Flowers in Auschwitz—Part 2

Auschwitz roseA first conviction I had about God’s experience of the world in terms of aesthetic appreciation was that the unity of the divine nature implies God’s experience is not divisible into independent experiences that don’t share in what each means to God, but that God ‘integrates’ the events of the world into his experience of his own essential, God-constituting triune beauty. This is dangerous and speculative talk, but it seems to me that this is just what it means to say “God experiences the world.” It is “God” who experiences the world. And it is God who “experiences” the world. This suggests that ‘all that God is’ experiences the world given that God is not divisible into parts. All God is is all God is. But more radically (and I hope consistent with tradition), this God experiences the world.

While I’m prepared to qualify all this apophatically, I do think we need to suppose (cataphatically speaking) that God experiences Godself. God relates to Godself. God is a self-reflecting, self-contemplating consciousness (analogous to us). That much doesn’t seem controversial. But then with the Orthodox I want to agree that God is infinitely beautiful and that in contemplating himself God contemplates his own infinite beauty. Furthermore, God’s triune beauty is best conceived as unconditioned (undetermined) by the world. No evil, however great or small, can manufacture in this bliss (to use David Hart’s phrase) “a moment of negation.” Nor is God’s perception of his own beauty in any way world-dependent. I think it follows then that (as Greg Boyd once argued) God’s triune experience is an unsurpassably intense aesthetic satisfaction.

This might be thought by some to be bad news — God locked away in the bliss of his own happiness, a “cosmic stuffed shirt” as Dallas Willard described the apathetic God, or more colorfully as one conversation partner put it (pardon the crude analogy, but I think it appropriate), God would be like an “unending cosmic orgasm.” Some of these can be dismissed without reply. An infinitely happy being need not be thought of as a “cosmic stuffed shirt.” We do have analogies that help endear us to thinking of God as unimprovably and undiminishably blissful. Some of these we’ve shared in previous posts (here, here, here and here).

trashHow’s such a God experience the world’s suffering? How can God ‘integrate’ the world’s sufferings into an overall aesthetic experience that we can call an appropriate response to our suffering with no diminishing of his bliss? To move in that direction, let me share a SECOND CONVICTION I’ve come to share with the Orthodox, this conviction having to do with the ‘freedom’ implicit in necessary being.

I always understood the Orthodox to believe God has no real experience of the world, that he cannot feel for or with the world. But I’m told by the Orthodox that this is not the case. God does have an appropriate aesthetic appreciation for the world, but this is not forced upon him. God is not made to feel or coerced into feeling this or that. God is essentially free and self-determining and this goes for integrating the world’s suffering into his experience. One way to express this freedom from the world while yet fully experiencing the world is to say God is always ‘intentional’. This is certainly not true of us. We can be made to feel physical pain, made to experience things independent of any intention on our part. I once thought of God’s vulnerability (a key theme of open theists) in this sense, namely, our being able to determine God, to make God suffer. I’m suspicious of such talk now, not because I think God does not experience of the world, but rather because I cannot conceive of the world getting in between the relations of Father, Son and Spirit to mar the beauty that God is essentially and necessarily. How would thinking of God as always ‘intending’ what he feels help us better understand how it is we are able to ‘mean’ something to God, something of ‘value’, something of ‘aesthetic value’? Can Auschwitz not dim the beauty of the flowers that grow within it? And what would it mean to experience this?

(Pictures here and here.)

Flowers in Auschwitz—Part 1

Flowers_in_Auschwitz_by_kallioWe place flowers in Auschwitz. Why? Just to pay respect? Or to express hope? Perhaps hope in what David Hart calls an ontology of peace — that ‘being’ is itself an indestructible joy, a repose of self-existent peace in which no evil or suffering can fabricate a moment of negation. This belief—that God’s life is illimitable in its beauty and joy—fell on hard times outside of Orthodoxy for, well, centuries, but it has recently been enjoying (no pun intended) a revival.

Might placing flowers in Auschwitz reflect an innate hope that before, during, and since the occasion of every evil there is an all-encompassing and transcendent joy which cannot be disturbed by whatever evils abound? Might it be that our pain and suffering have defined us so completely that we insist our salvation be purchased by God at the expense of his own joy? Have we come to believe that God has no right to be happy when there is sadness in the earth, that our salvation is in knowing that our suffering hurts not only ourselves but God as well? Somehow we think that our joy in suffering is increased if God’s joy in suffering is diminished. Something just seems terribly off with that.

