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.

(Picture here.)

What difference can passibilism really make?

Just thinking out loud on this one. I’m running through models/scenarios trying to make good on passibilist conceptions of divine suffering that avoid key objections passibilists commonly make to non-passibilist views of God. I can’t get it to work. I’m unable to conceive of a passibilist model of divine suffering that really delivers. So let me describe the models I’m thinking through for comment. Mind you, I’m working through these in non-apophatic, non-traditional terms (because that’s a given for passibilist theologians). That is, heavy on univocity and anthropocentrism and light on transcendence and apophatic qualification.

First, consider a contrast that I think any passibilist has to deal with in understanding aesthetic experience in general and divine suffering in particular. The contrast is between experience which is  integrated (synthesized) or segregated (non-integrated). I’ll try to describe what I’m getting at and if you have better terms, suggest them. With a segregated (non-integrated) divine experience, no divine experience of any subject is affected or shaped or otherwise determined by any other experience God is having of any other created subject. God experiences each subject in its subjectivity and appreciates its pleasure or suffering without integrating or synthesizing that experience with any other creaturely experience God is on the inside of to yield a single, overall, consummate aesthetic experience. Thus each non-divine subject affects God fully, as if there were no other created subjects God was experiencing.

On the other hand, an integrated (synthesized) divine experience of all our discrete, individual experiences would yield a single, undivided aesthetic experience to which all created subjective experiences would contribute their “meaning” or “difference they make.” They would by definition be experienced by God as relatively pleasing or displeasing given the overall, consummate determinations of all the experiences God would be having.

With this distinction made, let me describe passibilism in terms of each and ask whether either is capable of avoiding its own objections to non-passibilist models.

(1) Segregated (non-integrated) divine aesthetic experiences of the world.
Here discrete occasions of creaturely joy and suffering are each experienced fully and non-relatively by God. There is no ‘overall’ divine aesthetic experience which integrates all the world’s joys and suffering into a single aesthetic valuation for God. On this view God has no consummate experience of the world’s joys and sufferings.

This is the strong passibilism I described in the comments section elsewhere. Here God experiences every instance of suffering fully and without existential refuge (we might say) via integration. The depth of divine feeling for each particular occasion of evil or suffering is not alleviated or qualified by other experiences God is having. This is the passibilism that objects to God being happy on some level when Zosia is having her eyes plucked out or when a tsunami sweeps 100,000 lives away in a day. Here you meet with the standard passibilist objection that it’s morally objectionable for God to be happy on such occasions or in the presence of suffering persons. God’s being love must mean God is shaped/determined by our pain and this divine suffering must have a depth and intensity equal or proportionate to the human experience given the human perspective.

In response I would suggest that this is not a passibilism that can deliver the kind of divine suffering that overcomes its own objections to non-passibilist models, for it would remain the case on this construal of divine passibilism that while Zosia is having her eyes plucked out over ‘here’, God is experiencing some joy over ‘there’ which is not defined, shaped or relativized by Zosia’s suffering. True, God is feeling Zosia’s suffering from the inside, even to a depth and intensity Zosia cannot experience given her finite capacities. But it remains the case on this non-integrated view of divine experience that God is elsewhere, existentially speaking, sharing the inexpressible joy of some beautiful experience that Zosia’s suffering simply does not touch or qualify (precisely the sort of thing passibilists object to). Here God is able to so segregate or partition his capacity for aesthetic experience as to offer every individual an opportunity to determine the divine experience as if there were no other individuals God had to experience (something like the aesthetic equivalent to Greg’s infinite intelligence argument).

Besides the philosophical problems of arguing for such segregation, the passibilist objection to impassibilism would hold for this passibilist model. There would be that joy in God which was not defined by the Christmas Day Tsunami that swept through Sri Lanka. God would be in possession of delights unaffected by occasions of creaturely suffering. But passibilists are on record as believing this to be morally objectionable. It would be less than benevolent, even wrong, of God to be happy on some level while we experience horrible suffering. There must be nothing to God’s divine experience which is not affected by our pain. That’s what strong passibilists require, and it’s what this model cannot deliver.

