The Politics of Jesus and the Determination of Reality

When we consider the world into which Christ was born, in which the emperor is worshipped as absolute sovereign, in which the state is prime determiner of reality and has universal power, we understand the threat Christ posed. The accusation of insurrection at his trial would make him the disturber of the peace, the disrupter of the pax Romana, or the challenger to the monopolistic sovereignty of imperial Rome. Given Roman presuppositions about the emperor as divine sovereign, the state of Rome as the determiner of justice and the instrument of peace, the sort of alternative truth Christ would pose would challenge the political, economic, religious, and social order of Rome.

Though the Jewish notion that the Messiah would defeat Rome through violent insurrection was mistaken, it was not a mistake to understand that the Messiah would usher in a different kingdom and a different order of truth and reality. Christ would indeed break the Roman monopoly on truth, and the way he would accomplish this would involve politics (he would be king); it involved government and power (he would rule); it would involve economics (Christians would share among themselves and render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s); and of course, it would involve religion (Christ is the divine Son of God). The difference between the truth of Christ and the truth of Rome involves every sphere of what it means to be human. To be Christian will involve entering a different order of reality. The truth of Christ sets free from the enslaving, wholesale delusion that is Roman Imperialism.

 But isn’t it the case that this monopoly on truth, power and divinity claimed by Rome is the permanent condition of the kingdoms of this world. While it is true that Rome alone exercised a more or less universal power, isn’t it the case that throughout history, no matter the size of the tribe country or state that the same sort of monopoly is placed on the determination of reality. Think in our day of North Korea, Communist China, the former Soviet Union, or perhaps more difficult for us to see – the United States of America. Communism and fascism would obviously exercise a monopoly on the nature of reality, but doesn’t secularism, individualism, or capitalism, represent the same sort of monopolistic claims on reality and value as imperial Rome? We can readily understand it may be contradictory to claim to be a Nazi Christian, a fascist Christian, or a Leninist Christian, but is it any less contradictory to claim to be a capitalistic Christian, an individualistic Christian, a secular Christian, or to say the same thing, an American Christian. That is, secularism, individualism, autonomous rationalism, or capitalism, are no more accommodating to Christian truth than Roman Imperialism. Or to say it the other way round, to be grounded in fascism, capitalism, or rational individualism, is to be deluded in regard to ultimate reality (the truth of Christ). The delusion that the truth of Christ sets free from is a delusion about the nature of reality.

Many in our day imagine that Christian truth is meant to supplement other forms of truth. One (certainly not the only one) expression of this is far-right politicians in the United States and around the world advocating a church/state alliance, in which “Christian morality” (e.g., oppression of immigrants, feminists, religious minorities) would be implemented by Christian politicians. For example, the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano maintains the nation should reclaim its Christian identity, and that the notion of separation of church and state is a myth. The truth behind this misunderstanding, is the apparent disempowerment of Christian faith. According to New York Times journalist, Elizabeth Dias, “Many dismiss the historic American principle of the separation of church and state.” She notes this is occurring in conjunction with the blending of Christian faith with notions of election fraud conspiracies, QAnon ideology, gun rights and lingering anger over Covid-related restrictions. According to Representative Lauren Boebert, “The church is supposed to direct the government, the government is not supposed to direct the church. I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk.” At this Patriots Arise event, Jenna Ellis, a former co-counsel for the Trump campaign’s effort to overturn the 2020 election, told the audience that “what it really means to truly be America first, what it truly means to pursue happiness, what it truly means to be a Christian nation are all actually the same thing.”[1] What is being advocated is a return to a Roman Catholic or Constantinian form of the faith, in which the church is an arm of the state and Christian power is expressed in state power.

