Rivalry-free desire for God


I leave you with one last passage from Brian Robinette’s Grammars of Resurrection.

And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. (Acts 3:17-21)

This passage begins by insisting on our ignorance. The nature of this ignorance is vitally important to understand, for it is the same ignorance that underlies the doubt and misunderstanding among the disciples throughout the gospels, both before and initially after Jesus’ recognition. It is the ignorance described in John that kept the world from “seeing” the Logos made flesh. It is the ignorance Jesus names in his prayer to the Father from the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). We must understand that such ignorance is not a matter of insufficient information. It is not as though another piece of data would have helped to avert the crisis. When Jesus prays to the Father for his persecutors’ forgiveness, he is naming the impregnable deception buried in our hearts that distorts our field of perception so that we cannot see the truth when it appears to us. The obscurity of Jesus’ teaching and actions was not due to this attempt to communicate esoteric knowledge. His parables, aphorisms, apocalyptic utterances, and prophetic enactments were not attempts to impart secret gnosis. They were acts to jolt us out of the way we ordinarily perceive reality. They only appear oblique within our present horizons of intelligibility because our desires are disordered. “The disciples’ understanding was (and ours is) formed by what Jesus was trying to change: that is, the constitution of our consciousness in rivalry and the techniques of survival by exclusion of the other. Jesus’ ministry is explicitly intent upon reversing these techniques, of extracting people from building identities over against the Other, e.g., the sinner, the unclean, the maimed, the leper, the prostitute, the tax collector, the enemy, the prisoner, the victim, “these little ones.” Jesus’ “intelligence of the victim” is one that relentlessly takes the perspective of the Other – my potential victim – as the only truly human way to be a person. This is possible for Jesus because, above all, he follows the will of the divine Other.

Here is the primordial root of Jesus’ “consciousness,” should be wish to use this term: the will of the Father. Because Jesus lives in total transparence to God the Father, Jesus is the one who lives utterly free from rivalry with the human Other. Since Jesus is the one who lives utterly free from rivalry with the human Other. Since Jesus imitates God the Father, whose reality is utterly gratuitous, free from all rivalry as agapic Love – “unmoved” by mimetic rivalry, which is the true significance of God’s “impassibility” – Jesus is able to live among his sisters and brothers with utter freedom for them, without concern for his own identity. Jesus’ identity is not built upon contrasting relations with the Other, but in utter self-emptying (kenosis) for the Other. When Paul speaks of having “the mind of Christ” he is speaking of just this intelligence: “Let the same mind be in your that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8). The “mind of Christ” is one freed from rivalry with God, translucent to the divine Other, whose Otherness is received as total Gift rather than an obstacle to the project of becoming a self. Such loving kenosis resulted in Jesus’ death, not because death was positively willed by God as having value in itself, but because such unrestrained freedom is a world where rivalry and exclusion are rife is threatening and attracts resistance. The ignorance that led to the violent rejection of Jesus’ Kingdom of God ministry was at root a nexus of desires that, so far from desiring to live wholly for and from the divine Other as the possibility for living for and from the human Other, was configured to assert identity over against the Other Because Jesus set out to unmask and transform the underlying dynamics of human relations premised upon power and exclusions, drawing them out into the light through his saying and deeds of hospitality and judgment, he himself became a victim. But the faithfulness of the Father would have the last word. It is the world of resurrection: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (vv. 9-11).

This is the transvaluation of “values” at its most extreme. The “victim” is “Lord.” “This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone’” (Acts 4;11; Ps. 118:22). Jesus’ total fidelity to the Father results in a loving sacrifice to end all sacrifice. By raising him from the dead, God subverts the sacrificial process from within. This is the im-possible Gift: forgiveness from our victim, who is our “Lord.” “Christ shed his own blood to end that way of trying to mend our divisions,” writes Heim. “Jesus death isn’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our equation. Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours.


webkeyI love the construal of apatheia here. What is it about God that renders our desiring him free of all possible rivalry?

We can desire a food source, a spot of land, a human relationship, or any other finite commodity, resource, or provision and these all become occasions of rivalry, competition, and violence. But where we desire God completely and utterly, no rivalry emerges. Why? Not simply because the thing we desire in this case (God) is perfectly good, loving, and holy so that desiring him obligates us to conform to that standard. That sort of moralizing misses the point. Those who desire God are free from rivalry because there is no scarcity of the object desired. When we direct our desires to God, we possess (or are possessed by) what can be enjoyed by all equally without threat of loss. Rivalry becomes impossible because the end desired, being infinite, unceasingly satisfies. It infinitely exceeds our dispositions, and so God becomes “all in all” without percentage or division of distribution. Kierkegaard comes to mind: “Purity of heart is to will [desire] one thing.” St. Paul as well: “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” It is the content who are wealthy.

And yet, for our desires to possess God as end without possibility of rivalry, not only must God be infinite, he must also be rivalry-free. To say this brings us round to the question of the antecedent fullness of God’s own desires and to the crucial difference between our desiring God and God’s desiring us, a distinction that is at the heart of our articulation of divine apatheia. Only an infinitely fulfilled desire can be a rivalry-free source and object of desire. Though our desiring finite ends spawns rivalry in us, God’s desire for us finite creatures is not a finite desire, because — here’s the controversial part my passibilist friends will balk at — in desiring us, God is not desiring some finite end, but himself in us. We simply cannot be the end of God’s desiring us in the same way God is the end of our desiring him. Said more provocatively — not only is God’s desire for us ultimately an expression of God’s desire for Godself, but so also is our desire for God an expression of God’s desire for Godself, for from him, and through him, and to/for him are all things.

