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.

Existential arguments for (im)passibility—Part 2

tumblr_o54ed9RF5Q1rx503do1_400We’re talking about existential arguments for/against divine (im)passibility (impassibility as we’ve defended it here, which is simply the claim that God’s essential triune beatitude and happiness are undiminished by the world). How does belief in divine (im)passibility shape one’s experience?

To begin to get at exploring the possible answers, I first want to suggest two perspectives from which to assess the answers. The first has to do with making sense of how we understand divine motivation (and by implication our own). The second has to do with how our belief on this question actually informs and facilitates human transformation. I’ll focus on passibility and work from there.

(1) Divine motivation. Passibility here explains how God is motivated to act on our behalf at all. If God doesn’t suffer on account of our sin, pain, and suffering, God would be so indifferent to our state it would either never dawn on him to act on our behalf or, if he were to act, we could not interpret his actions on our behalf as evidence of love.

(2) Integrating belief in divine passibility. Our spiritual healing and personal transformation are brought about through integrating the truth of divine passibility into our subjective experience. By integration I mean intentionally world-constructing within the framework of some truth or other. In this case such integration involves identifying our well-being with God’s diminished beatitude (his suffering essentially). As we contemplate God’s essential suffering on our behalf, we realize that our pain is expanded beyond the limits of our own experience and into God, and this realization brings us encouragement, strength, hope, relief, etc.

I’ve addressed divine motivation previously. (Check out Divine experience of beatitude the summum bonum—part 2 and God as meaning-maker.) In both posts I argue that God’s motivation to pursue our highest good can be understood as a self-motivating fullness that needn’t be prodded into action either by suffering diminishment or by the prospect of an increased aesthetic value. A present fullness may be its own motivation to pursue the well-being of others as an expression of its own fullness. And we have experiences of our own which demonstrate this to be possible. On the other hand, there are serious problems in supposing that God’s motivation to act on behalf must require his first being emotionally hurt or existentially diminished.

We come, then, to assessing (im)passibility in terms of (2), and I’d like to explore a couple of New Testament passages (Heb 2 and 4) as test cases. Let’s start with Hebrews 4:

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

It is clear here that believers are encouraged and empowered in well-being not through imagining Christ as “high priest” to be “unable to empathize with our weaknesses” but, quite the opposite, through reflecting upon his experiencing their weaknesses and temptations. It might seem that a passibilist could read this passage straightforwardly as saying “we do not have a God who is impassible” and consider the debate closed. But upon closer examination things aren’t so cut and dry.

The first thing to note about Hebrews 4 is that the descriptions in question are spoken of Christ as the Incarnate One. If we take these descriptions of Christ and attribute them without qualification to the divine nature (because Christ is divine), we are bound to say this nature is (essentially speaking) vulnerable to being tempted by evil, something James explicitly denies (Jam 1) when he says there is no shadow of turning in God as the source of all good “who neither tempts nor can be tempted to do evil.” True, in Hebrews 4 the God-Man empathizes with our weaknesses and vulnerability to temptation, but he empathizes with us precisely by actually sharing them as weaknesses and temptations because he, like us, shares an embodied human experience subject to those weaknesses. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Hebrews 2 is close at hand and assumes the same perspective. Here we see (NIV) that Christ “suffered death” (v. 9), “tasted death” (v. 9), was “made perfect through what he suffered” (v. 10), “shared our humanity” (v. 14) to “free us from our fear of death” (v. 15). He was “made like us, fully human in every way” (v. 17) in order that he might “become a merciful and faithful high priest” (v. 17), “make atonement for our sins,” (v. 17), and “help us who are being tempted because he suffered when he was tempted” (v. 18).