N31-960x727(2) Integrated (synthesized) divine aesthetic experience of the world.
Given the failure of the above non-integrated model, let’s consider an integrated model. On this understanding, discrete instances of creaturely joy and suffering are integrated into a single, indivisible aesthetic divine appreciation/valuation. Here all the world’s sufferings and joys would be relativized within the divine experience, yielding a consummate divine aesthetic experience of the world. God’s overall aesthetic experience would just be the synthesized unity of all the world’s sufferings and joys, the difference of an equation (all worldly joys minus all worldly sorrows equaling the felt quality of God’s undivided experience).

In this case God’s experience of Zosia’s suffering is itself affected by, shaped by, God’s experience of all other creaturely experiences, including supremely joyous ones. How happy God is over some act of unselfish love over ‘here’ would itself shape, or make a difference to, how sorrowful God is because of Zosia over ‘there’. All created experiences would affect God, but their felt affect in God would be their assimilated contribution to God’s overall consummate aesthetic experience. If there are many more occasions of good and joy in the world than of bad, God would be overall elated. In Genesis six, for example, presumably God was overall extremely affected negatively.

Can this model deliver the passibilst the kind of suffering God the passibilist wants? Given passibilist objections to non-passibilist approaches, no. For though we have here a passible God (indeed, a God who is only as happy as the world allows God to be), and one whose experience fully integrates the world’s discrete joys and sorrows (making it philosophically much preferable to segregated/non-integrated passibilism), it remains the case on this view that God’s experience of any particular joy or sorrow would always be an act of consummate integration with every other experience God is having. This is a problem for the passibilist given her standard objections, because it very well might be that when some horrible injustice occurs, God’s overall experience remains unspeakably blissful. God would not be “pissed off” (as one passibilist insists God must be in the face of some injustice). But as should be clear, this would be subject to the passibilist’s own objection to impassibilism, namely, that it is morally objectionable for God be inexpressibly happy while some horrible pain or injustice is occurring. And the same objection would hold regarding God’s delight in created joys and goods. It might be that some wonderful act of benevolence makes God far less happy than he otherwise would be were it not for a tsunami in Asia. Given passibilist objections, however, it should be as morally objectionable that God not be fully appreciative of created joys as that he not be determined by created sorrows.

It seems, then, that if God’s experience is passibilist in the sense that every created joy and sorrow contributes to a single, integrated/synthesized aesthetic experience, then God doesn’t experience any single occasion of evil or of good as he might otherwise experience it were that occasion all God had to invest himself in emotionally, and this ends up offending passibilist sensibilities. The joy which God and heaven feel over my child’s coming to faith, for example, would be greater than it in fact is were it not for another father’s child having died of cancer. And God’s sorrow over the death of this child is not as deeply felt as it would otherwise be were it not for the emotional investment God is having to make in rejoicing with me over my child. On this integrated view, then, God may have been overall inexpressibly happy when Zosia got her eyes plucked out. Who knows? It would depend ‘on balance’ on how well the world was doing at the time, and only God can know that. But the integrated passibilist here would have to content herself with the ambiguity and accept that it may be that God’s actual experience of Zosia’s suffering is less impacted negatively than it might be had she suffered a month earlier or a year later. God may in actuality be inexpressibly happy when Zosia suffers inexpressible pain. On the other hand, God may be (overall) extremely sorrowful in his integration of some very great and victorious good that just occurred just in case on the whole God was vastly more invested in a world overrun with evil. Neither case gets the passibilist what she wants.