Zosia did you know?

cfdcb44dd87bd90b4e1db36fc5226663Reading through Greg’s CWG got me into Greg’s stuff again, and I ran across this quote from a podcast (May, 2013) of his. Consider:

“I seriously believe that if you caught one momentary glimpse of how much God loves you and the delight he has over you, every burden you carry, every grief you bear, would instantaneously be dissipated and be vanquished forever. And you would be filled with a lightness and a joy and a peace that passes all understanding. Just a glimpse. Lord, give us a glimpse of what is true.”

Greg recognizes the effect upon us (in our grief and suffering) of the vision of the depth and undying nature of God’s love and delight. A mere glimpse of it would “instantly vanquish” our pain forever.

We couldn’t agree more. But I’d like to ask Greg to expound on this a bit. Truth is, I’d love to see him write a book on just this. I say this because having finished CWG recently, it doesn’t seem to me that he consistently believes what he says in his podcast. For example, when is it true of our suffering and pain that were we to perceive a glimpse of God’s truest delight, our pain would be vanquished forever? It has to be true of God and of us as we suffer. And for whom is it true? These questions lead to conclusions very different from those Greg reaches in CWG.

We completely agree with Greg’s podcast comment, of course. It’s essentially what Paul describes in Rom 8, that experience of God’s glory-beauty that is so immeasurable and defining of our experience that suffering and pain become comparatively meaningless. I previously commented:

In Romans 8.18 Paul writes that “no present sufferings are worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us,” the glory that will thoroughly define us when our embodied selves are properly glorified by the beatific vision, the vision of God’s glory. What surprises are in this passage. How is it that our experience of God’s glory will render all conceivable suffering incomparably beside the point, not even worthy of being compared to the experience of God? Is God really that beautiful? Is the beatific vision really that defining?

If no present suffering can possibly compare to the joy that shall be ours by virtue of this vision, what does this say about the God who always perceives his own beauty, about the very joy and delight God presently gets from seeing himself? And if the glory which God now is shall transcend all our sufferings when we participate in it, what must be the case about God’s present transcendence of all suffering in light of the fact that he eternally is this glory?

wurmbrand-mugshotWhat about Zosia? Is it true for her?

What about Romanian Pastor Richard Wurmbrand (1909-2001) who was tortured for Christ in prison for years? Is it true for him? He actually believed what Greg says in his podcast. Wurmbrand confessed: “We were with Christ; we didn’t know that we were in prison.” He described his experience of Christ while being tortured as so profound that it seemed to him the walls of the prison were made of diamonds.

So my question for Greg would be:

Is there any human suffering too great to be vanquished by the realization of God’s undying love for us?

If yes, then what Greg is saying in this podcast would seem to be sentimental rubbish. If no, then does Greg not see the consequences of this for the relationship between our pain and the beatitude of God’s triune love and delight, and how we understand “what’s going on behind the scenes” on the Cross?

Suffering and the search for meaning—Part 2


I don’t intend to respond to each of the seven theodicies Richard Rice surveys and which I briefly summarized in Part 1. There are, however, a couple of interesting points that Rice himself raises which I’d like comment on before I add an eighth approach to Rice’s seven.

As I emphasized this summer in reviewing existential arguments for (im)passibility (Parts 1-6), it’s difficult to evaluate how well particular beliefs help a person world-construct in healthy and transformative ways, particularly because what counts as ‘healthy’ is part of what is in dispute in existential arguments. At the same time, however, there’s no avoiding existential questions. Christianity is ultimately a life to be lived. As ubiquitous as evil and suffering are, it is precisely our living that throws us into the path of questions about the relationship between God’s goodness and providence (on the one hand) and evil and suffering (on the other). We are incurable meaning-makers who must integrate life’s experiences into a narrative that satisfies both heart and mind. Everybody has to sort this out for him/herself, of course, and Rice recognizes this.

We should distinguish between one of Rice’s seven theodicies and all the rest. The first approach he mentions (Perfect Plan Theodicy) maintains that all evil and suffering are unconditionally decreed by God. No other theodicy Rice lists takes this particular view of God’s relationship to evil, and for that reason I think we can draw our first distinction between Perfect Plan theodicies and every other theodicy that at least attempts to take creaturely freedom seriously. I respect the experience of those who find the Perfect Plan model meaningful and satisfying, but I don’t find it existentially viable on any level. There’s just no making sense of a God whose being is pure beatitude and holy delight exhaustively and unconditionally determining the evil and suffering of our world in the sense this theodicy maintains.

Of the other six approaches Rice describes, there are features I resonate with, so let me describe those features briefly.

First, there’s the integrity of the agency or ‘say-so’ God endows us with to determine ourselves in morally responsible ways. Whatever the extent to which one views created ‘say-so’ as having the power to realize evils not willed by God, it remains the case that created causes are real and do not collapse into mere occasions whose evil and suffering unfold in time the timeless will of God. This view of agency, or libertarian free will (not as the absolute unconstrained freedom to determine oneself without reference to transcendent goods and orientations), is an abiding feature throughout all the options Rice summarizes other than Perfect Plan theodicy.

Second, it was interesting to see Rice introduce the traditional understanding of evil as a privatio boni (privation of the good). Evil has no being or substance of its own but exists merely in a negative sense as a failure of what is to be all it was created to be. It is thus a diminished experience of the Good. It seems to me (as I’ve much argued the point on this blog) that the implications of this view of evil are vastly underappreciated, for once one admits evil as privation of the good, one admits a Supreme Good (viz., God) incapable of privation. And once this is admitted, it fundamentally guides and empowers meaning-making in a fallen and suffering world.

