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In a well-known story from the early history of modern science, Galileo climbed to the top of the leaning bell tower at Pisa in order to refute Aristotle’s teaching that bodies of different mass fall at different speeds.
This story (which may or may not be authentic) illustrates the image of Aristotle with which many of us grew up — that of a dogmatic ancient Greek fool whose influence hindered scientific progress for centuries. Yet, in most ways, this image could not be further from the truth.
A student of Plato, who was in his turn a disciple of Socrates, Aristotle ranks, without any question, among the greatest universal geniuses the world has ever known. Classical Islamic scholars respected him as “the First Teacher.” The great medieval philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) simply called him “the Philosopher.” The illustrious Italian poet Dante (ca. 1265-1321) referred to him as “the master of them that know.” (His own pupil, Alexander the Great, was also a high achiever, although of a somewhat different kind.) Aristotle’s writings on poetry and theater, music, logic, rhetoric, politics and government, metaphysics, and ethics are still fundamental to the study of those fields. And, while his work in biology, zoology, physics, meteorology, and other sciences has long been superseded, it played a vital role in creating and defining those disciplines.
One of Aristotle’s most influential—and, I would contend, one of his most regrettable—contributions to human thought is his concept of the “unmoved mover.”
As the name suggests, the unmoved mover moves other things, but it is, itself, unmoved by anything else. It affects other things but is affected by nothing. Think of an inconceivably long chain of dominos standing in line. In order to start them collapsing, somebody or something needs to tip the first domino over. The collapse of all the rest follows.
Aristotle’s understanding is that the unmoved mover is God, the ultimate cause or “mover” of all the motion—which (in his terms) meant all the change—in the universe. In the twelfth book of his treatise on “Metaphysics,” Aristotle describes the unmoved mover as being “simple” (that is, indivisible), unchangeable, and perfectly beautiful. It endlessly contemplates the only thing in the universe worthy of its attention: itself.
Aristotle’s prestige in the ancient and medieval periods was so enormous — and please understand that, although he was wrong in this case, his prestige was very far from undeserved — that Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers felt powerfully compelled to incorporate his view of God into their own.
For example, one of St. Thomas Aquinas’s famous “five ways” of proving the existence of God (or, at least, of describing the divine nature) relies on Aristotle’s concept of the unmoved mover.
This is hardly surprising. For roughly twenty centuries, Aristotle represented the best science and the most advanced thought available, and it would have been simply impossible for any serious thinker to ignore him. In fact, it was even difficult to contradict him: By the Middle Ages, as depicted in Umberto Eco’s novel “The Name of the Rose” and in C.S. Lewis’s scholarly study “The Discarded Image,” the few precious writings remaining from “the Ancients” had taken on something of the aura of scripture. And no non-scriptural writer carried more authority than Aristotle. (In fact, one of the complaints of the Reformer Martin Luther was that Aristotle had effectively come to supplant scripture in the minds of many Christian thinkers.)
A major problem for Muslim, Christian and Jewish thinkers, however, was that the God depicted in the Bible and the Quran is plainly personal, reacting to human sin and human faithfulness, intervening at some points in human history but not at others, revealing messages to prophets that are tailored to their specific times and circumstances. Yet the unmoved mover seems essentially impersonal. (“Unmoved” also means that Aristotle’s God is unaffected by emotions.) So how were these two seemingly distinct conceptions of the divine to be reconciled, even blended?
It can be argued that they never really were. Not successfully. The unmoved mover, endlessly contemplating itself because it’s the only thing in the universe worthy of its notice, seems unlikely to pay any attention to the sufferings of less worthy beings such as, say, humans. And if it truly affects all other things but cannot be affected, there appears little point in praying to it. One might as well pray to a rock. Finally, for Christians, is it even remotely conceivable that Aristotle’s God “so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16)?
Aristotle’s concept of God and that taught in the Abrahamic revelations are like oil and water. They don’t mix. As the early 20th century Anglo-American mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once quipped with regard to this view of the divine (which he rejected), the God of the philosophers is, unfortunately, not available for religious use.
Unfortunately, though, Christian philosophers and theologians over many generations have not only tried to incorporate Aristotle into their doctrines but have, very often, read the Bible through an Aristotelian lens. And that lens is a severely distorting one.
