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Emotions, Wisdom, and the Vulnerability of God

It’s been quite a while since I’ve blogged here, but I’ve had a lot going on in my life. I took a new ministry role requiring me to move from the East Coast to the West Coast; I’ve been serving as ‘solo pastor’ in my new role while the Lead Pastor is on sabbatical; and I finally graduated from seminary. So, yeah, I’ve been a little busy. But, I’m taking part of my precious day off/sabbath to write a brief post on emotions, wisdom, and the vulnerability of God because these themes have come up in so much in my spiritual formation lately.

Intelligence without Emotions is Artificial

In seminary, I attended a technology and theology conference hosted by Gordon-Conwell. Most of it was benign. Thankfully, there wasn’t a lot of ‘robots will kill us all’ talk. But one presenter made an indelible mark on my memory of the event. Rosalind Picard spoke on the role of emotions in her robotics research. Picard is a follower of Christ, a tenured professor at MIT in the Media Lab, and a pioneer in robotics. She single-handedly created the field of “affective computing.” I remember when she was speaking about artificial intelligence and how the greatest breakthrough she’s made in all her research was discovering just how vital emotions are to intelligence. In fact, they are inextricably linked. This astounded the Gordon-Conwell crowd, made up mostly of white men. Like other evangelical institution, in its exploration of theology, Gordon-Conwell has fallen victim to the false dichotomy that pits the emotions against the intellect and presents emotion as the enemy of reason. Picard directly confronted that mistake and presented a compelling case against it. She argued that emotions are actually critically important to intelligence.

Gnosticism Revisited

This theme is also touched on in Justo Gonzales’s Mañana. (I wrote a five-part analysis of this brilliant, game-changing book) In it, he discusses the theological and socio-political ramifications of dualistic anthropology. If we theologize the dichotomy of emotions against intellect, we commit the same dualistic error the Gnostics made, and the Platonists before them. Human beings are whole, integrated beings, not souls trapped in bodies, and not ‘passions’ fighting against ‘mind.’

God is Vulnerable

Furthermore, Dr. Roberto Sirvent has written a fantastic book entitled Embracing Vulnerability: Human and Divine (review forthcoming), in which he directly confronts the unbiblical doctrine of impassibility. Impassibility is the mistaken notion that God is incapable of emotion, or being moved by creatures, because God is unchanging. This notion is derived from Stoic and Platonic philosophy and has no support in the Scriptures. But many (if not most) classical theists affirm this idea since it is implied in many other aspects of classical theism, such as immutability, timelessness, and exhaustive definite foreknowledge.

However, Sirvent’s contention is devastating to this doctrine, at least for Christians. He contends that the doctrines of impassibility and imitatio Dei are incompatible. Imitatio Dei is the biblical teaching that God is worthy of imitation and that imitating God is the highest good for human beings (e.g. Eph. 5.1, 3 Jn. 1.11, etc.). These two are incompatible because for a human being to imitate divine impassibility would be immoral. In fact, to lack empathy for others would direct violate our call to love others as God has loved us. God’s action in Christ wasn’t merely rational, it was holistic! The Word became flesh and dwelt among us! The Word didn’t just deliver information about God; the Word embodied God’s very being in human flesh—emotions and all! Therefore, Sirvent calls on readers to embrace vulnerability, both human and divine. Because without vulnerability human beings cannot participate in the divine nature of trinitarian, perichoretic love.

Emotions Organize Rational Thought

This point about the importance of emotions to intelligence was further reinforced for me this past weekend in an unlikely source: a Disney animated movie for children/families. Inside Out. The movie was funny and well-made. My kids loved it. But more than that it was brilliant. Pixar felt it was important to consult real psychologists on the science of emotions and thought. What they discovered confirms what Gonzáles and Sirvent and many others have been saying for a long time.

“…emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking. Traditionally, in the history of Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations.

But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.”

http://nyti.ms/1JIQ9F5

Application Time

So, what does all this mean for you and me. Well, for starters, it means a new perspective on God for some. For some, to think of God as passionate is anathema. Some filter out God’s emotions from the biblical witness in a vain attempt to domesticate God, to make God more like the ‘unmoved mover.’ But, alas Athens still has nothing to do with Jerusalem. For these folks, their view of God must change. God is supremely revealed in the empathetic and wholly invested Person of Messiah Jesus. Jesus was emotional and so is God.

Second, this has huge implications for how we approach spiritual formation and ministry to others. Rather than viewing discipleship as the downloading of information into our brains, discipleship is more biblical conceptualized as the formation of our whole lives—our minds, our emotions, our wills, our relationships—everything that makes us who we are. And this holistic, integrate approach to anthropology has direct implications for how we minister to others. We are called to provide for others what God has provided for us, the way God has provided. That means we’re to love the way Jesus love. That means we’re to feed the hungry, heal the sick, cast out demons—we’re to both announce and enact the Kingdom of God! And just as Jesus entered into our world not only mentally and intellectually, but also emotionally—we too are called to enter into others’ worlds emotionally. We’re to empathize as we were empathized with.

Finally, this has real socio-political implications as well. As Gonzáles has shown us, when we dichotomize the human being, and dichotomize God, we end up dichotomizing the polis as well. We prioritize the educated elite above the poor and oppressed. Our policies privilege majority culture and majority gendered persons. We end up thinking that people don’t deserve holistic care for their bodies. We devalue lives.

Step one to seeking the shalom of the world is understanding God and human beings the way God has revealed them both. God is a passionate, empathetic being, as revealed in Messiah Jesus. Human beings are made in the image of the God of pathos. And Jesus-disciples are called to imitate the God revealed in Christ.