There is no need, one hopes, to argue for the centrality of the Shema
to Christian faith:
שמע ישראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד
or, read with appropriate deference to the holiness of the Tetragrammaton:
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad;
or in the LXX:
ἄκουε Ισραηλ κύριος ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν κύριος εἷς ἐστιν;
in other words:
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God! The LORD is One!
Across languages, across the vagaries of translation, the cry of the Shema has endured the passing of time, the rise and fall of empires and princes: an essential point of reference, if anything can be.I.
Eventually, in the course of Israel's long love affair with the Lord, the elements of henotheism that might have attended initial use of the Shema drained out, leaving a committed monotheism in its place--so far as I can tell. And that shift toward monotheism is, I should think, extremely significant, even decisive for any contemporary canonical reading of Scripture.
So, for instance, it is difficult not to read the P creation story as carrying implicit, tacit criticism of Babylonian creation mythology. The Lord had no need to slay a Dragon in order to fashion the world of our acquaintance; the earth passively awaited his mere word in obediential potency. Such was his power, a type of power apparently beyond the comprehension of pagan myth. I take it we should see the P creation myth, in its scriptural context, as establishing a trajectory in Israel's knowledge of God, so that although the P story does not actually teach creation ex nihilo
, later Jews encountering Greek metaphysics during the intertestamental period will look on the doctrine as coherent and complementary to their story's prior articulation. The one Lord God comes to be understood as a Creator God whose power is of such extraordinary magnitude, he not only need not slay a dragon--he needs no dragon at all: no co-eternal sludge from which to work.
There are not two principles of creation, God and something else--a primordial sludge, say, awaiting his word. And a fortiriori
are not two opposed, contending principles of creation, God and an anti-God, a principle of Good and a principle of Evil, fighting it out on the cosmic stage. That would be a cosmology reminiscent of Manichaeism, a faith of the third century persian Mani whose teaching so famously tempted Augustine. I do not mean to contend that Augustine's temptation is ours, that Manichaeism has returned to tempt the unwary away from the Shema's canonical monotheism. Rather, I mean to point out the general doctrine of which Manicaeism is merely a species has returned to tempt us into revision: what I will call cosmological dualism,
the idea that God must compete with another principle, personal or otherwise, an idea implying the wrongheadedness of the Shema's devotion. Maybe I am just plain wrong, blowing minor indications up out of proportion, but if I am right, I hope you will agree we have a problem indeed.II.
Contemporary Judeo-Christian theology has largely given up the traditional notion of divine apatheia
, or impassibility, generally under the impression that "only the suffering God can help"--and not
merely suffering in terms of Christ's human nature, as Aquinas might have parsed the phrase. After the horrors of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the traumas of Nazism and Stalinism, the genocides and atrocities of the twentieth century, it is thought surely God suffers with us--and in particular the Father, or God in his divinity. Consider a quick survey of the literature: Nicolas Berdyaev in The Meaning of History,
Miguel de Unamuno in The Tragic Sense of Life
, Emil Brunner in The Christian Doctrine of God: Dogmatics I,
Karl Barth in Jungel's The Doctrine of the Trinity: God's Being is in Becoming
& Barth in Church Dogmatics
IV/2, Moltmann in The Crucified God
and The Trinity and the Kingdom of God
, Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison,
Abraham Heschel in The Prophets--
is there any sense in revisiting the revision of the Doctrine of God with a who's-who list like this favoring passibility? Oh yes--the Anglican Communion started playing with passibility early on, with JK Mozley's The Impassibility of God,
commissioned by the CoE,
from the '20s. And I should mention the contemporary evangelical open theism movement, with a list of books in favor here
, and against here
; do not forget process theology--see the lists here
What worries me about the move toward accepting passibility in our concept of God is the danger of losing our grip on the canonical monotheism developed so slowly and painfully through the OT/Hebrew Scripture. In effect, we seem to run a risk of falling away from the devotion properly expressed by the Shema into something henotheistic, or dualist--I want to say "pagan" but that would not be quite right, inasmuch as early henotheistic Israelites would not have counted as pagan; it is better to say that we should--with more than a milennium of Christian theology behind us--be more circumspect. We should know better.
Implied in giving up the notion of apatheia is a revision of the notion of God--and Christ--Pantocrator, and the concomitant creedal profession of faith. Omnipotence
or being all powerful
had been thought to go with God alone, who had no rivals, no obstacles, who could do whatever was possible. But to say God suffers is to subject God to the flux, to succession, and to imperfection: there are some things God cannot overcome with Power, which he must--being Love--suffer along with us. For instance, it might be thought he cannot overcome the human capacity to misuse freedom for sin by his mere power alone. A divinity who could not share our pain would be somehow deficient--especially seeing that he could not overcome it by an exercise of his power--and a divinity that could but would not share our pain would not be a loving divinity, or so it might be thought.
I disagree with such sentiments, and they seem to me to lead to a costly revision of our concept of God--a costly one, inasmuch as a revision here implies across-the-board revision
. That is, if we revise our understanding of God to accept passibility into the concept, then we shall have to revise our understanding of the Incarnation, and with that the Atonement, the Doctrine of the Trinity, and that of the Church, and so on, as each of these makes use of the notion "God". At each point, we shall have to--it seems--move from a traditional teaching to a contrary teaching, inasmuch as passibility and impassibility are contradictories--or at least contraries.
What does all this have to do with cosmological dualism? On the face of it, when passibility is introduced into the concept of God, it is done so for the reason that God faces an obstacle that could not be overcome by power alone--or knowledge and goodness alone. The obstacle puts a limit on what God could accomplish given his power, knowledge, and goodness, and coming up against that limit, being a God of love, God cannot remain indifferent: he suffers, or so it is thought. It seems to me that such an understanding opposes an obstacle to God; there is something, X, over and against God, which he cannot rule and overcome alone. The X may be the human capacity for free choice, say, or something else. Whatever it is, this X explains the crappy state of things in the world; God would prefer things be better, but given X, this is the best that can be done. In opposing God's preferences, X functions in this scheme like a principle of evil, a reason for evil, and as a consequence we muct understand the world to feature a struggle between God and X--whatever X may be, even if it is impersonal like a human capacity of some sort. The schema "God vs. X" is a type of cosmological dualism--not Manichaeism exactly, nor mere paganism, but a dualism nevertheless related to the teaching of Mani by resemblance.III.
My criticism is all too brief; I admit it. But I hope the intent is clear enough. Let us reconsider, and at least pause, at the introduction of passibility into our understanding of God. It seems to introduce a tension into our faith, as it seems to be incompatible with the canonical reading of the Shema evident in Scripture and tradition, and that incompatibility should be like a red flag, an indication that the new revised version of God bears an especially great burden of proof, as it asks so much of us in asking that we back away from the profession of the Shema:
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God! The LORD is One!