Screwing for Virginity

Fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

"Safe? 'Course he isn't safe."

This post is part of an ongoing conversation with my good friend and chess superior Ryan. The conversation began early this summer and came up again under the “Peace and Profanity” post. The conversation began with the question, “Does God suffer?” and if so, what does that say about the doctrine of immutability. And if God is changeable, how do we trust him? These are my thoughts as they exist now.

I don’t know that I would say that God changes his attributes, but I do think he changes his mind. This doesn’t make him inconstant, but it does challenge the notion of his immutability. I like to look at three judgments in the Torah. First God’s telling Noah he is going to destroy the world, then telling Abraham he’s going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, finally telling Moses he’s going to destroy the Hebrews. In the first instance, Noah says nothing. In the second, Abraham tries to bargain, but gives up. In the third case, Moses convinces God to change his course of action.

The two previous judgments show that when God has his mind set to something, he carries it out. But the final judgment suggests to me that God could (possibly) have been persuaded not to carry through on the previous judgments as well. At any rate, atop Sinai, God resolves to destroy his people, and Moses convinces him to change his mind.

The case has been made that this is anthropomorphic language. But consider what that is saying. I understand anthropomorphic language in common speech such as “long arm of the law” because I have previous experience of what the law is and know that the arm is metaphorical. To say that in scripture, references to God’s changing his mind are anthropomorphic is to claim previous knowledge of who God really is and reading his word through that lens. As Christians, our understanding of God must come from the story he tells us about himself. If the narrative says God changed his mind, I have to accept that he did.

The doctrine of immutability also becomes problematic when considering the incarnation. For all of eternity up to that point, God has not been human. At the conception of Jesus, however, he suddenly is. To make sense of this story, I have to believe that God can change, not only in form but also in nature.

The most significant change, as I see it, is God’s ability now to sympathize with the human race. In the Old Testament, God is not a sympathetic God. If we understand sympathy as Aristotle and Richard Kearney do, to sympathize means to put yourself in another's place and consider what they must be experiencing. Consider this image from Tolkien (I owe the following to conversations with my wife). The character Gollum is a pitiable character, and this pity is what leads to the success of the mission. But some characters, specifically Sam and Faramir, are unable to pity him and wish either to destroy him, or at the very least banish him from Frodo’s presence. But when Sam has the opportunity to kill him, he doesn’t. Why? Because Sam has now worn the ring himself and understands the power it has over Gollum. He is now able to put himself in Gollum’s place – to sympathize. This is the ability or, I suppose you could say, the attribute that God acquired when he became human.

Which leads to the question of whether something exists that can change God, to which I would say yes. God is in relationship with his creation, and part of relationship is vulnerability (which itself gets at the question of whether God can suffer). Throughout scripture, God interacts with humans, who sometimes anger him, sometimes call forth love from him, and sometimes hurt him. Depending on how his creatures respond to him, he changes how he relates to them. He seems to be learning what courses of action are effective (covenant) and which are less so (destroying the world in his wrath).

I agree that this takes away a certain degree of comfort which many of us are used to. But in response, I think of another Inkling. Consider this passage concerning Aslan from CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:
"Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he--quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Our God is wild. As Lewis says elsewhere of Aslan, he is not a tame lion. But he is the king, and he is good. As his people, we need to accept that and believe he is who he says he is. We cannot define what we think God must be like and then demand that he live up to that description. We can trust in his goodness, his faithfulness, and his love, but in the presence of the covenant God of scripture, we must work out our own faith in fear and trembling.


