What difference can passibilism really make?

Just thinking out loud on this one. I’m running through models/scenarios trying to make good on passibilist conceptions of divine suffering that avoid key objections passibilists commonly make to non-passibilist views of God. I can’t get it to work. I’m unable to conceive of a passibilist model of divine suffering that really delivers. So let me describe the models I’m thinking through for comment. Mind you, I’m working through these in non-apophatic, non-traditional terms (because that’s a given for passibilist theologians). That is, heavy on univocity and anthropocentrism and light on transcendence and apophatic qualification.

First, consider a contrast that I think any passibilist has to deal with in understanding aesthetic experience in general and divine suffering in particular. The contrast is between experience which is  integrated (synthesized) or segregated (non-integrated). I’ll try to describe what I’m getting at and if you have better terms, suggest them. With a segregated (non-integrated) divine experience, no divine experience of any subject is affected or shaped or otherwise determined by any other experience God is having of any other created subject. God experiences each subject in its subjectivity and appreciates its pleasure or suffering without integrating or synthesizing that experience with any other creaturely experience God is on the inside of to yield a single, overall, consummate aesthetic experience. Thus each non-divine subject affects God fully, as if there were no other created subjects God was experiencing.

On the other hand, an integrated (synthesized) divine experience of all our discrete, individual experiences would yield a single, undivided aesthetic experience to which all created subjective experiences would contribute their “meaning” or “difference they make.” They would by definition be experienced by God as relatively pleasing or displeasing given the overall, consummate determinations of all the experiences God would be having.

With this distinction made, let me describe passibilism in terms of each and ask whether either is capable of avoiding its own objections to non-passibilist models.

(1) Segregated (non-integrated) divine aesthetic experiences of the world.
Here discrete occasions of creaturely joy and suffering are each experienced fully and non-relatively by God. There is no ‘overall’ divine aesthetic experience which integrates all the world’s joys and suffering into a single aesthetic valuation for God. On this view God has no consummate experience of the world’s joys and sufferings.

This is the strong passibilism I described in the comments section elsewhere. Here God experiences every instance of suffering fully and without existential refuge (we might say) via integration. The depth of divine feeling for each particular occasion of evil or suffering is not alleviated or qualified by other experiences God is having. This is the passibilism that objects to God being happy on some level when Zosia is having her eyes plucked out or when a tsunami sweeps 100,000 lives away in a day. Here you meet with the standard passibilist objection that it’s morally objectionable for God to be happy on such occasions or in the presence of suffering persons. God’s being love must mean God is shaped/determined by our pain and this divine suffering must have a depth and intensity equal or proportionate to the human experience given the human perspective.

In response I would suggest that this is not a passibilism that can deliver the kind of divine suffering that overcomes its own objections to non-passibilist models, for it would remain the case on this construal of divine passibilism that while Zosia is having her eyes plucked out over ‘here’, God is experiencing some joy over ‘there’ which is not defined, shaped or relativized by Zosia’s suffering. True, God is feeling Zosia’s suffering from the inside, even to a depth and intensity Zosia cannot experience given her finite capacities. But it remains the case on this non-integrated view of divine experience that God is elsewhere, existentially speaking, sharing the inexpressible joy of some beautiful experience that Zosia’s suffering simply does not touch or qualify (precisely the sort of thing passibilists object to). Here God is able to so segregate or partition his capacity for aesthetic experience as to offer every individual an opportunity to determine the divine experience as if there were no other individuals God had to experience (something like the aesthetic equivalent to Greg’s infinite intelligence argument).

Besides the philosophical problems of arguing for such segregation, the passibilist objection to impassibilism would hold for this passibilist model. There would be that joy in God which was not defined by the Christmas Day Tsunami that swept through Sri Lanka. God would be in possession of delights unaffected by occasions of creaturely suffering. But passibilists are on record as believing this to be morally objectionable. It would be less than benevolent, even wrong, of God to be happy on some level while we experience horrible suffering. There must be nothing to God’s divine experience which is not affected by our pain. That’s what strong passibilists require, and it’s what this model cannot deliver.

N31-960x727(2) Integrated (synthesized) divine aesthetic experience of the world.
Given the failure of the above non-integrated model, let’s consider an integrated model. On this understanding, discrete instances of creaturely joy and suffering are integrated into a single, indivisible aesthetic divine appreciation/valuation. Here all the world’s sufferings and joys would be relativized within the divine experience, yielding a consummate divine aesthetic experience of the world. God’s overall aesthetic experience would just be the synthesized unity of all the world’s sufferings and joys, the difference of an equation (all worldly joys minus all worldly sorrows equaling the felt quality of God’s undivided experience).

