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H/T to winged keel and crumpet for sharing John Milbank’s Encyclopedia of Christian Theology entry on Divine Impassibility.

What stands out in Milbank’s critique is that “christologies of kenosis” distort the Christian message “into sickly celebration of sacrifice and weakness,” and represent a downright refusal to engage Nietzsche’s poignant critique of such theologies.  What’s more, Milbank’s attack on those who want to move beyond metaphysics into a suffering God end up valorizing suffering for suffering’s sake and make a virtue of disempowerment or dispossession, which implies that one had power to begin with. But for those truly undergoing suffering does such a God make sense, and what virtue is there in suffering when one’s entire life is made up of suffering?

At first sight, one might think that theologies of a compassionate or essentially historical God, and christologies of kenosis, in which the Logos loses its character as God, free the biblical vision from the shackles of metaphysics. What one sees instead is surrender to secular categories, for all these constructions assume the prime reality of evolution and the idea of progress through struggle and sacrifice. The ideas of an original perfection of creation and of the Fall (original sin) recede into the background, and a human experience is idolatrously projected upon God and made absolute. Mozley cites the Anglican Storr, for example: “He God enters into creation, experiences the struggle, feels the pain of the whole of His creation. He does so because it is love’s nature to go out of itself in self-sacrifice.” God comes to be regarded as worthy of love and worship simply because he is involved in the same struggle as human beings and has played a supremely heroic part in it. These theories have had two consequences. First, the idea that redemption involves a transformation of our mortal condition is lost sight of; instead, purely human goals—the struggle of mankind for the future and the quest for the perfect city—are made absolute. Second, the nature of redemptive suffering is misconstrued, for where suffering is eternally inevitable (as in the common 19th-century idea of “a cross always in the heart of God”) and sacrifice is held to be the essence of virtue (virtues), the evil occasion of suffering is secretly celebrated as the occasion for heroism (Mozley). The truth is that suffering is only redemptive when embraced (if necessary) in order to manifest a free self-bestowing gift prior to all evil, such that to suffer is to continue to give in dire circumstances, rather than to prove oneself “virtuous.”

The reaction against the idea of impassibility therefore risked distorting Christianity into a sickly celebration of sacrifice and weakness. Given this development, Nietzsche’s reaction was salutary; and yet his lesson has scarcely been learned by much 20th-century theology.

John Milbank, “Immutability/Impassibility, Divine” in Jean-Yves Lacoste’s Encyclopedia of Christian Theology, 762.

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