Existential arguments for (im)passibility—Part 4

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“Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh 8.10)
“You rejoice with an unspeakable and glorious joy, for you are receiving
the salvation of your souls.” (1Pet 1.8)
“The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking,
but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14.17)

In this Part 4 I hope to evaluate (im)passibilist understandings of God in terms of the structure of aesthetic experience described in Part 3. I’ll jump between ‘aesthetic valuation’, ‘meaning-making’, and ‘world-constructing’ as equivalent terms for how the Self organizes and structures experience. Let me begin by suggesting a breakdown of the process.

  • First, we have an experience.
  • Secondly, we interpret that experience relative to the Self.
  • Thirdly, we respond emotionally based on our interpretation of the experience.
  • Fourthly, our emotions motivate us to choose some behavior designed to celebrate, share, promote or defend the Self. Emotions are strategies for maintaining the Self.
  • Fifthly, we evaluate our behavior to see if it was successful at securing the Self’s well-being as intended, and the process keeps going.

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By ordering them sequentially I don’t mean to suggest we always consciously separate them. We typically process life’s experience on these levels as a seamless whole. Steps 1 through 3 are particularly difficult to separate. We have, interpret, and feel an experience as a single event. But we’re certainly capable of making the distinction between stages. That’s why human transformation in Christ is even possible.

Experiences are interpreted by the Self in terms of the Self’s understanding of its own well-being. If an experience is interpreted as a threat to the Self, we may experience this as fear, anger, embarrassment, shame, etc. It all depends on how one interprets the threat in light of one’s competencies. If a lion is chasing us, we will most likely experience a fear that motivates us to run. If someone insults or makes fun of us, we may respond by choosing to defend ourselves in anger or attack in return. If someone admires and loves us, we interpret this as beneficial to the Self and experience its value as increased well-being (joy, delight, etc.). The important point to note is that interpretation and aesthetic valuation are performed by the Self (self-identity), and every Self is of course committed to some understanding of what it believes constitutes its well-being.

Unfortunately, the Self at the center of our lives is more often than not some “false self,” false in the sense that we construct our Self and well-being contrary to the truth of our truest identity in Christ (Eph 4.22-24). Take a Self that identifies its well-being in terms of material possessions and wealth. It’s not difficult to imagine how such a person would interpret being robbed or facing bankruptcy. Such a Self would ‘meaning-make’ within its belief that the meaning of life is in one’s material possessions. The response might be depression, anxiety, panic, or anger as one contemplates behaviors one believes have the best chance of restoring to the Self what it views as its well-being—wealth. We can easily imagine similar scenarios for a dozen different “false selves”—those who grew up learning that their worth and value are in physical beauty, or in the acquiring of knowledge or educational accomplishment, or in achieving power as social or political status, or in the escape that drugs provide, or in the approval of others. There is no shortage of false ways we try to be fulfilled human beings.

I need to add here that a certain sense of aesthetic satisfaction can be had by false selves who have experiences that only confirm their illusions. A materialist Self might experience a new tax policy as benefiting his well-being. But what is felt as pleasurable is only increasing ‘existential despair’ (if I may borrow from Kierkegaard). The existential ‘release’ a materialist gets from taking over another company and seeing its earnings increase, or the ‘rush’ an addict feels when heroin surges through her veins, or the ‘elation’ a fashion model feels when being admired by crowds of photographers—these may all be nothing but forms of existential despair even though they’re experienced as pleasurable and empowering in the moment. Such pleasure is not true human flourishing understood as well-being in anything like a Christian sense. It is like the happiness of a hungry child filling his stomach with candy. This is why we require an absolute summum bonum. Otherwise, all aesthetic experience is contingent and relative.

