The immorality of impassibility—Part 3


So, what do we make of Sirvent’s thesis that imitatio dei is incompatible with impassibilism? A few responses seem appropriate. Each of these responses could be pursued at some length, but I’ll offer them as succinctly as I can. I trust readers understand the title “immorality of impassibility” reflects Sirvent’s opinion, not ours. Obviously we don’t think impassibility is morally bankrupt.

Concede the point
First, and perhaps most simply, an impassibilist might simply concede Sirvent’s point. Both imitatio dei (as he presents it) and impassibility (as he defines it) cannot both be true. In that case Christian believers will simply have to adjudicate the relative arguments for each and make a choice. One may not see imitatio dei (as an essentially passibilist moral foundation) as indispensible to human flourishing or as biblically or philosophically convincing. And on purely existential grounds, in terms of the felt effects of motivation and world-construction as I experience things within the framework God’s abiding beatitude, Sirvent’s claim that human flourishing requires a passibilist view of God and a passibilist experience of oneself relative to the needs of others is demonstrably false.

There actually are people in the world whose motivation for serving the needs of others comes not from a diminished experience or “emotional harm” wrought in or upon them by the suffering of others which they require to move them to act, but from an ecstatic and God-given beatitude the defines (as opposed to being defined) as it moves outward into a fallen world in pursuit of the world’s highest good in God. So given the incompatibility of the options Sirvent treats, one could simply favor the impassibilist option and discard his passibilist construal of imitation dei. If Sirvent feels this leaves people with no rational or existentially sufficient grounds upon which to flourish in pursuing their highest good in God or the well-being of others, then that will have to be his view of their spirituality.

The dark side of imitaio dei
Second, imitatio dei is itself a controversial understanding of Old Testament ethics. It is not an established conviction of Old Testament scholarship that imitatio dei forms the center and heart of Old Testament ethics. Are we to imitate divine genocide, violence, slavery, etc? Esias E. Meyer (“The Dark Side of the Imitatio DeiOTE 22/2 [2009]: 373-383) reviews some interesting reasons for approaching imitatio dei cautiously.

What’s particularly interesting though in Sirvent’s attempt to ground imitatio dei in the Old Testament is that he argues it is our own moral intuitions that qualify us to judge actions (divine or human) as worthy of imitation or not. And not even Sirvent believes that all that is attributed to God in the Old Testament is worthy of imitation. Nobody these days needs to be reminded that the Old Testament texts are full of divine behaviors that offend our moral intuitions and which we spend a good amount of energy and scholarship devising strategies to get around or accommodate. In the end, imitatio dei is hardly an established center of Old Testament morality, and even if it were supposed to be, Sirvent considers our moral judgments superior and us sufficiently qualified to judge as unworthy of imitation much that is in the very texts in which Sirvent seeks to ground imitatio dei to begin with. So I’m not sure Sirvent himself ends up being a consistent fan of imitatio dei.

Imitatio dei or imitatio mensurae?
This leads me, thirdly, to suspect that what Sirvent is actually promoting is not imitatio dei (imitation of ‘God’ as observed in the OT texts), but something more like imitatio regulae (an imitation of moral ‘rule’) or imitatio mensurae (an imitation of an objective moral ‘measure’ or ‘standard’) grounded solely in human intuition. If God as he is held out to us in the Old Testament can be judged (not infrequently!) as unworthy of imitation based on our better moral intuitions (as Sirvent agrees), then those intuitions and not God as presented in Scriptural texts are offering us access to some extra-biblical rule or standard of morality we are able to intuit apart from Scripture. Furthermore, if as Sirvent claims (if I’m reading him rightly), this rule or moral standard is shared between God and humans, then it is neither God nor human. Indeed, Sirvent describes this shared moral standard as “independent” of both God and human beings.

But in this case the truer thing to say would be not that we imitate God but that both God and we imitate “it” (i.e., the standard or rule, thus imitatio mensurae) in which case one may inquire into the nature of this moral standard. If it embraces both God and humans, might one be justified in wanting to worship it rather than God? What sort of reality is this independent moral standard? What grounds it? And, more concerning, if human intuitions are able to discern this standard and even judge God’s actions in light of it, how are human beings not essentially simply imitating themselves? Sirvent supposes us capable of judging what we’re supposed to be imitating, i.e., ‘God’ as disclosed in Scripture. Now, if Sirvent doesn’t in fact think this shared moral standard is independent of God (i.e., that it just is God), that’s good news, but it would seem to require some rewriting of his argument. And in the end I don’t see that it would itself secure a passibilist structure to the standard.

