God as ‘meaning-maker’

themeaningoflifeWe’d like to continue engaging Alan Rhoda with a few more observations. We began our response with positing ‘Aesthetic Value’ as a transcendental a priori (along with Truth, Beauty, and Goodness). By ‘aesthetic value’ we mean ‘experienced value’ (‘satisfaction’, ‘beatitude’ or ‘existential fullness’) which in light of the other transcendentals would be an experience of truth, beauty and goodness, or, arguably, an experience which just is truth, beauty and goodness, or again, in other words, an experienced beatitude the perfection of which is the fullness of its knowledge, beauty and benevolence. This is what we take God’s being the summum bonum (greatest good/highest value) to mean and which is the antecedent actuality for the possibility of all other experiences and valuations.

Our second observation was (though not directly a response to Alan’s points) to represent Greg’s summary of how it might be conceivable that such a divine experience is also open to experiencing a contingent world. Thirdly, then, I explored two possible models for thinking of divine passibility, which to summarize briefly are:

(1) Segregated (non-integrated) divine aesthetic experiences of the world. Here there is no overall divine experience which integrates all the world’s joys and sufferings into a single aesthetic experience. The divine feeling for each particular occasion is not itself qualified by any other experience God is having. But this, we observed, fails a common passibilist criticism of non-passibilist views in that it fails to maintain the integrity or unity of experience which many passibilists believe must define God’s experience of created joys and suffering. There would remain that joy in God which was not, for example, defined by the Christmas Day Tsunami that swept through Sri Lanka. This is generally thought to be morally objectionable to passibilists. It would be wrong of God to possess a happiness not vulnerable to determination by the world’s suffering.

(2) An integrated (synthesized) divine aesthetic experience of the world. On this understanding, discrete instances of creaturely joys and suffering are integrated into a single, indivisible aesthetic appreciation. God’s overall aesthetic experience is just the synthesized unity of all the world’s sufferings and joys. This synthesized unity is, as we’ve described elsewhere, the difference of an equation (all worldly joys minus all worldly sorrows equaling the felt quality of God’s experience). But this model, we observed, also fails to deliver on the depth or intensity of suffering which a strong passibilist wants, for it may be that when some horrible injustice occurs, God’s overall integrated experience remains unspeakably blissful.

In this post we’d like to work toward a third possible model for thinking about the felt (aesthetic) nature of God’s experience of the world, one which argues the integrity and unity of God’s experience but also admits God’s triune relations as summum bonum. Is this third alternative a passibilist or an impassibilist model? We don’t know. Some passibilists we know will dismiss it as impassibilism. Some impassibilists we know will dismiss it as heterodox.

We suggest, first, thinking through the notion (emphasized by Alan) of our making a “difference” to God, of our “meaning something to God,” in terms of a well-established understanding of evil and its suffering that we know to be Orthodox as well as advocated by Greg in Trinity & Process. And as far as we can tell it’s equally a Whiteheadian/Hartshornian (Process) conviction. In fact, it might be the one concept that all the disagreeing parties in this debate have in common. The notion we’re describing is that understanding which views evil and its suffering as privation, namely, ‘privation of being’. We suspect that if we approach the aesthetic question from the conviction that aesthetic value is a transcendental a priori (God as summum bonum) and with a concept of ‘privation of being’ in hand, we may find a helpful way to express things to the satisfaction of a few more people. Whether it’s compatible with open theism or not is for others to decide.

We have one other iron in the fire:

The Maximian (Orthodox) doctrine of the logoi (‘meanings’) of created beings. One could express this doctrine in Process terms as those “divine subjective aims” which prescribe for and extend to all occasions that particular value each is capable of instantiating. Greg expresses this Maximian doctrine (without knowing it) in Trintiy & Process, equating “divine subjective aims” with our essential disposition for that “aesthetic value” God offers for realization in creaturely experience. It’s a fundamental Process concept as well. In Maximus these logoi seem to be conceived exclusively in terms of our final telos or end (our glorified state), they can easily be conceived as divine intentions for our progress en route to that state.