For instance, the shortest verse in the King James Bible, John 11:35 (“Jesus wept”), is well and amusingly known. It’s less known, however, as one of the Bible’s most significant passages. But it is precisely that.
Why? Because it demonstrates the Savior’s personal care for humanity and shows him, though divine, to be emotionally involved with us.
But, in that regard, Moses 7:28-29 in the Pearl of Great Price is even more remarkable:
“And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains? And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?”
How is it possible for God to weep? For centuries, classical Jewish, Christian and Islamic theologians have agreed that it isn’t. Such behavior would be unworthy of him. God’s emotions seem, it’s true, to be on display throughout the scriptures, but the passages describing them have typically been dismissed as metaphorical, as symbolic of something else.
Happily, though, recent biblical scholarship is reconsidering the emotions of God. The sections of the book of Jeremiah that precede the Babylonian captivity—to choose from among many possible examples—are absolutely replete with images and divine statements that depict God as deeply caring, worried even, about the punishment that he himself has to impose upon his people.
In Jeremiah 12:7-8, for instance, the Lord is represented as saying of Israel, “I have given the dearly beloved of my soul into the hands of her enemies.”
These words remind us of the internal conflict within the soul of a father who loves his children but who must still punish them and who will not, cannot, intervene when consequences occur. The God speaking here is no distant, uninvolved, unemotional monarch. He loves Israel.
But even while biblical scholars increasingly recognize God’s “passions” as genuinely scriptural, doing so is deeply problematic in the view of many traditional systematic theologians.
For how is it possible to have emotions without a body? Emotions are inseparably connected with such things as tears, rapid heartbeat, “feelings.” Pure mind, pure Vulcan-like logic, if such a thing exists, would seem to be incapable of anything remotely recognizable as emotion. If, these theologians argue, God has emotions, it must follow that he has some sort of body. But surely, they say, he cannot have a body. And, thus, he can have no emotions. Which means not only that he can’t be angry with us but that he can’t love us in any human-like sense of the word, or care for us, or feel our pain, or mourn our poor choices.
Like Enoch, theological commentators have been astonished at the sheer notion that God might weep. Unlike Enoch, though, who was an eyewitness, they flatly reject it. Classical theology has historically tended to depict God as a distant, dispassionate and literally apathetic being unmoved by emotion. The unmoved mover doesn’t weep. As we’ve already noted, he (or, perhaps better, it) moves, but is not moved. Nothing can have any impact on that kind of God.
If emotional displays such as tears require a body, classical theism’s solution is to deny all the emotions mentioned for God in the Bible, just as it denies or reinterprets the many passages that seem to describe him as having bodily form. (The embodied Jesus of John 11:35 can be permitted emotions precisely because he assumed flesh and human nature; it’s far less acceptable to grant such “feelings” to his Heavenly Father or to God before the Incarnation.)
The question is whether Christians will in the final analysis opt for their traditional theology, with its roots in mingled Aristotelian philosophy and scripture, or for the Bible. The two are difficult if not impossible to reconcile.
The Pearl of Great Price’s account of Enoch offers a spectacular instance of a suffering and weeping God, far clearer, even, than anything in the Bible. Fortunately, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are entirely comfortable with an embodied deity.
For those who accept the scriptures of the Restoration, Heavenly Father is not only a being with emotions, but a God who, because he is perfect and perfectly embodied, feels more deeply than we can even begin to imagine. “God is love,” says 1 John 4:8. He not only has and enjoys an emotional life, but the most perfect emotional life possible. Although we try to emulate it and hope someday to enjoy it fully ourselves, his love is richer, deeper, than any love we can imagine,. Accordingly, he feels both pain and sorrow for his children, and boundless love and joy for them. He is not an unmoved mover.
ShawnyMarch 9, 2022
Thank you, Brother Peterson, for this wonderful article. Truly the closeness we feel to God here on earth is based on the reality of His ability to feel close to us. We feel His love and experience it personally in so many precious and sacred ways. We truly have a FATHER in Heaven, and we are truly bound in love to His Son.
Karell BinghamMarch 9, 2022
It is the first time I have read your amazing and touching testimony! Thank you for your deep insights!