Consider this as well. It’s quite possible, given this second, integrated option that there are people in the world right now who are happier than God, for we cannot integrate all the world’s suffering as God does. Given the amount of suffering in the world, God’s overall ‘feeling’ may in fact be pretty depressed. But the world at the same time may be filled with people whose experience is exclusively overwhelmed with reasons for joy. So at any given point in time, there are likely people in the world who are, comparatively speaking, happier than God. As I write this, I’m afraid there are Christian believers the survival of whose faith actually requires this to be the case.

Lastly, we’ve said nothing here about what would happen if God were believed to contribute his own triune resources to his overall felt quality of experience. If one goes with Hartshorne here, God cannot have Godself as the datum of his own experience. God’s concrete experience is just the synthesized union of all created experiences. But one could argue (as Greg Boyd does in Trinity & Process, in basic agreement with the Tradition) that God’s existence is essentially and necessarily an experience of the triune persons and as such God would have himself as the datum of his own aesthetic experience necessarily antecedent to his experience of the world. That would certainly effect the passibilist/impassibilist debate (as we’ve tried to show). We’ll take this up in closing things out with Alan.

(Paintings by Anastas Konstantinov here and here.)

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.

(Picture here.)

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.

(Picture here.)

An open apatheia?

16_Dorrien_FIG1Back on Oct 5th I posted a link to a guest post I made to Fr Aidan’s Eclectic Orthodoxy. As a shared blog post the entirety of the post wasn’t available here. And since I’m trying to gather together all the content of our posts for a ‘save’, I’ve removed that Oct 5th ‘shared link’ and am reposting it here in its entirety. It appears at Eclectic Orthodoxy as The Good News of Apatheia, or Why God Doesn’t Need to be Unhappy Just Because We Are. Nothing new or changed. It’s just readable in its entirety here now as well. (Comments also reposted).


The Good News of Apatheia, or Why God Doesn’t Need to be Unhappy Just Because We Are
I’m delighted to be invited to celebrate two years of Fr Aidan’s very fine blog contributions to the life and theology of Christian believers far and wide. Fr Aidan and I met online a few years back discussing theological issues. We remain friends today, and I’m grateful for the wonderful way the Internet has enlarged the circle of conversations like these.

I’ve been asked to describe some of the journey that led me to embrace divine apatheia (as I view it at least). Now, if I were Orthodox you might stop reading right here because there’s nothing unusual about an Orthodox believer thinking God’s essential happiness is neither improved upon nor diminished by anything that happens in the world. But I’m not Orthodox. I’m Evangelical. And worse still, I’m an open theist. Quite the fish out of water over here! And I’m well aware of the complexities involved in the (im)passibilism debate, but I don’t intend here to enter into anything like a detailed defense of my position. I can only summarize the thinking that has over the past few years focused my interests eastward upon the debated notion of apatheia and why I’ve come to value it as I do.

I was drawn to open theism from day one (more than twenty years ago now). I became acquainted with several of its prominent writers and engaged in regular and extensive conversation. I didn’t embrace it immediately but gave myself several years to explore the pro’s and con’s. Eventually the pro’s won out. I won’t unpack these here since this post isn’t about open theism, but given the strongly passibilist view of divine vulnerability open theists are known for, you can appreciate where I’m coming from and why coming to embrace apatheia is so surprising.

I remember the moment I decided in earnest to explore the Fathers. I was in the first chapter of Denys Turner’s Silence and the Word, especially interested in his comments on Pseudo-Denys. I recall the appearance of a question that seemed to announce its arrival without invitation: “What if?” What if there’s something to this? I can summarize the positive effect this question has had upon my life in a single word — apatheia. No doubt this is an unusual claim for an open theist to make. It’s clear that I don’t endorse as essential to open theism the passibilism popularly associated with the view. But this may also raise questions for Orthodox readers, because there are features of classical theism I reject (e.g., actus purus as absolute immutability void of all unrealized potential) which I don’t view as essential to apatheia in spite of their being popularly associated with the view.