Burning Fiery FurnaceHowever we integrate our experiences of evil and suffering into a meaningful narrative that satisfies the mind and empowers our living for God, God cannot be viewed as willing evil or as willing his own privated forms of reflection within the world. Such willing would itself be privation. The essential point is that if there is privation of the good, there must be an undiminished and absolute Supreme Good. This has huge implications for meaning-making. Not only is evil not itself willed by God, but neither can the evil willed by us through our free choice manufacture within God or within our perfected forms (as contingent, embodied reflections of God) any sort of positive moment or contribution of beauty. Evil is in the strictest sense meaningless (or meaninglessness itself).

Interestingly, this understanding of God as the summum bonum becomes part of Rice’s argument against Protest theodicies (though it never takes center stage in his own understanding of how we meaning-make in the face of suffering). On what basis, Rice argues, does one ‘protest’ believing in the good in the face of horrendous evil if the conclusion of such protest is the eradication of the good needed to get the protest off the ground in the first place? Protest theodicies are self-contradictory because they seek to deny what their principled protest requires, namely, an undiminished and absolute Good to which the goodness of all things is related, from which all things derive their goodness, and by which all finite goods and claims are measured.

On a somewhat related note, I think the failure to understand the undiminished nature of the Good along concrete, existential lines is the fundamental mistake of all passibilisms. This has enormous implications for how we find meaning in suffering as well.

Lastly, I want to register my interest in soul-making approaches. While I don’t agree that actual evils contribute positively to God’s purposes, I do think there’s something worth affirming in the claim that we cannot become all God designs and calls us to be apart from certain challenges. I suggest that there’s no getting around having to world-construct (toward full, hypostatic-personal being) in the face of the truth about our createdness, and that truth includes our finitude as created ex nihilo, and in my view that means mortality. Apart from the experience of mortality we have no way to comprehend the truth of such radical finitude and contingency. Our fullest personal being is our truest being, and the truth of our being includes the truth of our being created ex nihilo. That ‘nothingness’ is the one truth we have to world-construct in light of if we’re going to live a meaningful life. So in our view mortality is a grace when seen as an embodiment of the truth of our finitude, a way to experience ourselves as created ex nihilo.

This is not to say misrelating to mortality in despairing ways (when ‘mortality’ becomes ‘death’ as viewed theologically) is necessary. One has only to embrace the truth of one’s existence as unconditionally given freely and ex nihilo. As much as we talk about creation ex nihilo, I think we forget to figure it into our understanding of the structure of human becoming and perfection. We talk about creation ex nihilo a lot. We experience it very little. So while I don’t affirm soul-making in the sense that I think who we finally become is positively shaped by evil or that we come to embody a goodness that is inconceivable apart from evil, I do think who we are meant by God to become cannot be embraced by us apart from our perceiving and embracing the truth of the nihil out of which God unconditionally called us into being. I’m happy to describe seeing and embracing that truth as a “soul making” moment. But I don’t see anything evil about finitude or mortality per se, though it can occasion suffering.


In summary then, the key meaning-making resources I gather from the seven approaches Rice describes are as follows:

(1) The necessity of libertarian free will for human being. Properly understood, such exercise of the will is fundamental to our achieving God’s ends for us even if it is not the fullest expression of our freedom in Christ. However God is ultimately responsible for creating a world facing possibilities for both good and evil, he does not will evil and suffering as such, so the popular “there’s a purpose for everything that happens” isn’t a viable truth for meaning-making.

(2) Evil as privation. Understanding evil as privation of the good is inseparable from understanding God as the summum bonum (the Supreme Good) as well as inseparable from understanding the rational structure of aesthetic perception and volition as irrevocably oriented toward the Good. So if there isn’t a specific divine purpose for every evil that occurs, there nevertheless is divine purpose in or available to everything that occurs. Simply stated, no privation of evil can so diminish our lives that we become inseparable from God’s purposes. We may suffer evils God does not will, evil that does not lie within the scope of his purposes for us, but these evils cannot permanently foreclose on us all possibility of realizing our truest purpose and meaning. Again, this radically shapes how we perceive the meaning of our lives relative to suffering.

(3) Qualified soul-making. Soul-making approaches are right to emphasize that perfection is the end of human being, not its beginning. And the ends for which we are created have to be chosen, learned, and acquired. Human fulfillment is a creative achievement. Such choice requires a context in which we can responsibly choose in light of the truth of our finitude and the nothingness from which God calls us to be. Finitude must embrace the truth about itself, and that is a painful journey – though not necessarily an evil one.

To which I’d add:

(4) God’s undiminished beatitude as the summum bonum. A qualified sense of apatheia, or God’s undiminished beatitude as the summum bonum, is a fundamental truth for human meaning-making. Believing God’s triune beatitude is undiminished by evil and suffering provides a radically different framework within which we world-construct and process meaning. This is perhaps the most significant aspect of my difference with all the models Rice surveys. None of them takes time to contemplate God’s experienced triune beatitude as that about God which constitutes his being the summum bonum (the highest good and supreme value). But once the link between God’s experienced beatitude and God as the highest good and greatest value is made, one then finds meaning in suffering quite differently than any of the approaches Rice discusses. Evil does not come to mean anything. As I’ve argued often, our meaning is not the difference we make to God (i.e., the difference our suffering makes to God as he suffers as we suffer), but the difference God makes to us (i.e., the transcendent healing which God’s joy and delight provide in our suffering).

