Friday, June 10, 2016

Is God "Primarily Angry"? (3) - Trinity

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
-- as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.  Amen.  Alleluia.

If we were to pray the daily office on any given day, we might notice that the prayer both begins and ends with the above words.  They're interspersed throughout it's middle sections too, as a matter of fact.  This is important.  Fundamental.  Axiomatic.

Christianity confesses that God is Trinity - Father, Son, Spirit.  The transcendent Truth of all that is.... encapsulated by the image of Pericherosis - a Trinitarian dance of shared love and peace, a relational union not contingent on anything else in order to be complete.  God is complete within Himself.  So the answer to the question of  "why is there something rather than nothing?" – whatever that answer might be - has nothing to do with a fundamental lack within God.  God's "dwelling place" isn't a dark, dreary, lonely eternal realm that become a bit more cheery and lively after God made puppies.

Truth be told, I don't get this.  I have tons of questions, and I'm instantly skeptical of anyone who doesn't.  These words and images are but a shadow of something that is infinitely beyond words, but try to picture it.  A bearded and white-haired Father, a long-haired Caucasian Son with sandals and a robe, and a wispy Spirit holding hands and moving slowly in a circle.  Or perhaps you possess an imaginative mind that permits you to work from a less silly and anthropomorphic starting point.  Go with it.

Recall the two ways that I wrote about the concept of God being "primarily angry" in the last post - either for the benefit of the "other" (discipline), or for the benefit and satisfaction of the angered party (retribution as an end in and of itself).  Are either of these present in the scene that you envision?

Do we imagine that divine "anger" is a disposition or an "emotion" that is present within this transcendent Trinitarian dance?  Is it perhaps present but not "primary", whatever that might mean?  Does Jesus possess a little bit of an edge, or a problem with the Father's authority and His arbitrary rules?  Is there a slight hint of competition, insecurity, and self-preservation?  Is there anger and hostility within the trinity?

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
-- as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen.  Alleluia.

I don't know how the answer could be anything other than "no".  But we'll come back to that.  Some people disagree.  Like this guy.

Ok.  But perhaps a desire to display wrath is present in the essence of God and thus is present in an unrealized sense?  A repressed rage that lacks an outlet perhaps.  A "justice" and infinite power anxious to be made manifest but only able to take form upon a sort of imperfect "vessel of wrath", a thing that doesn’t yet exist?  Is there a greater glory to be attained in displaying retribution, but no means to display it without an "other" to punish?  We like to indulge our anger sometimes after all don't we!  Especially when we're right.  And God is always right, right?!  So why not?  Is the music of conflict needed to complete this trinitarian dance by way of contrast?  

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
-- as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen.  Alleluia.

Suppose we answer "no" to that too.  So there isn't a hint of wrath inherent within this trinitarian dance, nor is there some sort of desired but "repressed" wrath that "exists" but lacks a suitable outlet.

Hmmm,  What now?

"Let there be light."  Suddenly, there is space-time.  14,000,000,000 years ago.  Or 10,000 years ago.  Either way.  Whereas there was once “nothing”, there is suddenly a “something”.  Suddenly there is an "other" - that which is not God - and this "other" might rebel, disobey, break the rules, break relationship, deny it's intrinsic nature or however else you might like to say it.

How about now?  Is God angry?  In other words, does creation introduce something within the nature of God that wasn't previously there?  A zealousness to enforce the rules and smite someone perhaps, even though they haven't been broken yet?  A God who is just waiting....waiting for someone to screw up.  Glory-as-wrath to be revealed.

Ancient religion was quite comfortable with divine wrath and warring gods.  Many creation stories (like Enuma Elish) are filled with violence and wrath.  In these creation stories some sort of divine conflict is, in fact, THE means of the creation of the world.  Such violence and anger is part of the essence of God (or the gods).  Is that what we have here?

Nevertheless, still no anger?  Why should there be?  The mere existence of an "other" doesn't necessitate anger if that anger isn't eternally present within the essence of this trinitarian dance.  Right?  

But perhaps we now have a way to conceive of wrath as possibility?  

So move forward to the garden of Eden (which means "delight").  I'm quite aware of the difficulties of a "plain reading" of the Genesis narrative, but let us simply take the basics for what they are.  God plants a tree in the middle of a garden and tells the man and women not to eat it's fruit.  But they both eat it.  The "fall" ensues (though any reference to this as a "fall" itself isn't found in the Bible).

Now we have it!  There are rules.  We broke them.  God gets angry, and that anger is perfectly justified.  In the divine court of law, such anger is "legal".  What's so complicated about that?  That's how authorities behave.  Judges judge.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
-- as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen.  Alleluia.

NOW is God angry?  God the angry judge.

Before answering, a few questions worth pondering.

Have human beings, through their sinfulness, managed to change God?  To change His disposition towards that which He has created?  Does human sin introduce something within the nature of God that did not previously exist?  Does it introduce some hostile and vengeful character trait that had previously been unactualized, which God is actually undesirous of?  

"I mean, look at those humans down there.  Sinners.  They’ve ruined everything.  I'm so......angry.  So violated.  I can't believe this happened.  What am I supposed to do now?"

