' as
simply his attitudes to what he knows. What he knows - the details of everything
that comes to pass - is present to the divine mind, even though that mind is
itself simple, without parts or divisions, immutable and impassible. What could
be more complex than the universe, with its unparalleled variety? God knows that
complexity. God the Father takes pleasure - no doubt - in the goodness of the
various aspects of the creation, and in the Incarnation, being well pleased with
his beloved Son. And we find in Scripture that among the many things that God
knows that he has delight in are: a just weight (Prov. 11.1); the upright in
their way (Prov. 11.20); those that deal truly (Prov. 12.22); the prayer of the
upright (Prov. 15.8) and so on; among those things which he has ordained which
he hates are a proud look (Prov. 6.16), Esau (Mal. 1.3), all workers of iniquity
(Psalm 5.3) and so on.

How are we to understand these attitudes of God? I suggest that it is
improper to strongly model these on human feelings, to think of these as we
think of human passions or emotions. Although undoubtedly as God has
accommodated himself to our human condition in this way he represents himself as
passionate, God cannot really have passions because of the implication, in the
use of the word 'passion', that the one who is passionate is overtaken or
derailed or blinded by the passion. The passion is an irrational response. That
much is surely clear.

However, it is at this point, I suggest, that we take some care, for a person
may speak with full control of himself, yet in an impassioned way; and the
control he exercises may be the direct result of his passion. To talk of a
scientist’s passion for truth, or a judge’s for justice, may be a way of
speaking of the strength of these commitments. In some cases human passion
distracts and impairs the reason, while in other cases it intensifies the
engagement of the reason. Because of such he may think and speak and act with
greater care than otherwise. For example a person may be so passionate about
truth telling that he takes extreme care to speak the truth himself. A detective
may be so passionate about solving a crime that he is utterly careful and
scrupulous about assembling and weighing the evidence. If God in himself is to
be said to be passionate then this is how it must be with him. We must think of
him as essentially impassioned, full of feeling, utterly engaged in the most
clear-eyed way possible. In other words, we must not define passion in terms of
irrationality, as a misunderstanding or miscalculation of good and evil, as
Stoicism is inclined to do.

Can we understand this impassioned life of God a little more? If God is
impassioned about something then he is maximally engaged in ensuring the coming
to pass of that thing, and to the effects of that coming to pass on beings other
than him. His being is suffused with this commitment. It is likely that such an
understanding of God's commitment to his creation will not be of much comfort to
the current advocates of a 'suffering God', for they readily model the life of
God on the life of passionate human beings. But if God is passionate in this
sense of being utterly engaged then he is impassioned in the works of creation
and redemption in a way and to a degree that utterly transcends the vagaries of
human passion; impassioned in his regard for truth and goodness. So perhaps we
would nearer the truth if we thought of God not as 'having passions' or as a
'suffering God' but as being utterly impassioned in all that he does.

If God is full of feeling then does he have feelings? We may, influenced by
our touchy-feely culture, think that the answer is obvious. Of course he has.
But here again some caution is called for. For we use the term 'feeling' to
cover not merely mental states, feelings of sympathy or compassion, or of
betrayal or alienation, but also feeling arising from changes in our bodies, or
even the fact of being embodied. We feel tired, we have aches and pains,
scratches and itches, sexual pleasure, we feel cold and heat, the wind and the
rain. Is this how it is with God? Clearly not. Further, our mental states, our
feelings or emotions, are frequently the result of selfishness and ignorance. If
in saying that God feels, or even that God has emotions, we are simply (and
carefully) speaking of God’s impassioned attitudes of delighting in, and hating,
and loving in the manner sketched above, then clearly the answer must be no:
God's passion is in no way spasmodic, nor does it impair his mind but rather
enhances it. But not otherwise.


Jim O. said...

Mr. Parker,

I enjoyed the excerpt, but when I followed the link to see the entire article I found that it had been removed from the Helm's Deep website. Could you please forward me a copy of the article so that I can read all of it.

Thank you,


Jason Parker said...

The article has been removed from Paul Helm's blog as it is now published in the Westminster Theological Journal (Spring 2007).