If I boil down points 1 through 4 into an eighth approach to suffering, I wouldn’t know what to call it. Perhaps:

Undiminished divine delight | Therapeutic theodicy
Participation in God | Theosis theodicy

I’ll end with a passage from Daniel 3 which should explain my choice of pictures attending this post, all depicting Nebuchadnezzar’s throwing the three Jewish men into the consuming fires of a furnace:

“Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego…were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace…Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, ‘Were not there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire? Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods’.” (Daniel Ch 3)

What’s the powerful imagery of this story have to do with the points I’ve here tried to express regarding suffering within the framework of God’s undiminished beatitude? If you have to ask, I’ve done a lousy job of explaining myself.

Existential arguments for (im)passibility—Part 6


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.


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.


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.

Existential arguments for (im)passibility—Part 5

Steven-Lavaggi_ConsolationSince I favor a qualified impassibilist approach to divine suffering, I want in this Part 5 to give passibilist approaches room to express. So I’ll simply reproduce portions from Paul Fiddes’s Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (2000). Fiddes is a British Baptist Professor of Systematic Theology (University of Oxford). I appreciate his attempt to explore the pastoral implications of one’s beliefs on this question. All but the final paragraph comes from Ch 5 “The Vulnerable God and the Problem of Suffering.” I’ll come back in a final Part 6 to reflect upon Fiddes’s comments and close this series out.

Is a Theodicy Possible?
The moment of acute suffering, such as the loss of a child in an accident or the sudden death of a partner in middle life, is not of course the time for the past to offer theological arguments about the problem of suffering. But I suggest that the way pastors act and react in this situation will be guided by the image of God that they hold. Even more profoundly, it will be influenced by what they believe can become possible through participation, or deeper participation, in the triune God…

Basic to any understanding of the problem of suffering is, I suggest, the idea of the suffering of God, or the self-emptying (kenosis) of God. In recent years it has seemed to many theologians and ordinary Christians that an essential element in any theodicy is the belief that God suffers with creation. It seems to fit particularly well with a move away from an interventionist or coercive picture of God’s activity, to the picture we were considering in the last chapter – that is, one in which God acts with loving persuasion on the inside of nature, luring creation from within towards a fullness of life. Centuries of traditional belief about the impassibility of God have been overturned in our age, whether by theologians or devotional writers. I believe that this revolution has been right and necessary. Yet, I want to place a warning sign early on. Much talk about the suffering of God is merely sentimental, even romantic, and does not face the real problems it raises….So as soon as we dare to speak of a suffering God, the theologian is faced with some hard questions. Is the belief that God suffers with the world really a theodicy, or is it a despairing view of God who is just as much of a victim of evil as we are?

What light, then, is cast on the problem of evil by affirming that God suffers with humanity? How does it help us practically in our experience of suffering to say that God suffers too? Here we may consider four kinds of theodicy, all of which, I suggest, are strengthened immeasurably by a belief in the suffering of God.

A theodicy of consolation
A first kind of theodicy aims at consolation and is sometimes called a ‘practical’ theodicy. No attempt is made to explain the existence of evil, or to excuse the goodness of the Creator, or to justify the mountain of human misery represented by the names of Auschwitz or Babi Yar, Hiroshima or Rwanda. Instead, it is simply being claimed that it is consoling to those who suffer to know that God is with them, that suffering has no cut them off from God…In this situation, it is affirmed, God does not abandon the victims. It can readily be seen that this theodicy is strengthened by the affirmation that the God who is with them also suffers alongside them, and so understands their situation from within.

This is really less of a rational argument than a picture of God that has psychological effect upon the sufferer. No attempt is being made to argue that the suffering of God somehow accounts for human misery. But 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.

A theodicy of story
There is, second, a more modern version of the ‘practical approach to theodicy’, that we might call the theodicy of story. Again there is no attempt to produce a rational argument about the problem of evil and suffering, but instead an appeal is simply made to the power of stories of others who have suffered, which can help us to find some meaning in the story of our own lives and our own suffering…

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.

A theodicy of protest
Still in the area of what we might call practical rather than theoretical theodicies, there is the theodicy which is characterized by protest. Rather than finding an intellectual explanation for suffering, we engage in protest against it and against those who inflict it. This can be called a ‘theodicy’ rather than ‘protest atheism’, when protest and resistance arises from the conviction that God too protests against the dealers in pain, and is on the side of the victims. The theologians of liberation have been particularly critical of Western theology in this respect; what is important, they insist, is not to explain suffering but to change the factors in society that cause it…

Now, a believer that God suffers can be a strong support to this kind of theodicy. If God suffers then God too, as Leonardo Boff points out, is to be numbered among the victims and not among the torturers, murderers and oppressors…

Sufferers rightly protest against their suffering. God protests with the protesters because God too suffers. There is a mutuality between the two experiences: if God suffers then God too protests, and a God who protests against suffering cannot be the cause of it…

A belief in the suffering of God thus strengthens three kinds of practical theodicy – those of consolation, story and protest. Moreover, I want to suggest that each of these becomes even more practical when we affirm that the suffering God exists in triune relationships, and that God has made room for us to participate in these movements of relationship. As with our discussion of God’s action in the world in the previous chapter, the invitation to participate more deeply in the interweaving patterns of the divine life is at the heart of the matter. If, to begin with, we take the theodicy of consolation, the affirmation that God is ‘alongside us’ in our suffering may be understood as our involvement in currents of relational love that are already there before us. God is present because we are present in God. We are not simply accompanied by another individual who suffers, but embraced by movements of suffering love – like those, for instance, between a father who has lost a beloved son and a son who has been forsaken and abandoned by all whom he loves.