I bring this last point up because I want to acknowledge that theological pursuits can provide the theologian as false a sense of well-being as heroin provides an addict. Theological constructions can and often do function to secure a false self that gets life from ‘being right’ or ‘having tradition on my side’. As far as we’re able, we have to continue to assess our identity and sense of well-being in relationship with others and within the fuller biblical narrative of the gospel as it’s encountered within the God-given structure of aesthetic experience, a narrative that includes God as summum bonum, human being as radically contingent, God as the end and purpose of our existence, and our truest Self as God-given in Christ (Rom 8.15; Gal. 2.20; 4.19; Eph 4.22-24).

Let me return to the illustration above. At the center is the Self, ‘who’ we believe ourselves most fundamentally to be. If that Self is defined in terms of its contingent relations to other things in the world which are as contingent as it is (material possessions, power and status, nationality, race, gender, being a husband or wife, having children, etc.) then the Self can never be permanently secure. Its well-being will always be “at stake” in conditions that change or cease to be. It will always fear, get angry, become depressed, etc.

But let us consider redefining the Self in such a way as to free it and its perceived well-being from all the contingent relations that make up its created environment, a Self whose well-being is not what others prescribe, not its material wealth, not the shapely features of its body, not its racial or gender identity, not its physical talents or abilities to perform to the approval of others, not its social, political, or educational freedoms or accomplishments as judged by society, and not the comfort of those it loves; a Self whose identity cannot be threatened by anything in or of this world.

Is such a Self possible? How would such a Self interpret its experiences within relations and contexts which are, strictly speaking, irrelevant to its own identity? What would such a Self feel for others who hate, dismiss, or murder it? What would it feel for the suffering of those it loves?

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A passibilist understands the divine identity as capable of interpretations of its experiences that generate an essentially diminished aesthetic value in response to others who reject it or in response to the suffering of others (a view which is fatal to viewing God as the summum bonum as we’ve argued). Also, healing and help for those who suffer is mediated through the belief that God suffers as we suffer. Given the relationship of aesthetic valuation to personal identity, passibilists construe the divine identity as malleable and definable by creatures. And it is precisely this affective determination of God by us which when contemplated in passibilist terms becomes our meaning and salvation. In this sense, passibilism argues that God is the truth of our pain, so I feel encouraged and sustained in my pain and suffering knowing that God is also in pain and suffering on account of me.

If I ever attempted to grow in my salvation in such passibilist terms, as I did for decades, I cannot now tell you how I processed my pain in those terms. It’s too faint a memory. I can only now say that I’ve never experienced the gift of identity more definitively present to, and unconditioned by, the pain and suffering of any moment as I experience it within the truth of God’s undiminished beatitude mediated within the Spirit’s “Abba, Father!” (Rom 8.15) In Part 2 I discussed how I consider divine apatheia to be grounded in Christ’s incarnate experience. God ‘becomes’ our High Priest who is not untouched by our weaknesses and temptations. But empathy reduces to commiseration when divorced from teleology and God as summum bonum. Christ empathizes with us by sharing the circumstances under which we suffer. He suffers what drives us insane—that is, being misunderstood, rejected, hated, tortured and murdered. But he doesn’t empathize with our suffering the consequences of having misinterpreted ourselves within those circumstances, because he never self-identified outside his God-given identity as Son, and—please here me on this—it is precisely in this difference that our salvation is wrought.

Empathy is commiseration when it is not the shared experience of someone who was not defined by our pain and suffering as we allow it to define us. In our view, much passibilist theology is simply belief in divine commiseration, and while there’s a certain comfort (viz., existential despair masquerading as pleasure) I can derive from knowing others are suffering what I’m suffering, it is not empathy as redemptive presence.

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Our claim is that the divine personal identities Christians name Father, Son, and Spirit, are essentially self-sufficient in their mutual, interpenetrating love and by definition enjoy an aesthetic value antecedent to any manner of contingent experience God may have with the world. This beatitude is not a narcissistic preoccupation with oneself. Nor is it pollyannaish. Nor is God consumed with himself at the world’s expense. On the contrary, God is open to giving himself away, to creating out of love so that what he creates may participate in who he is and know his joy. So the existential question we’re asking here is, What consequence does believing this about God have for us? What does it mean for us to process our own identities and aesthetic value in the presence of a God we require to establish our identity and aesthetic value but who does not need us to establish his identity and aesthetic value?