  • At 9:30 AM, September 03, 2004, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Buddy, Ryan. :) Wow, man, that was a great way of explaining yourself (not that you ever have to w/ me, i do trust that you're coming to your conclusions in a Godly way even before you explain them). everything that you wrote is something that is challenging and scriptural, except that there is quite a dilemna that we both have to deal with. I will dig up the passages... but for the time being know that I have read elsewhere in scripture that God does not change His mind, Ever. now, we will bring the context of that up when I pinpoint them again (it won't take me long to find it). But for now, let's wrestle in our minds w/ the notion that the Bible states clearly that He doesn't change His mind, ever... AND that we see many instances where it suggests quite clearly that He does. How does this work?
    It's dangerous to approach a doctorinal stance in an effort to make scripture make sense. So we all need to be careful that we never mold God into whatever bucket our precious theology is in. But I'm all about going with just what the good story says, I just don't think it's that clear. And if I'm going to be a literalist, if one part clearly says that He never changes His mind, and the other implies that He did, the implication is somehow incorrect, not the flat out statement.
    Before I go into why I think both (and all) parts of scripture still hold that God is ultimately an unchanging God, I will go find the references that I'm talking about. Then, once it's been established that the verses aren't talking about God never changing His mind about the Tele-Tubbies, but about all things, we shall continue. But in the meantime, chew it over in your head as to what would happen if it IS saying God never changes His mind.
    till then, my loyal chess partner!


  • At 11:04 AM, September 03, 2004, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Perhaps it is not God changing His mind, but rather His actions? Just a thought....

  • At 1:39 PM, September 03, 2004, Blogger Buddy said…

    The idea of God changing his actions instead of his mind is more problematic to me. Our mind and actios should be in accord. So if God resolves to do something but doesn't, he is contradicting himself. While if he changes his mind and his actions, he is still consistent with himself.

    Ryan, I look forward to hearing those verses. I have a few in mind, and I can tell you how I deal with the tension (though I don't have it resolved), but I wait to hear your thoughts first.

    I offer this for consideration: Every day we trust in people who change their minds, yet this gives us few qualms. Why does the possibility of God changing cause us so much angst? I ask this of myself as much as of others, because I don't like the tension either.

  • At 11:10 AM, September 05, 2004, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I wonder sometimes if Lewis or Tolken would have written their books if they knew the lengths Christians would take their books to. This is just an idle comment, now for what I really wanted to say.

    Perhaps its just me incorrectly reading how you wrote it, but wouldn't saying that God became human to better understand us, (or that because he became human he can better understand us) undermine the whole idea of God being all knowing? I can understand how humans can know something but not understand something, but to be all knowing. . . wouldn't that suggest that you would also have to understand?

    I will attempt to answer why we have such a hard time with the idea that God can change his mind. I think it has to do with the idea that if e could change his mind, he could change his mind about the requirements of salvation to such where it's on us. In which case, we'd all be screwed. Yes, it is an extreme example of God changing his mind, but, God could still do that and remain good.

    - Andrew

  • At 9:35 AM, September 07, 2004, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Buddy, Ryan... well, for starters, read Psalm 90. That's a big one, sorry I haven't had time to do more since my last post, I've just been working a ton. But I did remember that one, so check it out.
    Essentially, God always invites humility and repentence to change a person's course of action in life, since we're all born sinners and are going to hell until that change. That "change" is not a change in God's mind, He knew we were going to do it all along. But He was going to send us to hell if we didn't, so now He's not. When God says that He's going to destroy some nation, then Moses repents and pleads on their behalf, God listens to that and spares them just as He spares us. God ALWAYS welcomes that change in our actions, so that it appears that God changes His. Although, yes... b/c He is all knowing, He isn't up there going "welp, I guess I better not do it now, since He repented." Does this make sense?
    And I can trust a human who can change their mind only to a certain extent, but God is supposed to be Himself in all things, a solid rock. Oh, and one last thing that I've been pondering for awhile from a long time ago... Jesus is called the Prince of Peace not b/c He advocates peace among men, but b/c He's the reason we can have any peace with God. alright awesome, i gotta fly. talk w/ you soon!

  • At 12:58 PM, September 07, 2004, Blogger Chris said…

    Our view of an unchanging God stems much more from Pre-Socratic Philosophy, specifically Parmenides, than it does from the revealed Word. Parmenidean philosophy is set up in a monism with a static, metaphysical, and ontological One as the "urstoff" which, through life, leads into all else, which is always changing. Christians attempt to take this philosophy and apply it to God's immutability and in turn want to make God's immutability an ontological immutability. In light of Genesis, I don't know if this is possible.

