Before delving into the subject of today’s post, I want to make a few prefatory comments.
This series is meant to highlight those aspects of the divine I see as most commonly agreed on and most reasonable. It has intentionally been ecumenical, seeking to identify essence, core, and interfaith agreement where possible. Hence the title “Essential Theology.”
However, although some beliefs about the divine are widespread, few if any garner universal assent. And some beliefs are even more controversial than others. Today’s post touches on one that is more controversial. That being so, I will try to lay out what is agreed on and why; but I will also of necessity be giving my own take on it. I will try to distinguish between my view and the consensus as we go along.
In a lot of ways and for a lot of reasons, God’s love and relational nature are at the heart of my theology. This series has been building up to a discussion of those topics. But I have intentionally decided to begin by focusing on the more “transcendent,” “incommunicable,” exalted aspects of the Divine before doing so. I do that for a few reasons:
1) These kinds of traits are in many cases more widely agreed upon than others. Divine traits such as transcendence, eternality, purity, unchangeability, and so on find wide agreement between Classical philosophy, the Abrahamic faiths, and Eastern religions (as well as some others).
2) I want to broach God’s love and relationality in the context of a “big” view of God. That fosters humility and worshipful wonder. I fear that a lot of progressive theology looses this to easy anthropomorphic projection.
With that in mind, I turn now to God’s unchanging nature.
I believe that in some way, in his central core of being, God is unchanging. God is unchanging in his existence, in his core ontological make-up, in his moral character, in his self-composure (even if/when passionate), and in his trustworthiness. On these things most theists would agree.
I won’t say that he is completely unchanging. I am sympathetic to recent critiques of classical theism as making God into a remote, undynamic, non-relational deity. I believe that God is a perfect mixture of unchanging impregnability and dynamic flexibility. In fact, contra the Greeks and others, in my view part of God’s unchanging perfection is precisely the genuine vulnerability and give-and-take relationality that he consistently exercises toward his creation. God is unchanging, but unchanging in his love and creativity too.
Why do I believe that God is essentially unchanging? This has been a common view of him in many religions and philosophies. It is held of the Ultimate in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, much Greek and Roman philosophy, and many other viewpoints. It is also taught in most sources of sacred revelation.
Although the Hebrew Tanakh seems to picture God as learning and changing his mind in places; it also teaches that in his fundamental being and moral character, God cannot change. “For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6).
The Christian New Testament says much the same thing about God’s changeless character: “And like a mantle you will roll them up; like a garment they will also be changed but you are the same, and your years will not come to an end” (Hebrews 1:12). “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (James 1:17).
Hindu texts affirm the same thing about Brahman; which in a mysterious way, all things participate in as their truest Self. “Those in whose hearts OM reverberates unceasingly are indeed blessed and deeply loved as one who is the Self. The all knowing Self was never born, nor will die. Beyond cause and effect, this self is eternal and immutable. When the body dies, the Self does not die” (Katha Unpanishad).
Buddhism affirms that, in contrast to this world of suffering, upsets, and decay; Nirvana is stable, blissful, and unchanging.”This [conditioned things] is in contrast to nirvana, the reality that is Nicca, or knows no change, decay or death.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_marks_of_existence#cite_note-DavidsStede1921p355-10
Islam teaches that God is transcendently perfect and all controlling, thus he cannot be changed. “But forever will abide thy Sustainer’s Self, full of majesty and glory” (Quran 55:27). In this text one of Allah’s 99 names, “Al-Baqiy,” is used. The name means “The Immutable, The Infinite, The Everlasting.”
Of course, not all peoples have believed that the divine is unchanging. In some conceptions – for example, Greco-Roman myth – the gods were limited, changeable, and even subject to death. However, there is widespread consensus, as demonstrated above, that the highest Ultimate is in some way unchanging. Why might that be? I think for a few reasons. These include intuitive, experiential, rational, pragmatic, and doxological reasons.
Humans have long felt ill at ease in this chaotic and fleeting world. Those who suffer long for liberation from their agony. The more well to do can also find contentment elusive. They too see the suffering all around them and are reminded of how tenuous their position is. At any moment, illness, accident, or death could strike them or someone they love. Rivals could attack and destroy them. Famine or storm could ruin their crops and livelihoods – leading to destitution or even starvation. And in a best case scenario, they will still grow old, enfeebled, and eventually die. No one escapes their finitude. To the ancients especially, in a more violence milieu and without modern medicine, knowledge, or social safety nets, the world could be a perilous place.