Again, note that the claims are made of Christ’s embodied accomplishments which qualify him to be high priest. Note secondly that these experiences—sharing humanity, facing mortality, suffering under the pressure of temptation, dying—are available only in human, embodied natural terms. Even if I had other grounds for believing in the passibility of the divine nature (say, on the basis of Old Testament texts describing God) nothing described here is predicable to God outside his incarnate state, and much of it is impossible to predicate of God in his divine nature. Note thirdly in v. 17 that “he was made like us…so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest.” The assumption here is that these sufferings are new to God. That is, while only God can determine the purpose and meaning of human being, only a man can disclose and achieve that purpose and meaning. God has to be made like us so that he might become high priest. The author’s view in Hebrews 2 here is that Incarnation is what makes it possible for God to have an experience that qualifies him as man to disclose, achieve, represent and make available a way of being human that embraces all human beings. Only God can be the perfect man.

Hebrews 2 and 4 are crucial passages if we’re interested in exploring existential arguments, because these passages ground the practical-existential benefits of salvation in the belief that Christ’s sufferings and temptations are a source of healing and empowerment to us. So how’s that empowerment work?

  • How is one encouraged by the God-Man’s having faced mortality and having tasted death if one also believes God is immortal and cannot be threatened with death (as Paul confesses explicitly in 1Tim 1.17)?
  • How is one encouraged by the God-Man’s having suffered temptation if one also believes God cannot be tempted by evil (as James confesses)?

Both experiences (being mortal and being immortal, as well as suffering temptation and being invulnerable to temptation) are had by God; so no impassibilist suggests that the experiences essential to human being are not at all predicable to God. On the contrary, this human nature is God’s human nature. So its experiences are God’s. But we cannot fail to say also that God the Son has that experience essential to divine being (including ‘immortality’ and ‘invulnerability to suffering temptation’, affirmed by Paul and James respectively). Something along the lines of Chalcedon is necessary to hold these experiences together ‘personally’ while recognizing their incompatibility ‘naturally’.

But if I imagine the Son sharing my weaknesses and temptations while also not suffering those weaknesses and temptations, have I not so compromised the integrity of Christ as a single subject as to empty his human experience of any encouragement, confidence, and grace it might provide? I’ve suggested (here and here) why no such compromise follows, but I’ll try to return to this in Part 4’s wrap-up.


As we can see, Hebrews 2 and 4 cannot be understood as attributing suffering, morality, and vulnerability to temptation to the divine nature per se. I’ve also described (here, here, and here) the inner process of deriving the confidence and grace Christ’s experience provides within this Chalcedonian framework. Remember also that all the biblical passages in which we observe apatheia at work, interestingly, are passages that focus on the practical-existential benefits of the gospel’s power to heal and transform human being.

For now let me suggest three things that I try to keep in mind as I move into Part 3. First, whatever existential benefits (confidence in prayer, freedom from fear of death, provision of grace) Hebrews 2 and 4 offer, they:

(a) do not explicitly attribute suffering to the divine nature,
(b) assume God is only able to have these experiences via the Incarnate state, and
(c) cannot compete with the existential benefit which is ours through contemplation of other unalterable truths about God, i.e., his invulnerability to suffering temptation (Jam 1) and his immortality (1Tim 1.17; 6.16).

Make no mistake about James. He means to encourage and inform faith in the most practical-existential of ways by reminding us of how God’s relationship to the evil which tempts us is unlike our relationship to evil.

Hope, strength, and grace can be and are mediated to us through contemplation of the ways God shares our human experience (Heb 2 and 4), yes. But they can be and are also mediated to us through a contemplation of the ways God is not like us (Jam 1; 1Tim 1) and of the ways God is what we presently are not but shall be (Rom 8.18). I’m sure it was a great comfort to Peter that Jesus was not vulnerable to drowning the night the disciples were caught in a storm.

So to one group of suffering and tempted believers the author of Hebrews says, “Take heart! Christ suffered our weaknesses and temptations. The God-Man knows what you’re going through,” while to another family of suffering and tempted believers James says, “Take heart! And remember that God doesn’t tempt anyone, nor can he be tempted by evil as we are.” Both realities (the essential impeccability and immortality of divine being and Jesus’ embodied sufferings and temptations as God’s own) describe the experiences of a single subject (the Son), and both realities comfort upon contemplation in their respective modes of being.

