Mr. Spock’s God: The Mistake of Western Theology

SpockI admit it. As a kid, I was a rabid Star Trek fan. Mr. Spock’s philosophy was brilliant, to my preteen thinking. He had purged all emotions from his psyche in order to live only by cool-headed reason. All anger, sorrow and fear were barred from his thoughts, allowing him to be perfectly rational at all times.

Sure, emotions like empathy, joy, and love had to go too. But how could you be wrong when you could calculate every potential outcome to the fifth decimal place?

Later in life, I discovered that Mr. Spock’s creators had unearthed this idea in classic Greek philosophy. My pointy-eared Vulcan hero was pursuing the Stoic ideal of apatheia—seeking virtue by rejecting all passions, by becoming indifferent to pain or pleasure.

Many Greco-Roman philosophers saw emotions as fleshly and evil, uncontrollable and opposed to reason. Obviously, in their minds, the supreme God could not be so weak as to express emotion. God must be impassible—impervious to passions like anger and sorrow, unaffected by the misery of the human condition. Aristotle’s God was the “prime mover,” but he himself was unmoved—he was pure thought, devoid of all feelings.

The idea that emotions are irrational and unnatural arose from Greco-Roman philosophy and has influenced Western theology for thousands of years. We moderners find God’s passions in the Old Testament embarrassing. But what if we looked at Israel’s God from a Middle Eastern perspective, which embraces his emotional reality?

Ken Bailey has discovered a wealth of insight on the parables, especially the prodigal son, from his study of traditional cultures of the Middle East. Throughout his travels, he’s asked his Arab subjects one question hundreds of times: “Have you ever known a son to come to his father and demand his inheritance?” The answer is always the same: it would be unthinkable. It would be an unspeakable outrage, a gross insult to one’s father and family.

Bailey tells the story of one pastor whose parishioner who came to him in great anguish, exclaiming, “My son wants me to die!” The man’s son had broached the question of his inheritance. In that culture, the son’s inquiry expressed a wish for his father’s demise. The elderly man was in good health, but three months later he passed away. His wife lamented, “He died that night!” The offense was so great that in a sense, the man died the very night his son had spoken to him.

jm_200_NT1.pd-P21.tiffBailey’s insights on this parable reveal a basic error in how Western Christians understand sin and God’s response. We see sin as the breaking of arbitrary rules, as accruing parking violations and speeding tickets in a heavenly court system. If we put our faith in Christ, his atoning sacrifice will pay the fine. In this scenario, God is a callous, uncaring judge whose concern is that the law be upheld and the penalty paid in full.

The portrayal of sin in Jesus’ parable, however, is that of a broken relationship, a personal offense against a loving Father. The son’s actions would have been profoundly hurtful to his family as he cashed in their property for his own gain. Sin does not just “break the rules” and annoy a strict policeman; it is a direct, personal rejection of our loving heavenly Father, who cares for us deeply.

 

Anger in Tension with Love

The wounded anger of a deserted father is a far cry from the aloof judgment that many of us mistakenly see in the God of the Old Testament. Rather than God being distant and unfeeling, a more biblical understanding is that God’s anger at sin exists in tension with his overwhelming love.

The same passionate concern for humanity that causes God’s anger is also the source of his tenacious, everlasting love that bursts out in joy when his children finally come home.

All of the prophets, in fact, express God’s anguish when his children abandon him, and how he restrains his wrath at sin out of his hesed, his mercy and loving kindness.

This is the Old Testament God’s answer to our angry question, “How can you be so indifferent to the evil in the world?” Our accusations are actually against the impassible God that we’ve conjured up out of our own imagination!

The real God is just the opposite, because indifference to evil is in itself evil. Rabbi Abraham Heschel writes,

There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. All prophecy is one great exclamation; God is not indifferent to evil! He is always concerned, He is personally affected by what man does to man…This is one of the meanings of the anger of God: the end of indifference!

Man’s sense of injustice is a poor analogy to God’s sense of injustice. The exploitation of the poor is to us a misdemeanor, to God it is a disaster. Our reaction is disapproval; God’s reaction is something no language can convey. Is it a sign of cruelty that God’s anger is aroused when the rights of the poor are violated, when widows and orphans are oppressed?