In the face of this, people long for something better, higher, more stable. At a most basic level, people seek means of obtaining dependable food, health for themselves and their children, success against rivals, and peace and prosperity. These are universal tangible needs that all religions seek to meet in one way or another; through prayer, sacrifice, or ritual. People long for enduring meaning beyond their momentary whims. They long for a law, principle, or guiding force that is incorruptibly on the side of the good; which rewards right living and/or punishes evil actions. They long for a mode of existence that transcends impurity and suffering and which grants them a deep and enduring sense of love, joy, peace, harmony, bliss, and/or equanimity. People long for a Truth that is faithfully trustworthy. People desire to extend their lives and even dream of immortality. They long for a messianic age of peace and abundance.
All of that to say, in many ways people fear change and long for a more stable existence. Given their needs and desires, it is natural that they would intuit that any higher realm worth their while must provide an avenue into such a life. As they became more drawn toward idealized spiritual Ultimates, it was natural for them to infer that such a perfect Reality must in some way be unchanging for it to be the greatest or highest Reality.
So God’s unchanging nature fits with human longings and intuitions. It also fits with their religious experiences. People have spiritual experiences of a Reality that seems perfect and ultimate. Beyond bare assumptions about perfection implying immutability, some religious experiences specifically involve perceived traits like timelessness, unspeakable power, or unlimited benevolence and trustworthiness, that have implications toward God’s unchanging nature.
That God is unchanging in his core being partially fits with the broad and enduring commonalities in peoples’ religious experiences across time and space that I mentioned in my earlier post on God’s eternality. Although the perplexing variety of some of these experiences and conceptions weaken how much we can empirically infer (from the phenomena itself) about God’s unchanging quality.
God’s unchanging character makes sense pragmatically and logically in relation to other attributes of God. As with God’s eternality, it is necessary to fully trust God or grant him our undivided devotion. It is necessary toward his ultimacy, trustworthiness, and hope for our salvation.
It is not just that God eternally exists in a minimum sense but can morph into radically different, contradictory directions, capacities, abilities, and personalities over that eternal span. How could we trust him if he was sometimes honest, other times deceitful; sometimes all-powerful, at other times (permanently) losing that ability; sometimes primarily loving and standing behind human caring, and at other times primarily hateful and endorsing wanton cruelty? God has to have not just a stable existence, but also a stable good and trustworthy character too, and the attributes to inspire awe, hope, and trust. At least all things being equal, this is a better way to conceive of God. He fails to function as God in our minds without it.
Because of all this, and in addition to it, it is not surprising that many philosophers have also reasoned that God must be unchanging. Let me illustrate this consensus and the type of logic used to arrive at it with two examples. I will then explain why some of it’s inferences are controversial.
John Sanders summarizes how Hellenistic philosophy influenced the Christian tradition in the following way:
“Plato and Aristle were among the first to develop these notions of God. Using the method of natural theology, they began with the human notion of perfection and simply deduced the implications. Because God is perfect (without lack), he cannot change, as that would be a change for the worse. Therefore God is immutable. God’s immutability applies to every aspect of his being: knowledge, power, will, etc. Since emotions fluctuate and adversely effect the reason, God must be impassible [i.e. without emotions]. God is timeless (experiencing no duration) pure mind totally unaffected by all other forms of being. Most of these ideas were transmitted by to the early [church] Fathers through Philo. Early apologists like Athenagoras set the course we still follow today when he defined God as ‘one God, uncreated, eternal, invisible, impassible, incomprehensible, illimitable, who is apprehended by the understanding only and the reason, who is encompassed by light, and beauty, and spirit, and power ineffable'” (Sanders “God as Personal” in The Grace of God and the Will of Man.” 170).