Discussing with Jeff whether and how God ‘experiences’ the world in aesthetic terms (i.e., whether and how God ‘feels’ the world) got me thinking again about analogies of (a rapprochement of sorts with?) the doctrine of apatheia, which we take to mean not that God is unfeeling or without all emotion or aesthetic appreciation, but rather (as I understand the Orthodox the more I read and talk to them) that the fullness of his aesthetic appreciation (his joy, his delight, his sense of well-being) cannot conceivably be diminished or improved upon. This view of God is rejected with peculiar passion by open theists, but the necessity of this rejection to open theism is something Dwayne and I have been questioning for some time.

Let me mention two convictions (one here and one in an upcoming post) I’ve come to share, as an open theist, with the Orthodox on this. One seems to follow from ‘divine unity’ and the other from the ‘freedom’ implicit in necessary being.

The FIRST conviction regards the integrity or unity of God’s experience, however we’re to express it. I’m having a difficult time conceiving of (Jeff’s suggestion of) fully distinct experiences of contrary emotions in God such that God fully grieves and sorrows over our suffering and simultaneously rejoices over good.

I used to argue something like this myself. I once thought that what was true of God intellectually was true of God emotionally in that just as God’s intellectual powers are not divided among the all the distinct facts or states of affairs he knows, so God’s emotional powers are not divided among all the distinct occasions of evil and good which he feels. The more facts I have to attend to the more my cognitive powers are divided among them. I can give all my attention to a single matter of fact, but as I attend to two, five or more facts my intellectual capacities are divided among them. So each one gets a bit less attention the more I have to attend to. But with God this doesn’t occur. God can attend to any number of matters of fact without having to divide his intellectual capacity between them. If God perceives a million facts, each fact gets 100% of his attention, as if it were the only thing he had to attend to. This is pretty non-controversial I should think.

Auschwitz-064-940x705I once explored thinking about God’s emotional capacity in this way and supposed that God can experience a perfectly appropriate sorrow or grief or anger over occasions of evil or suffering while experiencing a separate and perfectly appropriate joy over some occasion of goodness. I’m still unsure how to articulate exactly why this doesn’t appear to work for me, but among the reasons is the fact that while knowing different matters of fact without deprivation of intellectual capacity is conceivable (because no contradiction exists between any two actual states of affairs), it seems to me having independent experiences of contrary emotions does generate a contradiction. Just can’t put my finger on it.

Later I sought an analogy for God’s feeling the world’s joys and sufferings in the concept of an infinite set. Take the set of all numbers—an infinite set. It’s ‘infinitely intense’; its membership is unsurpassably ‘intense’. But we can also imagine making ‘withdrawals’ from this set. I can remove all odd numbers, for example, and we’d still have an infinite set. Similarly, I often imagine God’s ‘aesthetic satisfaction’ (his joy, his sense of well-being and bliss) in this way, God being infinitely satisfied with the unchanging perfections of his own necessary being and yet able to accommodate real withdrawals which the world’s suffering makes without himself suffering the loss or deprivation of the any intensity of joy. I’m not sure this works. As I mentioned in a previous note, God’s unity presupposes “an integrated experience, a consummate feeling of the whole, which ‘integrates’ without ‘negotiating’, and the only way I can presently do that is to interject into the negotiation an ‘infinite’ variable [God’s experience of his own essential, triune beauty unconditioned in the intensity of bliss it produces by the world] which by virtue of being infinite can be added to and subtracted from without either ‘being improved upon’ or ‘deprived/diminished’.” If such ‘withdrawals’ are conceivable, then we may have a way forward.

Conviction TWO to come.

(Pictures here and here.)

Saturated Phenomenon

Working my way through Khaled Anatolios’s Retrieving Nicaea, I ran across a comment that helped me think about and appreciate the way divine transcendence and apophaticism relate:

“A helpful modern metaphor for the kind of knowledge that trinitarian doctrine offers, and that the development of this doctrine demonstrates, is Jean-Luc Marion’s notion of the “saturated phenomenon.” A saturated phenomenon involves an excess of presencing that so overtakes and overwhelms the knower that she cannot objectify the source of this saturation and enclose it within her cognitive grasp. Similarly, the meaning of the trinitarian doctrine, or the apprehension of the trinitarian being of God, cannot be epistemologically enclosed or objectified.”

I appreciate the manner of expression — an “excess of presencing” that so overwhelms one that one cannot “objectify the source of this saturation” and “enclose it within one’s cognitive grasp.”

(Picture by Natty Alderman.)

God free—to be or not to be?

YaniI’m intrigued when Orthodox friends tell me I’m getting too philosophical or analytical when I explore what it might mean to say God is three ‘persons’ or that God is ‘loving’ and ‘personal’ existence. Then I run into the likes of Orthodox theologian/philosopher Christos Yannaras who provides some pretty philosophical heavy lifting. Here (and in pdf below) is an address he gave to St. Vladimir’s in 2010 that captures one very interesting claim regarding divine freedom about which I’m still looking for clarification and over which I notice not all Orthodox seem to be in agreement. The question has to do with the nature of God’s freedom as it relates to his existence as triune.

