Existential arguments for (im)passibility—Part 3


It’s time to try to outline more specifically the ‘how to’ of (im)passibilist construals of God’s experience of the world and explore their relative advantages/disadvantages. Defining existential well-being is difficult enough. Stating specific standards for assessing well-being is more difficult because, as we said, we’re talking about how people experience encouragement, comfort, empowerment, and transformation relative to their theological beliefs.

In this post I want to describe what I think are the essential characteristics of aesthetic experience which both impassibilist and passibilist descriptions of God have to consider. These characteristics describe the fundamental existential structure of our lives which both shapes and is shaped by our belief commitments. As such the features of this structure are the existential grounds upon which arguments for this or that belief can be judged as existentially satisfactory or lacking.

I can only present my own sense of things given my personal and pastoral experience, including observations of others and conversations that have shaped me. Theologians and others (psychologists and psychiatrists) have explored the aesthetic structure of human consciousness and compared how competing theodicies make sense of suffering. Thinkers as different as the Process philosopher Charles Hartshorne and the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart have described the irreducible aesthetic nature of experience, and each ends with very different conclusions about divine (im)passibility. Certainly I’m not looking to make any headlines. What I hope to do is explore how, given the fundamental aesthetic structure of human experience, passibilists and impassibilists can be understood to process their own joys and suffering in light of their belief in divine (im)passibility. In this Part 3 I’ll try to outline this structure as I see it. Then in Part 4 I’ll offer some observations on how our theological beliefs help or hinder our experience of well-being given the aesthetic structure I describe here. I could be desperately mistaken in my own intuitions, perceptions, and judgments. If that wasn’t true, I wouldn’t need to post any of this. So I appreciate your helpful comments.

We’re off! In no special order, then, the basic structure of human experience (the experience which forms the ‘existence’ in our ‘existential’ arguments) which I believe relevant to the question of divine (im)passibilism would be described as follows:

As irreducibly aesthetic
We’ve spent a lot of time here pointing out and agreeing with both process theologians like Whitehead and Hartshorne (on the one hand) and Orthodox theologians (on the other) that the experience of aesthetic value is a transcendental a priori (i.e., it is an essential feature of being). By ‘aesthetic value’ I mean the experienced value or well-being, which in light of other transcendentals would be convertible with an experience of truth, beauty and goodness. Aesthetic value then is an experienced beatitude the intensity of which is convertible with the depth of its knowledge, beauty, and benevolence. I think all conscious experience is by definition a disposition or appetite for the experience of some aesthetic value.

The point in stating this here is to make clear that there’s no avoiding the consequences of one’s position on (im)passibility. It is a question about the fundamental nature of experience. We don’t have experiences which are not experiences of aesthetic valuation. We may not always immediately identify our desires as aesthetic in nature. But if one is intentionally present in the moment and opens oneself to the truth of things, it’s not difficult to see that all perception is aesthetic valuation.

As irreducibly grounded in God
Human beings aren’t self-sufficient. They derive their existence, including the irreducible aesthetic nature of their desires, from God the creator and sustainer of all things.

As valuing God as the highest good (summum bonum)
If aesthetic value is a transcendental a priori (along with truth, beauty, and goodness), then God must be the summum bonum, the highest good and greatest value from whom all created experiences derive their value and by whom they’re measured. God’s value would simply be the beatitude of his own experience. Our experience of aesthetic value would be a participation in God as the highest value/good.

As irreducibly ecstatic and teleological
If God is the summum bonum who creates and sustains us, who calls us into being, then he is also the end toward which all desires tend. We thus experience ourselves as an irreducible and ecstatic “aiming at” some aesthetic satisfaction.

As irreducibly hypostatic, that is, made concrete by the ‘Self’
Our aesthetic experiences can be described as ‘meaning-making’, by which I mean ‘world-construction’, the intentional process by which we perceive ourselves and the world, identify our deepest sense of self relative to God and the world, and experience the consequences of that intentional integration in terms we can only identify as the ‘meaning’ of our existence. This meaning-making capacity is personal, i.e., it’s managed by the ‘Self’, that center of personal identity constructed by each of us throughout our lifetime. The ‘Self’ is what/who interprets, organizes, assigns value to various experiences we have, and then experiences this entire process as some felt, aesthetic value which it identifies as its meaning. But it is in terms of who we fundamentally believe we are that we interpret and feel as we do (thus, irreducibly hypostatic or personal).

All of us grow up integrating lies into our deepest identity and end up with a ‘false Self’ doing the meaning-making. Salvation in Christ then is the recovery of our ‘true Self’ in Christ (Eph 4.22-24). But redeemed or not, emotions are always linked to some ‘Self’, to some version of ‘who I believe I am’. ‘Self’ is at the center of the meaning-making function unique to human aesthetic experience. In an important sense, emotions are simply “who you believe you are” responding to the world around you. This function of the ‘Self’ as determinative of perceived and thus experienced value is an undeniable feature of the structure of human aesthetic (and spiritual) experience.

As an integrated whole
I previously considered two ways of viewing aesthetic experience—as either integrated or segregated. On an integrated model of aesthetic experience, the discrete experiences we have are integrated by us into a single, indivisible aesthetic appreciation/valuation. Here a person’s joys and sorrows are assessed within the unified embrace of the whole ‘Self’ and yield a consummate aesthetic experience. A person’s overall aesthetic experience would possess a single aesthetic intensity, the synthesized unity of all his or her experiences, good and bad, joyous and painful. As our experience is constantly changing, typically the felt quality or intensity of our aesthetic value is improving or diminishing depending on the perspective from which the ‘Self’ integrates experiences and world-constructs.

A segregated model of aesthetic experience divides into as many distinct and competing aesthetic experiences one is having and experiences each diverse value as if there was nothing else to experience. There is no consummate act of integration. I take this to be an impossible model of healthy self-integration and aesthetic experience and hold all actual, concrete, experienced value to be integrated aesthetic experience.

As irreducibly connected to all things
If God is the summum bonum, the highest good and greatest value, from whom all created experiences derive their value, then the greatest good of any one of us is the greatest good of every other. No well-being of any one can compete with the well-being of any other, since God is the well-being of all. What I require for my highest good in God cannot compete with what any other requires for her highest good in God. We are all one in God. We are all equally grounded in God and share God as our highest well-being and end. What grounds the highest good of the other is what grounds my highest good. This will matter, I suspect, to how we empathize and have compassion on others in their suffering.

That should give us enough structure to go on. We have God as the summum bonum whose triune experience is the highest value from whom we derive our being and value. We also view aesthetic experience as the integrated experience of a governing identity or ‘Self’. And we view all things as oriented toward and participating in one and the same good, God. God’s well-being is thus the well-being of all created things.

I’ll return in Part 4, I hope, to unpack the existential arguments for/against (im)passibility in terms of this structure.

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