Several years into this now, I’m more invested in a vision of the fullness of God’s triune being as undiminished delight and joy than I am in open theism’s defining claim about God’s knowledge and future contingents (as important as open theism is to me). I do not mean to say I find apatheia to be ‘more true’ than open theism. I only mean that I find apatheia to be ‘more fundamental’ in the sense that it impinges most directly and immediately upon my deepest experience and perception of myself in God’s presence, upon the most intimate act by which I fundamentally ‘am’ at all. Open theism on the other hand follows only as an observation of the kind of world I believe we must be living in if this experience of God is truly the case. I’m close to believing, however, that if something very like apatheia isn’t true, we’re all screwed anyhow (pardon my French) and it wouldn’t matter what sort of world we lived in – open, closed, determined; take your pick.

For the record, I’m not particularly hung up on the word apatheia. I’d be happy to give it up if the consensus was that the term entails those features of classical theism I reject. “Equanimity” works equally well. As you read this you’ll see that what I’m describing doesn’t entail the view that God is either unfeeling or insensitive, that he doesn’t experience changing states of mind (as he knows the changing truth about the temporal world) or isn’t open to his will for us being frustrated. Let me emphasize also that it was not through any conversation with Greek philosophical commitments that I came to appreciate God’s triune life as unimprovable and undiminished beatitude. I found all I needed elsewhere and independent of the Orthodox sources that I came to appreciate later. One helpful source in this regard was (Christian philosopher and open theist) Richard Creel’s Divine Impassibility (1986). His chapter on impassibility of feeling helped tremendously. I can’t recommend it enough. The five principles of Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy were instrumental as well. But by far the more decisive source of my convictions along this line has been Gregory Boyd. He was hugely instrumental in my journey eastward. As passionately as Boyd promotes a fully passibilist view of God today, it was his earlier work (Trinity & Process, 1992), critically engaging Charles Hartshorne’s Process metaphysics, that gave me contemporary categories for conceiving of God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” (quite a mouthful) and confirmed what I eventually saw in Orthodoxy. Take for example a few of Boyd’s conclusions in Trinity & Process:

“God’s being is defined by God’s eternal disposition to delight in Godself and the eternal actualization of this disposition within the triune life of God. It is the unsurpassable intensity of the beauty of the divine sociality – their shared love ‘to an infinite degree’….” (my emphasis)

“God’s infinite and complete antecedent actuality can be understood most fundamentally as the unsurpassable intensity of an aesthetic satisfaction. [W]e can conceive of this One’s antecedent actual existence—viz., God’s self-defining aesthetic delight—as being unsurpassable, self-sufficient, and as being ‘unconditioned’ and independent of the world.” (my emphasis)

“…God’s essential and necessary existence is…most basically defined by the unsurpassable intensity of aesthetic enjoyment which characterizes the triune sociality of God. God experiences Godself with an intensity which can under no circumstances conceivably be improved upon. As with Hartshorne, we are here most fundamentally defining God’s transcendence in terms of God’s aesthetic satisfaction.” (my emphasis)

These are not statements you will hear from Boyd these days, but you can hardly mistake the Orthodoxy of his essential point. Interestingly, he didn’t abandon this view of God’s necessary-essential fullness to become an open theist. He was an open theist when he made these statements. Consider this as well:

“The metaphysical necessity of God’s self-relationality means, I believe, that it is not possible to conceive of the death of the Son as anything other than an expression of the intense love of God’s inner life….[T]his means that all talk about a ‘breakdown of the relationship that constitutes the very life of the Trinity’ such as we find (for example) in Moltmann is, if taken literally, strictly impossible….”

