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God is shaped by you too
The Unmoved Greek God
I had a really incredible experience for a few weeks this year talking about God as an artist and how we are made like God and are artists in our own right. The idea is that God made us to be makers, and we spent a lot of time talking about how God has shaped us.
But I also think that the created shape their creator. I don’t think we talk about this idea enough, but I think that we cooperate with God in a mutual way where God is moved by us and affected by us too. God is moved by us!
In the early church, the prospect of God being unmoved or as the Greek philosopher Aristotle said, the “unmoved mover,” was really important. Not only were the early parents of our faith writing theology in a Greek context, it was important for their Greek minds to have a sort of “proof” for God. God can’t be moved by humans because God is the prime mover. For the theologians at the time, the paramount proof of God is that God preceded contingency, that God needn’t depend on anything. If God was moved by humans, then something could affect God, and thus God might require something to precede God. And with that fatal flaw, there goes your philosophized Christian movement in your Greekified context.
I don’t meant to sound tongue-in-cheek when I say that, I am actually trying to empathize with the early fathers and what they were going for. They had a real reason for making God unmoved. The word they used was “impassible.” And they took it so far that they said that God doesn’t experience any pain or pleasure from other beings. That humankind—or any creature—could not have an emotional affect on God. They're both apologetic reasons for this assertion, but also philosophical ones. A stoic, sovereign God can bring great security to people who feel like they can be tossed to-and-fro by their emotions, or who are particularly down-trodden and need a promise of protection and provision.
The intimate connection between God and God’s people
The cost of that worldview is that the proof for God lacks particularity—in other words, it may prove God, but it doesn’t move us to worship Christ. But it also seems to throw out a lot of Old Testament tradition (or it requires a serious reworking of the Old Testament, since God is very much moved by the actions of Israel and other nations in the Old Testament). In fact many Jewish scholars contradict the early church doctrine of impassibility altogether. The God of Israel is empathetic and convincible and moveable. And God’s compassion and love on God’s people change God’s course; they allow God’s wrath to be forestalled and God’s love to endure. I think that’s a wonderful story, even if it doesn’t fit into the Aristotelian framing of God.
Despite doing some violence to the intimate covenant between God and Israel (which Paul later extends to all of the world, as we’re all grafted onto that promise), I think that the “Unmoved Mover” argument sets itself up for more problems. First, it makes the incarnation a little more confusing while confusing how the doctrine of the Trinity works. Second, it sets itself up for a complicated answer to the problem of pain (what we sometimes call “theodicy,” which answers the question that if God is almighty and benevolent, why do bad things happen?). And third, it diminishes human kind to mere subjects of God rather than collaborators and cooperators.
When those committed to the impassibility of God face the emotionality of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, they often skirt the issue by saying that’s the “incarnation” talking. That is to say, that is Jesus’ human will or nature talking. They have be careful when they do this, because it’s important for them to maintain that Christ is of the same essence as God the Father. But it isn’t just God the Father that’s impassible, but rather the Godhead, altogether. I know this isn’t a point that resonates much among those who are not very theologically-minded, but I do think it separates Jesus too much from the Trinity, which is almost to make Jesus a lesser person in the Trinity.
But furthermore, the Unmoved Mover, being unaffected by humankind, assumes too much responsibility for humankind’s actions. On one hand, some think this being that precedes contingency has meticulously set all things in motion. That is, has willed everything to happen. Of course, that makes God responsibility for horrendous evil in the world, which can be difficult for people searching. I will say that I know it can be helpful for some, so I don’t want to dismiss this idea out-of-hand.
Some think God, though God could control everything in the world, doesn’t, because God values human free will over controlling human beings. I’m not sure how this is much better. The freedom to suffer, when that suffering could be alleviated, seems like a really hard idea for some. Though it may work for you, I think people need options.
I’m not prepared to get into the complexity of these problems, but I think both of these theological frameworks distance God from humans. I also think that they are far too certain to be very useful. Remember, theology is about humans imagining God, so we need creativity and mystery to do that. Too much certainty stifles our imagination and thus our faith. In this case, considering that God might be affected by humankind makes us more intimate with God.
God self-emptied because God loves you
That’s why I like the idea of a God that is moved by me. God cares about me. Is affected by me. Listens to my appeals and loves me. The creator is affected by the creation. The ultimate example of this is the self-emptying love of God and Jesus, who are shaped by the love they pour into us. The incarnation is not a characterological change for God. It is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us. As an event, it is inseparable from the crucifixion. God identifies with us in incarnation, by becoming human, and in crucifixion, by dying.
The invitation that follows is that we self-empty along with God, pouring into the people we love, being affected by them too. This is exactly how Paul, likely quoting a hymn that predated his letter to the Philippians, told us to treat one another: with self-emptying humility and love. Here’s the self-emptying hymn:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:6-10
Let’s keep mimicking the creator. The one who self-emptyied because of how she loved us. The one that was moved to become incarnate and be killed for our sake. Let’s serve the world in the same way.