The Grace of God’s Immutability
For the last month or so, I’ve had a hard time writing anything substantive.
Much of what I’ve written over the last few years focuses on the need for deference to the wisdom and insights of the past. I haven’t really seen any other alternative to the shifting, turbulent, incoherent landscape of modern life—all of which often seems to collapse into a Nietzschean nightmare of raw power politics. Whether or not we choose to admit it, the first and most fundamental truth of our existence is that we stand in a relationship of total dependency upon God, without whom we are nothing, and upon those who came before us. We must continually remind ourselves of that fact—and the structures birthed by history help us do so. This, I know in my bones.
But this is a very, very challenging time to double down on the importance of traditions and institutions—whether religious or not. Amidst all the profound ugliness surrounding Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court (a saga that’s loomed large in my professional life), a major controversy has been unfolding over the handling of sexual abuse cases by Catholic bishops—one that threatens to tear the Roman Church apart. And Pope Francis—the one person with the power to confirm or deny the most explosive allegations—has been largely silent. I might not be Catholic myself, but I can certainly acknowledge that no institution has done more to shape the trajectory of Christian theology or Western civilization writ large. This is not a time for Protestant triumphalism (as some have implied), but for deep sorrow.
Intellectually, it’s not that hard to make the same case I’ve been making—without the theological doctrines and legal principles of the past, a kind of brutish nihilism beckons. But emotionally, it’s very hard to sit with that argument. It’s hard to get energized about “procedural” concepts like neutral principles of judging or the significance of church councils when it feels like the fabric of social order is badly tearing—when there’s no technocratic fix or compromise at hand to help keep the peace.
So last week I did something that I’ve often done when I’ve felt glum about the state of the world: I went to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. (As part of the Smithsonian Institution, it’s completely free. If you’ve never visited, it’s really something.) The outing was a chance to step away from the frantic scrum of cyberspace and into the world of tangible, beautiful things. As I passed fishing cats and dwarf mongooses and clouded leopards lazing in the hot sun, a thought struck me: if all our furiously churning schemes and systems fell away tomorrow, all of this would still be. God would still be there, sustaining the world in its essential givenness. And He would not have changed at all.
And so it was that I found myself reflecting on one of the least-discussed, yet perhaps most comforting, tenets of orthodox Christianity: the immutability of God, which Thomas Weinandy defines as the fact that He is “ontologically unchanging in His perfect love and goodness.” Or, as Malachi 3:6 puts it, “I am the Lord, I change not.”
Even beyond the seemingly arcane terminology, this doctrine is not a particularly popular one. It may conjure up images of a distant, stoic, and unfeeling Creator disengaged from His creation. But I understand it differently: I see it as the core conviction that His essential goodness and grace is always at hand, even when our vision of it grows clouded, and that He will never arbitrarily withhold Himself from those who seek Him. And this insight is what the great creeds and hymns and liturgies of the past call to mind—the reality that even when our fire and world-changing passion ebbs, He remains. Even when the future of everything seems terribly cloudy, He still “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” The doctrine of immutability reminds us that this act is intrinsic to God—an essential aspect of His character.
I don’t know what the world will look like next year, or ten years from now, or a century from now. I think it’s highly likely that the Christian Church of 2118 will look quite different than it does today—far less Western, at the very least. But I can know that through it all, God will not have changed. The cosmos our species inhabits will still be just as dependent upon Him, just as much of a pure gift than it is at this very moment. Christ’s invitation—to give rest to those who labor and are heavily laden—will still be open.
And that offers a far surer hope than any Supreme Court justice, pontiff, or pastor can ever offer.