Secondly, it does not follow (in the case of Christ, both fully human and fully divine) that if the ‘person’ suffers both ‘natures’ suffer since both ‘natures’ are united in the one ‘person’. While it’s true that no ‘person’ suffers apart from ‘nature’, and no ‘nature’ suffers apart from its ‘person’, it doesn’t follow that a person with two natures cannot have experiences unique to a single of his natures. Nor does it follow that experiences unique to a single of his natures are not genuinely and fully had by him. As we think through Hebrews 2 and 4, it seems to me we have to keep this in mind. The communicatio idiomatum (communication of divine and human properties in Christ) are the communication or attribution of the experiences definitive of both natures to one and the same ‘person’, not the attribution of each nature’s essential properties to the other ‘nature’.

Perhaps an analogy will help. Let us say I am set on a coast to coast journey from New York City to Los Angeles. And let us say the conditions under which I am to make this journey limit me in time and resources. Suppose I have 5 days to get to LA, am given an ATM card and limited to $100 for expenses, and I have no means of transportation. I have to hitch-hike, get a bus here and there, and do whatever else I can to get myself to LA. Let’s assume that everybody who tries to make the trip under these conditions fails. But eventually one guy succeeds. We later find out, however, that he’s a millionaire and his card actually had unlimited funds on it. You object, “Wait a second. No fair! I was truly limited to $100 while he had a million dollars.” Now, the analogy doesn’t cover every imaginable point of comparison. But it does get at exposing the irrelevance of the complaint that unless the millionaire is reduced without remainder to the constraints of my conditions, I can’t be encouraged or motivated by his example, and similarly the complaint that unless God is reduced without remainder to precisely the conditions under which I suffer as a human being, I can’t be helped by the Incarnation. The millionaire actually completed the trip on less than $100. That’s the relevant point. He succeeded at doing what we fail to do with what we are given to accomplish it.

Lastly, I want to suggest that any attempt to make practical-existential arguments in the debate over (im)passibilism begin by stating the telos/end of human being in existential terms and then seek to demonstrate in experiential terms how one’s view succeeds at informing human transformation along those lines. That’s the relevant point in these arguments. I’ll try to explore this in Part 3.

Questioning God

QAJust some random thoughts that seemed to present themselves.

We are not meant to read the Bible. We are meant to hear it. (Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God; Rom 10.17). We don’t read to expose the truth of Scripture. Scripture exposes us, discloses our truth—whatever that truth is. The Bible is where we are read. Question we must. It’s in our nature. But we find true answers when we discover that the answers precede and so create the questions.

A compass detects magnetic north by answering it, not by creating anything or putting its case to magnetism. It just is its attraction. Its experience of movement, of being drawn and attracted, is the compass’s existence as answer to the greater reality in which it finds itself and which defines its purpose and function. Magnetic north doesn’t exist because there are compasses. Nor is magnetism an answer to the compass’s question, however practical a utility compasses are.

So I’m just wondering whether that we question at all is in reality our answer to a more fundamental question which being, as gift, puts to us. So when it comes to theology, divine transcendence means our questions are responses to the answers that seek us out, not the other way around. God gives himself to us in the form of desire, thirst, hunger, longing. But God doesn’t show up as an object of our interrogation to provide answers. We show up in our searching as questioned by God, and we ask most properly when we posit ourselves in our questions as our answer to the questions that create us.

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.

Omnisubjectivity and passibility


Linda Zagzebski (George Lynn Cross Research Professor, and Kingfisher College Chair of the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics, at the University of Oklahoma) made some very interesting reflections a few years ago on God’s knowledge of us in Omnisubjectivity: A Defense of a Divine Attribute (Aquinas Lecture, 2013). There’s a much shorter summary of it (by Zagzebski) also, and there’s a helpful but short review of it here.

Zagzebski’s essential claim is that divine omniscience involves God knowing our conscience states. If this seems an innocuous claim, it isn’t. For Zagzebski it entails grasping with perfect accuracy our first-person perspectives, not simply knowing that we are having the inner thoughts and emotions (which are the experiences we’re having), but having those experiences, experiencing the qualia (the knowing-what-it-is-like) of our unique subjective experience. She believes such knowledge of others is epistemically better to have than not to have and that it constitutes the perfect sort of knowledge of the world an omniscient knower would have.