If God is not wounded by his people’s suffering or angered at their cruelty toward each other, he would be a God who cannot love, theologian Jürgen Moltmann concludes. In The Crucified God he writes,

A God who cannot suffer is poorer than any human. For a God who is incapable of suffering is a being who cannot be involved. Suffering and injustice do not affect him. And because he is so completely insensitive, he cannot be affected or shaken by anything. He cannot weep, for he has no tears. But the one who cannot suffer cannot love either. So he is also a loveless being.

Aristotle

God’s powerful emotions made perfect sense in a society where passions were embraced, where tears of mourning and songs of joy were a normal part of life. The Greek rejection of emotions arose out of an intellectual pride that was willing to sacrifice one’s full humanity for the sake of being in constant control.

God is not indifferent or disinterested—he’s an Arab father who is crushed by his son’s apparent lack of love. God is a mother bear who roars a warning if you get too close to her cubs. God is a jilted boyfriend who’s beside himself when he spots his true-love on another guy’s arm. Israel’s God is not less emotional than we are, he is even more.

 

A God Who is Grieved by Evil

If you’re looking for God’s unflinching judgment, the place you’d most expect to find it is at the time of Noah. You’d expect to find God nearly exploding with fury at the wicked deeds of humanity, when humankind had filled the world with violence, when “every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5).

But instead of wrath, the Bible says that God was grieved, that God’s heart was full of pain. A murderous gangrene had infected his precious children, causing them to destroy themselves and each other. God’s anguish was so great that he even regretted making humankind.

In Hebrew there’s a connection between God’s pain and that of fallen humanity. Because of Eve’s sin, her sorrow (etzev, ET-tsev) in bearing children will multiply, and Adam will labor in sorrow (etzev) to make the earth produce food. (Genesis 3:16-19) This is the same word that describes God’s sorrow when his heart is “grieved” in Genesis 6:5. Like Eve, God’s precious children would now fill his heart with pain; and like Adam, his beautiful earth would now be cursed by human bloodshed. Adam and Eve’s sorrows were a small taste of the pain God himself felt at his broken world.

Our world today is still filled with violence—we’re no different than the generation that made God regret he had created us. When you consider the mass graves of the genocides of this past century, you realize that humans really are capable of evil beyond the limits of the imagination. Yet, after the flood God promised, “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done” (Genesis 8:21).

Why was God’s response to evil different than before?

Here, in the Scripture’s first pages, I wonder if we don’t see God’s answer to the classic question, “If God is good and all powerful, why doesn’t he destroy evil?” In the flood epic, God revealed what his righteous response to human evil would be—universal judgment. God bears with corrupt humanity because the alternative is the death of every sinner on earth. The fact that a good God does not destroy evil is not because he’s impotent—it’s because he’s merciful.

 

God’s Costly Covenant

We discover God’s mercy in his very next words, when he makes a covenant in Genesis 9. In this very first covenant he ever made with humankind, he committed himself to find another answer to sin rather than just to destroy sinners. In embryonic form, this covenant points toward the coming of Christ.

For God, this decision had an enormous price. Walter Brueggemann explains, “God resolves that he will stay with, endure, and sustain his world, notwithstanding the sorry state of humankind… It is now clear that such a commitment on God’s part is costly. The God-world relation is not simply that of strong God and needy world. Now it is a tortured relation between a grieved God and a resistant world… This is a key insight of the gospel against every notion that God stands outside of the hurt as a judge.”

abstract CrossTerrence Fretheim also notes, “Given God’s decision to bear with the creation in all of its wickedness, this means for God a continuing grieving of the heart. Thus the promise to Noah and all flesh in Gen. 9:8-17 necessitates divine suffering. By deciding to endure a wicked world, while continuing to open up the heart to that world, means that God has decided to take personal suffering upon God’s own self.”

God opts to suffer alongside his people because he loves them in spite of their sinfulness. From the moment he made that decision, we see the passionate love that ultimately led to the cross, to bring his prodigal children back to him. And we see his overwhelming joy when a single sinner repents and turns homeward.