Christian nationalism is taking root, not only in the United States but the far right is currently ruling in Hungary with Viktor Orbán (who has come out against race mixing in Europe and was a speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas this summer) and Poland with the Christian nationalist party. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, called indigenous peoples “parasites” and promoted the burning of the Amazon basin. He called Hitler “a great strategist” and believes Brazil is “a Christian country,” and he has spent the last four years governing, as he terms it, as the “Trump of the Tropics.” His key support is among Brazilian evangelicals.  Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s new prime minister campaigned with the slogan “Italy and Italians first!” Her party, Brothers of Italy, is the successor of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI), and followed closely the 1926 fascist doctrine to protect the “State, family, morality and the economy.” Meloni, a Christian nationalist, has praised Mussolini and promised to “defend God, country, and family.” She has proposed a naval blockade against migrants. In a speech in a meeting with the Spanish far-right party, she laid out the principles of her neo-fascist ideology: “yes to the natural family … yes to the universality of the Cross … no to mass immigration.” This rise of the Christian right wing can be linked to both a right-wing Islamist and Hindu drive to power. In India Narendra Modi has pursued Hindu-nationalist policies against religious minorities and in Turkey Tayyip Erdoğan has imposed Islamic nationalism and ethnic cleansing against Kurds.[2]  The blending of right-wing politics and Christianity as we have it in the United States may be inspiring a world-wide movement, as once liberal democracies are turning right.

The theological problem and solution is not concerned with right or left wing politics, but with the conceding of embodied reality to the dictates of the state. The privatization of religion in liberal democracy, squeezes out the notion of an alternative kingdom or alternative citizenship (an alternative embodiment) in the church. This is the case, as death is the implicit power behind our political order.

The threat of death, in the description of Stanley Hauerwas, justifies political liberalism’s forced political arrangement of citizens with nothing in common but “their fear of death.”[3] Death in war, death at the hands of the state, or protection from a perceived enemy, lends the state something like a sacred responsibility. The secular order can presume to dictate matters of life and death, creating the equivalent of the sacred, with its presumed power over death and life in its policing power, its power to make war and its power of capital punishment. The state controls the body through the body of state, disciplining and punishing and controlling embodied reality. Yet the claim of Christ is that we are saved by becoming part of his body and making him determinative of our reality.

Jesus can only be fully known and encountered in those people who call him Lord and King and who are ordered by his kingdom. Liberal democracy (in the name of secularism), like totalitarianism, fascism, or nationalism functions like religion in its determination of the strictures and loyalties of embodied existence. Add the power of potential nuclear holocaust, and the state takes on its own metaphysical power, an eternal value directly expressed in its power for extermination.[4]  Never before has this absolute power, this monopoly on the power of death and destruction, been so literal and blatant. Set aside is any notion of serving a higher good or a law that transcends the state and the absoluteness of its survival (expressed in the power of mutually assured destruction). The law of survival, state self-determination and sovereignty, is written in the power for an assured destruction.

Christian salvation is precisely concerned to defeat the state monopoly on the power of life through its control of death and destruction. The Christian faith makes absolute claims as to the nature of truth and reality, and these claims can in no way be subordinated to the principalities and powers. By conceding that life together, political life, economic life, or sexual life, is ultimately under the control of state power, the church concedes that Christian truth serves the state. This is the lie Christ confronted in his life and in his trial and death. With the resurrection, the state monopoly on the power of death is defeated. There is no truth more determinative of reality than Jesus crucified and raised and this truth is necessarily attached to the holistic shape of his kingdom.[5]

His work is in history, yet he demonstrates God’s rule over time and history. His truth is specifically attached to his personhood, his entry into history as a Jewish carpenter, and his particular story. His truth cannot be relegated to the ahistorical, the abstract or the transcendental. It cannot be privatized or made to serve another story – i.e., the story of the nation state, the story of the rise of liberal democracy, the story of Rome or America. This is the lie not only of the secular state, capitalism, and individualism but is the lie that he confronted in both Rome and Israel. Both would obliterate, kill and control him, so that Rome could be great, or to prove the absoluteness of Israel. It is truth and reality that are in contention in his life and death.

Where his life is deployed to make America great again, or to legitimize the worst forms of oppression, there is a theological failure to recognize Christ constitutes a kingdom. Only in the living community shaped by the politics, culture and tradition of Jesus, do we encounter the fully embodied Christ. The incarnation continues through the church, but the church is only the church where his people are fully formed as part of his body. That is, the body of state, the body of liberal democracy, or the body of death, has no part in the embodiment of Christ.

