Saturday, May 28, 2016

Is God "Primarily Angry"? (1)

The church I attend has been doing a sermon series entitled “Knowing the Heart of God”.  And what more important topic could there be?  All theological pontificating and arguing is REALLY just a way of trying to formulate an answer to THAT question.  It's a question for all people, not just for some exceptional class of the theologically and intellectually elite.  The question of the heart of God is, in the end, inseparable from the most significant questions about ourselves and our world.  What is a human being?  What sort of universe do we live and die in?  What is the destiny of creation?

The answers are not as self-evident as we might like, for God does not subject himself to cross-examination like a trial witness or hit the campaign trail like a politician.  We are left to grasp, wonder, argue, harmonize, exegete, think, pray.  But even then, the diversity of thought and practice within Christianity itself is evidence that Christians don't agree on what God is like.  Far from it.  There is no divine FAQ page.  Our language reveals ambiguity – for what I mean by love, justice, grace, wrath, anger, or mercy is not what you mean.  We all see through a glass darkly.

I often write as a way to come to terms with my own experience, to sort of tease out what it is that I actually think and believe, to deconstruct and (hopefully) reconstruct.  A recent sermon within this series in particular has had my brain wheels churning.  We were confronted with the important and perceptive question of whether we see God’s disposition towards humanity as being “primarily angry”.

Is God "primarily angry?"

Now, the very fact that a sermon asks the question of if we perceive God as “primarily angry”, to me, reveals that the answer is very often “yes”.  There'd be no reason to ask it if there wasn't.  We need not pretend that a "primarily angry" God exists only in the minds of a few eccentric cultish groups but is otherwise absent.  In order for any constructive conversation to get off the ground, it might be helpful to just acknowledge that, to bring it into the light.  

But things are immediately fuzzy.  

What is divine "anger"?  Is it an essential attribute of God?  Was God not angry originally, and then "became angry" at some point in time?  Is anger an "emotion"?  Have we conflated anger with other words like holiness, retribution, hatred, justice, or vengeance.  Some of them?  All of them?  Rightly or wrongly?  Is anger opposed to love?  Does love merely justify divine anger as "lawful", but anger itself is understood in a way that is opposed to love?

What does "primarily" angry mean?  It is just a sort of ratio thing?  Like you sort of compare the ratio of love to wrath, and as long as there is more than 50% love we have “a God who primarily loves us” and not a God who is “primarily angry”?  If we have a God that’s maybe 20% angry, does that fix things?  

And how do we know one way or the other?  What informs our knowing?  Does our knowing come through systematic theology, the way that our minds put together various pieces of data from the Bible, the Tradition, or our own experience?  Is it an experiential knowing?  Might our knowing be somewhat culturally conditioned? In this case, for example, perhaps an a priori understanding of justice as being fundamentally retributive in nature shapes the way that we see things?

I plan to explore some of these questions in the next few posts.

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