Existential arguments for (im)passibility—Part 6

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I began this series by noting how difficult existential arguments are to evaluate. What a person decides is ‘existentially best’ (i.e., what constitutes a more existentially fulfilling experience) is always based on some perceived end, and we often pursue conflicting ends. Chocolate is from the perspective of taste a better existential value than kale. But from the perspective of health, kale is a more valuable experience. I’ve suggested that existential arguments for divine (im)passibility focus on the structure of aesthetic experience understood from a certain perspective, that is, within the truth of our end or telos in God. I’ve tried to weave this structure into how I consider (im)passibilist views of God’s nature. In this final Part 6 I’d like engage Paul Fiddes’s comments from Part 5 (sticking to his bold outline) in the hopes of further clarifying the debate. Just to be clear, when I speak of God’s “essential suffering” I mean the (ad intra) suffering of the divine nature or essence.

Theodicy of consolation
Fiddes believes divine consolation is bolstered if we affirm God’s essential suffering:

Believing that God suffers in God’s own self and so understands their predicament at first hand may in the end be more convincing to sufferers than any formal theodicy can be.

He construes consolation as a form of presence with those suffering, a presence which is not itself an explanation of evil, nor an excuse, nor a justification of human misery. Consolation rests simply in the knowledge that “our suffering has not cut [us] off from God,” that “God is with [us]” and “does not abandoned [us].” I agree it certainly is a consolation to know our suffering does not cut us off from God or make God inaccessible to us. Fiddes goes on then to argue that while it is one thing to posit the intimate presence of God with us in our misery, it is a greater and more consoling truth to posit God suffering with us.

At this point I want to question certain assumptions at work. Is it really the case that we universally derive consolation, encouragement, and grace from knowing that our suffering is multiplied outside our experience into the experience of others, even those who are present with us? I don’t see that this follows. From a certain despairing point of view I can see a person in misery feeling better at discovering their misery is reproduced in others. But surely this would count as the kind of despairing passibilism Fiddes warns against. However, if I’m being tortured, or suffering cancer, or have all I possess washed away in a tsunami, it would be of no consolation to me to know that those I love are suffering the same loss, or that their experience is one of misery and suffering on account of me. On the contrary, it would be a consolation to me to know that the greater realities and relationships that define me are not reduced to such misery.

Is there no consolation we receive from God’s sharing the weaknesses and struggles of the human journey? There is indeed. I discussed Hebrews 2 and 4. There is consolation in having beside me someone I know has faced the struggles I am facing and who was not reduced to failure and despair I may find myself in. When I lose a grandchild, am I encouraged to have someone beside me who has also lost a grandchild? Yes, but not someone defined without remainder by the pain of that loss. What grace and encouragement do I derive from this? But as we noted in considering Hebrews 2 and 4, that shared experience is had by God via Incarnation. The consolation and empathy described there is explicitly grounded in Christ’s “having been made” like us “in order to become a high priest,” i.e., in order to lift human nature into a representative perfection inclusive of us all.

I don’t doubt that there is a certain existential relief that a suffering person derives from knowing others are in the same pain they are in. But it is a confirmation of despair and not a healing consolation simply to reproduce their pain ad infinitum in others or in God, and not to introduce into their perspective a healing and transforming perspective that empowers their meaning-making capacities in the appropriation of divine consolation and grace.

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A theodicy of story
Fiddes sees that we meaning-make or world-construct in a narrative framework. That is, we write or compose the meaning of our existence by situating it within the context of a larger story or narrative. Fiddes explains:

We may, then, be helped to cope with suffering and find some hope in the midst of it, if we place alongside our story some greater story, a story of suffering which does have meaning…We find in the Gospel passion narrative that Jesus himself depends on a story like this. In the midst of his agony, he recalls the little story of the righteous sufferer in Psalm 22, and out of his silence he speaks the words from that story: ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ It is a cry of protest…but even in that cry he is beginning to relate his experience of death to God. In turn, the story of the cross of Jesus itself becomes a paradigm that we can place alongside our suffering, to see what meaning emerges.