Zagzebski agrees creatures are not God, and God is not the creatures he knows, and this means that though God has perfect knowledge of our experiences by experiencing the unique qualia that defines those experiences within our incommunicable first-person perspectives, Zagzebski maintains nevertheless that God is able to have our experiences (to know them in their subjective qualia) while distinguishing himself sufficiently from these experiences so as not to confuse or mistake the difference between himself and us. Our first-person perspectives become God’s own first-person perspective but without God thinking himself to be us. She employs the model of human empathy to explain how God is able to know what it is like for creatures to have the unique experiences they are having (sensations, moods, and attitudes) while distinguishing between himself and creatures. Such knowledge of another’s psychic states is “consciously representational,” so that the empathizer is always aware that his emotion “is a simulation of the other’s emotion.” Her essential thesis (to restate it for myself) is that (a) qualia differ from other qualia, (b) the only way to know the difference between qualia is to experience them, and (c) if God is omniscient, he knows the difference between qualia by experiencing them.

How can we imagine God being thus defined in his own experience by our experiences so intimately as to know (de se) the qualia that define us while also distinguishing himself from us and thus knowing our experiences are not his? Zagzebski argues that the structure of empathy gives us a way to imagine how this is possible. In empathetic states there is a “transference of emotion” (and other psychic states including beliefs, sensations, desires, moods, etc.) from one person to another. One intentionally imagines oneself in another person’s circumstances. This admits degrees of knowledge, of course. Being finite, we can never reproduce within ourselves another’s experience without some loss of aspect or intensity of the other’s experience. But God, Zagzebski argues, does not suffer from such inabilities and constraints. He has “perfect total empathy”:

God’s knowledge is direct, unmediated by concepts, percepts, the structure of language, logical inference, or any of the other cognitive aids we use in order to know the world around us. And it surely cannot be mediated by imagining what it would be like for him to be in our place. I don’t think we have a perfect model of direct awareness of another’s conscious state, but the closest model in our experience is empathy.

To be specific then, Zagzebski is not arguing that God’s de se knowledge of us, including experiencing the qualia of our experiences, is an instance of empathy as we know it. Rather, empathy as we know it is an analogy, a conceptual model, by means of which we can make sense of attributing to God, by abstraction, such intimate knowledge of us. She is careful about what divine omnisubjectivity implies, but it obviously implies a strong divine passibilism. (One attempt to derive such passibilism from divine omnisubjectivity is outlined by Chester DeLagneau.) I think it fairly clear that divine passibilism follows from Zagzebski’s view. If God is experiencing the intensity or deprivation of the qualia of our experiences in terms of their aesthetic value (to speak just of the emotional dimensions of those experiences), God is passible.

What might someone holding our particular view here say in response? Dwayne and I view God’s experience as undiminished beatitude. Several responses come to mind.

First, one could simply disagree with Zagzebski that God is omniscient in the sense she understands it. It is not always better to possess such knowledge of others and especially no advantage for God to be thus defined and determined by us. Indeed, one can easily think of experiences God is best thought of as not having, even in the representational sense Zagzebski imagines. The experiences of knowing/feeling-what-it-is-to-be guilty, greedy, or lustful come to mind. Some experiences we have are experiences of “privation,” i.e., the privation of being (being for which God is ground and end), and it’s extremely difficult to imagine God being thus privated. Of course, it would have to be the case, first, that being greedy, lustful, and arrogant are indeed ‘privations’ of being (failures of being per se), but I trust no Christian doubts this. Secondly, it would have to follow that the sort of vicarious transference of some privated state of being by God to his own being would constitute a privation of God’s being. I think these follow rather straightforwardly.