[1] Elizabeth Dias, “The Far-Right Christian Quest for Power: ‘We Are Seeing Them Emboldened’

Political candidates on the fringe mix religious fervor with conspiracy theories, even calling for the end of the separation of church and state.” The New York Times (July 8, 2022)

[2] Camila Vergara, “Opinion/ How Christian Nationalism Is Taking Root Across the World:

The electoral success of the far right in Italy and Brazil is a warning for the United States. Politico (October 27, 2022).

[3] Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches, Christians Among the Virtues: Theological Conversations with Ancient and Modern Ethics, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997) 169. The quotations from Hauerwas and Williams are from the dissertation by David Wade Horstkoetter, “Gary Dorrien, Stanley Hauerwas, Rowan Williams, and the Theological Transformation of Sovereignties” (2016). Dissertations (2009 -). Paper 632.

[4] See Rowan Williams, Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology, ed. Mike Higton (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 165-166.

[5] Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity,: (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011) 173.

The Lost World of Origen’s Gospel Metaphysics

The fact that the premiere genius among the church fathers, the one most responsible for a fully articulated theological world, the one who explains what must be the case if the Gospel is true, the fact that he is condemned by the church, indicates what was mostly lost for the next two millennia. The problems which plague the church up to the present time, such as the duality between body and soul, between heaven and earth, the dualities introduced into the Trinity, the doctrines of Calvinist predestination, limited atonement, and penal substitution, but most basically the warped conceptions of God which now predominate, can be summed up as the metaphysical problems of God and creation directly addressed by Origen. In short the resulting metaphysical incoherence can be traced to a rejection of the coherence that might otherwise have prevailed if Origen’s thought had been preserved rather than being condemned.[1] As P. Tzamalikos writes in praise of Origen’s accomplishment, “Christianity, against a background of other sects, cults, beliefs and various religions of its time and place, was successful in organizing its tenets into a coherent system. To a considerable extent, this was a feat of Origen.”[2] Neglect of the coherence provided by Origen resulted in metaphysical confusion.

Origen, continuing in the spirit of Irenaeus and Ignatius, expounds and expands upon the rule of faith, inclusive of the basic principles or extrapolations which must be the case, given the truth of the Gospel. Like Aristotle he understands that there must be first principles, or the basis upon which one builds so as to gain wisdom (otherwise there is an infinite regress). While acknowledging the Greek notion of first principles, Origen’s understanding that the Gospel is the first principle departs from a Greek understanding. His opening sentence in On First Principles sets the foundation of his work on Christ: “All who believe and are assured that grace and truth came through Jesus Christ, and who know Christ to be the truth, according to his saying, I am the truth, derive the knowledge which leads human beings to live a good and blessed life from no other source than from the very words and teaching of Christ” (On First Principles, hereafter Princ. Preface, 1). Origen notes specifically, that his principle is a departure from a Greek understanding and is a turn to Christ as first principle: “For just as, although many Greeks and barbarians promise the truth, we gave up seeking it from all who claimed it for false opinions after we had come to believe that Christ was the Son of God” (Princ. Preface, 2).

The field of his examination is not that of the Greek sense experience and knowledge. His field of examination is Jesus Christ: “In the first place, we must know that in Christ the nature of his divinity, as he is the only-begotten Son of God, is one thing, and another is the human nature, which in the last times he took on account of the economy” (Princ. The Gospel as first principle requires that he begin by examining the titles of Christ, and the relation of the Son to the Father. He concludes: “As no one can be a father without having a son, nor a master without possessing a servant, so even God cannot be called omnipotent unless there exist those over whom He may exercise His power; and therefore, that God may be shown to be almighty, it is necessary that all things should exist” (Princ. 1.2.10). It is through the Son that the Father is almighty, and this position of the Father is extended through the Son into all of creation. “For through Wisdom, which is Christ, God has power over all things, not only by the authority of a ruler, but also by the voluntary obedience of subjects” (Princ. 1.2.10). Again he explains:

And He exercises His power over them by means of His Word, because at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, both of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth. And if every knee is bent to Jesus, then, without doubt, it is Jesus to whom all things are subject, and He it is who exercises power over all things, and through whom all things are subject to the Father; for through wisdom, i.e., by word and reason, not by force and necessity, are all things subject.” (Princ. 1.2.10)

 This is his working principle, namely that God’s almighty rule and his work of creation is grounded in the eternal relation between the Father and Son, which is the means of understanding God’s relation to creation.

Origen is clearly working within a Christological frame. He is setting forth an alternative world-view, a Christ centered logic, or a Christian metaphysic. The problem is that very few may have been up to the task of following the subtlety of his argument. His translators, his readers, his enemies, and ultimately the church will misunderstand Origen. There are a variety of reasons for this misunderstanding, including the treatment and mistreatment of his writings which were being changed even in his lifetime. The simplistic understanding that many presume, is that Origen is a Platonist and is simply deploying Plato or Neoplatonism to explain Christianity. Thus, the charge is that he Hellenized Christianity or that his Christianity is simply a form of Greek thought. In the 15 anathemas leveled at Origen at the 5th ecumenical council, such as holding that he taught the preexistence of souls, the existence of disembodied souls, and that he denigrated material bodies, what is demonstrated is an incapacity to apprehend his argument. He is describing the world that must be the case given the truth of the Gospel, and to the degree he was correct the church subjected itself to error.

John Behr is, as with his work on the Gospel of John, arguing against the mainstream of scholarship. Behr is relying, at least in part, on the work of P. Tzamalikos, who maintains that not only is Origen not a Platonist but that he is an anti-Platonist: “Since 1986, I argue for the unpopular thesis that Origen is an anti-Platonist in many respects. This was received with suspicion and distrust within a mindset where branding him a ‘Christian Platonist’ was (and still is) a matter of course.”[3] This is particularly important, in that the anathemas and misunderstanding leveled at Origen attempt to fit his argument within a Greek or pagan frame, where it simply does not fit. Tzamalikos repeats his counter-claim and builds upon it throughout his work:

Actually, the claim of Platonism in Origen appears so baffling, that argument would be needed to establish not its incoherence, but its coherence. For it thrives on half-truths confronting his own statements and cardinal ideas, with ‘Platonism’ being mostly a flight of fancy in heads of unlearned authors (many bishops) of old times, whose views were upheld by modern theologians no less uninformed about what Plato really wrote.[4]

He makes the case that Origen is an anti-Platonist and setting forth a Christian alternative to the Greek worldview.

What is almost always forgotten, however, is that it is Origen himself who singles out Platonic views, for the purpose of juxtaposing them with his own conceptions. Had he upheld a notion redolent of a Platonic outlook, would it be too difficult for him to say a few words about it? Cels (Origen’s work, Against Celsus) promptly concedes certain of his viewpoints appearing to be similar to Platonic views. Those points are pointed out, and considered with portions of Plato’s works quoted whenever necessary. . . . On the issue of history and eschatology, Origen knows that his views have nothing to do with those of any pagan philosopher. It is no accident that this section of Cels is one of the shortest of the entire work. He quotes the challenge by Celsus, yet he does not regard him worthy of a full reply on a question which requires the listener to be of an entirely different background. [5]

One of the specific points at which Tzamalikos finds Origen rejecting Platonism is in regard to the body:

The truth is though that Origen espoused a notion held in derision by many Platonists, which nevertheless was originated in the Hebraic tradition: survival as resurrection of the body. According to Platonists, material things make up only the lower half of the wholeness of reality, indeed the far less dignified half of it. For them the body is the source of passion, of meanness and decay, the most outright representation of degeneration of materiality; this ought to dissolve irrevocably. Rejecting the notion of the soul surviving without a body, Origen virtually denied the idea of resurrected bodies living in a disincarnate form: he defended resurrection in a body; although this is understood to be a body of a different quality, still this is a definitely material body. The salient point though is that, pace Paul, he made resurrection the central theme of his thought, indeed of all Christian doctrine: if there is no resurrection, there is no Christian faith and all Biblical history is void of any meaning at all. No one after Paul made so strenuously the Cross and Resurrection the pivotal point designating all history from start to finish.[6]