In this case God’s experience of Zosia’s suffering is itself affected by, shaped by, God’s experience of all other creaturely experiences, including supremely joyous ones. How happy God is over some act of unselfish love over ‘here’ would itself shape, or make a difference to, how sorrowful God is because of Zosia over ‘there’. All created experiences would affect God, but their felt affect in God would be their assimilated contribution to God’s overall consummate aesthetic experience. If there are many more occasions of good and joy in the world than of bad, God would be overall elated. In Genesis six, for example, presumably God was overall extremely affected negatively.

Can this model deliver the passibilst the kind of suffering God the passibilist wants? Given passibilist objections to non-passibilist approaches, no. For though we have here a passible God (indeed, a God who is only as happy as the world allows God to be), and one whose experience fully integrates the world’s discrete joys and sorrows (making it philosophically much preferable to segregated/non-integrated passibilism), it remains the case on this view that God’s experience of any particular joy or sorrow would always be an act of consummate integration with every other experience God is having. This is a problem for the passibilist given her standard objections, because it very well might be that when some horrible injustice occurs, God’s overall experience remains unspeakably blissful. God would not be “pissed off” (as one passibilist insists God must be in the face of some injustice). But as should be clear, this would be subject to the passibilist’s own objection to impassibilism, namely, that it is morally objectionable for God be inexpressibly happy while some horrible pain or injustice is occurring. And the same objection would hold regarding God’s delight in created joys and goods. It might be that some wonderful act of benevolence makes God far less happy than he otherwise would be were it not for a tsunami in Asia. Given passibilist objections, however, it should be as morally objectionable that God not be fully appreciative of created joys as that he not be determined by created sorrows.

It seems, then, that if God’s experience is passibilist in the sense that every created joy and sorrow contributes to a single, integrated/synthesized aesthetic experience, then God doesn’t experience any single occasion of evil or of good as he might otherwise experience it were that occasion all God had to invest himself in emotionally, and this ends up offending passibilist sensibilities. The joy which God and heaven feel over my child’s coming to faith, for example, would be greater than it in fact is were it not for another father’s child having died of cancer. And God’s sorrow over the death of this child is not as deeply felt as it would otherwise be were it not for the emotional investment God is having to make in rejoicing with me over my child. On this integrated view, then, God may have been overall inexpressibly happy when Zosia got her eyes plucked out. Who knows? It would depend ‘on balance’ on how well the world was doing at the time, and only God can know that. But the integrated passibilist here would have to content herself with the ambiguity and accept that it may be that God’s actual experience of Zosia’s suffering is less impacted negatively than it might be had she suffered a month earlier or a year later. God may in actuality be inexpressibly happy when Zosia suffers inexpressible pain. On the other hand, God may be (overall) extremely sorrowful in his integration of some very great and victorious good that just occurred just in case on the whole God was vastly more invested in a world overrun with evil. Neither case gets the passibilist what she wants.

Consider this as well. It’s quite possible, given this second, integrated option that there are people in the world right now who are happier than God, for we cannot integrate all the world’s suffering as God does. Given the amount of suffering in the world, God’s overall ‘feeling’ may in fact be pretty depressed. But the world at the same time may be filled with people whose experience is exclusively overwhelmed with reasons for joy. So at any given point in time, there are likely people in the world who are, comparatively speaking, happier than God. As I write this, I’m afraid there are Christian believers the survival of whose faith actually requires this to be the case.

Lastly, we’ve said nothing here about what would happen if God were believed to contribute his own triune resources to his overall felt quality of experience. If one goes with Hartshorne here, God cannot have Godself as the datum of his own experience. God’s concrete experience is just the synthesized union of all created experiences. But one could argue (as Greg Boyd does in Trinity & Process, in basic agreement with the Tradition) that God’s existence is essentially and necessarily an experience of the triune persons and as such God would have himself as the datum of his own aesthetic experience necessarily antecedent to his experience of the world. That would certainly effect the passibilist/impassibilist debate (as we’ve tried to show). We’ll take this up in closing things out with Alan.

(Paintings by Anastas Konstantinov here and here.)

9 comments on “What difference can passibilism really make?

  1. formerlyjeff says:

    I hear ya, Tom. But I think what a strong passibilist is thinking when they hear words like “our suffering is to God like an infinitesimal drop in a sea of divine bliss” is that it fails as an analogical accounting of divine motivation. Because it’s hard to see how we’d be motivated by such a “drop” at all. So I think what’s driving the passibilist in this divide is his/her need for an explanatory theory (or at least a mere predictive heuristic like analogy) that accounts for 1) God’s acting at all, 2) God’s actions resulting in our good, and 3) how we can discern how to choose if indeed our own choices condition the degree of our well-being at all.