Yannaras (and Zizioulas, and even David Hart at times) appears to claim God’s very existence and triune relations are ‘free’ in the sense of ‘freely chosen’ in contrast to being necessitated or ‘given’. The Father freely chooses to beget the Son. The Son freely chooses to affirm his personal existence in love to the Father, and thus with the Spirit.

Now, if all Yannaras means is that God’s existence (including the begetting of the Son and the proceeding of the Spirit) isn’t subject to necessity in the sense of conforming to or ontologically obliging some objective standard of logic or meaning, then I don’t know any who would disagree. God doesn’t exist because he ‘has’ to, nor is the Father under some ‘constraint’ to beget the Son, etc. We agree that in fact God can’t be said to exist “because of” anything. His existence is not a reply to or conformity to necessity. There is no metaphysical ‘deep magic’ which might be said to supervene upon God’s being in or which prescribes for God that he is to exist or that the Father is to beget the Son, etc.

However, both Yannaras and Zizioulas seem to be saying much more than this, namely, that God chooses freely to exist, chooses freely to be triune, etc. But I don’t have any idea of what choice or freedom means in this case. God chooses to exist? Only what exists can choose. Or, as existing, the Father chooses freely to beget the Son? God chooses to be triune? In that case, what becomes of Zizioulas’ “being is communion” or Yanarras’ “relational ontology”?

Aristotle Papanikolaou discusses (Being with God, pp. 148-161) this very point in evaluating Zizioulas, qualifying him to a point but essentially agreeing:

“[The reason] Zizioulas does not ‘conceive of the intra-divine communion of the Trinity as the ground of all that is’ is, quite simply, Zizioulas’s rejection of linking the divine life to any form of necessity. For Zizioulas, the price for making the intra-divine communion the primordial concept is the negation of absolute freedom. God’s existence is not absolutely free if it is necessarily one of intra-divine communion.”

And again:

“Freedom, according to Zizioulas, is precisely freedom from the given. ‘Givenness’ is what constitutes ‘the greatest provocation to freedom’.”

Metroop-Zizioulas1But this seems to me to undo the very thesis Zizioulas argues, namely, that to be is to be in communion. Alan Torrance (Persons in Communion) levels the same criticism against this notion of divine freedom as well, asking “Is the freedom of the Father to be conceived as qualitatively distinct from that of the Son and the Spirit?” and “Does the ontological freedom of the arche vis-à-vis the hypostases of the Son and the Spirit parallel the cosmological freedom of the Father vis-à-vis the created order as a whole?” Torrance wonders how, if creation is the result of a freedom from the given, is divine freedom in the act of creation different from that of the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit if the divine persons are also free from all relational givenness as Zizioulas argues, or indeed if God is free from the givenness of his own existence?

If as Zizioulas says “being is communion,” then you don’t get any more primordial than than being-in-relation. But Yanarras and Zizioulas both insist upon extending divine freedom to the Father’s begetting of the Son and procession of the Spirit (and the Son and the Spirit’s reciprocal freedom to affirm or reject their own being begotten and proceeding), threatening the very claim that “being is communion.” If communion is freely chosen, then being is not communion, it is rather absolute freedom to be or not to be in communion, which is not what either Zizioulas or Yannaras seems to want to say.

Negotiated happiness

dramaWhat are the implications of God’s happiness (the felt quality of his experience, his “aesthetic satisfaction”) being the difference of an equation, that is, of its being the case that God’s happiness is the difference between his reasons to be happy and his reasons to be sad? Let me suggest that if this be the case then the integrity of the sense in which God is believed (by this view) to be happy and to rejoice over righteousness is undermined. The same righteous act would meet with various degrees of joyous response on God’s part depending on the level to which God’s joy is diminished by evils in the world. Were the evils in the world less (and God’s experience less diminished by them), God would experience greater joy over my loving act. His ability to rejoice over an unselfish act of sacrificial love performed at Christmas 2004 was diminished by the death toll of the 2004 Christmas Day Tsunami in the Indian Ocean. God could be happier about your selfless act of love, but he has the victims of a tsunami to grieve for in addition, and he has only so much emotional wherewithal to divide among them.