There is an important truth here. We do indeed learn to world-construct by situating our individual stories within a larger story. We all do this naturally. And when our immediate experience is one of pain and loss, we seek meaning within our loss by situating ourselves within a larger narrative we believe provides us a perspective that gives meaning to our suffering. Here I think we see clearly where passibislist and impassibilist approaches diverge Christologically.

The story of the cross does indeed become a paradigm in which we perceive our own suffering “to see what meaning emerges.” The question is What do we see? At ‘ground zero’ (i.e., the Cross), I think the New Testament shows us the power of the divine identity world-constructing, meaning-making, within the constraints of human being rejected by others and crucified alone. I don’t want to unnecessarily lengthen this post, so I’ll just point you here and here for our view on transcendence and the cross.

Part of what divides passibilists and impassibilists is that the former seek to incorporate suffering and pain as meaning within the larger story or creation. Their experience of evil has to mean something. Evil has to play a positive part in composing the abiding meaning of existence, and the way it does this in an abiding, permanent way is through playing such a part within God whose life is viewed as achieved dialectically through a fallen and suffering creation. And in believing God (ad intra) to be shaped by evil and suffering, I’m empowered to see how evil and suffering can have a meaningful role in my own identity. I don’t think I’m being unfair to passibilists here. This seems to be the standard view.

My view is different, obviously. I world-construct by taking the same essential steps. That is, I situate my suffering within God’s own embodied meaning-making journey. But where the passibilist uploads the existential pain of suffering evil into the divine identity and experience ad intra (becoming constitutive of that identity essentially) and in so doing construes his effect upon and within God as his meaning, I download the divine identity into the embodied meaning-making capacities of human being and view that empowered perspective as transformative in precisely the opposite direction Fiddes proposes. The divine identity (in this case divine sonship or filiation) is an infinitely superior virus (forgive the backward analogy!) that infects every conceivable finite perspective with truth which exposes evil (and thus the suffering of evil) as the lie and illusion that it is—exposes it as false, that is, rather than construing it as meaningful. So instead of being comforted in suffering by believing the evil I suffer will forever shape who I am and so not be meaningless, I am comforted in suffering by coming to see that who I truly am (Rom 8.15) cannot be harmed or defined by the meaninglessness of evil.

Whether and how a person views this as good news is, I suggest, itself determined by whether and how one has come to terms with the Void, the truth of God’s calling one into being ex nihilo (out of nothing). Part of evil’s abiding victory in us is its convincing us to immortalize it, and what better way to immortalize it than to have God essentially defined by it? The cross is where and how that happens for passibilists. In my view the cross is where and how God’s fullness is definitive of our truest identity in spite of suffering.

A theodicy of free will
Fiddes then proposes three reasons for believe human free will entails divine passibilism. He first claims that if God grants creatures a measure of say-so to determine outcomes that do not conform to God’s purposes and desires, God must be frustrated. A “loving relationship allows the risk of freedom to other, and therefore involves pain.”

Why believe that? See Dr. Phil’s disastrous prescription to parents: “As parents, you are only as happy as your saddest child.” I don’t deny the world is full of people who construe their own well-being in such codependent terms. But this is an example of passibilism’s failing to heed Fiddes’s warning not to reduce itself to the despair of dysfunctional perspectives and codependency.

Secondly, Fiddes suggests:

A second reason why self-limitation means suffering is because this humility of God allows something strange and alien to emerge from God’s own creation. There is something that God has not planned, something to be confronted, something therefore to be suffered.

That creaturely freedom introduces novelties is true. Any open theist will agree. Even someone like Bulgakov can agree to the emergence of unpredictable outcomes and can say they are, in an important sense, new to God. But this is carefully qualified. Yes, there are events that occur “God has not planned.” But that such events are “something therefore to be suffered” because unforeseen in their actuality? Again, I’m very familiar with this passibilist refrain, but it is not self-evidently true. It doesn’t follow that if I open myself to the unpredictable per se I open myself to having my experienced sense of well-being constituted dialectically through what happens to me.

A third reason Fiddes suggests for why God’s granting us free will entails divine suffering is because God takes responsibility for freely creating the world in which people suffer. God assumes this responsibility, Fiddes argues, in suffering in Christ on the cross.

