I confess that I am sitting under a pine tree doing absolutely nothing … I confess that I have been listening to a mockingbird … This kind of thing goes on all the time. Wherever I am, I find myself the center of reactionary plots like this one.
– Thomas Merton, “Confession of Crimes Against The State”
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The authors of The Westminster Confession of Faith, perhaps the greatest compendium of Reformed theology ever composed, tell us that “there is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions …” (Chapter II, Section 1).
In describing God as “without passions,” the Westminster Divines were harking back to the writings of the ancient Greek Fathers of the church. The word the Fathers used to denote this attribute of the Deity was apathes: “without pathos; free from suffering.”
What this means in layman’s terms is that God is not subject to “mood swings.” Circumstances don’t affect Him as they affect us. Things don’t rile Him up or get Him down. “Stuff” bounces or rolls off Him like water off a duck’s back. He is infinitely above anything that might threaten to poke holes in His unruffled serenity. This doctrine of God’s impassibility is closely related to, and indeed is inseparable from, the concept of His immutability or unchangeableness.
Apatheia – the nominal (noun) or substantive form of apathes – is an important aspect of the Pilgrim life. It is, in fact, the next of our fundamental Pilgrim values. “Be imitators of me,” says Paul, “just as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). As flawed human beings living in a fallen world we will, of course, always be subject to passion and change. But this should not prevent us from emulating and striving after the unflappable calm that resides at the immovable center of the divine nature.
It goes without saying that apatheia is not the same thing as apathy. It doesn’t consist in dismissiveness of others, and it certainly doesn’t imply a deficiency of human compassion. Nevertheless, the two terms do have something in common. There is an important sense in which the Pilgrim, as an alien and stranger in the earth, simply doesn’t care about the things that get the natives all in a huff. The great concerns of this world – the structures and systems of the kosmos – mean little or nothing to him. As C. S. Lewis wrote in a 1940 letter to his brother Warnie:
Lord! How I loathe great issues. How I wish they were all adjourned sine die. “Dynamic” I think is one of the words invented by this age which sums up what it likes and I abominate. Could one start a Stagnation Party – which at the General Elections would boast that during its term of office no event of the least importance had taken place?
This is part of what we mean by apatheia. But there’s more. For the allurements of wealth, power, and position, of prestige, financial security, social honor, and the esteem of others – all those things that were “vanity” to Ecclesiastes and “dung” to the apostle Paul – these too are neither here nor there as far as the Pilgrim is concerned. He pays little attention to wars and rumors of wars, nor is he in any sense terrified or dismayed at the empty posturing of his adversaries. His sense of well-being does not rise or fall with the stock market or the shifting tides of the political or cultural climate. He refuses to bow before the brazen altar of career and human accomplishment.
When it comes right down to it, the Pilgrim is not afraid of doing nothing and seeming to be nobody. That’s because he knows that the root and stem of his being lie elsewhere: namely, in the invisible reality of his eternal and unshakeable connection with the Infinite.