The God of love (1): Star Trek and the impossibility of impassibility

Spock vs. Data

Star Trek, in all its reincarnations, is a great show. It is so pretentious in its aspirations to say something meaningful and so inane in its working assumptions, that it works as an almost perfect mirror of the values and concerns of the society that existed when it was televised. The highly evolved and civilized Federation of the future almost always reflects the concerns of the slightly left-of-centre-leaning portion of North American society who were the target of the show’s producers. The ‘Federation’ is simply ‘the Democratic Party writ large’. And so the show acts like a great expression of the cultural intuitions of the societies to which we belong and live and minister in.

One of the more interesting signposts of cultural change occurred between the original series and the Next Generation. The original series had Dr Spock: part-human, part-Vulcan, he was more-than-human with exceptional strength, endurance, intelligence, an incredibly long life span, super-effective pacifist hand combat abilities (the ‘Vulcan nerve pinch’) and even extra senses (a limited contact telepathy). Integral to Spock’s superhuman resourcefulness was his ability to transcend emotions and so react to things purely rationally. This led him to be wiser, more insightful, more capable and, more often than not, better able to solve problems facing the Enterprise than any other character—except, of course, when there was a need for someone to say, “It’s worse than that; he’s dead, Jim!” or “There’s Klingons on the starboard bow, Jim” or even “Ye canna change the laws of physics, Jim!” Spock was so much more than human because he could transcend the emotional.

Come back decades later, and Spock has been replaced by Data, an android. Data shares many of Spock’s qualities: he’s super-strong, super-hardy, effectively immortal and super-intelligent. But he is deeply, deeply flawed. He is emotionless. What every Vulcan desires, Data has as his inherent nature (a point made clear when Spock met Data in the episodes ‘Unification Part 1 and 2’). And yet, by the time Next Generation is produced, this is not a more-than-human transcending; it is, at times, an almost crippling inadequacy that Data constantly seeks to overcome. The essence of what it is to be human is no longer associated with reason, but with emotion. “I feel, therefore I am [human]” is the motto.

And so it is Deanna Troi, the ship’s counsellor and psychic empath, for whom emotions are her bread and milk, and who becomes the writers’ most used deux ex machina to crack open the problems facing the new Enterprise. So strongly does the balance of power shift from head to heart that in the episode ‘Conundrum’, Deanna Troi beats Data at three-dimensional chess—a feat on par with pitting a teenage Emo against a supercomputer programmed by a chess master, and not only having the Emo not burst into tears and re-dye their hair a different shade of light blue, but actually win. Competency with emotions, not sums and logic, is now the great key to life’s problems (including those presented by space-time anomalies, sentient gases and all the other people you meet when you’re walking down the street each day).

An impassible God

The notion of an impassible God has experienced the same kind of shift. The idea that God does not suffer, die, or is in any way affected by what we do or not do (that he is ‘without passions’) has moved from being a central tenet that makes a Christian doctrine of God possible to being some bizarre idea that God is a strange emotional cripple. An impassible God, it is thought, is an emotionless God—a less-than-human Pinocchio eternally tapping on the window of the toy maker, wishing he was ‘a real boy’. To be human and to feel emotions—to suffer and to die—is for us, absolutely essential for being able to enter into real relationships and being capable of genuine love, and hence, being capable of acting morally at all.

The idea that God only ever acts upon creation and is never acted upon is often dismissed instinctively as a classic example of philosophy overpowering the Bible—of Aristotle trumping Scripture. It’s just so obviously wrong that the impression is given that one only needs to point to passages where God is described as having emotions to refute it. Impassibility goes completely against our culturally formed intuition. For us, it is impossible for God to be impassible, because then God couldn’t be loving in any genuine sense of the word.

And therein lies one of the great ironies: in our attempt to rescue the Bible’s notion of love from the merciless grasp of romance, we constantly stress love as an act of will over and against what feelings we might have for someone. “Love is to act in another person’s best interests”, we often say. But this is hopelessly reductionistic. To paraphrase DA Carson, imagine a family member (particularly a spouse) asking, “Do you love me?” and you responding, “Your face cracks mirrors, your halitosis stuns herds of elephants, you are dull, boring and irritating, and I find your voice to be like fingernails on a blackboard. In short, I cannot find a single positive thing to say about you, but I always choose to act for your good, so, yes, I love you.” Do we think that is really ‘love’ in such a relationship? Can human beings really love without any emotional component? What do we do with Paul’s description in 2 Corinthians 11:28-29 (“And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?”) where he highlights its effects on his own internal world and not his actions for others as the substance of his love for all the churches?

Paradoxically, at the very time that we are trying to remove any notion of emotion or anything other than an act of will from our definition of the essence of our love, we believe that God has to feel emotions or else he can’t really love. There’s a hole in our thinking big enough to steer the Starship Enterprise though. And so, over our next two posts, we are going to explore a little bit of why the early Christian teachers thought that ‘impassibility’ correctly captured the biblical notion that God only ever acts out of love for his creatures, not to serve his own interests.

(Read part 2)

3 thoughts on “The God of love (1): Star Trek and the impossibility of impassibility

  1. I look forward to reading the next two posts. However, turning to important matters, you wrote, “The original series had Dr Spock…” My misspent youth (in front of the TV) requires that I point out that Dr Spock is quite different to Mr Spock, and I don’t think the former ever appeared in Star Trek!

  2. Mark,

    Thanks for this post (and thanks in advance for the coming ones!).

    I’ve recently been reading through Weinandy’s work on impassibility and found it really helpful.  To my mind, it seems like classical theology has fallen on hard times in many quarters!

    Could you point me to some other good things to read on impassibility (Muller’s essay on the classical notions of impassibility is the one of the others I’ve read also)?

    Mark Earngey

  3. Martin Shields,

    Heh, Dr Spock was an unfortunate expression of my foible with constantly getting names wrong.

    Although I think Dr Spock did appear in an episode of the short lived season of classic Star Trek which featured a guest star each episode.  From memory he appeared in the episode “Spock Squared”, playing himself – having been cryogenically frozen and thawed out by the crew of the Enterprise.  He then saved the ship from a space-time anamoly by helping it deal with the problems arising from poor potty training in its infancy.

    Mark Earngey,

    I quite agree about the fortunes of classical theism.  Like a lot of areas of theology, people want to claim to be ‘orthodox’ while rejecting fundamental components of classical theology.

    I’m not sure if I can point you to much beyond what you have written at this point (except inasmuch as the next two posts will highlight Irenaeus and Athanasius as examples)

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