  • At 1:24 PM, September 07, 2004, Blogger Buddy said…

    To Andrew,

    I am not doing anything with Tolkien's or Lewis' work other than to make a helpful analogy. If William Faulkner's or Joyce Carol Oates' works served my purposes, I would have quoted from them.

    You are not reading my post wrong. To say that God changed at the incarnation undermines not only God's omniscience but also his immutability. If we cling to these notions, the incarnation makes little sense.

    Abandoning a non-scriptural (as I read it) quality of God does not nullify his legitimate qualities. According to your hyperbolic example, God does not merely change his mind, but he is unfaithful to his promises. Denying that God is immutable does not deny his faithfulness.

    To Ryan,
    I need more time to answer fully, but know that I am considering your position.

  • At 6:37 PM, September 07, 2004, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Sorry, it isn't Psalm 90 that I was thinking of... it was Psalm 110. there is more in Psalms, but that's an ok one. the on that I'm really thinking is big on this subject though, is I Samuel 15:29... there is also Malachai 3:6 that is strong. also, it touches on this topic in Hebrews a lot. Basically, no matter which side we land on w/ this issue, there are some complications. that being said, we need to really take a look at all of scripture to get at God's true nature and decide "Does God have a nature that changes, or is He constant forever?" "Does God roll with the punches that we on earth dish out, or is He in control of everything in creation (including Satan)?"
    So what if He changes His mind? So what if He says He's going to do something and then doesn't? What the heck does this all mean? It MEANS that we all have God in some form of bucket that fits into our hands, and the thought of something outside of the bucket being God doesn't compute with us. But we would all admit that God can't be put into a bucket, but we still insist that our bucket contains God, and if it's outside of our bucket it couldn't be God. this is definitely a challenge to myself, not just to whoever's reading. :) alright, i LOVE chewing this stuff over, I really feel like it's healthy for us to talk about.


  • At 9:41 PM, September 07, 2004, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Back to my comment about mind and action, that might be viewed as double mindedness. God is not double minded, otherwise we would never know how he might react. But perhaps it is more like when Jesus asked if there was any way that this cup could be taken from Him. Jesus desired to not drink from the cup, yet He did anyway. He wasn't double minded. He submitted His desires to the will of the Father. Perhaps God wanted Moses to plead for the people and so God "structured the transaction". But that would have meant that God lied and the end justifies the means. So that can't be right. Just crazed rambling from my mind. - Glyptic

  • At 1:06 PM, September 16, 2004, Blogger Buddy said…

    Oh. I read Psalm 90 five times trying to figure out where you were coming from = ) Thanks for clarifying.

    Other passages addressing this issue are Numbers 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29, and Hebrews 7:21 which quotes Psalm 110:4.

    The tension exists because Scripture presents this verses along with stories where God clearly changes his mind. The way I live with the tension is to read the aforementioned texts metaphorically. This is the opposite of what has traditionally been done (reading God's actions as anthropomorphic and the texts as literal), but I think it is a more just reading of the story.

    What traditional readings have said is that language is literal and action is metaphorical. But this is contrary to all experience. We use language metaphorically, but we do not interpret action that way.

    The passages generally refer to God's faithfulness to what he has decreed. God will not revoke David's priesthood; he will end Saul's reign; he will bless as he told Balaam. The point in each case is, God will do what he says he will do. This does not change the fact that atop Mt. Sinai, Moses convinced God to change his mind.

    An analogy would be if we were involved in a chess tournament and someone said, "Bobby Fischer is coming! He is undefeatable. You are going to lose." This statement is not literally true, after all, Fischer has lost before. But the message it is conveying is true; Bobby Fischer would beat you at chess.

    This is how I live with the tension, though I realize that it will not resolve the tension for everyone. And that's ok. The conversation is what is important.


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