To be fair, Zagzebski argues that with this kind of transference there remains a difference between “imagining yourself in someone else’s situation” and “imagining being that person in that situation” and God does the former, not the latter. But this seems to me a distinction without a difference, for Zagzebski insists that “to empathize with surprise is to feel surprise, and to empathize with the sensation of color is to have colored qualia.” So even if we grant God’s awareness that his experiences are only representational, they are, as Zagzebski argues, still experiences of that kind. But following this logic, to empathize with despair is to feel despair, and to emphasize with fear is to feel fear, and similarly with anxiety, lust, greed, guilt, and arrogance. And for all the reasons we’ve explored on our blog, supposing God’s aesthetic experience to be thus diminished (privated) is hugely problematic.

A second objection to Zagzebski’s proposal is that it involves an extremely segregated view of God’s experience. I’ve discussed integrated vs segregated aesthetic valuation before, and Zagzebski’s view, like the segregated model, partitions God’s own experience into as many distinct and competing aesthetic experiences as there are distinct created subjects in the world. God’s experience of the world’s diverse values would not be a consummate act of integration, and this threatens the unity of God’s experience. There would be no divine experience (singular) of the world. There would be only divine experiences (plural), none defined or shaped by the other. Nor would God’s own self-constituting triune (first-person, if you will) perspective contextualize all our diverse experiences of value in light of his own perspective.

In this case, God is simply the apprehended totality of all our experiences, the truth of our pain and suffering, not a truth which heals our pain and suffering. I don’t know Zagzebski’s wider theological convictions, but I want to assume she’d agree God has a perspective upon himself as triune, as infinite beauty antecedent to the world, in which case one needs to ask: What of the qualia of God’s antecedent triune actuality? Would not God’s own self-constituting perspective (and the beauty and value and beatitude of that perspective) integrate and so contextualize all creation’s finite perspectives within its embrace?

image_previewThird, does God empathize with us? In a careful sense that would always require a conversation to explain (as inclined as we are by our pain to view all things in terms of it). I’d suggest that God doesn’t empathize us in the sense Zagzebski maintains. But what can we then mean to God? What can our sufferings mean to God if he is not defined by them as I’m defined by them? On what basis does God pursue us, desire us, rush to our aid, even freely will to incarnate and so suffer the vagaries of human existence if not in response to feeling our pain (as his own) as Zagzebski argues? Surely my pain has to mean for God what it means to me (if he loves me at all). I’ve previously described the direction our answer to these questions would take and from which I’ll borrow a few concluding comments:

The search for meaning is wired into us. And if what we’re describing is the case, then our “meaning” is God-given. Essentially, our “meaning” is not the difference we make to God but the difference God makes to us, a difference we freely partner with God in realizing—yes—but a “meaning” which in the end is just our logos which God offers us as the aim/telos of our being.

Metaphysically speaking, ‘privation’ is ‘meaninglessness’, not an alternative meaning that competes with our logoi. All things exist in virtue of their God-given logos, which we might think of simply as God present in us saying “be this…” as the ground of our being. Absolute aesthetic failure, strictly speaking, is non-being or non-existence (and thus non-meaning). Hence, the measure to which we fail to conform to our logos is the measure of our meaninglessness, not our meaning, while the measure to which we conform to God’s subjective aims for us is the measure to which we achieve our God-given meaning.

If our meaning to God is the difference he makes to us, if our significance and worth are God-given and God-derived, then we enjoy the same (not less) attention and affections with which God pursues Godself. We’re suggesting that our true ‘meaning’ to God is our ‘worth’ or ‘value’ to God and as such is derived and unchanging. He loves us as he loves himself. So we receive the full measure of God’s attention, affections, desires and resources. To say our pain, suffering and all other forms of privated being are ‘meaningless’ to God, then, is not to say God doesn’t recognize or care about our well-being. It’s to say he cares only about our well-being, and that he is our well-being.

Encounter and presence

Being-presentI continue to enjoy reading David Benner. As I come across passages that strike me as particularly enlightening, I pass them along. As I finish up his Presence and Encounter, a passage from its ch. 10 grabs my attention:

It is now time to shift our attention from presence to encounter. While my primary focus to this point has been on presence, you may have noticed that I have been unable to avoid talking about encounter. The reason is that it is impossible to separate them. There can be no presence without an encounter and no encounter without presence.