Caspar Wistar Hodge reasoned about divine immutability in the following way:
“As the One infinitely perfect and absolute or self-existent Being, God is exalted far above the possibility of change, because He is independent, self-existent and unlimited by all the causes of change. As uncaused and self-existent, God cannot be changed from without; as infinitely perfect, He cannot suffer change from within; and as eternal and independent of time, which is the ‘form’ of change and mutability, He cannot be subject to any change at all. God’s unchangeableness, therefore, follows from His self-existence and eternity.” http://www.biblestudytools.com/encyclopedias/isbe/unchangeable-unchangeableness.html
At a certain level, this makes sense. Even most theologians who are critical of classical notions of impassibility, immutability, etc. agree that God is unchanging in his existence, consistent in his character, and never overwhelmed by his emotions. As I said before, I think most theists would agree with the list of ways God is unchanging I gave in my opening paragraph.
the problem is that, taken to an extreme, ratiocinations about God’s immutability seem to make him into an aloof, static entity, unable to engage the world in a dynamic way. It implies determinism and fatalism. That in turn undermines the possibility of genuine human freedom or moral responsibility. It would seem to make God the author of evil. It has to conceive of God’s relationship to people and prayer in very counterintuitive ways. There is no genuine give-and-take between God and his creatures. He is not really affected by them in any way. He feels no emotions toward them. Such a picture does not fully fit the God of the Tanakh, New Testament, Qur’an, or (presumably) many other holy books.
In the end, this kind of classical reasoning depends on a particular notion of what a perfect Being must be like that is actually quite debatable. This notion emphasizes power, control, and invulnerability as most desirable. But why must one agree with that? Why not see a love and compassion that is willing to feel and risk and submit itself to dynamic interaction with its creatures as being more fitting of the perfect One than the static classical conception?
This gets to a major disagreement in theology between more conservative minded believers, who tend to emphasize God’s sovereignty and transcendent invulnerability, and more liberal minded ones who tend to emphasize God’s love and relatability. This is a rift that touches many areas of theology and leads to a spectrum of views.
In Protestant Christian theology – the theology I am most acquainted with – there is disagreement between Calvinists and Arminians over free will, God’s sovereignty, and the nature of predestination. There is disagreement between classical theologians, open theists, and process theologians about whether God can know the future free decisions of his creatures, about if he changes and to what degree, and about his power in relation to evil.
To varying degrees, these same tensions and debates come up in other religious traditions too. We will see them and our spectrum of options resurface in future posts as well.
In regard to today’s post, some (though not all) process theologians contend that God is always learning and evolving and that he relates to his creation in a dynamic and synergistic way. You have, of course, classical theologians who see this notion as anathema and not even a God at all. And you have others more in the middle who want to affirm both that God is stable and trustworthy, on the one hand, and also that he feels and relates to his creatures in a genuinely personal way, on the other.
While I have mainly wanted to focus on essence and agreement, the reader is bound to wonder where I stand. I will say briefly that I also find myself closer to the middle. Like other liberals, I emphasize God’s love as his primary attribute, although I also think he is just. I believe he is unchanging in the ways I listed but that because he is loving he has sovereignly chosen to engage the world dynamically and relationally. He feels genuine emotions for his creatures – emotions such as compassion and anger. And yet he is never overcome by these feelings and he has a plan to bring about good in the world.
In the end I want to base my beliefs on the evidence. But in some ways the relevant phenomena seems ambiguous, mysterious. God often seems remote and hidden from our experience. This suggests that his love and relationality, to the extent they exist, are different than our own. As does the fact that he is not a creature like us with evolved emotional capacities based in physiology. How does a pure Spirit feel? None of this fits easily with human analogy or anthropocentric understandings of God’s personality or emotional life.
And yet, people do have very vivid emotional experiences that seem to be of God and sometimes includes messages conveying feelings such as compassion, care, or displeasure. Is this truly God? Does it cut to the deepest heart of what the Ultimate is like? Intelligent people have long debated this, and they will continue to do so. I choose to believe that God is both unchanging in some ways and also deeply loving and relational.
A final culminating reason that I believe God is unchanging in this way is that such an understanding of the Divine inspires worship. I think the Lost Dog’s capture this and the balance I’m seeking to strike between immutability and love in their song “No Shadow of Turning.” I end today’s post with their uplifting words:
“You do not sleep and forever keep
what you have begun
The songs have been played and the promise made
will not be undone
No shadow of a turning.
You’re the same today as yesterday
No shadow of a turning
‘cos love won’t let you turn away
You see it all and not a sparrow falls
out beyond your hand
in the deep and dark I will rest my heart
in your perfect plan
Faith and hope will abide,
mercy will turn the tide
Alive in the One who has died,
love never failing
Until the end, every doubt weighs in
and it clouds your face
but you won’t let go ’till I’ve come to know
your unchanging grace.”