Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Highest Virtue

The more I think about it, the more I realize that most of our false assumptions about God's character and nature arise out of our imagining what we would be like if we were God and had access to his resources. It's no wonder that we're scared and confused by him; we've been so heavily influenced by the Greek philosophers that their assumptions have become ours.

Case in point: Most people today -- if they believe in God at all -- believe that his highest attribute is power. He is nothing if not all-powerful. And he uses that power to dominate others. It's really Nietzsche's Will to Power with a thin veneer of theology.

Love was a lower virtue than power, the Greeks thought, because love implies some sort of need. Power, on the other hand, could be absolute -- not lacking anything. This kind of power made the one holding it perfect and invulnerable.

Thus the Greeks imagined Zeus as the ultimate god of power. He had to break the rules every now and then -- he had to be capricious -- had to break his word -- had to smite someone periodically just because he could. Otherwise, if he submitted to some kind of code, he would be thought to be lower than that code.

Plato came along (stick with me here) and refused to believe that the gods would be arbitrarily violent. But he still maintained this idea that they were invulnerable. They could do anything they wanted to anyone they wanted and no one was allowed to take offense at that. No one could affect them or cause them pain.

Obviously, this painted Plato in an interesting corner. To get out of his dilemma, Plato argued that the gods must be emotionless beings. In fact, if they were tied emotionally in any sense to anyone or anything that would unravel all their power.

Aristotle further developed this idea and gave it a name: Divine Impassibility. This is the belief that the gods cannot be affected by any outside source. The gods are unaware of the joy and sadness experienced by mere mortals. The gods not only do they not know about how we feel, they don't care. They have their agenda, and that's all they're focused on.

Is this an accurate reflection of the God we find in the Bible? If so, what do we do with passages like 1 John 4:8? If not, why do we wonder whether or not God might actually hear us when we talk to him and do something in response?

As a systematic theologian (almost anathema in these postmodern days), I know it's somewhat futile to consider a taxonomy of God's attributes. None of them is more important than another. Still, what is the highest virtue? Does God possess that virtue?