Does God Change, Does God Feel?

I’ve been thinking about what God is like to day as I’ve been reading about Process Theology. It’s something I have come into contact with a few times over the past year or so, especially when looking at some of the ideas of the emerging church. It’s not something I’ve really had much call to study, so I’ve had little more than a basic understanding of what it means. But prompted by blog posts and conversations I decided to have a bit more of a look at what it’s really about and try to look into some of the questions it raises. If you want to know more about what I’m talking about before engaging with the questions below, have a look at this or that.

The first thing that Process Theology requires you to question is ‘what is God like‘? In Process Theology, everything is to be understood relationally and God must be understood as interdependent with creation. Now that is a difficult pill for many who have been raised with more traditional theologies to swallow. But exploring that one suggestion raises more questions for me.

Firstly, if we’re to think of God as relational, we must first think about God as an emotional person. The ancient Greek idea of God, going back to Aristotle was that of ‘apatheia‘, unfeeling, unmoved, impassible. A quick scan of the Old Testament shows us that that was not the experience of the Jews – their God was compassionate, loving, merciful, patient. And if we see Jesus as the very embodiment, the incarnation of what God is like, then we can see that the gospels depict him as a passionate man – recognising the pain of the people he met with, experiencing it himself, literally moved – to tears, to respond.

Some have sought to reconcile this by suggesting that although we experience God as compassionate, or having one another of these ‘anthropomorphic’ emotions, in his real being he is not moved, that he is still dispassionate. This is deeply dissatisfying to me, especially as I think of John’s epistle saying that ‘God is love’. The ‘god of the philosophers’ does not seem to match the revealed God that we follow.

If God does feel and if we see this most clearly in Jesus, then we have to think of God’s suffering. This is something I’ve written about before, thinking about how God suffers with us based on Romans 8. Here and elsewhere in Paul’s writings, suffering is seen through the lens of Jesus’ crucifixion – the suffering, dying God. Christians, like Paul, are called to have their lives moulded by their suffering with Christ into a ‘cruciform shape’. On this topic, I’ve started to read Moltmann’s The Crucified God to explore his perspective on this.

But this thought of a suffering God brings up the idea of change – one that sits uncomfortably with traditional understandings of God. If we are shaped and transformed by suffering with Jesus, does this mean that he was changed by his suffering? If Yes, that implies that God can be changed in a very fundamental way; if No, did he really suffer in a meaningful way. Suffering, perhaps more than any other feeling, must change us, often in the most profound ways. The depth of faith of martyrs, holocaust survivors and so on is unquestionable, and that it was developed as a direct result of the suffering they endured seems obvious. If God really suffered and continues to suffer with us, does that mean that very experience changes him?

Wayne Grudem (who I would think to be a standard go-to for a conservative evangelical take on this) rejects the idea of God being impassive. He also suggests that God is unchangeable in four ways: his being, his perfections, his purposes and his promises. By his definitions, it seems what I’m talking about above are God’s ‘perfections’ – the attributes that he has that are perfect, full, complete – his love and compassion being examples. But Process Theology would also challenge Gruden’s conception of the unchangeable being of God. For Grudem, people – and all creatures – are constantly ‘becoming’, while God as pure ‘being’, with no potentiality or changability is where they can find rest.

So my first reflection on Process Theology has circled around whether God can change. I wonder how we can reconcile the feeling, suffering God with the idea that really feeling something is transformative while keeping the belief that God cannot change or be changed. On the other hand, what does it mean for God to be ‘the Rock’, ‘the same yesterday, today and forever’ if the every part of the universe in their relationships with him change him?

What do you think?  Have I misunderstood the nature of feeling, experience and how it transforms? Or are there better ways of thinking about the unchangeability of God that I have not explored? Please add your comment below!