Vulnerability to emotional harm not constitutive of love and justice
Fourth, is it in fact true that no act I pursue in the interests of the well-being of another is truly loving or just unless I am first motivated by suffering some measure of “emotional harm”? Is there really no conceivable way our language can speak truthfully of God (across an ‘interval of analogy’) without God’s being a ‘being among beings’? Certainly such passive determination and emotional harm are native to human, finite becoming. If the meaning of ‘love’ and ‘justice’ as we experience them passibly is, as Sirvent argues, normative for our understanding of love and justice attributed to God, then on what basis do we differentiate among elements essential to our experience of these virtues and attribute only some elements to God? We ascribe our passibilism to God but not our embodiment. We (well, some) ascribe the psychology of human cognition and affection to God but not the finitude of created being. It does seem to me that the finitude and ‘becoming’ of created beings are a serious enough categorical distinction from uncreated, infinite being to plausibly wonder whether God must mirror the passibilist structure of created finitude especially when other elements of our experience of love and justice are not thought to be paralleled in God.

In any case, we know that the simplest loving acts demonstrate that I needn’t suffer a loss of existential fullness (or move from an impoverished state of fulfillment to an improved well-being) in order to render taking my wife out to dinner a truly loving act, or to make gathering with African American pastors in my city to find ways to confront systemic racism a genuine pursuit of justice. It is conceivable that these actions express rather than reflexively constitute via emotional harm one’s experienced sense of well-being. With respect to love in its pursuit of restoring the well-being of others who are suffering, it is not invariably the experience of human beings that another’s suffering must first effect in us some measure of emotional harm or a diminished sense of well-being before our actions are considered truly loving.

A father who with open arms and smiling face tends to the bleeding scrapped knee of his daughter needn’t be motivated by any depreciation of joy or happiness for us to be justified in considering his actions toward his daughter to be loving. Similarly, a mother who rushes to a daughter’s side to awaken her from a nightmare and calm her fears needn’t have her own sense of well-being defined to any conceivable measure by her daughter’s horror before we can consider the mother’s attention to be loving. A present fullness may be its own motivation to pursue the well-being of others as an expression of its completeness in Christ even if others are the occasion of such expression.

Fifth, we’ve said nothing about spirituality as it’s understood in Eastern (Hindi and Buddhist) contexts, rich traditions that do not equate God or “ultimate reality” (Satchitananda) with vulnerability. I’d be extremely suspicious of any academic opinion (regardless of its credentials) that dismissed the experience of transcendent equanimity testified to for millennia by mystics across religious traditions.

Imitatio christi
Sixth, I’m not suggesting there is no legitimate New Testament imitatio dei. Obviously the language is there (Ephesians 5.1, “Be imitators of God as dear children”), but as far as I can tell it is (a) always immediately grounded in Jesus’ example (of forgiveness, mercy, tolerance, i.e., extend to others what you’ve experienced in Christ) and (b) does not obviously involve a commitment to the kind of vulnerability that Sirvent argues for.

God as summum bonum
Lastly—and this may relate to Sirvent’s response to impassibilist objections in ch. 6, others can be the judge—for me the central biblical and philosophical conviction in all this is God as summum bonum (see all three parts to that link). We’ve said a great deal on this blog about the aesthetic nature of God’s abiding triune beatitude as the summum bonum. As we’ve suggested, an undiminished joy can be its own proper motivation to love others and pursue their highest good. I’m not sure where Sirvent stands on the nature of God as summum bonum (“highest good”) and the relationship of God as highest good to God’s experience of beatitude, but as far as I can tell Sirvent seems to posit something other than God as the summum bonum, some third reality to which both God and we conform.

I was thankful to meet up with Sirvent’s book. It’s a tightly argued and thoughtful thesis, though it finally failed to convince. Those interested in the question will definitely have to read and engage it.

Some relevant posts that expand on points in these responses:

Prayer: Holy One, there’s so much I don’t understand. I read a lot looking to understand, hoping to find you in the pages. Quench my thirst, Lord. Let me know your peace that passes understanding, your love that surpasses knowing, your joy unspeakable and full of glory.

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