Embracing Vulnerability by Roberto Sirvent

Embracing Vulnerability: Human and Divine. Roberto Sirvent (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014).

Although the idea of divine passibility—that God is affected by creatures—has become the dominant view in theology, there remain ardent defenders of divine impassibility. This book addresses whether divine impassibility is compatible with our best moral reasoning regarding the nature of love and justice. Sirvent examines a prominent theme in the Bible and Christian tradition: the imitatio Dei and imitatio Christi. The main argument in the book is that in order for God to be a moral exemplar then God must have “emotional vulnerability” since this is required by both love and justice. Though there are other aspects of divine vulnerability the book focusses on the issue of emotional vulnerability.

The book is clearly written and well organized. I was impressed that he engages both important biblical scholars (including Jewish ones) as well as philosophical theologians. This is quite different from the work of Thomas Weinandy (a leading defender of divine impassibility who claims that only an emotionally invulnerable God can help us) who fails to engage biblical scholarship on the issue.

In order to make his case Sirvent explains a key assumption in the introduction and chapter three: in order for God to call us to imitate the life of God then God and humans must share the same sets of moral standards. In my words, God must be understood as having a shared frame of reference with humans. That is, we must understand God in relation to us, not as totally different. Sirvent says God differs from us in degree rather than in kind. [Shameless promotion alert. My book, Theology in the Flesh: How Embodiment and Culture Shape the Way We Think about Truth, Morality, and God (August 2016) discusses in detail the cognitive structures (e. g., metaphor) we have to use to understand God and why this legitimizes our thinking of God as a moral exemplar.]

Sirvent’s discussion (chapter four) of the different aspects of love as understood in modern scholarship is quite helpful. He delineates four features of love and shows that each of them involves emotional vulnerability. He then examines a virtue understanding of justice to argue that justice requires emotions and compassion. He draws upon recent studies that show that emotions are an integral part of human thinking and decision making. He also examines the differences between self-love and selfishness as well as so-called “negative” emotions. All of these ideas are then applied to God (chapter six) to see whether or not God is worth imitating if God is understood as emotionally vulnerable or invulnerable.

Those who affirm strong forms of divine impassibility tend to equate self-love and selfishness, want a reasoning process completely free of emotions, exaggerate the importance of altruism and agape, and absolutize the ethic of selflessness over other vital ethical concerns. Sirvent accurately lays out the moral arguments for divine impassibility, understood as emotional invulnerability, and then shows why each argument fails to support an adequate approach to the moral life (love and justice). He concludes that the imitation of a God who loves and is just requires divine emotional vulnerability: “an impassible God is not worth imitating” (177).

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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