Even the act of being present to yourself involves and encounter with your presence. The same is true when you are present to a sunset, a person, your pet, or God. In each case, you encounter something or someone. If you do not encounter anything or anyone, either you are not present or your expectations about what form that encounter should take are getting in the way of it actually happening.

Presence is never, therefore, strictly solitary. It always involves a relationship. More particularly, it always involves a relationship between an “I” and a “Thou.” Presence involves honoring the sacredness of whatever or whomever you seek to be present to. Even presence to ourselves demands this same honoring. Anything approached as an “It” will never be encountered. But anything approached with reverence for its sacredness has the potential to become an encounter.

Every “It” can become a “Thou.” And you hold the key to this transformation. That key is the way you engage it. Engage with honor and its otherness will be revealed to you through an encounter with a “Thou.” But engage with anything less than this and you simply meet an “It.” It all depends on you.

True presence means being the presence of a “Thou.” This is the mode of being in which we encounter the sacred that is the hidden treasure in everything and everyone. We don’t have to look for it. The sacred reveals itself to us when we approach it as a “Thou” seeking to encounter another “Thou.”

There is no reason to suspect that Moses set our looking for the sacred on the day when he suddenly encountered a burning bush that was not being consumed. He was simply going about his daily work, tending the sheep of his father-in-law, but the fact that he noticed not only that the bush was burning but that it was not being consumed tells us that he was attentive to the transcendent. He was attentive to the extraordinary in the ordinary and to sacred presence.

Anyone might have noticed a bush on fire and passed by, but Moses was so sufficiently present in the moment that he noticed that the bush was not being consumed. This led him to come closer, and as he did, he countered not merely a mystery but the Sacred Presence that lay behind it—the Present that revealed itself as the “I AM.” Moses encountered the “I AM” because he approached the bush as the presence of a “Thou.” And his encounter with God confirmed that both he and God were also a “Thou.”

Only in presence is it possible to know presence. Only in bringing the presence of a “Thou” to a meeting can the other reveal itself as a “Thou.” And only in bringing the presence of a “Thou” to a meeting can that engagement become an encounter with the Eternal Thou—the Wholly Other that lies behind all encounters and every other Thou. This is the great mystery and the great truth that is revealed in the story of Moses and the burning bush. Every encounter with an “other” can be an encounter with the Wholly Other. For in each particular “Thou,” we encounter the Eternal Thou.

What does it mean to treat yourself as a “Thou”? And how does this shape the potential encounter when you seek to be present to yourself? The nature of an act is determined by the motivation out of which it arises. This is the source of its meaning. We recognize this when we speak of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. An act of apparent love that does not arise from a heart of love is not love.

An act is made sacred by the intentions that shape it. Being present can be nothing more than a psychological technique, useful, for example, in treating anxiety, depression, or a range of other issues. But the same action of being present can also be prayer. Prayer is not a behavior but an intention of openness in faith to God who is both beyond and within one’s self. Presence as prayer involves a sacred offering. It involves offering myself in the moment, to the moment, and to the possibility of an encounter with what that moment holds.

Sacred acts are free of the instrumentality that characterizes much of human action. It is not true prayer when we expect to get something from the act of openness. Genuine openness in presence means setting aside our hopes and expectations about what we might gain from being present. It is stepping outside our usual mode of doing so that we may return to being.

Being present to one’s self, or simply being present in the moment, can be a sacred act when it is offered with this openness. Openness means, of course, that we must be prepared to be open to whatever the moment may hold. We can never, for example, be open to God without being open to our own selves. Nor can we be truly open to our selves without being open to the God who inhabits the depths of our selves. There are no closets or drawers in openness. Nothing can stay hidden in a heart that is genuinely open. This is why prayer is honesty and honesty is prayer. All that is required to make presence a sacred act of prayer is to be as open as you can be in that moment. That will always be enough.