More thinking through feeling

We thought Alan’s piece on (im)passibilism (mentioned a couple of posts back) worth summarizing and engaging here. Truth be told, blogging (for us at least) is very like journaling. The process is formative before and whether or not it’s influential for anyone else. In addition, Alan’s work has been such a model of unprejudiced and irenic handling of the issues involved in this debate, and we so respect his voice, that we thought we’d like to think out loud through his attempt at a rapprochement (among open theists) between passibilists and qualified impassibilists such as Dwayne and me.

I say “qualified impassibilism” because impassibilism as held to by the Orthodox is believed to entail other commitments Dwayne and I don’t embrace. We’re not under any illusions about how alone we are on this issue. We can count on one hand the open theists who share a similar view of God’s beatitude/delight. Since we believe God’s experience of the temporal world is a temporal experience that involves changing states of mind, including divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents, we don’t fit among the Orthodox on the sine qua non of classical theism, viz., actus purus. But we also enjoy an awkward fit among virtually all open theists (but not all) on account of our belief in divine transcendence as God’s unimprovable and imperturbable aesthetic satisfaction. Open theists, virtually without exception (Richard Creel comes to mind as one such exception), espouse a strong convinction in God’s fully passible experience of the world in all its suffering.

We don’t really care what technical theological term is used to describe what we hold to constitute this divine fullness; apatheia (impassibility) is the ‘classical’ term. But since our version isn’t legitimately Orthodox and the same term is so unliked by open theists, if that word is bad fit, fine. We don’t require a ‘word’. As open theism becomes increasingly Moltmannian in its belief in a ‘Suffering God’ involve the cessation of the triune relations, such a vision of divine vulnerability may define beliefs like ours “out of bounds.”

Oh the irony of it all! But enough sociology already. In this post we want just to summarize Alan’s argument. Hopefully we’ll get it right. It’s main point against impassibilism is fairly simple.

By (im)passibility Alan is speaking strictly of (im)passibility of feeling, not (im)mutability with respect to any other change. There’s no debate among open theists regarding divine change with respect to God’s knowledge of the world in its temporal becoming. Alan also defines (im)passibility of feeling as just being that “difference” which we make to God, pure and simple. Impassibility amounts to a “no difference” thesis while passibility is a “some difference” thesis. In addition, the passibilist’s “some difference” thesis makes no explicit claim as to how great a difference we make to God. God’s emotional response to our suffering may be in Alan’s words “infinitesimal,” a “drop of disappointment in a sea of joy,” or a passibilist may hold that difference to be immeasurably great. Point is, it is some actual effect upon the felt quality of God’s experience, for that aesthetic effect (disappointment or satisfaction) just is the “difference” we make to God. Lastly, whatever disappointment God experiences on account of us, there can be no corresponding effect upon God’s “competence.” God is not “functionally impaired” on account of whatever disappointment or grief God experiences on our account. God’s (immutable) competence, it follows (though Alan doesn’t make this explicit), is unrelated to the (mutable) felt quality of his experience.

In the course of laying out his conclusion, Alan grants several key preliminary assumptions.

  • The Anselmian intuition that God is necessarily and essentially the greatest possible being (“maximally excellent”).
  • CEN (creation ex nihilo).
  • God’s intra-Trinitarian experience prior to creation as one of perfect unallowed beatitude.
  • That God is “impassible in nature but passible in knowledge.” This awkward and poorly worded phrase (for Tom) is Richard Creel’s. What Creel means is to distinguish four kinds of (im)mutability (not, as he words it, ‘impassibility’ which by definition has only to do with the passions): nature, will, knowledge and feeling. Among other points, Creel argues God is mutable in knowledge (since his knowledge of the worlds’ changing actuality is an experience of the world’s changing actuality) but that God is immutable in feeling. Creel (2005) is an open theist who holds that God is impassible (in feeling). Dwayne and I welcome the company.
  • Lastly, that God has differential preferences (from among those causally possible futures he foreknows). God prefers some possibilities over others. This differential preference thesis becomes the basis upon which Alan argues the world be understood as “making a difference” to God.

Alan’s strategy for rapprochement is to agree that two views on (im)passibility are false, leaving a third workable solution. The two that don’t work are left and right of center. First, “strong passibilism” is set aside. Strong passibilism is the view that God is so adversely affected by the world’s evils and suffering that he is functionally impaired. He can’t do his job and God needs time to “process” before he can move on. Second, “impassibility” — the belief that “God’s emotions cannot be perturbed at all” and that “God’s intra-Trinitarian bliss is maintained in perfect equanimity regardless of creaturely actions” — is also set aside as incompatible with (a) a benevolent God’s having differential preferences regarding the world’s open possibilities and with (b) our actualized (dis)preferred possibilities “making a difference” to God.

Alan’s third, preferred understanding lands between these two rejected alternatives. God is neither perturbed to the point of functional impairment (on the one hand) nor is he free of all perturbation (on the other). On Alan’s view “the mere fact that God has differential preferences regarding creaturely outcomes requires that God be able to feel disappointment, in some sense, when things go contrary to God’s preferences, and be pleased, in some sense, when things go according to God’s preferences.” Hence, Alan prefers a “weak passibilist” view which holds that God’s emotions can be perturbed but that the degree of perturbation is such that God can never be functionally impaired. Alan doesn’t get into the extent or depth to which the felt quality of God’s experience is affected by us; he only argues that we “make a difference” to God and this difference is our affect upon him. This difference may be infinitesimal, a “drop of disappointment in a sea of joy.” But it is a difference nonetheless. And lastly, Alan doesn’t describe this “difference” we make to God as equivalent to our “meaning” to God, but I think he’d agree they’re synonymous. That is, the ultimate meaning of our existence/experience in the world is the difference we make to God and that difference is a difference in the felt quality of God’s experience.

What of God’s intra-Trinitarian unallowed bliss prior to creation? We must conclude “not that God’s pre-creational bliss cannot be perturbed, but that it cannot be perturbed apart from God’s choice.” Hence, God’s inner tranquility is not essentially independent of the world. God can freely make himself vulnerable to disappointment should he wish to do so.

I trust we’ve stated Alan’s position accurately.

(Picture here.)

3 comments on “More thinking through feeling

  1. Hey y’all… you say “(im)possibility” rather than “(im)passibility” after the bullet point.

    -your friendly neighborhood type-editor,


  2. tgbelt says:

    Thanks Jacob! That makes a big *difference* to me, though without any disappointment. Hmmm. OMG! There it is! ;o)

    My spell-checker was turning ‘passibility’ to ‘possibility’. I had to coerce it, but that made me feel a little unloving.


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