The concept of apathy has a long history in the Western world. We are not the only culture to treat it as “cool.” The great philosophers of the past debated its meaning and value. In fact, among certain Greek philosophers, apathy was one of the greatest things one could aspire to. The Greek term apatheia means “without pathē” (passions), and in the thought of some philosophers, passions often referred to violent emotions such as love, fear, grief, anger, envy, lust, pain, or pleasure that arise as responses to the outside world.
According to the Stoics, for instance, the wise—those who desire a life of flourishing—are totally free from passions. In other words, the wise are not vulnerable to the ups and downs of life in this world. They are self-sufficient; the external happenings of life “merely graze the surface” of their minds, as Martha Nussbaum observes in The Therapy of Desire. The goal of life is what we might call “equanimity,” or a calmness of soul. Even great non-Stoic philosophers such as Aristotle acknowledged the value of limiting the passions, for the good life was thought to await the apathetic.
Early Christian thinkers were well aware of the ancient philosophical tradition of thought that valued apathy. Interestingly, like their philosophical forebears, they sought to apply the concept of apatheia not only to human beings, but also to God.
Those who have taken an introductory course in theology might have encountered the term impassibility in discussions about God’s attributes. Impassibility is a Latin translation of the Greek term apatheia, and it was a concept much discussed among the church fathers.
According to theologian Pavel Gavrilyuk, to speak of God as impassible is to say that “he does not have the same emotions as the gods of the heathen; that his care for human beings is free from self-interest and any association with evil.” Impassibility means that God is not overwhelmed by emotions, and neither are his emotions affected by anything outside himself.
While it may be appropriate to ascribe “emotions” to God, impassibility (or divine apatheia) rules out those that are unbecoming of him. So, for example, when we speak of God as love, we really are speaking of a passionate God. But it is an impassible passion, a love not dictated by the outside world. In other words, God is not subject to violent passions as we are. Apatheia is another way of speaking of the unchangeableness and steadfastness of God’s affection for all that he is and all that he has made.
According to some thinkers in the ancient church, human apathy is a virtuous state of being and an imaging of God’s own virtue. A person who has apatheia has ruled his or her passions through discipline and attained a true love of God. According to Evagrius of Pontus, a fourth-century monk, “Love is the offspring of impassibility.” Apatheia was something to be sought, the culmination of an examined, chastened, and well-ordered life.
Yet the kind of apathy we deal with is not about consciously trying to steel ourselves against the ups and downs of life or about trying to cultivate a detachment from the world that produces a love for God. I believe the early Christian concept that best overlaps with what we would call apathy is not apatheia, but a less-than-savory term—sloth (or acedia).
When we think of sloth, we may think of a slow-moving creature or a couch potato who spends all day in pajamas eating pints of Ben & Jerry’s. However, Christians have described sloth in a far richer way.
Acedia is a Greek term that literally means “indifference, lethargy, exhaustion, and apathy.” One of the earliest and most influential thinkers on acedia was Evagrius of Pontus. He compiled a list of eight deadly temptations that later morphed into what we know as the seven deadly sins. Although he is unknown to many of us, his reflections are insightful into the spiritual dimensions of apathy:
Acedia is an ethereal friendship, one who leads our steps astray, hatred of industriousness, a battle against stillness, stormy weather for psalmody, laziness in prayer, a slackening of ascesis [strict self-discipline], untimely drowsiness, revolving sleep, the oppressiveness of solitude, hatred of one’s cell, an adversary of ascetic works, an opponent of perseverance, a muzzling of meditation, ignorance of the scriptures, a partaker in sorrow.
Acedia is a constant companion. It targets the spiritual practices that are supposed to bring us life, such as prayer, stillness, Scripture reading, hard work, and perseverance in doing good. In his practical instructions to fellow monks about various vices, he devotes more space to describing acedia than
Similarly, another monk and important thinker, John Cassian, describes acedia as a restlessness that entices us to pursue everything but our most important duties. Acedia distracts. It makes us lazy and sluggish toward our spiritual and practical responsibilities. It is a selective laziness that makes everything else appealing.
One recent writer, Nicole M. Roccas, helpfully sums up acedia in Time and Despondency, pointing out that it can take different forms in different people. For example, it can manifest as (1) restlessness, the inability to complete a book, pray at length, or finish a task; (2) productivity accompanied by anger or boredom over the things one is doing; or (3) an inclination to sleeping, eating, worrying, and distraction.
A common thread weaving these various manifestations together is purposelessness or aimlessness. Things are either left undone, done for the wrong purpose, or done for no purpose whatsoever. As Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung observes in Glittering Vices, the heart is numb to the “demands of love”—that is, the things God has called us to.
In Creed or Chaos?, Dorothy Sayers calls acedia “the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.” This is purposeless, aimless indifference.
