I wasn’t planning on a Part 4, but a last re-read of Sirvent’s ch. 6 (“The Immorality of Impassibility”) brought some things to mind that I thought relevant to his thesis.
(1) Sirvent rejects Chalcedon, and this rejection is central to his thesis. That pretty much kills his thesis for me, though I suppose it poses no problems for most others. He describes the “danger of uncritically subscribing to Chalcedon,” a creed he considers to be a “mistake” from “bygone eras.” He writes:
Perhaps “mistake” is too harsh a word, for the creed probably reflected the best wisdom of its time. And perhaps it even reflected the best wisdom of the subsequent fifteen centuries of Christian theology. But this is not to say that it reflects the best wisdom of today. My goal in this book has been to explore how modern understandings of morality may clue us in to God’s moral nature. The danger in uncritically subscribing to Chalcedon is twofold: (1) we reject centuries of theological and philosophical progress that has been made since then, and (2) as a result, we bind ourselves to the worldview of bygone eras, not to mention their political and religious goals for establishing the doctrine. Moreover, the fact that Chalcedon was considered orthodoxy for fifteen centuries does not speak to its theological validity as much as it speaks to the authoritative nature of those creeds back then. Indeed, dissenters did not have the luxury of an amendment process like the one found in the United States Constitution.
This seems bad thinking for couple of reasons:
- First, it’s dangerous to “uncriticially” subscribe to any view. Sirvent must think belief in Chalcedon possible today only for those who subscribe to it uncriticially (which is not a possible adjective for the thinking that went into Chalcedon).
- But, secondly, it’s possible today to critically subscribe to Chalcedon, i.e., to subscribe to it in conversation with modern modes of thought, through historical-critical tools and studies, and in the light of moral seriousness.
- Third, it’s true that Chalcedonians today reject some of the theological and much philosophical work from the past fifteen centuries (though especially post-Enlightenment ‘progress’). But they have not ignored these or uncritically denied contemporary concerns. Look, it’s no less true that Whitehead rejected fifteen centuries of theological and philosophical progress to forge a truly novel worldview, but nobody dismisses Whitehead on account of the mere fact that he rejected centuries of progress.
So I’m having difficulty taking Sirvent’s criticism of Chalcedon seriously. Criticize it, by all means. But don’t dismiss it—what’s the word?—uncriticially. Can a Chalcedonian converse competently with modern quantum science, the evolutionary origins of life, the insights of psychiatry and psychology, the realities of life which the social sciences shed light upon, developmental psychology, the essential connectedness of all things? Most certainly, yes.
(2) Sirvent brings up Marilyn McCord Adams. We’ve reviewed her here to some extent. She’s hardly a strong passibilist in a Moltmannian sense. She’s not a kenoticist for example, and she admits the Son/Logos enjoys a transcendent mode of triune existence not interrupted by or reduced to the Incarnation. She’s not a traditional impassibilist by any means, but I wonder if the measured, carefully worded sense in which she views the divine nature as passible would leave Sirvent feeling like it was too little, that her approach was, if not morally bankrupt, at least in the red. For example, she writes:
…even if Divinity is mutable and passible, the Divine Perfections in Their Divine nature are not vulnerable to horrors. For God to share horrors, God has to become the kind of thing that can be radically vulnerable to horrors. And this will require a finite range of consciousness with limited powers to cope. (emphasis mine)
On the one hand “Divinity is mutable and passible.” That would rule out her being an impassibilist in any traditional sense of the word, granted. But on the other hand “the divine perfections in their divine nature are not vulnerable to horrors.” Interesting to say the least. In embracing this finite range of consciousness via Incarnation, the Logos does not abandon the infinite range of his divine consciousness. Adams is Chalcedonian, yet Sirvent quotes her in support of his dismissal of Chalcedon. See Parts 7-10 of our review of her.
(3) Let’s take the qualified passibilist view of open theist Christian Philosopher Alan Rhoda into consideration. Alan and we have discussed this at some length. He suggests a version of passibilism in which God’s omniscience and beatitude so contextualize created suffering’s effect upon him that the effect is likely best described as “infinitesimal,” a “drop in an infinite ocean.” Here we have a truly passibilist view of God (passibilist on Sirvent’s view) which Sirvent I suspect would feel was every bit as morally bankrupt as impassibilism classically understood. In Alan’s view God is truly affected, genuinely vulnerable, but infinitesimally so. Such small suffering wouldn’t be enough on Sirvent’s view, I don’t think. I certainly know other passibilists for whom it would not be enough. An infinitesimal divine pain would not be sufficient comfort to sustain human sufferers in their pain, nor would it be enough to motivate God to act on our behalf. After all, on a passibilist construal of morality, it is pain that moves us (and God) to act in love for the good of others. If our suffering manufactures merely infinitesimal pain in God, that would not account for the great lengths to which God goes in loving us. There must be a great deal of pain moving God to act as he does, a pain commensurate with the depths to which the Incarnation brings God into our state.
Given Sirvent’s line of argument, I suspect, he feels God has to hurt—a lot. How much? Who can say? Explanations I run into suggest that because God is infinite and not at all selfish, he should feel our pain on a scale comparable to his infinite capacities. Thus, the effect of our pain in God would be immeasurably more than our capacities are able to process. Though I don’t see that he discusses how the ‘extent’ or ‘depth’ of experienced pain in response to others makes our responses “worth imitating,” I think the morality at work in Sirvent’s thesis assumes something along this line of reasoning. We’re lifted out of our pain by the assurance that God feels our pain to an immeasurable (not an infinitesimal) degree. So passibilism per se is not enough; even Alan’s view is morally bankrupt. We require a divine nature wracked with pain.
(4) Sirvent seems to believe God’s perfections and fullness are achieved dialectically within creation. This seems to be where passibilist theologies lead. What sort of transcendence will a passibilist univocity permit? Only a transcendence of quantity, it seems. There’s always immeasurably more of what we’ve univocally possessed; always more, yes, but more of the same one thing which language has categorically encompassed. I suggest some posts in Part 3 where we explore these questions.
What’s new with Sirvent’s book that’s interesting is the claim that alternative views of God are all morally bankrupt. But I ask, what recent “theological and philosophical progress” does Sirvent have in mind that makes the positing of an absolute, necessary, essentially relational and existentially full and undiminished ground of all being obsolete and mistaken? The diliverances of our post-Enlightenment moral understanding? How so? By midway through the 20th century humanity by in large had become the most relationally fragmented, selfishly indulgent, accomplishedly violent, morally vacuous, culturally vicious and narcissist version of our species ever to appear on the planet. But our moral reasoning and intuitions are superior to ancient Christians because we moderns are better informed and enlightened?
Prayer: Lord, I long for your appearing. There are things I’d still like to see and do, but tonight wouldn’t be too soon to welcome your appearing. As it is, I see you in all things, and I long to see all things shine with you as you intend. Come soon!