Existential arguments for (im)passibility—Part 1


I’m presently reading an interesting PhD dissertation by Tom Mount (well, Thomas Speed Blair Mount—not a name you want to ‘rush’ through) titled “Existential Dimensions of the Contemporary Impassibility Debate: A Pastoral Approach to the Question of Divine Suffering Within the Context of Conservative Evangelicalism” (South African Theological Seminary, 2015). What conservative evangelicals think doesn’t generally interest me. But existential arguments for or against (im)possibility? Count me in.

Mount provides a typology of these arguments which I’d like to reproduce here as briefly as possible. I may get into the impassibilist responses he discusses, but I’m more likely to just think through my own responses. Mount’s categories provide a helpful organization of the kind of existential reasons put forward in favor of passibilism. They fall under five categories (including supporting reasons):

(1) Devotional considerations (arguments related to how one’s beliefs enhance one’s relationship with God). Passibilism:
– Gives a clearer, more compelling account of God’s love (as empathetic).
– Makes it easier to understand God as personal.
– Better explains God’s goodness (i.e., if God is not troubled by evil his goodness is            called into question).
– Renders the imago dei more intelligible.
– Facilitates a deeper intimacy with God.
– Renders God more attractive and worthy of greater affection.
(2) Psychological considerations (arguments respecting how one’s beliefs promote psychological advantages such as optimism, hope, and consolation in suffering). Passibilism:
– Provides consolation to those who suffer.
– Helps those who suffer adjust to the reality of suffering as a normative             experience in a fallen world.
– Helps ameliorate human suffering by situating it in the larger story of God’s own            struggle against suffering, sin, and death.
– Promises a future free of suffering.
– Makes it easier for Christians to understand and experience God’s empathy.
(3) Ethical considerations (arguments concerning how one’s beliefs improve the way one relates to the needs and sufferings of others). Passibilism:
– Prevents Christians from becoming apathetic to the suffering of the world.
– Provides greater incentive to protests the causes of suffering in the world.
– Gives Christians more reason to share the sufferings of others.
– Helps deter Christians from sin.
(*Perhaps under ethical considerations one could add Robert Sirvent’s argument for the immorality of impassibility (that is, an impassible God is not worth imitating).)
(4) Apologetic considerations (arguments related to how one’s beliefs strengthen the case for faith made to non-believers). Passibilism:
– Makes God more attractive and compelling than one incapable of sharing human            pain.
– Provides a more convincing theodicy.
(5) Missional considerations (arguments concerning how one’s beliefs motivate one to evangelize and engage in other aspects of Christian witness). Passibilism:
– Provides greater incentive for missionary engagement insofar as it portrays God              as grieving over the state of unredeemed humanity.

There is obvious overlap here. Some of the arguments he categorizes as devotional seem as easily viewed as psychological. In the end, existential arguments are open-ended and rarely win the day on paper. Because they’re existential, they often take time to resonate within people as this or that perspective or belief is tried on for size (which I think we’re all basically able to do and which makes existential arguments so fascinating). Some people are unable or unwilling to conceptually test-drive perspectives other than their own. It can be unsettling to do.

The “existential fit” was a major argument offered (by David Basinger’s chapter 5) in The Openness of God (1994) for embracing open theism. In my own master’s thesis I explored petitionary prayer as the primary existential stage upon which the religious adequacy of theological claims could be measured and applied this to open theism. But as fascinating as pragmatic, existential arguments are, they’re notoriously difficult to assess. One doesn’t want such arguments to reduce simply to disagreements between preferences in taste. There is no objective existential argument to demonstrate that chocolate ice-cream provides a more existentially fulfilling experience than vanilla. “The proof is in the pudding” has a certain popular appeal, but we’re not talking about “taste” (sugar is more enjoyable than kale). We’re speaking about experiencing health and well-being (for which kale provides a clearly better “existential fit”).

This is the first conviction I’d offer:

Any argument for the existential fit of theological claims has to fit the claims in question first to specific ends (e.g., What is the end for which we are created and fitted by God?) and then demonstrate (rationally and through personal testimony) the ability of the belief in question to inform and empower the process of human transformation toward those God-given ends. So as I dive into some of Mount’s arguments, I’ll bare this in mind.


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