Tzamalikos lays out the overall difference in terms of the Greek focus on stasis and the unchanging order and the Christian focus on time and history:

The Presocratic religious question had been treated mainly in terms of pursuing stability behind the physis soliciting the essence behind the phenomena. With Christianity the problem of the world in time becomes of main priority. To be sure, some pagan schools of thought did quest for a purpose of history. Plato did reflect on the ultimate goal of the earthly life. Aristotle did research on the teleological causal sequence according to which civic life was formed. The Stoics, as well as Cicero, did visualize a world-state based on reason as a goal which (sic) human race ought to full. What was entirely new though was the question of an overall meaning of human history—a purpose originated in the dispensation of God manifested within the world since its creation.[7]

His starting proposition and conclusion is “that the Alexandrian formed a distinctly Christian Philosophy of History, faithfully following Paul in making the Cross the midpoint of all history. He also formed an Eschatology, which (although obscure in the Latin of De Principiis) is crystal-clear, no matter how putative orthodoxy might receive this.”[8]

The project of John Behr, who is building upon the work of Tzamalikos, is to demonstrate that Origen is spelling out a unique Christian logic, neither Greek nor Gnostic. Among the key issues undergirding Origen’s work and that which is most misunderstood and maligned, is Origen’s concept of God’s eternity as it relates to time. As demonstrated above, Origen’s first principle is the Gospel, and he also focuses on the relation between the Father and Son to explicate the relation of time and eternity. His examination of the divine titles of Christ treats that relation as understood and expressed in the incarnation. In other words, Origen is not explaining a pre-incarnate relationship (sneaking in a Greek metaphysic), but sees the relation between the Father and Son in the incarnation as the divine reality.

As Rowan Williams puts it, “the existence of Jesus is not an episode in the biography of the Word.” As Williams explains, “God has no story but that of Jesus of Nazareth and the covenant of which he is the seal.”[9] Or as Herbert McCabe has expressed the same concept: “to speak of the pre-existent Christ is to imply that God has a life-story, a divine story, other than the story of the incarnation. It is to suppose that in some sense there was a Son of God existing from the eternal ages who at some point in his eternal career assumed a human nature and was made man.”[10]  This is the problem, along with all that it entails (the capture of modern theology by metaphysics) that Origen’s first principles resolves before it occurred .

[1] And of course, with a genius of Origen’s caliber there really is no getting rid of him, as even those such as Augustine who will reject key parts of his thought can be said to still have been formed in an Origenist understanding. The Cappadocians will most directly build upon Origen, but they too must be muted and as will become most completely clear by the time of Maximus, those who embrace Origen in both the east and west risk condemnation.    

[2] P. Tzamalikos, Origen: Philosophy of History and Eschatology, Supplements to VC, 85 (Leiden: Brill, 2007) 2.

[3] Ibid. xii.

[4] Ibid. 17.

[5] Ibid. 24.

[6] Ibid. 18

[7] Ibid. 1.

[8] Ibid. xiii

[9] Rowan Williams, Arius: History and Tradition, 2nd edn (London: SCM Press, 2001) 244.

[10] Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” New Blackfriars, (November, 1985) 474.