The interesting take-away we’d suggest here includes:

(a) viewing the logoi of created things in aesthetic terms as “divine subjective aims” reflective of the Logos in whom they inhere, from whom they derive, and in whom we participate (2Pet 1.4’s “participating in the divine nature”),
(b) viewing the logoi as our God-given “meaning,”
(c) viewing these logoi as eternally pre-existent in God (the summum bonum) and expressive of his beauty and goodness contingently by us free creatures.

Alan’s concern for our “meaning” to God is something we can hardly ignore. 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. In this way God is the end of all things—from whom, through whom and for whom are all things. Creation is that gratuitous, for apart from God’s preconceived contingent expression of himself, his dreams for our free creaturely participation in his life—we literally are meaningless.

How would the traditional notion of ‘privation’ help qualify things here? Privation is an ancient concept that describes the extent to which an entity fails to achieve its telos, to realize its logos (meaning), or here to actualize its ‘divine subjective aim’. Metaphysically speaking, ‘privation’ is ‘meaninglessness’, not an alternative meaning that competes with our logoiAll things exist in virtue of their God-given logos, which we
Word_of_God_hugging_usmight 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. But must not the extent to which our existence is privated make a ‘difference’ to God on par with the extent to which we conform to our logos? In an important sense we’re arguing for here, no. We don’t see why these ‘differences’ must be similar. But this needn’t be taken as bad news. What metaphysical difference can such privation have? It has no substance, enjoys no meaning, offers no space to being. Its truth is the truth of darkness which is only describable with reference to that light which is real.

There is one question within Boyd’s reconstruction of Hartshorne that’s appropriate here: How are we to imagine the failure of a thing to be all it might be as diminishing that divine experience which is every thing’s aim and possibility of being to begin with? If God offers an occasion a particular divine subjective aim which is irreducibly aesthetic in nature, how can that occasion’s failure to achieve its possibilities diminish that divine experience which itself determines every occasion’s aesthetic aim and against which every occasion is measured? This brings us round to Alan’s stipulation that God’s affective diminishment (on account of us) should not be thought of as functionally impairingWe wouldn’t disagree, of course. The problem — from a modified Process view such as Greg’s trinitarian reconstruction of Hartshorne — is that it is among God’s ‘functions’ to offer every being in the world its aesthetic aim (its logos). God’s beatitude grounds and informs this function (as much as I dislike using the word ‘function’). Thus if God is aesthetically depreciated or diminished in his experience, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he is functionally impaired.

There has also been concern over our favoring Alan’s suggestion that our ‘difference’ or ‘meaning’ to God may very well be ‘infinitesimal’. Infinitesimal describes a perspective on a comparison between things. Of course our pain is not infinitesimal from our perspective, and God knows this. But it would arguably be infinitesimal from, say, the perspective of the fullness and necessity of God’s existence. In any event, our point in picking up on Alan’s term is not to suggest that God takes infinitesimal notice of us or our finite perspectives. Quite the contrary. The point is that 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 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, not infinitesimally. 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.

One final note, and a speculative one, forgive us. It expresses no judgment of character in the slightest. We are only thinking out loud about why people hold the positions they do. Take Moltmann for example. His influence looms large over the (im)passibilism debate. But for all his emphasis on a cross-centered theology, it doesn’t seem to us that Moltmann begins with the Cross at all. It seems more the case that Moltmann begins with Moltmann (i.e., his experience and pain from WWII), and he settles in his own mind on just what kind of God it is that he (Moltmann) is willing to worship and serve, and the condition God must satisfy is Moltmann’s own pain as he defines and identifies with it, not any rational or obvious, biblical criteria about the Cross. We apologize to our Moltmann fans. The same may be true we suspect for Greg. Before his hermeneutic is cruciform, it may be egoform. That is, Greg may have already told himself what the Cross has to mean for God to satisfy his pain and earn his worship. Greg has shared a good deal (publicly) about crisis moments in his faith and how they all reduce to theodicy. If our speculating here seems out of turn, we apologize, but there’s an important point we seek to illustrate, namely, that Greg may not be interpreting his pain in light of the Cross. That would indeed be a cruciform hermeneutic. Could it be rather that he’s interpreting the Cross in light of his pain? That, Kierkegaard warned, is despair.

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The difference God makes

image002We’d like at this point to begin summarizing a response to Alan’s proposal. Bits and pieces of our responses are found throughout the comments section on Alan’s post, but we’d like to begin consolidating our thoughts here. To begin with points of agreement, however, Alan’s Anselmian intuition, affirmation of creation ex nihilo (CEN), and Creel’s distinction between “impassible in nature but passible in knowledge” (though a bit convoluted in its construction) all seem right to us. But as discussion there revealed, the differences between us and Alan converge on his differential preference thesis which states (via the open view) that God prefers some outcomes over others and that outcomes in turn thus make a difference to God by affecting the felt quality of his experience. God feels differently given what occurs.

Our response has almost entirely to do with how this differential preference thesis is conceived. We don’t disagree that God prefers good outcomes over evil ones, or that we ‘mean something’ to God or ‘make a difference’ to God. Not only would denying this much contradict values open theists want to embrace, but it would fail as recognizably Christian in our view. But how this difference is best conceived in aesthetic terms (given other Anselmian intuitions we follow with Boyd’s Trinity & Process) is the question we’d explore. We’d disagree with an account of it that essentially describes God’s beatitude as the difference of an equation, i.e, preferred outcomes minus dispreferred outcomes = how happy God is.

At this point, then, we’ll begin with a first observation in response to Alan.

Aesthetic Value as transcendental a priori. The first and perhaps most important point for us is the notion that God is the transcendentals (which are, per definition, indivisible and mutually imply one another). Traditionally the transcendentals are held to be Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Others are contended for in addition. Hart advocates for Consciousness. Whitehead/Hartshorne (and Greg) argue for Aesthetic Value (as well as Relationality and Perspectivity). But even if Consciousness and Aesthetic Value are not recognized explicitly as transcendentals alongside Truth, Beauty and Goodness, they are nevertheless fully implied in the traditional three. Truth, Beauty and Goodness are inconceivable apart from some conscious experience of aesthetic value. There is no truth apart from an act of knowing, no goodness apart from some act of willing, no beauty apart from experienced beatitude or aesthetic appreciation. Greg sorts through the reasoning in his appropriation of Hartshorne’s aesthetic a priori in Trinity & Process.

The relevant question here has to do with the nature of God’s experience of aesthetic value as the transcendental ground of all valuation and aesthetic pleasure within creation. And the question seems to be, can it be the case that (the transcendentals in general, or) the transcendental of aesthetic value in particular (that divine experience of aesthetic value which grounds and establishes the value of all created valuations) suffer negation (depreciation or diminishment) as Alan is proposing? If we’re talking transcendentals, then it seems to us the answer is no. We attempted to approach this earlier (beginning here) by identifying God’s experience of beatitude as the summum bonum. Indeed, it seems to us (following Boyd) that apart from some such unchanging experience of value as the ground of all other valuations, those valuations (or ‘differential preferences’) simply never get off the ground. Without some summum bonum as ultimate ground and end of all finite ends, finite acts of valuing this or that end are relative and irrational. As we see it, you need something like an immutable, transcendent experience of beauty (God as summum bonum) to explain created experiences of beauty/value at all. As transcendental, God’s experience of aesthetic value is the antecedent necessary actuality which, to use Process categories, prescribes the divine subjective aim for all actual occasions.

Our essential difference with Alan, then, has to do with what is best thought to be involved in God’s trinitarian experience of beatitude, an experience we think (a) best explains what it is about God that makes his creating at all gratuitous and (b) grounds and prescribes the scope of beauty achievable/instantiable by finite subjects. Alan’s “unalloyed” experience of beatitude expresses it very well, but where (following Greg) we think (a) and (b) are best explained by the necessary character of such beatitude, Alan feels our meaning and significance to God can only be explained by its contingent character (that is, if this divine experience is vulnerable to increase and depreciation as part of God’s intending a benevolent relationship with an open and free creation).

That said, Alan does grant that though God’s antecedent intra-trinitarian undisturbed bliss can be made perturbable (vulnerable to diminishment and improvement), this depreciation/disappointment may be no more than “a drop in an infinite ocean of joy.” The metaphor is worth exploring, because even on Alan’s view this “ocean of joy” isn’t just the sum total of the world’s preferred outcomes experienced by God. God is his own (triune) source of delight. He experiences the world’s preferred and dispreferred outcomes within the scope of his own transcendental perspective on himself as Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Aesthetic Value. It is this which is the “infinite ocean of joy” into which drops of disappointment descend. Our point is, Alan’s proposal involves the relativizing of created goods and evils within the scope of this triune perspective. Such relativization is what accounts for our deepest pains being, for God and within his own perspective, a drop of disappointment in an infinite ocean of joy. The analogy is worth thinking on long and hard.

True, the challenge for Dwayne and me is to find an acceptable way to ground our (even relative) meaning to God in something which is neither an appreciation nor a depreciating of that essential divine experience which is the transcendental of Aesthetic Value. Tough job. But we love it!

We’ll stop here for now. In an upcoming post we’ll comment on the ad intra/ad extra distinction that Greg uses to explain how it is the world means something, or makes a difference, to God, as well as try to describe differential preferences which needn’t involved depreciation of experienced value.

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The difference that a difference makes

make-a-differenceLet us say again how much we appreciate Alan’s recently proposed settlement for open theists on the (im)passibilist question. Alan is a wonderfully astute thinker and we’re grateful to be challenged by him to rethink through things. You can read his post and the conversation that followed at Alan’s blog.

Alan stretches the options out along a continuum with impassibilism on one end (which he defines as the thesis that we make “no difference” to God). On the other end of the continuum is a “strong passibilism” so thoroughly definitive of God’s experience that God is “functionally impaired,” essentially overwhelmed by debilitating emotions. Alan’s solution is the space occupied between these two extreme positions. We “make a difference” to God such that preferred outcomes constitute some improvement upon the felt quality of God’s experience while dispreferred outcomes constitute some depreciation (as “disappointment”) of the felt quality of God’s experience without God being functionally impaired. That is, God “feels differently depending on what happens” but this makes no functional difference to God. God’s triune bliss sans creation is perfectly “unalloyed” but contingent since God is free, should he wish, to make himself vulnerable to aesthetic depreciation and improvement in response to the world. This depreciation and improvement in the aesthetic (felt) quality of God’s experience is the ‘difference’ we make to God.

Finally, Alan grants that this ‘difference’ may be “infinitesimal” (“a drop of disappointment in an infinite ocean of joy”). Now, for the record, TC rejected this outright, arguing that it is not enough that we make only an infinitesimal difference to God. And to further express his confusion of the conversation, TC goes on to criticize Dwayne and me for “arguing with Rhoda” over our making even an infinitesimal difference to God, as if TC agrees with Alan (which he doesn’t). But Dwayne and I are in a far better position than TC to accommodate Alan on this point. In fact, for the sake of establishing a position open theists could agree upon, we’re fine with it being the case that God’s passibilism is compatible with the world’s being relativized “like a drop of disappointment in an ocean of joy,” i.e., that we make an infinitesimal difference to God’s aesthetic experience. If that would satisfy TC, let’s just go with that. But TC (not us) won’t have it.

Lastly, though we’d be willing to agree to Alan’s conclusion in this respect, we have problems with how he gets there. We’d disagree over the nature of God’s aesthetic experience and with what it is about God that relativizes worldly sufferings infinitesimally. Exactly what is God’s “infinite ocean of joy”? What constitutes its infinitude? How does Alan imagine this aesthetic infinitude to be contingent so that it is vulnerable to negation by us? There are important questions we’d love to hear Alan engage.  In an upcoming post we’ll try to specify what we think is problematic about Alan’s position.

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See what’s there

white empty room with opened doorWhile Dwayne puts his post together I wanted quickly to make a few shameless plugs for resources you might find helpful. I have brief introduction to the open view over on Jeff Clarke’s blog and a longer essay at John Sanders’ site. If you’re interested in the practical existential arguments for open theism, check out my Critical Evaluation. And if you’re a heavy lifter and enjoy the philosophical side of things, you can’t do better than Alan Rhoda’s articles. Having cooperated with Alan before, I can’t recommend him enough. We’ve been batting ideas back and forth for so long that there’s a lot of Alan in me. I’ll do my best to reference my indebtedness to him on specifics, but for the record, we’re indebted to Alan big-time. (Image from here.)