Sunday, January 26, 2014

God's steadfastness and the defeat of evil

Last week we looked at God's emotion, and how an emotion -- for example, mercy -- is not a defect. God is constant: for the good and against the evil. And so we find what may be the most-repeated saying in the Bible:
His mercy endures forever. 
If God's mercy endures forever, then there will always be someone on whom he has mercy.

We also hear of God's anger, but there is a theme about how his anger is not like his mercy: it does not endure forever.
For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime.
Weeping may endure for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning. (Psalm 30:5)

I will not accuse them forever, nor will I always be angry.
For then they would faint away because of me - the very people I have created. (Isaiah 57:16)

Go, proclaim this message toward the north: "'Return, faithless Israel,' declares the LORD, 'I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,' declares the LORD, 'I will not be angry forever.' (Jeremiah 3:12)

You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. (Micah 7:18)
If God is steadfast -- if God is always against evil -- then the end of his anger implies the defeat of evil. If evil continued, God would remain opposed to it. We do not hear "His anger endures forever" because in the end, evil is utterly defeated. God will not be angry forever because evil will not endure forever. Its days are numbered.

We do not hear that God delights to show anger, but he does delight to show mercy. Even when he is angry with his people, his purpose is redemption.

In the world to come, when all things are created new, his anger will not rise up anymore: there will be no more evil. But his mercy remains -- and in the end, it his mercy, his lovingkindness, that endures.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

If God is unchanging, can he have emotions?

Like a father is merciful to his children, so the Lord is merciful to those who fear him. (Psalm 103:13)
And I will spare them, as a man spares his own son who serves him. (Malachi 3:17)
These passages from the Old Testament speak of God as merciful and compassionate. Those who receive instruction from the New Testament learn that "God is love", and that "God so loved the world" (etc). We find nothing unusual in thinking of God as loving. But for some philosophers, the idea of God having emotions causes a problem within their philosophical systems. As the medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides commented on the two passages above:
Such instances do not imply that God is influenced by a feeling of mercy, but that acts similar to those which a father performs for his son, out of pity, mercy, and real affection, emanate from God solely for the benefit of his pious men, and are by no means the result of any impression or change [produced in God].
[and again] ... not the result of any emotion, for He is above all defect!
(Guide for the Perplexed: Part I, Chapter LIV)

He felt the need to claim that the human father acts out of "real affection" but that God acted in a similar way "solely for the benefit of his pious men." Emotion was considered to be a defect, at least in the sense of an outside influence. God was considered to be absolutely unchanging and immovable. His essence was considered to be simple, in the sense that nothing was added to it. If God felt emotion, then something outside of God had influenced God, or there was something besides God's essence at work in God. Maimonides reasoned that emotions were attributed to God as a figure of speech, to communicate that God did things that, in a human, we would attribute to a certain emotion. How could Maimonides attribute emotions to God when he considered emotions to be a defect?

Before we return to the subject of whether emotions are a defect, we will look at one of the human examples that Maimonides gives for a time when someone -- here a human ruler -- should act without reference to his personal feelings:
Acts [of punishment] must be performed by him moderately and in accordance with justice, not merely as an outlet of his passion. He must not allow his passions to overcome him, for all passions are bad, and they must be guarded against as far as it lies in man's power. At times and towards some persons he must be gracious, not only from motives of mercy and compassion, but according to their merits. (continuing in chapter LIV)
Here it seems that the author distrusts our emotions because they are out of step with justice and the merits of the situation. The punishment might be out of proportion to the crime: the ruler may have an existing passion that needs an "outlet" -- the emotions are about something else besides the case before him. But would the appropriate emotions be wrong? Here the ruler has inappropriate ones. Or in the case of the ruler who needs to act graciously: he might not have the appropriate mercy and compassion when needed, and must act graciously despite the lack of genuine feeling. But in that case it is not the mercy or the compassion that is a defect; it is the lack of them that is a defect. So I find myself unconvinced by the argument that feeling itself is a defect.

Some would say that the change itself, when applied to God, is a defect: for God is said not to change. But suppose that a criminal lived his life in a destructive way causing harm to those he met, and God's will was against him. Now suppose the criminal had a change of heart, and began to repair the harm that he had done. He would then find that God's will was for him. But it was not God's will that changed. Even though the man found himself first as an object of God's displeasure and later found himself in God's favor, it is not God who changed. God was steadfast: against evil and for good. It was the man himself who changed sides.So I find myself unconvinced by the argument that God having genuine emotion means a "change" in God. His disposition could be steadfast.

Does God feel genuine mercy? And if so, does God change?

As the saying so often repeated within the Bible says:
His mercy endures forever. (references: too many to fit on a line)
If God does not change, then His mercy for the world is as unchanging as He is.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Baptism: Washing, and a clean heart

As I mentioned before, we often look at the Lord's Supper without considering the most obvious thing: that eating and drinking are the normal path to growth and strength, and that the eating and drinking of the Lord's Supper have this meaning for us spiritually as well. In the same way with baptism, many arguments over its meaning overlook the most obvious thing: it is a washing. The point is not the outward purity of the skin, but the inward purity of the heart and the conscience. As water clears away filth and unhealthy things from the outside, baptism has a similar place for the inside.

Modern Christians often avoid thinking too hard about the physical parts of those acts: the eating and drinking in the Lord's Supper, the washing in baptism.We tend to make our spirituality other-worldly. The bread, the wine, the water -- they are unmistakeably earthly, and without apology. If we avoid those obvious things, we miss the meaning: that God is feeding our souls, or washing us clean. It is one thing if we have gotten the message and then work on understanding better, deeper, more fully. It is another thing if we have missed an obvious point.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Maimonides: spiritual meanings of 'eat' -- and the Lord's Supper

I've been working my way through Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed. Some of the controversies he addresses are particular to those who do not receive the New Testament (for example, an extensive series of chapters refuting the claim that God the Father has a physical body). But during the course of that argument, he makes some worthwhile comments about the literal and metaphorical meaning of many Hebrew words. Here is a quick excerpt on the topic of eating:
In its primary meaning akal (to eat) is used in the sense of taking food by animals; this needs no illustration. It was afterwards observed that eating includes two processes -- (1) the loss of the food, i.e. the destruction of its form, which first takes place; (2) the growth of animals, the preservation of their strength and their existence, and the support of all the forces of their body, caused by the food they take. (Part I, Chapter XXX, opening paragraph)
From there he illustrates how the first process caused "eating" to become symbolic of destroying ("A land that eats the inhabitants thereof"), and the second caused "eating" to become symbolic of things that cause growth and strength ("Come, buy and eat ...").

When it comes to the Lord's Supper, Jesus knew full well the shades of meaning of "eating", when he told us to take and eat the bread, his body given for us. When he said his body was "given for us," he focused on giving. So he may have meant for us to think of it as a gift rather than focusing on the first part of eating as destruction. After all, his body was not destroyed; "given for you" gives us permission to remember not only his death but also his resurrection. But he probably did mean for us to understand the second meaning of eating: what we "take and eat" causes our growth and gives us strength. It causes growth in our spirit, and strength in our faith. When he called up the imagery of food, I think he meant for us to understand that "my body, given for you" preserves us, and supports all the forces and attributes of our faith. Like any wholesome food, it renews our strength and vitality.