The more you see God’s heart, the more you see the character of Christ from the very first pages of Genesis. Our dual images of God in the Testaments start to merge together when we see that the suffering of Christ began in his Father’s heart at the dawn of creation, when we see God our Father bearing the cross for our sins. It’s only when we focus the two images into one that we gain spiritual “depth perception” and begin to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of God.

~~~~~

Condensed from the chapter “Our Longing Father” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus (Zondervan, 2012), pages 165-178. For a fuller discussion and for quotation references, see the book.

For further reading, an outstanding resource is Abraham Heschel’s The Prophets (New York: Harper, 2001), p 285-413.

Comments

28 Responses to “Mr. Spock’s God: The Mistake of Western Theology”

  1. 1
    Don Johnson|January 15, 2014

    FWIW, I have read that Roddenberry got the idea for Spock (rational) and Bones (emotional) from psychology. He wanted to show the decision making process in Kirk’s mind, but personified the parts so they could have a dialog without it all being Kirk thinking out loud, with Kirk listening to Spock and Bones and deciding with wisdom, at least that was the original basis. Once it existed, of course, it took on a life of its own, each screenwriter getting to spin the basic idea one way or another.

  2. 2
    Lois Tverberg|January 15, 2014

    Interesting thought, Don. There’s been a lot of philosophy over the years that has been incorporated into the writing of Star Trek.

    Bruce, my point in bringing in Spock is not to make him the focus of the article but to illustrate impassibility. But as long as you bring it up, the reason that he splits his fingers to make the Shin and gives a modified form of the priestly blessing is actually because Leonard Nimoy is Jewish, and incorporated his own experience from the synagogue.

  3. 3
    Marge willman|January 15, 2014

    Needed to hear those words today. The continuing war and genocide in Africa and the Middle East has been gnawing at my soul. Now I need to hear about being patient and waiting for things to happen in God’s time.

  4. 4
    Bruce P Greenough|January 15, 2014

    So what’s with Spock making the priestly blessing sign of Shin with his fingers when he says, “Live long and prosper?” A little east – west confusion? Messing with the cosmos? Going where no one has gone before?

  5. 5
    Jon|January 15, 2014

    Is it really true to Stoic thought to identify their understanding of apatheia with a view of reality that assumes everything is its own discrete object while relationships are decorative attachments that don’t fundamentally alter the objects to which they are attached? It seems to me that the problem isn’t the Greek rejection of passion. Human passion, at best, is profoundly ambivalent leading as easily to genocide as to ending injustice. The problem is the Enlightenment rejection of relationship in favor of an atomic view of reality.

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    Alex Renko|January 15, 2014

    This is just terrific Lois. The way you weaved this post is inspirational. The Western Church so badly needs your voice right now. Thank you and please keep it coming!

  7. 7
    Margaret Bosanquet|January 16, 2014

    Again, thank you Lois. I hope this article/chapter is read and understood by many. It is a gift to the body of Messiah.

    The question I have is about the difference between emotion and passion. In UK I have a feeling that passion better reflects God’s response because we use the word emotion to mean what is usually a passing “feeling” and many times about the self e.g. movies often portray emotion but passion is more likely to be about the wrong done to another and might well lead to action.

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    (removed)|January 16, 2014

    I ask this with the utmost respect and tears in my eyes, did God roar when I was a 4 year old abducted and molested? When I was left across a busy highway in a marshy area along a river, did He roar? I am 57 years old and I still struggle with this. I am grateful that this person did not kill me as is the fate of most children that this happens to. I am not angry at God, I am broken hearted. This event changed who I was as a person. I did not realize this until I became much older and saw how fear of men shaped my life. I am a believer, this is a stumbling block for me. I would prefer that this not be published or at least my name removed as it causes me much shame and heartache.

  9. 9
    Lois Tverberg|January 17, 2014

    To the person (“removed”) who shared her story:

    Thanks so much for this. It’s hard for anyone else to know your pain. I would think that you of all people would feel comforted by this article. The idea that God is indifferent toward evil being perpetrated, like what you experienced, is utterly wrong and unbiblical. As infuriated as you feel about what happened to you, God feels far more so.