I think the most fundamental thing to say about how this truth is perceived and experienced as healing is that the gift of life and healing is mediated from God to us as the gift of identity. All human spiritual healing and transformation is the fruit of transformed identity. There is an event, and experience (Step 1), we can have that defines the Self without reference to the world around us, an identity that is literally not of this world and so which cannot be threatened or determined by the world. As such it is the ground and source of an aesthetic satisfaction that is as undetermined by the world as the identity from which such satisfaction springs. This identity of course is our “true self” created by God and possessed by us in the risen Christ who mastered death as a human being. It is the Son’s own identity which we are given as our identity.

Essentially, there are no other truly personal identities that exist. All fully personal existence we enjoy flows from God as the gift of and invitation to participate in divine filiation or sonship. As Paul says (Rom 8.15), “You have not been given a spirit of fear which makes you slaves again”—that is, in Christ you are not condemned again to a mode of personal existence that depends for its identity and well-being upon the dysfunctional, despairing and contingent narratives which are the fallen, suffering world we live in. On the contrary, “you have been given the Spirit of adoption in whom you cry, ‘Abba, Father!’” Forgive the inset and bold, but it all boils down to this:

Who cries “Abba, Father!”? Only the Son. We are given his identity for our own. Incarnation is how God gives this gift. We now relate to God, ourselves, and the world from within God’s own self-defining cry of sonship. And so we also experience God, ourselves, and the world from within the aesthetic satisfaction of that cry. That cry is its own satisfaction. So the power of the gospel to heal and transform us is its power to include us within the Son’s own identity.

However, a very painful journey awaits those who seek to realize this identity in its fullness. That journey passes through what James Loder called the Void. Every false self must die, every attempt to establish an identity and meaning for ourselves that asserts we are more than ex nihilo, a meaning we contribute to God and in contributing to God determine him essentially. The Void is where we embrace our own nothingness, where we experience the truth of the nihilo out of which God called us into being unconditionally. But in this death is life, for on the other side of the Void is “Abba, Father!” And for those who survive the Void (or rather, who have survived the death it deals us), what threat can lesser versions of the Void (rejection, abandonment, abuse, sickness, loss of earthly relations and possessions) pose?

How would such an identity then interpret the experiences it has within the world? More specifically, how would God comfort, empower and support my meaning-making if his meaning-making is not essentially vulnerable to the failures of interpretation and diminished aesthetic value that I am vulnerable to? Does not my being-in-pain require God’s being-in-pain for me to overcome my pain? In answer to this we can only offer the biblical foundations for the healing and empowering grace of God’s transcendent beatitude as a transformative reality that lives and animates the Self within the perspective of the divine “Abba, Father!” It is the “joy of the Lord,” not his sorrow, that is “our strength.” (Neh 8) It is the “grace of God” that is perfected in “our weakness.” (2Cor 12) God’s presence and kingdom are “peace and joy.” (Rom 14.17) Peter says our very salvation is manifest in “unspeakable and glorious joy.” (1Pet 1.8) Paul describes a “peace that passes our ability to understand” (Phil 4.7) which is ours in anxious times. If I am rejected, hated, dismissed, or marginalized, persecuted, laid on the rack, strapped into a guillotine, or imprisoned—what falsification could these experiences effect in an identity whose source is eternal and unconditional and quite literally not of this world? Only paragraphs after assuring us that we are given the Son’s own “Abba, Father!” Paul concludes “Nothing—neither death, life, angels, demons, present, future, height, depth, nor any power—can separate us from the experience of the love of Christ.” (Rom 8.38) If the Self is responsible for interpreting life’s experiences and this interpretation is determinative of aesthetic experience, what can our aesthetic experience be as we learn increasingly to possess ourselves within the truth of such an identity?

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