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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