    That’s what Heschel meant when he said, “Man’s sense of injustice is a poor analogy to God’s sense of injustice. The exploitation of the poor is to us a misdemeanor, to God it is a disaster. Our reaction is disapproval; God’s reaction is something no language can convey.”

  10. 10
    Clif Payne|January 16, 2014

    I greatly appreciate this article Lois. With great clarity you express the love and the feelings of our God who loves us and works to redeem us to Himself. You said this the best I’ve ever heard it said. May the Lord richly bless you.

  11. 11
    Samuel Martin|January 16, 2014

    Enjoyed this. Especially the Bailey references.

    Best wishes from Jerusalem.

    Samuel Martin

  12. 12
    Lorenzo A. Williams|January 16, 2014

    Mr. Spock (my favorite Vulcan) was also Human. Just thought I’d sorta throw that out, so he to had his struggles being half Vulcan and half human. Loved this article Ms. Lois.

  13. 13
    Dero|January 19, 2014

    Does Jesus(Yeshua) care? Oh yes he does. This is a timely article Lois. Thank you. It helps me (an unrepentant unrecovered star trekie) to understand my salvation better.

  14. 14
    Moyo|January 19, 2014

    How I love u 4 this article. I honestly don’t get why the idea of a God having strong emotions is so strange. I mean if we r made in his image and we hv these emotions coursing thru us y is it so strange. A father can love a child yet caution her. Like your research pointed out, transgressions are more than violation of law codes they are affronts againsts relationships. In africa where I come from and reside we hear tales of idols who vest fury on opponents; we here of lives lost during power scuffles. Its a beautiful story to hear of a God who has standards but cares enough to find a way through, a God whose biggest preoccupation all along was relationship, the God who cares enuf to let u know u r wrong, who in his loftiness and grandeur made himself low. A god like that girlfriend that tells u u messed up. The one who wept, the one who drove traders with a whip yes! a whip!! The one who whined about getting lame and sickly animals as sacrifice in Malachi. What’s wrong with that? Our phoniness that’s what. Its acting like passion is reserved for mortals while the Almighty must keep a straight face all day. Lol that’s y Dawkins called him paranoid and all. Cuz surely those OT sentiments are too silly for a God. And y pore over those Jesus the Saviour details, we get it already. Its God himself going over his genius plan so he would get his loves back- his annoying offensive loves. Against these I find no law. Peace

  15. 15
    Edward|February 9, 2014

    Speaks to the soul. Thanks Lois. I have to read read this article, so I can digest it better. I believe Paul delt with this type of philosophy as well I his day.

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    Keren Hannah Pryor|March 6, 2014

    Good article, Lois. From a Jewish perspective :- The emotions of God are unquestioned amongst Jews, He shares the pain and rejection of our long history, and He also shares the joy and celebrations of life. Personally, having a great love for God our Father and embracing Yeshua as ‘Mashiach El’, His Messiah and stretched out arm of Salvation in love and mercy to all the earth – as Dwight said once, “Jesus is God’s chesed (powerful grace, love and kindness) made flesh” – it is not difficult to merge the suffering of Messiah with the Father’s heart. In our days we are seeing the veil God placed on Jewish eyes thinning and lifting as the true picture of who Yeshua is, as the Jewish Messiah, the Hebrew Scriptures in the flesh, is coming more into focus in the Church.

    On the other hand, the tension I have found most difficult is between that of the understanding and expression of sincere emotion and joy, that is so much part of our Jewish/Hebraic heritage and which infuses all the life celebrations, the Sabbath and all Biblical and historical festivals – and the polite, reserved, even cool and aloof and Spocklike nature of gatherings in the Church, despite the few ‘Greet one another’s and hugs that are added for good measure. Real emotion – and by that I am not referring to loud, whipped up expressions of ‘feelings’- and therefore real joy are most often not expressed and sadly absent. I believe this is an important factor in the restoration of the Hebraic heritage and perspective to the Church today.
    Shalom Shalom.

  17. 17
    Lois Tverberg|March 6, 2014

    Keren, thanks for your wise comment. You are so right! I grew up in the midst of the “frozen chosen” myself, and still feel like I’m that way. I’d love to “thaw” out a little bit more, and be able to express my emotions more openly.

  18. 18
    Keren Hannah Pryor|March 6, 2014

    The universe awaits! 🙂

  19. 19
    Ben|March 7, 2014

    It’s interesting that you started this article by talking about Spock since the creator of Star Treck was a very religious jew. Even the famous “live long and prosper” hand gesture is based on a jewish hand gesture that represents God. Perhaps Spock himself is a meditation on the western tradition of highly valuing reason. (If nothing else it’s cool that the highly logical character constantly salutes God).