The smelling salts are in the cabinet.treasure_in_jars_of_clay_by_saireba-d4pjkw2

If you follow Boyd at all (perhaps most here do not), you’ll know how very contrary these earlier (1992) statements of his are to his present position (which on this question is indistinguishable from that of Moltmann). In any case, for me the similarities between Trinity & Process and Orthodoxy (without ignoring their differences) were uncanny. Greg’s “…the unsurpassable intensity of the beauty of the divine sociality” sounded awfully like Augustine’s perfectissima pulchritude et beatissima delectatio (“the most perfect beauty and the most blessed delight”). And for both of these God’s self-constituting triune delight is fully actual and unconditioned by the world. Without engaging the Fathers at all, Boyd had confirmed an essential insight of the Church’s traditional view of God — not only is God essentially and fully triune and the world radically contingent and unnecessary, but what accounts for this is the infinite delight (or, unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction) of God’s triune actuality, a satisfaction Boyd argued “is neither increased nor diminished by the contingent and temporal affairs of this world.” What Boyd went on to miss entirely were the Christological and soteriological implications, but that’s another story, and unfortunately Boyd has not continued to view transcendence in these terms.

Be that as it may, I stepped into the wider patristic conversation and became familiar with testimonies of saints and others whose sufferings were defined by this transcendent joy. Eventually I chose (alas, one must choose) to relate to myself and relate myself to God within the truth of God’s delight. I can’t recommend the experience highly enough. I do find this, however, to be particularly difficult for those with a more analytic disposition (like me) to accept. Its truth isn’t exactly propositionally demonstrable, though it generates no contradiction. No syllogism will get you there. One must choose to relate to God and one’s self within a framework of meaning shaped by a delight that does not depend upon us for its fulfillment. And the choice to define myself in terms of God’s infinite delight continues to be painful work, at least for me, because every false self in me demands a recognition and significance which divine freedom of this sort will not provide.

Some have objected to imagining God to be “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” on grounds that it turns God into the worst kind of narcissist. I can’t take this criticism seriously because the kind of delight I’m describing is too easily conceived in emotionally healthy terms. God’s beatitude does not preoccupy him or leave him so self-absorbed with his own beauty that he either doesn’t notice us or, if he notices, he has no regard for our well-being. Quite the opposite. Another objection to imagining God as unimprovably happy is summarized by Ronald Goetz (Christian Century, 1986): “My own view is that the death of God’s Christ is in part God’s atonement to his creatures for evil.” God suffers our pain and evil to pay a debt he owes for creating a world that became so hideously overrun with evil and suffering. In a real sense it is God who is redeemed, God who gets reconciled to us. Here passibilism becomes a cure worse than the disease.

Not long ago I was asked to imagine one of my children screaming out in the night, something most parents experience. You run to your daughter’s side and find her half-awake, trapped inside a nightmare. She cries out, “Daddy! There’s a monster chasing me!” What do you say? Do you say, “Run faster, Hunny! Faster!” or perhaps “Hide behind a tree or under the staircase!”? Do you confirm the reality of her nightmare in this way? Of course not. But perhaps you begin to pace the floor believing that you are threatened and alone as well. Will that help her? Certainly not. Here’s what you do. You hold her in your arms and say, “It’s alright my love. Daddy is here! Don’t be afraid,” and you gently rock her in your arms until her reality conforms to your reality, until your reality defines her reality by putting the lie to her nightmare. And even if you had to enter her nightmare (one way to imagine the Incarnation), you still save her from her nightmare by exposing it as false, not by letting it falsify in you the very experience she needs to awaken from her nightmare.

IMG_3515Just this last weekend I observed a young family enjoying a picnic. I watched one of the toddlers, a daughter, fall and scrape her knee. Unable to world-construct outside her pain, she let the entire park know of her suffering. Her father? As you might expect, his response didn’t include the slightest discomfort or loss of happiness. He turned to his daughter, moved in her direction, and with a big smile called her name and held out his arms. Why not meet her level of experienced suffering with some measure of suffering of his own? After all, love suffers when those loved suffer, right? Where’s the father’s suffering here? Shouldn’t he feel some slight dip in happiness? Some measurable loss of “aesthetic satisfaction”? We all know the answer is no, and we know why. He doesn’t suffer in the slightest because of his perspective on her suffering (assessing its consequences relative to what he believes to be her highest good and well-being).