    But a purely impassibilist view fails on all 3 counts, as far as I can tell. All posited relations between the existence of God and 1), 2) and 3) seem absolutely serendipitous per impassibilist theism. There are no actual “if …, then …” logical relationships there at all. So many passibilists (me included) can’t see the “how-do-we-then-live?” difference between impassibilist theism and atheism. That renders impassibilist theism a bona-fide show-stopper for us.

    But I agree with you that a “morality” of God doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the relevance of positing passibilism either. There is no morality for God, best I can tell. Rather, it seems that God, relevantly conceived (though this apparently makes God an unacceptable demiurge to Hart etal), grounds the intelligibility of morality for humans.

    So I think it’s correct to say it’s pointless and even sadistic to posit more divine suffering than is necessary for us to plausibly predict how to best choose to live. But I also see why it’s unsatisfying for most people to think we’re stuck with a blind “try and see” approach to well-being. Because there are lots of blind attempts (way more than inductively-derived ones!) that could conceivably fail, resulting in a waste of a lot of energy. And such a divinely-intended waste of energy seems to be contrary to most folks’ conception of divine benevolence. Meanwhile, there seems to be many ways to spend our energy to increase our well-being non-blindly by just living inductively. In other words, there’s something counter-intuitive to many of us in thinking a benevolent God wants us to turn our energies from doing goods we believe are plausibly attainable to the non-inductive hunting of a “needle in a hay stack,” the discovery of which “needle” seems quite improbable. And that’s just one of 5 problems I have with the “needle in a hay stack hunt” approach to bliss-seeking.

    Alan’s “drop” in a “sea of bliss” version of passibilism might be able to account for divine motivation that explains how we can predict how to best live. It’s not obvious that it works analogically because it doesn’t seem to apply to human motivation. So I encourage Alan to think of what other attributes of God that might make it work. Even if God’s negative-felt-experience-from-creation is a drop in a sea of bliss, it’s not a priori obvious that such a positing is inconsistent with the explanatory power passibilists prefer. But the relevant explanatory power is the real value of divine-sympathy-passibilism that I see; nothing else.


    • tgbelt says:

      Jeff: I think what a strong passibilist is thinking when they hear words like “our suffering is to God like an infinitesimal drop in a sea of divine bliss” is that it fails as an analogical accounting of divine motivation. Because it’s hard to see how we’d be motivated by such a “drop” at all.

      Tom: Thanks Jeff.

      I think that kind of comparison (i.e., a drop of disappointment in a sea of bliss) is helpful (though I’m picking it up from Alan for the sake of argument). Take for example the father who responds to his daughter’s skinned knee. She’s in pain, and from her perspective there’s no world-constructing outside that pain, and yet the father responds in love without any perceivable negative affect upon his state. It might even been that her pain is less than a drop in the sea. It may essentially be meaningless to him ‘in terms of determining his overall sense of well-being’. As for motivation, the father isn’t motivated by any perceived depreciation of his own felt quality of experience in attending to his daughter. So I’m just not seeing your objection.


      • formerlyjeff says:

        I’m not assuming the “drop in the sea” passibilism is unworkable. I’m just seeing why T.C.etal (and myself) might find it insufficient as an analogical explanation. To my mind, a father’s actions for his harmed offspring may be explained in terms of instincts/associations (which are defined as impulses unattended by conceptual-propositional intentions), just as we do when we try to explain why animals, which we don’t morally condemn for eating their young or others at times, at times die fending off whatever attempts to kill their young. IOW, we find a way to do a true “if…., then …” explanation for the action. Humans don’t seem to be satisfied with mere temporal relationships for events like “this happened, then this happened, then ….” We want to say this happened BECAUSE ….

        But the minute I say the father never experiences a distinguishable felt experience (different in intensity and/or quality), then how do we set up the syllogism to account for the father’s diverse actions other than by something like what we call animal instinct/association? We can move to the drop in the sea approach. Fair enough, but we still want a syllogism with intelligible premises if that species of theism is going to end up being different than atheism in terms of “how shall we THEN live?” And I’m not yet seeing an analogy for the “drop in the sea” approach that renders such a syllogism intelligible in terms of anything other than the animal-instinct-analogy. So all I’m defending is where I think T.C. and others are coming from. We want the “then” in “how do we then live” to have an intelligible, logical import consistent with bona-fide freely-chosen actions.