    Moving on from star treck I completely agree that Christianity is made to be a list of rules. I think that’s one of the most repealing aspects of the faith. For example, a good friend of mine was formerly Catholic, but the rules, strictness, and organization of it all drove him away. It’s a sad story, but it shows that Christians aren’t meant to be policemen. If we focus on God’s love above all else instead of just rules and logic Christianity would spread tenfold.

  20. 20
    Seth|March 10, 2014

    I think every Christian, and non-Christian too, needs to be reminded of this. Too often God is pictured as that indifferent judge. Even in our churches and Sunday school, we are taught this picture of God, this judge who only cares about justice. That Jesus just “Pays the parking ticket”. And while He does do that in a sense, it’s so much more than that. And I think we all need to be reminded of that.

  21. 21
    Dero|May 8, 2014

    to remouved.
    thank you for your honest response. God was so hurt,angry,and infuriated that He sent His son to die a painful cruel death to pay for the injustice and vialation against you. God roared and He was there. He wept and He saw. He is able to heal emotions and injustices, to redeem our history and restore our person-hood. He is.

    I have experience in myself and seen in others (even persons scared by the ugly history of the Holocast) the emotional concern and healing of Jesus (Yeshua)
    This may not be the place to expound on it. But enough to say God wants to be also a healer to the broken hearted.
    I (along with He) love you instictively. You are not alone,forgotten nor discarded. Pursue Jesus for your healing! There is no scarring by Satan so deep that God’s love and healing is not deeper still!

  22. 22
    Jack Oxenrider|June 1, 2014

    Lois,I thought you thawed out a little at Dwight’s memorial when you danced with Brad Young and myself. That was fun!

  23. 23
    Alan Wojtkowiak|June 8, 2014

    Several things come to mind….As we are made in “the image & likeness” of God, I think of HIS wholeness of person. I also think of the Hebrew view of the spirit/body wholeness concept of the human person. The philosophical division of man into spirit, soul, body does violence to the creature. Could one separate the arteries from the veins in a body? Yes, but why? They constitute one system. In another turn on “image & likeness”: In Scripture, I see a God of logic, inventiveness, emotion, grief, love, anger & other aspects of HIS person-hood. He made us according to a standard & pattern – HIS own. It is foolish to deny or suppress these aspects of our divinely defined being.
    Lastly, I note your mention of Chesed – the special love that is born of covenant, & can include emotional aspects, but is undergirded with the strong bonds of a covenant relationship, witnessed by sacrifice, vows before God (or gods), oaths, gifts exchanged & a covenant feast. Westerners largely have no concept of covenant or Chesed.
    Lastly, thrown in – the Greek words of liturgy, Kyrie eleison, as I understand, is a call upon God to remember HIS covenant which HE established toward us. It is a call upon HIS Chesed – His mercy, His covenant love.

  24. 24
    Britney Hawkins|January 16, 2015

    Live long and prosper!
    I am so excited to have found your blog. I was at a Ray VanderLaan seminar this past weekend and he spoke so highly of your writing that I couldn’t wait to check it out. Amazon should be rapidly sending me “In the Dust of Rabbi Jesus” but until it’s arrival this is where I’ll be.
    I substitute as our ladies’ bible class teacher occasionally, and I’m always discouraged by the emotionless, blank faces staring back at me. Where is the passion? It’s like we’ve spent our entire lives learning to sit solemnly and reverently. I want to dance in the streets like David no matter who’s watching!
    Thanks for the reminder and encouragement.

  25. 25
    Lois Tverberg|March 1, 2015

    A belated thanks to everyone for your thoughtful and kind comments. 🙂

  26. 26
    Betty|March 6, 2015

    Lois, thank you for your insightful writings. I have gained so much knowledge from your books “sitting” and “walking ” withe the Rabbi Jesus. We are using “walking” as a small group study. Right now I am working to have a “kosher mouth”.

    I have been reading some of the books which you reference. the writings of Abraham Heschel are so insightful. Slow reading as they are meaty and require chewing.

    So glad i learned about your writings….keep it up, please. Shalom

  27. 27
    Dwight Kindred|March 26, 2015

    Shalom Lois, the insight re. Gen. 6 and God’s grief was worth the whole great article. I’ll know I’ve real progress when I can dance with God’s congregation.

  28. 28
    Corey Burch|December 15, 2015

    Lois, thank you for the reminder. Know that your work is not in vain. Please keep studying, keep writing, keep being a light in this world.

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