The God of Empire Versus the God of Passion

There is something of an endless debate about God within the major branches of the Christian faith – What role for Greek conceptions of God? Does the Spirit proceed from the Father or from the Father and the Son? How is the Father involved in the work of the Son and how do we conceive their difference, etc. etc.? East, West, Protestant, Lutheran, Calvinist, are largely defined by the perceived differences (real and imagined) in regard to fundamental issues about how and what we know about God. These divisions though, may be shaped by more subtle sociological concerns. Sarah Coakley, following Ernst Troeltsch, divides the sociological contexts between church, sect, and mysticism and sees the sociological as throwing additional light on theological emphasis. She sees certain forms of trinitarianism as cohering with particular types of ecclesiastical organization. For example, focus on pneumatology is unlikely to accompany strong patriarchal social and political contexts – given the individualistic, mystical, and “feminine” role of the Spirit. [1] Throughout the history of the church, the more settled the institution (the church type), the more unmoved, settled, and distant, the conception and perceived experience of God. The focus on the Spirit and the experientialism of mysticism have tended to be segregated from the theology of the church type. The adaptation of the Aristotelian concept of God (the Unmoved Mover), came with adaptation to empire, hierarchy, and institutions meant to endure by dint of their alignment with worldly power.

Giorgio Agamben describes the rise of two orders of church, each consisting of its own conceptual and experiential reality. In the biblical mandate, the church is to dwell on the earth as an exile or sojourner captured in the Greek verb paroikein, as in the description of I Peter 1:17 – “the time of sojourning.” In this imagery truth is discovered along the way – or truth is the way (viatorum). The sojourner church stands in contrast to the settled church, which takes on the look of a city, state, kingdom, or empire – captured in the Greek verb katoikein. The katoikia church is built to last, and as opposed to the paroikein church, is not geared to the parousia or the coming of Christ, as it has put down roots in the world. The parousia, in Agamben’s conception, is not in the future or deferred but speaks of the immediate experience of time (fundamental human experience).  In the true church (Agamben counts the institution as we have it an imposter), every moment bears the possibility of the inbreaking of the Messiah, made impossible by the katoikia church.[2]

Agamben locates the point of departure from the biblical church within early debates about the Trinity. The distinction between the immanent (ad intra – or God’s self-relation) and economic (God’s relation to creation) Trinity accounts for the development of western politics and economics. However, according to Agamben, this secularizes theology even before there is a secular order: “from the beginning theology conceives divine life and the history of humanity as an oikonomia (economy), that is, that theology is itself ‘economic’ and did not simply become so at a later time through secularization.” Where the political order can lay claim to a first order power relation, Christian’s (through this theological maneuvering) only have to do with an economy (a second order of experience).[3] While one may not agree with the sweep of Agamben’s critique, his depiction parallels Coakley’s sociological contextualization of theology.  

In the 20th century there have been a variety of attempts to correct this theological failure precisely where it had the greatest impact. Where the church (at least the church type, with its institutions) failed in Germany with National Socialism, this gave rise to striking theological innovation. Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer turn from the characteristic church type dogmatic speculation to a Christocentric point of departure.

 Bonhoeffer in his lectures on Christology locates the Logos, not in the realm of the transcendent. He claims “this will inevitably constitute that Logos as an object for human logos, locating it within the territory of things about which we can ask ‘how is it possible?’ or ‘how does it work?'” As Bonhoeffer puts it, “the question is no longer ‘how?’ but ‘who?’ Who is it that I confront when I look at Jesus? But also, and equally importantly, ‘Who am I?'”[4]

Bonhoeffer depicts the question of the person of Christ as challenging his self-understanding: “When a human being confronts Jesus, the human being must either die or kill Jesus.”[5] The reality of Jesus creates its own context and terms of engagement. Jesus is not Socrates, reminding us of what we already know, but he creates the conditions for knowing him as these conditions do not otherwise exist. He is what he teaches.

