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.

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The immorality of impassibility—Part 1

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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!