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I once argued this myself. I can appreciate wanting to avoid a view of God as not involved in the fate of the world he created, but that God’s suffering is to be construed as “taking responsibility” for having created? We look to the final revelation of God within creation (Rom 8.18) to reconcile us to an account of God’s purposes that satisfies. But to suppose that God answers to human interrogation because he is in any just sense “to blame” is disastrous, for it would construe God to suffer to redeem himself as well as us, to reconcile himself to the world (where Paul has God reconciling the world to himself in Christ), to satisfy a justice extrinsic to his himself and to all his own actions. Incarnation would become the price-tag, a punishment, a fulfillment of justice, for having created and not creation’s crowning and definitive fulfillment.

Let me address finally Fiddes’s criticisms of an understanding of love that does not entail vulnerability to suffering. Richard Creel has argued (2005) it is conceivable that if God knows that evil will finally be overcome he would not share the anguish that we feel. An example of this would be a parent who does not share emotionally in the distress of her child when the parent knows her child is frightened by a danger that is imaginary. I’ve suggested the same analogy myself.

Fiddes objects. He first objects on the basis of an open view of the future. “If there can be unknown elements for God in a future whose outline God is nevertheless certain about,” Fiddes reasons, “this gives plenty of room for genuine empathy with us.” Does it? That all depends on what one views to be the certain outline of creation’s future. Fiddes supposes an open future would necessarily be ‘open’ with respect to creaturely well-being in ways not also included in that “outline God is nevertheless certain about.” But what would such contingencies be relative to creation’s final end? For this objection to work, one would have to suppose that the final well-being of creatures would have to lie outside that “outline” which God is “nevertheless certain about.” But what if creation’s final well-being lies within the outline of creation’s future that is known to God? Creel’s point would stand.

Fiddes has a second objection to Creel’s analogy. What the parent would feel depends, Fiddes argues, upon whether the parent’s feelings illustrate “what human love is like.” And “the picture of an unperturbed mother,” Fiddes objects, “misses the nature of sympathetic suffering as a necessary form of communication between persons.” If the parent is “truly in contact with her child it is quite appropriate for her to share the child’s feelings of distress.”

But this is no objection to Creel. The question is whether it is inappropriate (or even possible) for the parent to communicate care and concern for the child without sharing the child’s distress over imagined dangers. And we know this is possible because we know ourselves to attend lovingly to our children without being defined in the least by their distress. It does nothing to miscommunicate to a frightened child to have a loving parent embrace and rescue it joyfully from a nightmare.

This same point is embodied in Frances Young’s experience. Young relates how her experience of raising a severely disabled child shaped her view of how God is present in a supportive and grace-imparting way to her. Young concludes that those who suffer and who seek to world-construct within the resources of faith must do so in the belief that there remains an essential sense in which God is not vulnerable to or defined by our suffering, for this is the space in which we come to world-construct in healthy, supportive, and grace-filled ways.

However, when Young experienced her turning point in hearing God say “It makes no difference to me whether you believe in me or not,” she faced and entered the Void, the truth of the nothingness out of which God calls us into being unconditionally and in love. Fiddes responds by limiting creation’s “indifference” to God to the mere fact that God exists at all. Certainly we cannot make a difference to whether God exits. God exists necessarily. We don’t get to determine that. “However,” Fiddes argues, “we need not equate self-existence with self-sufficiency. A God who exists from nothing but God’s self can still choose to be fulfilled in the manner of that existence through fellowship with created beings, to be open to being affected and changed by them.” (emphasis mine)

Fiddes’ final quote there reveals the crux of the matter—the relationship between God’s existence as such (on the one hand) and the aesthetic sufficiency of God’s experienced triune relations (on the other hand). That God exists at all is necessary and so not open to contribution or determination by creatures. But how God exists—the felt quality of his experience, his aesthetic fulfillment, the beatitude of his essential, triune actuality—is understood by passibilists as contingent and open to determination by us, and were it not so our lives would be (to the extent we do not determine God) meaningless, for our meaning is the difference we make to God. We here have argued to the contrary that God’s self-existence and self-sufficiency are perfectly convertible and open to participation (not determination) by us, and were it not so our lives would be meaningless.

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