Did we create a wrath problem with God for ouselves?  Did we create a wrath problem for God with Godself?  The sort of internal anger issues that a human being might struggle with?    

Observe that underlying the format of these last few scenarios - the language of God being angry now or being angry yet - lies a presupposition that God moves linearly through time and changes much like a person - without anger one moment, and then with anger the next.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
-- as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen.  Alleluia.

I have to say, I think the idea that we change God is wrong.  And I say that knowing full well humanity's undeniable history of evil, violence, greed, and suffering.  But I don't care how extreme or graphic we make the language of evil.  Whatever it's nature, it isn't original.  It doesn't add to or subtract from that primordial trinitarian dance in the least.

So what now?  Is God not "angry" at all then?  What do we do about all the Bible passages in which God is which God becomes angry?  Or did we go wrong somewhere in this post?  Either God changes, of there is, was, and always will be anger within that trinitarian dance.  What other choices do we have?

I see two possible answers.

The first is to assert that anger WAS, IS, and ALWAYS WILL BE present within this trinitarian dance in the form of "holiness".  Yep, I played the "holiness" card.  We make holiness synonymous with anger, synonymous with justice, synonymous with retribution.  While I understand what's being said here (should a "holy" God be indifferent towards child molestation?), I think it's dangerous and ultimately heretical to frame holiness as virtually synonymous with anger and retribution, or to make sin the occasion by which a holy God deems His own anger and retribution to be sort of forensically justified (as in those vile humans broke the rules, now God can justifiably punish and nobody can say He's wrong for doing so).

No.  Jesus is holy.  That's holiness.  "Justice" is more than that (see "Justice" by George MacDonald).

But that "holiness as divine right to slaughter" is a perversion of the word and leads to this sort of thing from the Westminster Confession:

The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy, as He pleaseth, for the glory of His Sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice
(Chap. III-Art. VI and VII)

"Wrath for the praise of his glorious justice."  Yikes.

The second, in keeping with the immutable unchanging nature of the Trinitarian God, is to frame wrath as the love of God wrongly received.  In other words, it's not God who changes in his disposition towards wayward, selfish, and lost humanity, but the inevitable ontological experience of goodness bumping into evil.  It is darkness fleeing from the light.

If God is always for humanity, even in the midst of opposition, then what we call anger is restorative and for our benefit.  Always.  And this is good news.  Always.  This is the God who makes "all things new".  It's the "refiners fire".  It's "kolasis", going back to my last post.

If God is not for humanity, if God glorifies himself in punishment as an end in and of itself in order to display justice and holiness (or for whatever reason), then that is another thing.  It fulfills something that simply could not be fulfilled in the Trinity itself - opposition.

Either way, we must decide.  And we must decide with the Triune nature of God at the forefront of our hearts, minds, and prayers.

Is anger "kolasis" (inflicted in the interest of the sufferer) or "timoria" for the satisfaction and/or appeasement of the angered party?  In my experience, despite the lip-service paid to "kolasis", within our atonement theology and in our eschatology (my next two posts), we generally put forth that the default position of the Triune God is one in which wrath is primarily "timoria" - retribution, not discipline.

In the end, in light of the Triune God, I must believe that all God's actions are ultimately restorative because the only "end" for created things is defined by this Trinitarian dance.  "I am the alpha and the omega" says Christ.  All things.  Eternally.  Because the trinitarian dance of love and mercy is deeper than anything else, even deeper than our lostness and our will to destroy ourselves.  God is the father of the lost son, the one who finds the lost sheep and the lost son.  While it's virtually always portrayed in the exact opposite terms, I believe that is what makes God's ways higher than our ways.

Or do I?  Do I really?  I'm not so sure.  I'm filled with doubts.  Why is it hard so hard to believe this?  Because SO MUCH that I hear testifies to the exact opposite.  Because some would scream "heretic!" at my words here.  And because of the common portrayals of the cross, the subject of my next post.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
-- as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen.  Alleluia.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Is God "Primarily Angry"? (2) - Defining our terms

Return to part 1

In the last post I began to explore the degree to which we (I) perceive God to be "primarily angry", a probing question posed in a recent sermon at Lifespring Community Church.

We live in a semantic universe and have complicated ways of defining our words, so I’d like to explore these two words in more detail – “primarily” and “angry”.

So what is meant by the term “angry”?

It's defined as "a strong feeling of displeasure and belligerence aroused by a wrong; wrath".

Truth be told, we don't really need to be told what anger is.  We're know it's ebb and flow in our lives.  We're angry at one moment in time, and then not angry a moment later.  We feel angry towards a person who has offended us or impeded our will in some way, and not angry at a person who has not.  And we've been on both ends of actions driven by anger - we've both received it and we've dished it out.  Sometimes it feels good to indulge our anger.  We like the rush of it.  The power.  Or perhaps we don't.  Perhaps our anger is crippling to us.  We long to eliminate our anger but cannot do it.

Is God like that?

I'll have more to say about some of the words presented in that textbook definition in the context of the divine in the next post - feelingsbelligerence, and aroused in particular.

