The immorality of impassibility—Part 4


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.


Now that is equanimity!

(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!

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.

The immorality of impassibility—Part 2

His_Calm_Within_The_StormAs I noted in Part 1, Sirvent builds a cumulative case for the incompatibility of impassibilism and imitatio dei (an approach to ethics that views the highest human flourishing as coming from imitating God). I don’t intend to present a full-length summary of all his points, but I would like to lay out the main line of argument.

Univocal theological language
Sirvent begins by adopting the univocal nature of theological language. How do our terms ‘love’, ‘just’, ‘good’, etc., apply to our talk about God? For Sirvent these terms apprehend God univocally. What those terms mean for us they mean for God. He writes:

The first proposed solution is to extend these terms to God in the same manner in which we apply them to humans. To do so is to employ univocal religious language, extending the same definition or use to two or more applications.

He acknowledges the objections to understanding our categories to apprehend God so univocally, but notes:

While I understand the reluctance to approach all religious language univocally—since we want to uphold God’s transcendence—the alternative is not without its pitfalls. To use all religious language in an equivocal manner, as some theologians do, is to view it as something that needs to be purified, leaving God in a hidden state from his creation, and therefore stripping him of his immanence.

This is a necessary step in Sirvent’s thesis. If we’re to imitate God’s love or justice (to two virtues Sirvent chooses to focus on), the terms ‘love’ and ‘just’ must mean for God what they mean when used of us, otherwise we have nothing to imitate.

A shared & independent moral standard between God and humans
Moving on, Sirvent argues imitatio dei involves two essential elements: (1) a shared (and independent) moral standard between humans and God, and (2) the normative claim that God is actually worth imitating (imitating God is the best means to human flourishing). Not only are “God and humans…accountable to the same moral standard,” but he adds:

The doctrine of imitatio dei goes even further in recognizing another implication: humans therefore have the ability to judge God’s actions against this shared moral standard.

Sirvent supports this line of reasoning by appealing to perfect being theology. Furthermore:

If we hold that God and humans are accountable to the same moral standard, we must accept that there is a way for us to discern these properties of moral goodness. If there were not such a way, it would be difficult to discern whether or not God could command someone to torture an innocent child. As such, recognizing a shared independent moral standard between God and humans leads us to address another important question about perfect being theology; namely, what reasons do we have for deeming certain moral properties to be perfections? More specifically, how do we discern what is morally permissible and morally objectionable? How do we know that it is wrong, both for God and for humans, to torture an innocent child? (emphasis mine)

Sirvent’s answer is that our moral intuitions (in conversation with perfect being theology) are able to discern this independent moral structure to which both God and humans are accountable. He recognizes Feuerbach’s criticism that one’s concept of God here is just mere human projection, but in the end concludes that there simply is no viable alternative to a “shared moral standard” between God and creation. If we reject such an independent moral standard that embraces both God and human beings, then we have to concede a divine moral realm in which torturing innocent children is permissible.

Emotional vulnerability constitutive of love and justice per se
The ‘emotional vulnerability’ Sirvent understands to be constitutive of imitatio dei and human flourishing is the “disposition to experience a range of favorable and unfavorable emotions” in response to one’s belief that a beloved has fared (or will fare) well or poorly. To be emotionally vulnerable to another is to “expose oneself to potential emotional harm.”

Sirvent then considers four definitions of ‘love’ and, supported by various studies, argues that emotional vulnerability is an essential, constitutive element in each of the four understandings of love. These are love as robust concern, as value, as union, and as emotion. He equally works through questions related to ‘justice’ to demonstrate the same. Through these, Sirvent argues, we can see that emotional vulnerability is a constitutive element of a morally worthwhile life.

There are certainly other arguments throughout. In particular, in ch. 6 he engages objections (from impassibilists) to his conclusions. These may figure into my own responses. But for now I think this enough for people familiar with the debate to understand where Sirvent is coming from. To summarize then:

  • Our language (terms such as love, justice, mercy, goodness) must apprehend God univocally (with identical meaning used both of God and human beings).
  • The Old Testament establishes the biblical nature of the imitatio dei ethic. God is worth imitating, and imitating God is the path of human flourishing.
  • Love and justice are two divine characteristics we are to imitate, and both invariably involve emotional vulnerability.
  • Since both love and justice involve emotional vulnerability for human beings, and since the terms ‘love’ and ‘justice’ apply to God univocally, it follows that a perfectly loving and just God is emotionally vulnerable.
  • Therefore, any denial of God’s emotional vulnerability is incompatible with imitatio dei and thus incompatible with the fullest possible human flourishing.

Responses to follow.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior of the world, have mercy upon me a sinner.

