A 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).
How’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?