A theodicy of free will

The central point is that, if created persons are to be given a genuine freedom to make real choices, then God must limit God’s own self. In allowing persons to grow and develop as adults, God must give them room to be themselves. God must take a risk on them, so that they can ‘come of age’…Thus God must limit God’s own self in the act of creation. The technical term usually applied to this is kenosis – the self-emptying of God. Freedom for the world therefore means self-limitation for God. While this has been increasingly accepted by Christian theologians today, not all draw the conclusion that this must also mean suffering for God. We can, however, see that this is bound to be true in at least three ways.

In the first place, the giving of freedom to created beings means that God is going to suffer some frustration of the divine purposes and desires…A loving relationship allows the risk of freedom to the other, and therefore involves pain.

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.

This leads to a third reason why the self-limitation of God entails the suffering of God. The emergence of non-being [i.e. evil] raises the matter of divine responsibility for a broken world. While the free-will defense argues that the emergence is not absolutely necessary in our world, it is very likely to develop through free choices when human beings are immature and the divine glory is veiled…In short, God took a considerable risk in granting radical freedom to creation. While not directly creating evil and suffering, God puts the world into this situation. In the Hebraic-Christian tradition, God is not then absolved from final responsibility in choosing to make a free world at all, and in taking such a severe risk.

If God exposes a creation to the high risk of slipping into non-being, God too will face the outcome of the risk. But then this is what the Christian story of the cross of Jesus tells us. God does take responsibility….

Later in the same chapter Fiddes discusses several understandings of love that do not entail vulnerability to suffering. He first names the classical tradition of course, which I won’t get into here. Secondly, then:

A more modern version of love without suffering, and so without change, runs like this: unlike us, God knows that that evil will finally be overcome, and so cannot share the anguish that we feel. [Richard] Creel, for example, gives the example of a mother who (supposedly) does not share emotionally in the distress of a child when she knows that the child is being frightened by a danger which is only imaginary. So, Creel, argues, ‘we cannot rule out the possibility that God knows something about our destiny that renders it inappropriate for him to be disturbed by our suffering in this life’. In reply, we may return to our earlier consideration of God’s knowledge of the future [Fiddes, incidentally, adopts an open view of the future]; if there can be unknown elements for God in a future whose outline God is nevertheless certain about, this gives plenty of room for genuine empathy with us. But we may also notice that Creel’s argument depends quite largely upon whether we are convinced by his illustration of what human love is like. The picture of the unperturbed mother misses, I suggest, the nature of sympathetic suffering as a necessary form of communication between persons. Whatever superior knowledge she has, for the mother to be truly in contact with her child it is quite appropriate for her to share the child’s feelings of distress. When we apply this analogy to God, we can see again how theodicies of consolation and protest require this intimate communication through suffering; indeed, communication with the triune God means nothing less than participation in God.

Human love always involves some suffering in sympathy with others, and this in turn means being changed by others; it seems meaningless to apply the analogy of love to God unless we are willing to affirm these characteristics in God also. A merely beneficent love does not, in any case, meet the test of theodicy.

A third strategy for moderating the vulnerability of God accepts much of the linkage between love, suffering and change. But it is suggested that while God is indeed affected by human suffering, God still remains in told control of these effects upon the divine life. As Marcel Sarot puts it, ‘God may be influenced by the world, as long as this influence is subject to his will’, so that ‘God remains master of his own passibility’…Sarot thus affirms a ‘qualified form of passibility’ in God in which God is passible but never passive, since God has command over any impact from outside.

Eventually Fiddes makes his way to discussing a fourth qualified impassibilist approach, Frances Young. Her Face to Face: A Narrative Essay in the Theology of Suffering is a wonderful, heart-wrenching and extremely thoughtful reflection by Young on her raising a severely brain-damaged son. Fiddes reflects:

9780281070459From this experience [Young] has come to the conclusion that we can only cope with suffering if there is some aspect of God which is immune from suffering – which is detached, impassible, invulnerable.

Young marks the turning point in her spiritual journey towards a new sense of the reality of God as being a moment when she heard a voice within her saying, ‘It makes no difference to me whether you believe in me or not’. She interprets this inner voice as meaning that in one dimension of Good’s being, it makes no difference whether the world rejects God’s love and suffers the inevitable consequences of its refusal of God’s purposes. God is untouched. However at the same times she does want to say that there is another aspect of God’s being which is immersed in the world, and which does suffer…

[W]hat is so challenging about Frances Young’s account is not her appeal to a negative theology, but her own story. She has found reason for this picture of God in her own experience that it helps to find people who seem to be detached from your own suffering, in the sense that they are not overwhelmed by it. They stand like granite, or they are as stable as the depths of the ocean. This has been her experience as someone who has both received care and offered care to others. Faced by the sorrow of some friends whose baby had been stillborn, she relates how she found that she could be of not help while she was ‘re-living her own pain’, her own ‘protest at the suffering of the world’. She discerned that she was ‘too involved’, and it was only when the self-involvement was purged that she could become of any use to her friends. So God, she concludes, ‘is not emotionally involved [with us] in a self-concerned way’; he assures us that ‘It makes no difference to me…’ while at the same times in Christ ‘he subjected himself to personal involvement in pain and anguish’.

Fiddes then respectfully assesses Young’s conclusions:

I feel a sense of presumption in daring to comment upon such a testimony, born out of so many years of self-giving love. However, I want to suggest two responses to this witness, while thoroughly respecting its integrity. We can surely sympathize with the desire for a God whose existence is not threatened by suffering, as ours is, and this can be considered from the two perspectives of origin and destination. First, as the only ‘unoriginate’ reality, God owes nothing to anyone or anything for the origin of God’s existence. Traditionally, this has been called the ‘aseity’ of God; God exists from no one except from God’s own self (a se). However, 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.

