"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Heschel: The Supremacy of Pathos

From The Prophets, by Abraham Heschel:

"The central achievement of biblical religion was to remove the veil of anonymity from the workings of history. There are no ultimate laws, no eternal ideas. The Lord alone is ultimate and eternal. The laws are His creation, and the moral ideas are not entities apart from Him; they are His concern. Indeed, the personalization of the moral idea is the indispensable assumption of prophetic theology. Mercy, grace, repentance, forgiveness, all would be impossible if the moral principle were held to be superior to God.  God's call to man, which resounds so frequently in the utterances of the prophets, presupposes an ethos based, not upon immutable principles, but rather upon His eternal concern. God's repenting a decision which was based on moral grounds clearly shows the supremacy of pathos." 

Frankly, it is a thought provoking passage for me, because the pathos of God is something I sometimes struggle with. I must admit that my image of God (and, I think, the Church's understanding of God from a very early date, and hence the image most Christians have) has been formed for better or worse not only by Holy Scripture but by ancient Greek ideas of God (not popular Greek religion, but the philosophers). Specifically, Greek ideas about God's immutability (i.e. "unchangeableness") can be supported by some specific verses, but looking at the whole of Scripture I think it is not possible to state confidently that God is "unmoved." In other words, God as depicted in the Bible does indeed seem to change his mind, to "relent concerning calamity" out of his mercy and love for us, notwithstanding the demands of strict justice.

This is seen particularly in the prophets, where God often seems overcome by pathos. We may say that this simply represents a human attempt at understanding the infinite God, but it is Scripture nonetheless, so I feel compelled to attend to it. A great example is Hosea, where the recurring image is one of "God, the jilted husband"--an emotional image if ever there was one! A climactic passage comes in Hosea chapter 11. After ten chapters of indictment against Judah and Israel for unfaithfulness justly deserving God's imminent wrath (occasionally punctuated by seemingly contrary assertions of tenderness), the LORD declares, "How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I surrender you, O Israel? . . . My heart is turned over within me, all my compassions are kindled. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not destroy Ephraim again" (Hos. 11:8-9).

At the risk of sounding crude, the image of God in Hosea strikes me as almost "hormonal," which is not how I would ordinarily think of God. Yet, as Heschel argues, without the supremacy of the pathos of God over immutable moral principles, there would be no mercy, forgiveness, grace--and so I must confess profound gratitude for such pathos! 

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