But generally speaking, when we talk about anger we're talking about a negative reaction to an offense.  We're talking about an inner emotion or disposition that is characterized by opposition to some person or action, an opposition which may or may not manifest itself in some show of force that is experienced by the "other" as a punishment.

I can't leave it at that though.

As they relate to this specific discussion, the most important questions may very well revolve around the intent of the anger.  We might differentiate between anger as "discipline" (as in a loving parent disciplining a child for the sake of a child) and anger as "retribution" (as in an authority figure taking some degree of satisfaction in the very acts of anger and punishment as ends in and of themselves).

In other words, is this "anger" in the interest of the object of the anger, or in the interest of the one who is angry?

Thus Aristotle differentiates between kolasis and timoria:
For according to Aristotle, "there is a difference between revenge and punishment; the latter (kolasis) is inflicted in the interest of the sufferer, the former (timoria) in the interest of him who inflicts it, that he may obtain satisfaction."
  --The Inescapable Love of God, 2nd Edition, p.81
Which one are we talking about here?  Both?  Or option C, whatever that might be?

And on to our second definition.  What might we mean by the term “primarily”?

It's defined as "for the most part" or "mainly".  Nothing earth shattering.

More precisely, we might use the word in reference to the components that make up an object or experience that we’re seeking to understand or describe.  We might think of it in terms of size comparison, numerical ratio, degree of importance, etc – it’s an inherently relative term.  So “primarily” in relation to what?  Answer: in relation to the whole and/or to the other parts that make up the whole, whatever that “whole” might be.

The human body is made up of roughly 65% water, so we might say that the human body is “primarily” water.  We might take a class at school, and upon reading the syllabus understand that the grade that we’ll receive is derived “primarily” from tests.  We might say that a vacation was “primarily” relaxing in terms of the ratio of time.  I might say that I work “primarily” for the paycheck – a measure of importance or motivation.  We might say that the Cubs are "primarily" a losing franchise (but THIS IS THE YEAR!!).

So the measurement by which we determine what constitutes something as "primary" may vary, but it's purpose - this term "primary" - is used to get at the essence of the thing in question.


Putting these two words together, how might we think of the phrase “primarily angry” when it comes to God?  Do we think of God as the end result of some combination of independent attributes or components, and the question is whether anger is relatively “primary”?  For example, God might be 6 parts anger and 4 parts love?  Or 2 parts anger/wrath, 3 parts holiness, 1 part justice, 3 parts love, and 1 part mercy?  Or 1 part anger and 9 parts love?  And does it all fluctuate, all the time, as things in the world get better or worse?

Does God have "parts" like this?

Hopefully we wouldn't characterize a divine attribute as "primary" by applying some sort of math equation.  Such a "recipe" is absurd, yet it illustrates something problematic.  It highlights what we perceive to be a sort of competing set of attributes within the heart of God.

We might surmise that justice and mercy are utterly opposed to one another (this is a biggie).  We might hear it said that "God is merciful, but he is also just" - the two being opposed together in such a way that granting mercy is fundamentally not an act of justice.  There's the "but" - a word that communicates some opposition or tension.  We might say the same thing about holiness and forgiveness.  Or anger and love.

Or we might create two buckets of attributes, conflate each of the words in those two buckets to basically mean the same thing, and then have just those two buckets oppose one another at a fundamental level.  So, for example, we create a bucket called "holiness" in which holiness, anger, wrath, retribution, power, and justice all effectively equate to the same thing.  We create another bucket called "love" which is where we bucket love, mercy, forgiveness, kindness, restoration, etc.  It becomes a matter of simplification.  The simplification may obscure the tension (a God with 2 competing attributes is more coherent than a God torn in different directions by 20) but it doesn't eliminate it.

Even after all that, a key question for me comes back to whether divine "anger" (whatever it's relative importance) is an end in itself, "satisfying" God in some way, or whether what we call anger has something else in mind, is geared towards some other end.  Is it kolasis or timoria?

So we're left with all of these different words that have different meanings to different people, and connect to one another (or oppose one another) in different ways depending on who you ask.

So when all the chips are on the table, what's the "primary", the trump card?  What's left when the layers of the onion are pulled away?  What's our perception of God's default disposition?

But how can we know?  How do we do this?  Confused yet?  Feeling a certain amount of tension?

It's a complex, subjective, and somewhat subconscious process.  It's all a bit circular, not unlike a photomosaic.  The whole informs where we place the tiny pictures, but move the tiny pictures and the whole changes.  And it's complicated because we're not robots.  We're emotional.  That's a feature, not a bug.  We're human beings living in particular times and places.

Despite assertions that we can we just "look at Jesus" or "read the Bible", we have to acknowledge that such assertions have not eliminated the ambiguity, as much as we might like to say otherwise.  Within the evangelical tradition that has defined my own religious upbringing, (but also in many other traditions) there are things that have often reinforced the idea of a "primarily angry" God.

So here's what I'm going to do:

My next three posts will be about:
Atonement/the cross

Continue to part 3 - Trinity

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