Here’s a thought for the day about what might be at stake in speaking of God’s love or, to use the use the common evangelical designation, to have a “personal relationship” with God. You will risk losing a “property” of God that some Christians declare as crucial to God’s character: God’s “immutability”—that God is God and therefore never changes.
Consider a person who is like Aristotle’s deity—unchangeable, immovable, wholly independent, separated from all else, and with no potential that is not actualized at all times. Such a person would not only lack relationships and feelings. He or she would also not communicate or respond to new situations and to communications from others.
Would we describe such a person as perfect? I suspect we would do the reverse: we would actually describe him or her as profoundly impaired, suffering from something on the order of a crippling autism. And so, various philosophers closer to our own time—to Jews, the name of Martin Buber will be the most familiar—have argued that it would be more helpful if we conceived perfection in social and relational terms.
To be sure, such terms cannot do justice to God as he is in and of himself; they are only similes and metaphors and must not be taken literally. But they do communicate something about God that, from the biblical and rabbinic perspective, is real and, in fact, crucial: that he can and does love.
Jon D. Levenson, The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism, pp. 175-76 (slightly reformatted)
Levenson’s thoughts, while focusing on Judaism, should resonate with Christians who see God as an “unmoved mover” or something like that, and at the same time one who loves. It seems to me, though, echoing Levenson, that it’s hard to have it both ways.
Ironic, isn’t it, that two cherished pieces of evangelical theology—God’s love and God’s unchangeableness—sit so uncomfortably together, at least once you dig down a bit.
I’m happy (relieved, actually) to chalk all this up to “mystery,” but how we perceive God day-to-day affects, to say the least, how we live and relate to others.
Is it too simplistic to say that those whose lives of faith foreground God’s love yield a certain type of fruit and those who foreground God’s unchangeableness will likewise bear another kind? You know what I mean. Whether we view God primarily in relational terms or categorical terms will spill over to our relationships with others.
Yes, perhaps that is too simplistic, but the correlation is still intriguing to me—and not far off from my own experience, both of myself and of others.
Having said that, it seems to me that prayer (which we all do) is the place where the more relational model quickly rises to the surface. With the exception of the most perfunctory and mechanical of prayers, who of us does not pray by pouring out our hearts and wanting God to respond in some way? Who of us doesn’t pray thinking that by our words we can actually affect an outcome—safety and health for a loved one, deliverance from hardship, etc.?
These are the very types of prayers we see in the Bible, including on Jesus’s own lips in the garden. The “O Lord, thou art the immutable sovereign” type of prayer is far less frequent (Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Deuteronomy).