Acedia, as Christians have thought about it through the ages, is really a helpful category for understanding what we know as apathy. As a diagnosis of the soul, it points to the fact that whatever is going on in us is not merely psychological or emotional, but also spiritual. In fact, acedia seems to be characterized most by its resistance to the spiritual. And isn’t that what we find so troubling about apathy?
There has been significant psychiatric research on apathy, especially among people with severe illnesses such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
However, the research may have a broader application to all who are trying to make sense of apathy. One of the most commonly cited definitions describes apathy as a lack of motivation that “is not attributable to a diminished level of consciousness, an intellectual deficit, or emotional distress.”
If the lack of motivation is accompanied by a lack of effort, lack of interest in learning, or lack of emotion, then the patient might be clinically diagnosed with a real condition. Some patients simply report apathy as “the get up and go that got up and went” or “the spark is missing.” These phrases do a great job articulating a feeling many of us share.
However, the value of clinical precision is that, as we get better at defining the ailment, we are better positioned to deal with it. For instance, apathy overlaps with other conditions, such as depression.
Also, studies on apathy have been able to narrow down the various factors that contribute to it, such as environmental or biological factors. For example, immigrants or members of ethnic minorities sometimes adapt to differences in culture or language by becoming apathetic. The change in culture, or a feeling of being isolated within a culture, interferes with the pursuit of their values or goals, and apathy is just one way of coping or adapting to their environment.
Studies also show that the kind of apathy we’re concerned with is largely an acquired response to the world. It is not necessarily something you’re born with and, therefore, destined to have for the rest of your life. Relatively healthy functioning people who are apathetic have lost interest in things—but only in some things. In fact, psychologist Robert S. Marin defines typical forms of apathy as “selective apathy.”
What, then, is apathy? Who exactly is this enemy that stands against us? We are miles (and hundreds of years) away from the ancient virtue of apatheia. Our apathy is the exact opposite of the apathy our forebears lauded. Ours is loveless; theirs was defined by love. Ours denounces self-discipline; theirs required it.
Apathy is neither deep depression, despair, nor discouragement. It is not the mysterious movement of the faithful Christian groping in the darkness toward God. Rather, it is a middling posture that flits between confusion and disengagement.
Apathy, as the psychological literature has made us aware, is at root a deficit in motivation, effort, interest, initiative, and desire toward things we formerly found meaningful. It is a psychological disorder, possibly not of the same magnitude as clinical depression, but still debilitating in its own way. Acedia merely describes the blahness we feel toward the things of the Spirit; it is a name for the spiritual dimension of apathy.
Apathy is a psychological and spiritual sickness in which we experience a prolonged dampening of motivation, effort, and emotion, as well as a resistance to the things that would bring flourishing in ourselves and others.
It is a sin that expresses itself as restlessness, aimlessness, laziness, and joylessness toward the things of God. It is not just a part of highly evolved adult behavior, something like being too cool to care. It is an illness.
Scripture speaks of sin as a sickness that spreads to all people from its source in Adam (Rom. 5:12) and remains alive in us, producing all kinds of evil (7:8, 20). It also declares that we were slaves to sin, needing release from captivity (John 8:34–36; Rom. 6:6). Finally, sin is described as lawlessness (1 John 3:4), bringing condemnation (Rom. 5:18; 6:23), and requiring propitiation (3:23–25; 1 John 2:2).
In Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, Cornelius Plantinga describes sin as the “vandalism” of shalom. Shalom, biblically speaking, means “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight”—the way things were meant to be. We violate shalom when we turn against the very good order God has established. We subvert it when we live in such a way that undermines our and others’ well-being and joy. And because shalom is ultimately about our relationship to our maker, its vandalization is directed toward God.
As Plantinga writes,
Sin is not only the breaking of law but also the breaking of covenant with one’s savior. Sin is the smearing of a relationship, the grieving of one’s divine parent and benefactor, a betrayal of the partner to whom one is joined by a holy bond.
This smearing happens through our actions as well as our attitudes. Apathy is a sickness of the soul; it is a deformity of heart that needs healing. Apathy, as many of us experience it, is a form of bondage. We can’t seem to lift ourselves out of it, finding ourselves regularly surrendering to its advances.
Ultimately apathy, as a refusal to love the one who is most loveable, is a moral and spiritual crime. It is a sin in the most basic sense. Its origins may be mysterious, but its orientation is not. It is a coldness to God and an indifference to the things that bring shalom—both of which need to be forgiven, conquered, and healed.
We ought to grieve our apathy, but we do not grieve it as those who have no hope. God is with us and for us in our apathy.
Uche Anizor is an associate professor of theology at Talbot School of Theology. Content taken from Overcoming Apathy: Gospel Hope for Those Who Struggle to Care by Uche Anizor ©2022. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
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