Picturing the Logos as on the order of the Aristotelian difference (the apathetic God) is simply to accommodate divine revelation to the human word. “The divine revealed as overwhelming power or unconstrained agency as we understand those things will not recreate us, re-beget us; it will not require the death of our logos.” This sort of God simply accommodates our instincts about the absolute Other, the humanly conceived difference of divinity. If we do not accept the death of the human logos, we will deploy it in defeat of the divine Logos.[6]

Of course Christ allows for his death. He is not a rival to my will or my word. It is precisely his kenotic humility – “taking the form of a slave” (not just being incarnate) that challenges the foundation (foundationalism) of my selfhood. Though it is not as if there is any actually existing foundation – this is simply the “poisonous fiction” that must die or the pride that must fail.[7]

 One of the sharpest German attempts at a revisionist understanding came from Jurgen Moltmann, who begins his book on the Trinity by recounting how Greek notions of God effectively corrupted the Christian faith. He suggests that where Greek philosophy has been deployed in conceiving of God, “then we have to exclude difference, diversity, movement and suffering from the divine nature.” He names the resultant heresy of nominalism (God cannot be known in his essence) as giving us a God that is so far from us (impassible and immovable in his remoteness), such that apathetic portrayal of God has trumped the importance of the person and work of Christ. He concludes that, “down to the present-day Christian theology has failed to develop a consistent Christian concept of God? And that instead . . . it has rather adopted the metaphysical tradition of Greek philosophy, which it understood as ‘natural theology’ and saw as its own foundation.” By allowing the “apathetic axiom” to prevail over the person and work of Christ, God became “the cold, silent and unloved heavenly power.”[8]

Moltmann poses the following choice: either the apathetic God prevails and the passion of Christ is seen as “the suffering of the good man from Nazareth,” or the passion of Christ prevails and divine apatheia is no longer determinative. Within this second alternative, Moltmann points out that his depiction of suffering entails a two-fold rejection: the Greek depiction of the divine incapacity for suffering, and suffering defined as incapacity or deficiency. “But there is a third form of suffering: active suffering – the voluntary laying oneself open to another and allowing oneself to be intimately affected by him; that is to say, the suffering of passionate love.”

Without passion God would be incapable of love. Moltmann develops the two-fold meaning of passion – inclusive of passionate desire and the suffering passion of Christ. If God were incapable of suffering in every respect, then he would also be incapable of any form of passion or love. As Aristotle puts it, he would at most be capable of loving himself, but not of loving another as himself. But if he is capable of loving something else, then he lays himself open to the suffering which love for another brings; yet, by virtue of his love, he remains master of the pain that love causes him to suffer. “God does not suffer out of deficiency of being, like created beings. To this extent he is ‘apathetic’. But he suffers from the love which is the superabundance and overflowing of his being. In so far he is ‘pathetic’.” [9] God is love and his is not a cold love (as if there is such a thing), but the passionate love revealed in Christ.

Sarah Coakley cites Moltmann as an influence in her turn to desire, sex and gender in conceptualization of the Trinity.[10] However, what Coakley avoids and Moltmann spells out, is the historical and theological challenge to notions of divine apathy entailed in discussions of passion. Moltmann finds in Jewish theology and Origen precedent for his depiction of the suffering of the Father as a necessary part of the love of God.

Origen describes the suffering of God in his exposition of Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.”  “In his mercy God suffers with us, for he is not heartless.” In his explanation, Origen equates the love of God with the necessity of suffering:

He (the Redeemer) descended to earth out of sympathy for the human race. He took our sufferings upon Himself before He endured the cross – indeed before He even deigned to take our flesh upon Himself; for if He had not felt these sufferings [beforehand] He would not have come to partake of our human life. First of all He suffered, then He descended and became visible to us. What is this passion which He suffered for us? It is the passion of love {Caritas est passio). And the Father Himself, the God of the universe, ‘slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy’ (Ps. 103.8), does He not also suffer in a certain way? Or know you not that He, when He condescends to men, suffers human suffering? For the Lord thy God has taken thy ways upon Him ‘as a man doth bear his son’ (Deut. 1.31). So God suffers our ways as the Son of God bears our sufferings. Even the Father is not incapable of suffering {Ipse pater non est itnpassibilis). When we call upon him, He is merciful and feels our pain with us. He suffers a suffering of love, becoming something which because of the greatness of his nature He cannot be, and endures human suffering for our sakes.[11]