Second, Frances Young is rightly pointing out that a sufferer will not be helped if the one caring for her is overwhelmed by his or her own feelings of distress, or becomes erratic in response because of these emotions. But, with regard to God as the supreme carer, this need is not best met by keeping back an area of God’s life that is invulnerable, an untouched reservoir of bliss. I do not think that we can speak of a God who shares the risk and responsibility of creation – an essential part of theodicy – if God puts part of the divine being into a zone of immunity. The need for a carer who is not herself broken by suffering is surely best met by showing how a suffering God will finally bring about the end of evil, and will achieve the fulfillment of divine purposes.

And finally, later in Ch. 7, Fiddes expands on God’s deepest experience of suffering on the cross with which I’ll bring this Part 5 to an end and plan on returning with my own reflections later.

God can enter with empathy into the human experience of the breaking of relations because the triune life is existence in relationships which have an otherness about them. It is not the God abandons God, that one person of the Trinity expels another. Rather, God is willing to experience God’s own relationships in a new way in the face of death. God is willing to allow otherness to become alienation, to take a journey into the unknown, into ‘no man’s land’. This is a risk for God, sharing the risk of creation. What it might mean for the divine life cannot be predicted ahead of its happening, any more than can any journey of forgiving love. God is open to the strangeness of the new, dark movement in the dance of love. God encounters death, and uses it to define deity, in victory over death as the living God.

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.

Vulnerability: the capacity of finitude to bear God’s glory—Part 3

rainI’ve explored 2Corinthians 4 before in a couple of posts that discuss human vulnerability as the capacity of finitude to bear the glory of God, arguing that while “the vessels [jars of clay] are fragile and vulnerable, the treasure is not.” This chapter came up again in conversation recently and phrases that had not previously caught my attention jumped out at me.

I’m particularly interested in biblical resources for the belief that God is immeasurable delight, a delight essentially undiminished by the world’s sufferings (not at all a popular view for an evangelical to hold), and that our salvation is precisely a participation in this delight. Such a view of God has been objected to partly on the grounds that it’s a pure, unedited Hellenism foreign to biblical thought. So one of our interests here has been to explore biblical reasons for thinking God to be essentially, unimprovably, happy. We’ve discussed passage after passage the explicit claims of which entail the logic of divine beatitude. See Psalm 23; Psalm 46; Rom 8.18ff; Paul’s prayer in Eph 3; 1Cor 2.9-10; Phil 4.7; James 1.17; 1Peter 1.8f, all of which we’ve discussed and to which I’d like to add 2Cor 4.16-18 (and 2Cor 3.18 comp Rom 8.18).

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Several things come to mind. First, note the distinction between “wasting away outwardly” [lit. “the outward man” wastes away] while “being renewed inwardly” (lit. “inward man” is renewed day by day) based (v. 18) on a vision of what is unseen. At the very least, we are not reduced to the suffering we experience. But more specifically, there is something inside which is not subject to, nor diminished by, the conditions associated with suffering and mortality. On the contrary, the inner person is continually renewed while the outward form wastes away. Here you have the transcendence of the inward person, the undiminished nature of our true selves in Christ. While we waste away and suffer on one level or dimension of experience (outwardly), we are continuously renewed in another respect (inwardly).

Secondly, the curious phrase καθ υπερβολην εις υπερβολην (literally “according to transcendence unto transcendence”). The phrase is likely a Hebraism (מאד מאד; “very, very” or “greatly, greatly”) designed to stress the immeasurable and exceeding nature of something. In the NIV this phrase gets reduced to “far outweighs” and qualifies “glory” (i.e., the glory far outweighs the suffering). While it is no doubt true that the glory to which we are destined immeasurably exceeds our present sufferings, I think those commentators who take the phrase to qualify the verb κατεργαζεται (“achieves” or “produces”) better understand the verse (cf. the construction in Galatians 1.13 where “how intensely” qualifies “persecuted” in the NIV). Between our “light and temporary troubles” and our “weighty and eternal glory,” then, there lies an immeasurable “according to transcendence unto transcendence.” The final glory which is our destiny is produced in us intensely, exceedingly, increasingly, transcendently. That is, our journey does not merely end in immeasurable glory, it is reached in an increasingly immeasurable way through daily participation in it. This is what Paul means by saying our “inward man is renewed day by day.” Apatheia is not some mysterious divine attribute that locks creation out of God’s life, nor is it merely a heavenly reward presently inaccessible. It is the truest, inward, participable reality of created things (our “inward man” or “true self”).

Thirdly, v. 18 introduces, as Alford says (yes, Henry Alford; I love the older guys) “the subjective condition under which this working out takes place.” We participate in the increasingly transcendent progress of becoming our truest self by way of ‘contemplation’ (or ‘mindfulness’, nepsis). We become what we behold as we become beholden to it. And this is where the practical difference between a view of God as undiminishing beatitude and the standard passibilist views is most acute, for the “unseen” realities perceived in the Spirit (see 1Cor 2.9-10) shape the course of our spiritual development and transformation in conformity to God as ‘end’ . If what I see is a “pissed off” God (what one passibilist insisted a truly loving God would be in the face of injustice), I’ll be “pissed of.” Why wouldn’t I be? We become what we see. That’s the transformative power of the human spirit that gives itself, through mindfulness, to that particular vision of its ultimate end and so becomes what it sees. But if what I see is peace in the storm, if what I see is Christ walking on the water of the storm, if what I see is an undiminished glory which is my destiny and the destiny of all persons, if what I see is divine beatitude always already pursuing the highest good of all things as the highest good of those things, I’ll be increasingly transformed into that.

