A United Methodist pastor is writing a series on the most common heresies. Since I fit a number of them, I thought I’d offer my own reflections on the topic. Since he suggests to “just to admit you’re a heretic” I thought I would and given that he suggests I ought to “repent” I thought I’d write this blog post instead.
I’d like to raise a concern about the term heresy. It is an increasingly common terms among some Methodist circles and I’m grateful that at the Wesley House I participated never used such a term. This was not because they were indifferent towards religious ideas. It is because they wanted an open space for a discussion of those ideas.
The moment the term heresy comes up, we’re committed to shutting that down. We’d have to, at least in the church, because presumably the “orthodox” have the one true view. Do I think my views are any less true then theirs? No, we both are contending for ideas we believe in. But I do assume with John Stewart Mill, that ideas will be refined on both sides if they are given free reign.
The heresy he covers is:
Patripassianism is a 3rd century heresy which asserts that the divine nature (either in the First Person of the Trinity or in the divine nature of the Second Person) can suffer.
Patripassianism = God Suffers(ed)
Patripassianism = If God Suffers(ed), then God Changes(ed)
So what is wrong with such a view?
Impassibility = God is independent of all things unto God’s self and is not causally dependent on any other being and therefore cannot be affected (caused to have an emotion) by another being.
If God is not affected by us and God has no causal relations, then how are we impacted by God in any way? I guess causal relations would have to be one way but can we think of any example of where this is the case? That causality only affects one part of the relation? This view assures that God has no impact whatsoever on us and on the world.
I suppose that could shield God from the problem of evil. Because later he writes
If you believe that God changes as a result of his everyday interactions with us, then you’re not far from asserting that God is the direct, efficient cause of every moment and event in time- that ‘everything happens for a reason.’
If God is behind every event it is not the same thing as saying that every event is a reflection of God’s will. It is only saying that no event can be an event without the God element. It is a necessary ingredient. Events are simply what happens when the past is related in such a way as to bring out a future. This is what follows from the idea that God is the creator of the universe.
So while I am confident that good events are a reflection of God’s intention and that evil events go against God’s intention, most events probably are just bare events. They are what Edgar Brightman calls the Given. The stuff God has to work with in the constitution of the world. They don’t have to reflect the idea that “everything happens for a reason.”
This is partly because God is a constituent element, not the only element in play in the constitution of an event. We use this in the free will defense when we accept how humans can choose the evil in a situation. But it is also supposed to the degree that we accept other relevant forces in the constitution of an event, like the past.
So for instance, we know the history of racism in our country. I believe God is at work in people, institutions, in every facet of life, seeking to move us beyond it. And yet we have the drag of history, we have the self will of individuals, we have the difficulty that is inherent in significant change, which can block progress on this issue.
God is in the midst working out something better but it doesn’t mean God succeeds. Often our own histories get the better of us, often times the barriers and structures are so significant that it is hard to see the progress. So the fact that an event happens and God is present in the event, it doesn’t mean God wills it.
A God who suffers or otherwise changes can never be a God who is love, even if at the end of the day, God proves to be loving.
Only One who is already eternally and fully within himself ‘love’s pure light, who is in and with all things but remains above and free from all things, only that One can be considered a God of Love.
God is working with what is for the better. This reflects the way in which God changes in response to the world as it unfolds. What Jason Micheli does when describing process theology, is forget what Charles Hartshorne calls the dipolar nature of God. The fact that God changes does not mean there is nothing unchanging in God.
For Whitehead, you could call that which does not change the primordial nature of God. That is, God is always loving, God is love and that never changes. It is what it means to talk about God. But how that plays itself out in the world, what that looks like as God engages the world changes over time. That is the consequent nature of God.
What’s more, if you assume a loving God must change then you’ve not taken the next logical step to realize that God must also then be affected by sin, suffering and evil, which opens another morally revolting can of worms (more below).
Yes I do. But Jason thinks that God would somehow become less loving, that God would take on qualities of evil. He and I both reject that view. God’s character remains constant. So how would God be affected by evil? Evil would set up barriers, the circumstances through which God can act. If God is bringing out the best possible that is shaped by our past. And if every event is objectified as past, this would always be the case.
We are a nation that practiced the transatlantic slave trade. That can never be undone. That always impacts God in whatever better possibility that God is seeking to bring out. Can God bring out the better? Certainly. There are resources in those events that can be material for God as well as barriers. Both constitute our world, which God is interacting with towards the good. But God cannot undo the past, God can only redeem it.
And because I trust in that process, I’ll own the heresy. The home remedies for this heresy Jason recommends are already ones I do and hold to. And yet we disagree on this major question. To me, that is a good thing, even as a I hold to my view. Because I don’t want to see a church where these differing ideas can’t be debated, discussed and held.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma