Stoicism and Christianity, Part 1: Apatheia and a Personal God?

I've been reading the stoic philosophers lately and have been reflecting on the relationship between stoicism and Christianity.

I've always been deeply attracted to stoic philosophy. The aspect of their thinking I find most appealing is the notion of apatheia. Apatheia is the root for our word "apathy" (i.e., indifference), but the ancient meaning of apatheia is closer to equanimity than indifference.

Simplifying greatly, achieving apatheia is straightforward: Care about only those things you are in control of. Leave the rest behind. Upon reflection, according to the stoic thinkers, the only thing you DO have control over is your character and virtue. So, you worry about that and nothing else. That is, you worry about and work on what kind of person you are. What happens to you, event-wise, is largely out of your control. And, thus, out of the realm of your interests and passions. So, no matter what life throws at you, you deal with it, well, apathetically. Only your character matters, emotionally, to you.

The early Christians resonated with the stoic writings. And well they should as there are apathetic themes throughout the bible. Some quick examples:

"Don't lay up treasures on earth where moth and rust decay and thieves break in and steal."

"God makes it to rain on the just and unjust."

"Consider it a joy when you face trials, for the testing of your faith produces perseverance."

The point being that we don't get caught up in trying to change the circumstances we find ourselves in. Circumstances are fickle (e.g., thieves break in and steal) and have no moral goal (i.e., it rains on the just and unjust). Thus, it is futile to invest in changing circumstance. It is better to learn to endure, to deal with the fortunes of fate with apatheia. Equanimity. Calmness. Peace of mind.

So here is what I've been thinking...

I wonder if the notion of a "personal relationship with God" interferes with the stoic and Christian advice to treat fickle circumstance with apatheia? For example, we get sick. How should we approach this illness? The stoics and parts of the biblical witness would suggest we approach it with equanimity. But highly anthropomorphic and relational notions of God appear to block this route for many. That is, God is seen as both able and desirous of aiding the ailing Christian. Thus, this notion of God leaves open the possibility that God might change my circumstance. And this potential for changed circumstance doesn't allow the person to fully step into apatheia. As a result, the person never learns the skills of true peace and courage. Rather, they are looking to hit that Providential lottery ticket.

This musing left me with a few questions:

Are strongly relational notions of God morally and psychologically weakening us? That is, are these notions inhibiting apatheia?

Are many of our theological worries (e.g., unanswered prayer) the product of failures of apatheia? That is, rather than accepting our circumstance we wring our hands at why God is not answering us.

Have these relational notions of God got us focused on the wrong issues? That is, rather than focusing on issues of claiming God's blessings, protections, and promises should we not be more focused, as the stoics suggested, on our character?

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11 thoughts on “Stoicism and Christianity, Part 1: Apatheia and a Personal God?”

  1. While I continue to question people's insistence that relationality is the be all and end all of theology, I think it's kind of unfair to blame our failure to achieve apatheia (or, buddhist-wise, detachment) on the idea of a relational God. Picturing God as our friend may exacerbate our psychological problems, but the real culprit has to be the idea of an intervening God, relational or otherwise.

    And biblical literalism makes it very hard to get away from the idea of an intervening God. So most Christians are probably stuck.

  2. I have mixed feelings about Stoicism. I think this certain "coolness" is its greatest chance and biggest danger. After all there is a whole worldview attached to it which is highly propblematic: the view that everything that is is necessary. I think Greg Boyds criticism of Calvinism is here very interesting; namely that it would lead to indifference against evil.
    I think it really boils down to 2 questions:
    Aren't the passion that which makes us human? Which connects us to the world around us?
    Would a Stoic radically oppose evil or would he just see circumstances which allow him to grow (the desire to mature can be a very selfish thing...)

  3. When THOUGHT realises that whatever it does, any movement that it makes is DISORDER, then there is SILENCE.

  4. Accepting the reality of our powerlessness seems essential to healthy apathia. It is part of a paradox with personal choice. To opt for either side seems to distort the whole - and we do that most of the time.

    Powerlessness is often an experience of shame that we dispise in ourselves and often project shame on others "who ought to just do something...."

    It seems to be the individualism and transactional theology behind the "personal relationship with God" that leads to making apathia into a means to accomplish something - to be more holy, more acceptable, to get more blessings, etc. As if God could not possibly forgive sinners before they agree and repenting (in the form of being sorry enough for our sin) is our part of the transaction waiting to happen. We seem unsettled by grace that is given without our having the power to accept or reject it.

    Our fear of powerlessness drives us to find something/someone to "guilt" when bad things happen so we can re-establish control and prevent it in the future. The idea that something bad could happen again and we are powerless to prevent it is unacceptable.

  5. Have these relational notions of God got us focused on the wrong issues? That is, rather than focusing on issues of claiming God's blessings, protections, and promises should we not be more focused, as the stoics suggested, on our character?

    I believe so. Being a Christian does not exclude us from the sufferings of this world. We are told that we WILL suffer. Our suffering will result in perserverance and perservance, character and character hope. I truly believe that God is more concerned with who we are and who we will become and not with our happiness and living a comfortable life. It's true that God does have the power to change circumstances and to deliver us from sufferings, but we see through Christ that it is suffering that brings us to perfection. It is also through suffering that we accomplish apatheia. I may have missed the point of your questions here, but I do believe that Christians today are focused on the wrong things, and I don't know if it is a result of the idea of a relational God. I do think that Christians focus way too much on sin and punishment.

    I also think that because of our selfish ways we do get angry and disappointed with God when he doesn't answer our prayers. The truth is that we are having faith in the outcome we are dictating to God rather then having faith in the character of God, trusting that He is working for our good. So God does answer our prayers, its just not in the way we want. I know that God is good and is kind. For it is His kindness that leads to repentance.

    I suppose in my opinion that one does win the lottery when they choose to follow Christ. We don't have to understand everything or know everything to do that. Only trust him. I believe in my heart of hearts that when one chooses to follow Jesus they are choosing life. It is life that He died for, it is life that he came to give us and give us abundantly. IN that life we have hope, joy, love, peace, goodnes, kindness and such. I don't think these things are something we strive for, something we have to accomplish and say, "okay, I've done it." Following Christ is a journey, a ride, and I am thankful that I don't have to know it all to have Life, that I don't have to worry about the trivial matters of doctrine and such only that I love God and his people and live...

  6. It is most often beneficial to imagine the extreme and take lessons from the outcome. Assume there is no God - I would argue that an individual's highest calling would be character development. If you insert God does that change the argument? Then, is a Christian's higher calling God? In what way? Worship? Devotion? Again, I would argue character development best honors both "callings". Would you argue otherwise?

  7. Richard... a few questions for you. First off, to what extent does this apatheia depend upon a concept of God (i.e. is this worldview sustainable as an athetitic notion?) and what would our concepts of God look like without this relational element?

    What I think would be interesting to know would be the "unanticipated side-effects" of this type of approach. So, if a relational concept may eventually lead to certain theological worries such as unanswered prayer, I wonder what cognitive and/or behavioral results would come from apatheia. I think (as Pascal Boyer has nicely noted), our concepts of God are often interpreted through a lens of anthropomorphism, because that gives them a certain degree of tangibility that we desire. This relationship with God then is seen in terms of how we see human relationships. It becomes a tangible and attractive concept. So to bring it back to some of your previous posts... is this concept of apatheia less malleable to anthropomorphism... and does that perhaps make it less "sticky" of a theological concept?

  8. Matthew,
    I think your are right in that clarification (i.e., personal vs. interventionism).

    I have the same concerns. That is, I don't want to suggest that we become indifferent to PEOPLE or their plights. I'm mainly attacted to how stoicism can help people achieve a degree of peace and stablity in a world of contingent ruin. But you are right, this approach needs to be balanced with compassion and activism. Thus, a pro-social stoicism may be a Christian advance on the Greek idea.

    As I read your comment I think there may be a difference in a stoical fatalism and the Christian escatological stance. That is, our PRESENT sufferings are to produce character in us but we hope, in Christ, for an eternal glory to be revealed in the end.

    I think you are right that issues of helplessness are at the root of the issue with an assocated search for "control levers" to life. Even if those levers are fictive they are comforting.

    I don't think I would argue otherwise. I tend to define Christianity as practice rather than belief. However, I think character development needs a telos, a target. Thus, for me, Christ provides the character formation goal and, thus, needs to be inserted into the equation. Even the stoical equation.

    I think you put your finger on some important issues. In many ways I'm floating this post to begin thinking through just these sorts of questions. I agree that a stoical approach is less sticky. It would require too much inner work to become attractive. And the stoical approach does have problems. Arne pointed out the issues related to passivity before evil. Your point raises the spector of how views of God might be changed, and not in very healthy ways. I think what I'd do is post some more on this line and see if between all of us the stoical move has any legs. So, my next few posts will keep with this theme.

  9. I would answer your quieries: YES, YES, and YES.
    1.In my journey the last few years, (coming out of 59 years of a Southern Baptist background) I am finding relational notions of God harder and harder to affirm.
    2. My studies of Eastern philosophies, particularly Taoism, have led me to see importance of acceptance of our circumstances, resulting a lowering of my stress and worry level.
    3. Formation of "good" character can only result in success in other areas of our lives.

  10. Richard,

    Fascinating stuff. Many people have already pointed out the similarities with Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, and I certainly don't disagree with the potential benefits of this outlook.

    However, I don't think that a personal God is the problem. In fact, I think a personal God, a robustly adamantly personal God, leads to similar or better conclusions than the stoics. The problem I think you are pointing to is idolatry.

    That is, a personal God who is essentially a projection of our own need for comfort, or a super-sized human can indeed lead to a failure of apatheia and an expectation of constant divine intervention. But this isn't really a personal God, properly understood, this is a God reduced to an object of our affection.

    God, the radically monotheistic God articulated by Niebuhr and others, can never be objectified and thus never be the one we EXPECT to respond. God is not an object of our expectations. God is eternally subject and thus we can only understand God as the void, the thing which destroys all our idols and which perfectly prepares us for compassionate other-centered apatheia. I'm not articulating it extremely well, but I think the "subjecthood" of God would be fruitful for you to explore in relation to this topic.

  11. I have 2 thoughts in response to this question of stoicism.
    One, I agree that the pursuit of character is desirable because we can only possess that which makes up who we are. We can have things, store up treasures, etc., but we can't take that with us. But, what is character? Just as God can be anthropomorphized, what passes for character is subject to societal influences. Issues of loyalty, thrift, generosity, truthfulness, and honesty sound like good character traits but they have darker manifestations. It's hard to know when to be truthful and when to keep quiet, for example, and when to be loyal and when to leave a person or organization that is displaying actions contrary to your good character, and so on. Pursue character but I think it first must be defined.
    Point two; I don't think apatheia means simply allowing events to happen without resistance. If a ball is thrown at my head I can catch it, or duck, or I can let it hit me. I have choices. If I determine that a pursuit of character means I must resist evil then I must do that. I think the concept of apatheia would mean that I must then take responsibility for the actions I have taken.
    Rick T

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