Are we reading into Paul here? I don’t think so. Back up a bit from 2Cor 4 to 2Cor 3.18 for confirmation of what we’re saying:

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Lastly, I suggest reading 2Cor 4.16-18 (and 3.18) alongside Rom 8.18f, a passage I’ve commented on a good deal. All these refer to essentially the same transforming vision of divine glory. In Rom 8 that glory is God as ‘end’, and in 2Cor 3 & 4 that glory is contemplate end ‘as means’ of present renewal. Together these outline perhaps the strongest reasons in the New Testament for believing God to be undiminished, glorious beatitude. I’ll leave you with a few lines on Rom 8 which I’ve previously shared and which I’m now happy to see expressed equally in 2Cor 4.18:

Transcendence as apatheia or as God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” (as Boyd earlier defined it) is no mere philosophical construct. It can be biblically discerned. Whatever evils we suffer, God remains that which one day shall render all worldly sufferings comparatively meaningless (Rom 8:18’s “sufferings not worth comparing to the glory that shall be revealed in us”). But I urge you to ponder what it is about God to which earthly sufferings are not comparable. If no present suffering can possibly compare to the joy that shall be ours upon seeing God, what joy must presently be God’s who always perceives his own glorious beauty? And if the glory which God now is shall transcend all our sufferings in our experience of him in resurrection, what can these sufferings presently be to God who always and already is this glory in its fullness? Pondering Rom 8, I asked myself, “Is the divine nature itself subject to ‘decay’ and ‘groaning’ as well? Does God ‘await glorification’ along with us?” If not, then what must God’s present experience be? And must not this experience be that about God which renders the entirety of the world’s suffering comparatively meaningless?

Prayer: Lord, fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2.4). Fill ‘this’ earth, me, the earth that I am, with the knowledge of your glory.

The immorality of ‘passibility’—Part 5

N31-960x727This is Part 5 in our response to Sirvent (responses in Part 3 and Part 4). But I intentionally want to rephrase things and turn Sirvent’s logic on his own thesis. And thus the title “immorality of passibility” pace his “immorality of impassibility.” For on its own terms Sirvent’s thesis devours itself. Once his view is considered in light of the integrity of God’s experience of a world full of diverse aesthetic experiences, some of inexpressible joy and others of unspeakable torment, fatal problems emerge for Sirvent. One absolutely must work any imitatio dei out in light of the competing emotional demands which make up the world’s diverse experiences. Specifically, is God’s experience of such a world to be understood as non-integrated or integrated? And once one does this, one can easily see how, on Sirvent’s own view, a passibilist God is as morally bankrupt as Sirvent thinks an impassibilist God is. Given Sirvent’s own line of argument, no version of a passibilist God is worth imitating either, but to see this you have to ponder the question of the integrity of God’s experience of the world’s diverse experiences. We cannot define whether God is worth imitating based on what God feels in response to an isolated, single individual’s pain. We should assess things in light of God’s experience of the whole.

I thought of posting a short clip from a former post of ours in which I follow the logic out, but I’d rather those interested read the whole post and follow the argument for themselves: What difference can passibilism really make?

Prayer: God, you see all, know all, love all, pursue all, redeem all, invite all and give all yourself to all of us without having to divide yourself among us. We need you so desperately. Teach me to rest my weary and anxious wandering in you.

The immorality of impassibility—Part 2

His_Calm_Within_The_StormAs I noted in Part 1, Sirvent builds a cumulative case for the incompatibility of impassibilism and imitatio dei (an approach to ethics that views the highest human flourishing as coming from imitating God). I don’t intend to present a full-length summary of all his points, but I would like to lay out the main line of argument.

Univocal theological language
Sirvent begins by adopting the univocal nature of theological language. How do our terms ‘love’, ‘just’, ‘good’, etc., apply to our talk about God? For Sirvent these terms apprehend God univocally. What those terms mean for us they mean for God. He writes:

The first proposed solution is to extend these terms to God in the same manner in which we apply them to humans. To do so is to employ univocal religious language, extending the same definition or use to two or more applications.

He acknowledges the objections to understanding our categories to apprehend God so univocally, but notes:

While I understand the reluctance to approach all religious language univocally—since we want to uphold God’s transcendence—the alternative is not without its pitfalls. To use all religious language in an equivocal manner, as some theologians do, is to view it as something that needs to be purified, leaving God in a hidden state from his creation, and therefore stripping him of his immanence.

This is a necessary step in Sirvent’s thesis. If we’re to imitate God’s love or justice (to two virtues Sirvent chooses to focus on), the terms ‘love’ and ‘just’ must mean for God what they mean when used of us, otherwise we have nothing to imitate.

A shared & independent moral standard between God and humans
Moving on, Sirvent argues imitatio dei involves two essential elements: (1) a shared (and independent) moral standard between humans and God, and (2) the normative claim that God is actually worth imitating (imitating God is the best means to human flourishing). Not only are “God and humans…accountable to the same moral standard,” but he adds:

The doctrine of imitatio dei goes even further in recognizing another implication: humans therefore have the ability to judge God’s actions against this shared moral standard.

Sirvent supports this line of reasoning by appealing to perfect being theology. Furthermore:

If we hold that God and humans are accountable to the same moral standard, we must accept that there is a way for us to discern these properties of moral goodness. If there were not such a way, it would be difficult to discern whether or not God could command someone to torture an innocent child. As such, recognizing a shared independent moral standard between God and humans leads us to address another important question about perfect being theology; namely, what reasons do we have for deeming certain moral properties to be perfections? More specifically, how do we discern what is morally permissible and morally objectionable? How do we know that it is wrong, both for God and for humans, to torture an innocent child? (emphasis mine)

Sirvent’s answer is that our moral intuitions (in conversation with perfect being theology) are able to discern this independent moral structure to which both God and humans are accountable. He recognizes Feuerbach’s criticism that one’s concept of God here is just mere human projection, but in the end concludes that there simply is no viable alternative to a “shared moral standard” between God and creation. If we reject such an independent moral standard that embraces both God and human beings, then we have to concede a divine moral realm in which torturing innocent children is permissible.