As Moltmann explains, Origen’s talk of God’s suffering means the suffering of love; the compassion of mercy and pity. The merciful person taking pity on another participates in the suffering of the one he pities, “he takes the other’s sufferings on himself, he suffers for others.” For Origen this is the suffering of God, “the suffering of the Father who in giving up his ‘own Son’ (Rom. 8.32) suffers the pain of redemption.” The Father is not removed from the suffering of the Son, anymore than he can be said to be removed from the passion or desire of God. Origen depicts the divine passion of Christ as inclusive of the divine passion between the Father and the Son in the Trinity. “The suffering of love does not only affect the redeeming acts of God outwards; it also affects the trinitarian fellowship in God himself.”[12]

Origen predates the distinction and Moltmann and Coakley, in varying forms, would equate the economic and immanent Trinity. Moltmann notices in Origen what Coakley notices in Romans 8, that it is precisely in conjunction with suffering that the Trinitarian nature of God is most clearly delineated.  Like Coakley and Paul, Moltmann also locates the apprehension and participation in the suffering of God in prayer.

Moltmann though, references a Jewish mystical tradition in which praying the Shema is the uniting of God: “To acknowledge God’s unity – the Jew calls it uniting God. For this unity is, in that it becomes; it is a Becoming Unity. And this Becoming is laid on the soul of man and in his hands.”

Franz Rosenzweig takes up this notion to describe an Old Testament and Jewish conception of the suffering of God:

Mysticism builds its bridge between ‘the God of our fathers’ and ‘the remnant of Israel’ with the help of the doctrine of the Shekinah. The Shekinah, the descent of God to man and his dwelling among them, is thought of as a divorce which takes place in God himself. God himself cuts himself off from himself, he gives himself away to his people, he suffers with their sufferings, he goes with them into the misery of the foreign land, he wanders with their wanderings . . . God himself, by ‘selling himself to Israel – and what should be more natural for ‘the God of our Fathers’! – and by suffering her fate with her, makes himself in need of redemption. In this way, in this suffering, the relationship between God and the remnant points beyond itself.”[13]

Just as in Romans 8, so too in the Jewish conception, prayer inserts the one praying within the communion of God. The Jewish depiction is an estrangement or suffering into which God enters, and the estrangement is overcome through those reflecting the Shekinah to God through prayer. Moltmann explains, estrangement is also overcome “through the acts of the good, which are directed towards the overcoming of evil and the establishment of the future harmony of the one world. That is the meaning of the Hebrew word tikkun (world repair).”[14]

Theology proper (talk of God) cannot begin in the abstract, which inevitably depends upon the human logos, but in the fact that God has opened himself to human experience and human suffering, becoming human that humans might participate in the divine. But it is the primacy of God’s love and not human suffering that determines the course of God’s suffering love. The passion of Christ as point of departure suspends talk of an economic and immanent Trinity, with the first order (the ontological reality) of God removed from the contingencies of the second order (the economic). The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, though as Coakley notes, this does not mean that God is reduced to what is revealed, as “there must be that which God is which eternally ‘precedes’ God’s manifestation to us.”[15] However, speculation about what “precedes” Christ cannot be given precedent over the revealed truth given in Christ.

[1] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self (p. 156-157). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, The Church and the Kingdom, trans. by Leland de la Durantaye (Seagull Books, 2012).

[3] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics) (p. 3). Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] The Bonhoeffer Reader, ed. Clifford]. Green and Michael P. Dejonge, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013. Cited in Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation, (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018), 185.

[5] Reader, 268.

[6] Williams, 187-188.

[7] Williams, 190-191.

[8] Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (First Fortress Press edition, 1993) 21-22.

[9] Moltmann, 22-23.

[10] Sarah Coakley, “The Trinity and gender reconsidered,” in God’s Life in Trinity (ed. Miroslav Volf and Michael Welker, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).

[11] Homilia VI in Ezechielem (MPG XIII, 714 f). Cited in Moltmann, 24.

[12] Moltmann, 24.

[13] F. Rosenzweig, Der Stern der Erlösung, III, 3rd ed., Heidelberg 1954, pp. 192ff. Cited in Moltmann, 29.

[14] Moltmann, 29.

[15] Coakley