        To see the problem T.C. etal (and myself) are having, try to set up a syllogism to derive the conclusion that the father, prior to the daughter hurting her knee, would or probably would perform any action at all, let alone a specific action, after the daughter hurt her knee without using bona-fide teleological motivation or mere animal instinct/association to do it.

        The way teleological theism works with respect to joy and peace is in the sense that we can have joy and peace now in our future hope knowing that the suffering (however relativized by the joy) we experience to do good now will eventually “pay off.” Yes, I know that means there’s self-interest involved in it (just as there is in risk). But that also means we can explain events apart from a mere animal instinct/association analogy. In the teleological case, we’re doing the “man is made in God’s image in a way animals are not” type of analogical argument.


      • tgbelt says:

        I appreciate the thoughts, Jeff. I’m going to just concede that the notion of a self-motivated existential fullness that we’re suggesting (as a model for divine-human relations) is unintelligible to you and many others. Just dismiss us as a logical lost cause.

        For the record, Dwayne and I are not interested in proving our view on this. That’s not possible. All we’re interested in showing is that (a) it’s not “the” classical view on impassibility (ala actus purus and timeless immutability), and that (b) there’s nothing about holding to an open future that conflicts with it.


  2. tgbelt says:

    Jacob is jumping in. The more the merrier!



  3. formerlyjeff says:

    Yeah, Tom. That’s why I’m not saying the “drop in a sea” view is demonstrably incoherent. I just see why people, who want their logical terms (like “so that”, “therefore,” “consequently,” etc) to have the same clear, logical import when talking about God as when they talk about other things, can’t see how an “almost impassibilist” view works for that any discernibly better in syllogisms than for true impassibilistic language. It if can, I would love to see Alan give us an example syllogism using that approach that clearly implies that something we believe is probable is probable per that syllogism.

    But I think even eliminating the reasons we agree are invalid for positing strong passibilism will not eliminate the difficulty I’m talking about. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re really meaning what I’m saying rather anything about a “morality for God,” etc.


  4. T. C. Moore says:

    “For the record, Dwayne and I are not interested in proving our view on this. That’s not possible.”



    • tgbelt says:

      An argument that secures incontrovertible proof where no rational doubt is possible? That’s not even possible for theism, TC. It’s hardly possible for any version of theism.

      We’d obviously like to make the most convincing argument possible, but in the end there’s no absolute *proof* to be had. I’m totally fine with that…

      …but thanks for reading the post!


  5. Tom says:

    Ran across this convo recently digging through old posts. Dunno if you’re around Jeff.

    Jeff: I think what a strong passibilist is thinking when they hear words like “our suffering is to God like an infinitesimal drop in a sea of divine bliss” is that it fails as an analogical accounting of divine motivation. Because it’s hard to see how we’d be motivated by such a “drop” at all.

    Tom: It doesn’t fail as an analogical account of motivated actions. A father who attends to his daughter’s scrapped knee is motivated to act on her behalf. The motivation is ‘teleological/purposeful’ and it doesn’t derive from a prior depreciation of aesthetic satisfaction in the father. The child’s suffering seems all-consuming to the daughter given her perspective and meaning-making capacities. But her suffering to the father is essentially meaningless in the passibilist sense that it does not cause depreciate the father’s abiding joy given his meaning-making capacities. It’s an experience we’re all familiar with.

    Jeff: …try to set up a syllogism to derive the conclusion that the father, prior to the daughter hurting her knee, would or probably would perform any action at all, let alone a specific action, after the daughter hurt her knee without using bona-fide teleological motivation or mere animal instinct/association to do it.

    Tom: I have no wish to seek to explain God’s actions apart from bona-fide teleological motivation. I’m in fact arguing ‘for’ such motivation, I just do so without supposing God must suffer to be motivated. As for the analogy, the father is teleologically motivated to attend to his daughter and pursue her highest good without having first to suffer a diminishment of his own aesthetic satisfaction. Teleology (teleologically motivated action) doesn’t require passibilism.

    Oh wait. Are you thinking that “bona fide” motivation can only be “passibilist” motivation?

    Jeff: The way teleological theism works with respect to joy and peace is in the sense that we can have joy and peace now in our future hope knowing that the suffering (however relativized by the joy) we experience to do good now will eventually “pay off.”

    Tom: That’s not ONLY how it works, and we all know that. Specifically, it’s not how it works for the father and his daughter. The father doesn’t “suffer in hope” when his daughter skins her knee.



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