Emotional vulnerability constitutive of love and justice per se
The ‘emotional vulnerability’ Sirvent understands to be constitutive of imitatio dei and human flourishing is the “disposition to experience a range of favorable and unfavorable emotions” in response to one’s belief that a beloved has fared (or will fare) well or poorly. To be emotionally vulnerable to another is to “expose oneself to potential emotional harm.”

Sirvent then considers four definitions of ‘love’ and, supported by various studies, argues that emotional vulnerability is an essential, constitutive element in each of the four understandings of love. These are love as robust concern, as value, as union, and as emotion. He equally works through questions related to ‘justice’ to demonstrate the same. Through these, Sirvent argues, we can see that emotional vulnerability is a constitutive element of a morally worthwhile life.

There are certainly other arguments throughout. In particular, in ch. 6 he engages objections (from impassibilists) to his conclusions. These may figure into my own responses. But for now I think this enough for people familiar with the debate to understand where Sirvent is coming from. To summarize then:

  • Our language (terms such as love, justice, mercy, goodness) must apprehend God univocally (with identical meaning used both of God and human beings).
  • The Old Testament establishes the biblical nature of the imitatio dei ethic. God is worth imitating, and imitating God is the path of human flourishing.
  • Love and justice are two divine characteristics we are to imitate, and both invariably involve emotional vulnerability.
  • Since both love and justice involve emotional vulnerability for human beings, and since the terms ‘love’ and ‘justice’ apply to God univocally, it follows that a perfectly loving and just God is emotionally vulnerable.
  • Therefore, any denial of God’s emotional vulnerability is incompatible with imitatio dei and thus incompatible with the fullest possible human flourishing.

Responses to follow.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior of the world, have mercy upon me a sinner.

A cry of dereliction?


Jesus’ questioning cry “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (MK 15.24|MT 27:47) is known in theological circles as the ‘Cry of Dereliction’ (of abandonment, rejection, or forsakenness). For now let’s call it ‘the Cry’. But frankly, to call the Cross the Father’s dereliction of his Son is already to have interpreted the Cross, and in a way we think not possible.

I ran across a post by Barth scholar Darren Sumner (from 2012) that considers the Cry. Sumner considers (but rejects) the possibility that Jesus is not rejected by the Father but that the Cry is an allusion to Ps 22 (which, by the way, doesn’t describe divine abandonment but reassurance in suffering). But I don’t want to engage Sumner’s post or the reasons for preferring a reference to Ps 22 here (though I’m convinced that’s what is behind Jesus’ words). I’m more interested in the comments section of Sumner’s post. Among those comments you’ll find two responses, one by Nick Norelli. (His linked name there takes you to his blog, not to his comment on Sumner’s post.) Do take advantage of reading Norelli’s response on Sumner’s post though. I’m tempted to reproduce the whole thing here, but it’s a blog post in itself.

After Norelli’s response, consider the response by a certain PD there in the comments section. Short and sweet, but good. I never picked up on the passage (John 16.31-33) he cites regarding the impossibility of thinking the Father actually rejects Jesus on the Cross:

“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

That pretty much rules out the divine abandonment view. Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (v. 33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in upcoming afflictions as a consequence of his having overcome the world. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father is with us in ours.

I’ve also been reflecting on Heb. 12.1-3, a passage I’m convinced makes the divine abandonment view of the Cry impossible:

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him who has endured such hostility by sinners against himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

Now, juxtapose this description of Jesus’ experience of the Cross with the Cry. What do you sense?

The Cry is interpreted by many as describing the Father’s rejection of his Son. But the author of Hebrews believes Jesus “endured the Cross for the joy set before him.” What can it mean to say he “endured” the Cross? Clearly it can’t mean he “survived” the Cross. Why not? Because Jesus obviously didn’t survive the Cross. He died on it. So “enduring” the Cross has to mean something other than “surviving” it, something other than not dying on it. But if not survival, then what? (Never mind the additional comment in Heb 12 that Jesus “despised the shame” of being crucified, hardly a perspective one who believes himself a derelict rejected by God would be in a position to embrace.)


“Enduring” can only describe some persisting feature of Jesus’ conscious experience which the Cross could not wrest from him or define away, some unsurrendered belief the truth of which constitutes the saving power of the Cross as such. What can this be but Jesus’ confident and unfailing belief regarding his deepest sense of identity and purpose and the sustained conviction that he would again celebrate the joy of its truth—the truth of who he was and why he came?

The “endurance” in question is thus the enduring belief in his identity as the Father’s Son and his mission as sent by the Father contrary to a world from which every evidence of the Father’s love and faithfulness had vanished. It meant maintaining that belief and defining his sufferings “from within a framework of meaning” the Cross could not deconstruct. To not endure the Cross would have meant allowing the Cross to define him out of his identity and purpose. It would have meant his believing about himself what those who crucified him believed about the crucified—that he was utterly forsaken of God. We suggest that it is Jesus’ enduring perspective on himself as beloved Son, as suffering purposefully in obedience to his Father and not as abandoned by him, in precisely those circumstances Jews believed were evidence of God’s having cursed him, that renders his suffering a saving act.