Similarly, as I follow this view, God’s compassionate suffering with the victims of that same tsunami could not be as deeply felt as it might have been were it not for all the reasons God had to rejoice in the world. God would have felt worse for the tsunami victims had some loving person elsewhere not loved his neighbor sacrificially and provided God a reason to rejoice. But this is what one gets with defining divine happiness as the difference of an equation — reasons to rejoice minus reasons to sorrow. It means that…

“…how joyous God finds himself in the face of any particular good as well as how grievous he is in relation to any particular evil are not a measure or reflection of the good or the evil relative to anything absolute about God; rather they are a measure of God’s sense of well-being distributed among competing demands, each demand determining a ‘share’ of the divine.”

Something is desperately wrong here.

What to do? Well, one might suggest that there’s no need to do anything. This is just the way things are. God really would feel better than he does over your goodness were it not for some evil in the world that diminishes the joy God would otherwise feel on your account, just as he would be sadder for victims of evil than he actually is were it not for the presence of some goodness in the world.

If this seems unacceptable, one could suppose that God has a self-generated reason to rejoice which, though finite because diminishable by worldly evils, is nevertheless greater than all combined imaginable reasons to sorrow. In this case God is never in danger of (as Marilyn McCord Adams describes it) “having his mind blown” by overwhelming worldly sorrows. God can’t have an emotional break down because he has a supply of reasons to rejoice that derive from his own being and identity which can never be exhaustively spent on worldly suffering even if they can be diminished.

This is definitely a move in the right direction. However, it leaves unaddressed the objection to God’s being too sad (on account of some actual evil) to rejoice as he might over the salvation of a single sinner, and also too happy (due to salvation of the sinner) to grieve as deeply as he might over the actual evil. Something seems amiss with this consequence.

God’s Green Mile


In The Green Mile (1999 film based on a Stephen King novel by the same name), Michael Clarke Duncan plays John Coffey, an innocent man tried and convicted of murder and sentenced in Louisiana for killing two young girls. He’s on death row awaiting capital punishment. The corrections officers responsible for him all become convinced of his innocence based on Coffey’s humility and the peculiar exercise of an extraordinary God-given gift he possesses. Coffey can feel the innocent suffering of others. The world’s hatred and ugliness enter into his mind and he feels what the suffering feel. He’s also able on occasion to extract the physical sufferings of others and absorb them. For example, one night the officers smuggle Coffey out of prison and take him to the home of the prison warden to treat the warden’s wife who is dying from cancer. Coffey beckons the blackness of her cancer into himself and expels it out into the night air.

But for Coffey this is hardly a “gift.” He longs for death because the weight of the world’s suffering is, he says, “like pieces of glass in my head all the time.” He longs for the rest that death would bring him. Check out the video clip. Pretty cool movie if you haven’t seen it. Dwayne and I have at times discussed the idea of likening Coffey to a suffering God as imagined by the likes of Moltmann, Kazoh Kitamor, or even Greg Boyd.

What got me thinking about the coherence of this view of God’s suffering was a comment one prominent open theist made to me to the effect that “God could be much happier than he now is.” I admit this was my view of God for most of my life. But I was in process at the time, so I asked how that would work. “Well, somebody just died and went to hell the hour we’ve been talking. God grieves that. Hence, God is less happy than he might otherwise be.” The idea is that God’s happiness (let us call it ‘the felt quality of God’s experience’ or, as we prefer using Boyd’s language, God’s “aesthetic satisfaction”), fluctuates depending upon how well the world is doing.

Every instance of benevolence or failure of benevolence in the world increases or diminishes (as the case may be moment by moment) the felt quality of God’s experience, i.e., his happiness. God’s ‘emotional life’ (if we can use the term) is improved or diminished given the relative state of creation. This yields a general formula: Reasons for being happy – reasons for being sad = how happy God is. Makes sense, right? After all, that’s how it works with us, right? Reasons to rejoice – reasons to sorrow = how happy we actually are. John Coffee, mind you, was able to feel both the suffering AND the happiness of the world. His emotional state was simply the difference between reasons he had for being happy minus reasons he had for being sad. Our experience to Coffey’s is similar; but we don’t experience the suffering of others to the depth of emotion equal to those who suffer. But Coffee did. That was his gift. And God, as I understand Moltmann, Boyd, et. al., is a universalized version of Coffey. He feels evil to a depth which not even suffering fallen human beings experience, since their being finite and sinful would diminish their ability to feel the truth of evil. God transcends (in this instance at least!) this created limitation and experiences the world’s suffering infinitely. But in the end, God’s emotional state is still the difference of an equation, between rejoicing over every actual instance of goodness in the world minus sorrowing over every actual failure of such love. None of us has God’s omniscient point of view. His experience would be the ultimate difference. But we do know — so the view goes — that evils actually do diminish the divine happiness. So God is relatively happy, given the up’s and down’s of the world we live in. In the end, we decide how happy God is.

The more I thought about this the less sense it made. More on ‘why’ in the next post. In the meantime, check out The Green Mile.