A God of emotion — 'How is it that thou canst weep'?

Published: Thursday, Aug. 27 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

"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?" (Moses 7:28-29)

PROVO — How is it possible for God to weep?

Enoch asks this very question in the Book of Moses, while philosophers and theologians have long rejected the notion of a supreme being that feels anything, according to Daniel C. Peterson, a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU.

God's emotions are well-established in the Bible, Peterson argued during a recent Campus Education Week session. And while theologians have now "belatedly recognized" the agonizing God as "genuinely biblical," acknowledging emotions in deity is problematic for anyone who doesn't accept what Mormons believe — that God has a body.

"Just like Enoch, modern commentators have been virtually unanimous in being astonished at the sheer notion that God might weep," Peterson said. "So they simply reject it."

Mainstream theology depicts God as "absolutely simple" — a distant, dispassionate and apathetic being unmoved by emotion, Peterson said.

"The unmoved mover doesn't weep," Peterson summarized. "He moves, he is not moved. No thing can have any impact on him."

The Pearl of Great Price account of Enoch, however, "offers a spectacular instance of a suffering and weeping God, far clearer than anything in the Bible," Peterson said.

"He's astonished that God is capable of that kind of emotion, that God could be sorrowful. It's one of the most striking passages … in scripture."

And it's not unique to LDS scripture.

Recent scholarship that considers the emotions of God focuses on sections of the Book of Jeremiah that precede the Babylonian captivity, Peterson said.

"This portion of the Bible is absolutely replete with images and divine statements that depict God as deeply caring, certainly about his children, worried even about the punishment that he himself has to impose upon them," he said.

Peterson referenced Jeremiah 12:7-8, which states, "I have given the dearly beloved of my soul into the hands of her enemies." These words exemplify the internal conflict within the soul of a Father who loves his children, but must exact punishment.

"These voices combine unmistakably the notion of God's abandonment of and harsh judgment of his people with the notion of his deep love for them," Peterson said. "The God speaking here is no distant, uninvolved, unemotional monarch. He loves Israel."

In Jeremiah 14:17, which reads, "Let mine eyes run down with tears night and day, and let them not cease," Peterson senses a God that feels "shunned, pained and offended."

"Although God is surely going to punish Judah, his mood, as represented in Jeremiah, is one of mingled compassion and anger," he said.

Yet, the concept of a cold, impassable God — which was more in line with Aristotle's view of deity — has persisted, Peterson said. He explained that references to emotional language have been disregarded as metaphorical.

Moses 7 was, figuratively speaking, "way ahead of its time, in a way," Peterson said.

"Theologians weren't talking about this in 1830, yet there you have it: God struggling with the sense that he has to punish his children, but he doesn't want to," he said.

Traditional theologians struggle to accept anthropomorphism — God being human in any way — because of the importance they place on an incorporeal — or immaterial — deity, Peterson explained. Emotional displays such as tears require a body. The solution is to "deny all the emotions mentioned for God in the Bible," Peterson said.

"The question is whether Christians will in the final analysis opt for their traditional theology, or for the Bible," he said.

Mormons who believe in an embodied God don't struggle with the concept of an emotional Heavenly Father, while non-LDS advocates of a suffering God have to reconcile this with their belief in an immaterial God.

Peterson concluded that Heavenly Father is not only a God with emotions, but feels more deeply that we can fathom. The greater the expanse of love, the greater the vulnerability.

"God is love," Peterson said. "Therefore, God must be thought of as emotionally passable. In fact, not only as passable, but as the most passable. God's love is more perfect than any love we could imagine. Therefore, God must feel pain and joy for his children."

e-mail: ashill@desnews.com

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