The immorality of impassibility—Part 1


Roberto Sirvent, Assistant Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University, has written a provocative book on the immorality of impassibility. The book, Embracing Vulnerability Human and Divine (2014), is the published version of Sirvent’s PhD thesis (London School of Theology). It’s clearly argued, thoughtful, and irenic. I was especially interested in this thesis, having begun (and having been unable to finish, alas) a PhD track of my own at the same school pursuing precisely the opposite thesis as Sirvent here argues. Sirvent is of interest to open theists as well, given their debate over the relationship between divine (im)passibilism (understood broadly) and divine epistemic openness with respect to future contingents (i.e., the ‘open view’ of the future). No doubt he offers open theists a new, more sophisticated, line of approach in arguing for a strong version of divine passibilism. I believe John Sanders is working on a review of sorts. I’d love to see Sirvent’s arguments engaged at length, and to encourage that along, as well as for my own sake, I thought I’d review Sirvent’s main arguments and offer some responses. It’s not a long book (177 pages), but it is compact and to the point.

Sirvent’s essential argument is simple: divine impassibilism is incompatible with the imitation of God ethic (imitatio Dei). An impassible God is, to put it simply, “not worth imitating.” Imitatio Dei is, Sirvent argues, a biblically derived ethic that asserts that “the most virtuous way of life comes by imitating the divine moral nature.” As such it offers a normative methodology for thinking through moral questions. Because human beings are created in the divine image, we and God are accountable to one and the same moral standard. On the basis of the essential similarity between us and God, “we should therefore look to normative accounts of love and justice as humans experience them for evidence of the way God experiences them.”

Sirvent is clear on the particular understanding of impassibility he’s means. Impassibilism is “immutability with regard to one’s feelings, and the incapacity of being acted upon and having one’s emotional experience changed by an external force.” Fair enough. I think this definition is worth discussing a bit, but we’ll go with it since that’s what he’s working with. I thought at first Sirvent might be working with a strongly classical understanding of impassibility that held to an unqualified immutability entailed in a view of actus purus as holding there to be no conceivable unrealized potential in God. I don’t espouse impassibility in this strong sense. But Sirvent also means to rule out as immoral understandings of God’s existential fullness and beatitude that do not argue along such an understanding of actus purus (i.e., what some appear to be calling ‘weak’ impassibilism).

While some theories of divine impassibility refuse to attribute any emotion to the divine realm, many modern accounts argue powerfully for a “healthy emotional life” in God. Where these accounts still fall short—normatively speaking—is by systemically rejecting that God is capable of being acted upon and having his emotional experience changed by an external force. If in fact God cannot experience emotional vulnerability in this fashion, I argue, then he is not worth imitating. To develop this idea, I argue that a constitutive element of love and justice is vulnerability to the other. No matter what modern account we subscribe to, love necessarily involves a concern for the other person, a bestowal or recognition of value for the relationship, recognition of a union with one another, or an intimate identification with the beloved. Indeed, none of these foundations for love are [sic] compatible with impassibility. Similarly, an impassible being would be unable to possess the virtue of justice since emotional vulnerability is also constitutive of its corollaries: compassion, empathy, and forgiveness.

So even if one were to claim (with careful qualifications) that God temporally engages and knows the changing, temporal world (and so is not immutable in every conceivable sense), so long as one were to view the experienced fullness of the triune relations as fully accomplished and thus undiminishable existentially speaking, one would still possess a view of God that Sirvent considers morally bankrupt and so incapable of providing justifiable grounds for thinking God worth imitating.

As such Sirvent is offering imitatio Dei as the “chief instrument by which we perform this ‘moral diagnosis’ on our theological commitment.” The doctrine of impassibility, however sound its philosophical or metaphysical support may be, is illegitimate from a moral point of view. Without emotional vulnerability we simply cannot live fully virtuous lives, lives worth living. Impassibility is “morally bankrupt,” or as his ch. 6 words it, impassibility is immoral. Now, to claim that believing God to be unimprovable and undiminishable beatitude is “morally bankrupt” is huge, and though I think in the end he’s unsuccessful, I have to applaud Sirvent’s boldness.

The book builds a cumulative case. It begins with the univocal nature of theological language (Introduction), lays out a biblical case for imitatio Dei involving a shared (and independent) moral standard between God and human beings (ch. 3), presents reasons for thinking that emotional vulnerability is constitutive of love and justice per se (ch. 4), illustrates these claims with various Old Testament passages (ch. 5), and lastly treats Christology (briefly) and further evaluates how impassibility is incompatible with imitatio Dei (ch. 6).

I’ll devote a second post to summarizing the flow of his arguments in more detail and then move on to some responses.

Prayer: Triune God of love—always here, always at work, always pursuing, always inviting, always giving, always loving, always reaching; never lonely, never in despair, never afraid, never anxious, never empty-handed, never hateful, never resentful, never bereft of love. I’m so glad this is how you are!