What about other more serious instances of suffering? What about permanent disability? What happens with betrayal or torture? What happens with the chronic pain of a losing battle with cancer? What happens is that what we believe to be our highest good and well-being gets revealed. Let’s at least grant that much. And it’s precisely here where I invite myself to examine what I believe to be the highest good and well-being of creation and to consider what it would mean to world-construct within the framework of its truth. The question is, What do we identify as our ‘highest good’? More to the point, What is the summum bonum, that supreme and absolute good/value by which all other relative goods and values are measured? I suggest that passibilists are committed to locating the summum bonum outside the beatitude of God’s triune actuality since they admit this very actuality suffers deprivation, and it is good and beautiful and right that it suffer. But what makes it good and beautiful and right? What actual good measures the loss of divine beatitude to be good and beautiful? Indeed, what actual good can be the absolute value which establishes the relative value and goodness of all contingent experiences? It can only be the non-contingent beatitude of God’s own triune actuality (as Boyd had argued on his own over 20 years ago). This is precisely where passibilist kenoticists redefine the summum bonum as something other than God’s own triune actuality, and that is a position I’m unable to embrace. In what do they suppose this absolute value to obtain? I can’t say, but my guess is they would insist it include them.

Let me wind things down. In the end the philosophical problems of a fully reciprocal passibilism, widespread within open theism, in which God’s happiness is a ‘negotiated happiness’, the difference of an equation (‘reasons for rejoicing’ minus ‘reasons for grieving’ = God’s state of mind), proved to be too much. At the same time, the biblical plausibility of such a view of transcendence strengthened my confidence as well. Transcendence as apatheia (as David Hart has expressed it) 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? Passibilism just stopped making sense to me — biblically, philosophically, and existentially. I came to the conclusion that God is our eschatological hope because God is the eschaton.

To me this is the Good News. Others may wish or feel they need it to be otherwise, or they may feel the Cross a charade unless divinity is reduced to its horror. But I suspect this perspective is a nightmare from which we need desperately to be awoken. And the truth that has the power to awaken us is revealed in the Cross: Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ because nothing can separate God from himself in Christ. The Cross doesn’t establish our separation and abandonment as a truth which God is or which he becomes. Rather, it exposes our separation and abandonment as myths, phantoms of the night, mere nightmares from which we awake to find (to possess) ourselves in the embrace of a delight that has always been the truest thing about us. Thank you Athanasius. Thank you Cyril. Thank you Chalcedon.

I have overstayed my welcome. Forgive the length, and let me thank Fr Aidan for the undeserved invitation to share a bit of my story and wish Eclectic Orthodoxy a very apathetic (!) second birthday. I leave you (shamelessly) with some final thoughts of my own adapted from elsewhere:

“The gratuity of creation is the grace of the gospel. But you only get that kind of absolute gratuity if God is, correspondingly, absolutely full. And grace that is this gracious, absolutely gracious, is hard because we want to be needed, not just wanted. But the only kind of wanting we know (despairing creatures that we are) is that wanting which is needing. That’s how we want. Imagine the existential rush that follows from believing that God wants you this way, i.e., because your existence fulfills him. Your existence can’t mean anything better than that. And so we weave into our narratives of redemption the fiction that God must be lonely without us, or diminished by our sorrow, or injured by our rejection, or ultimately perfected by our final glorification. But in recognizing God as a delighting love we can neither diminish nor improve, these self-serving dysfunctions and narratives are deconstructed and in their place we experience ‘his joy as our strength’ (Neh. 8.10) and come to possess ourselves in ‘an unspeakable and glorious joy’ as Peter wrote (1Pet. 1.8), ‘receiving the salvation of our souls’.”

(Pictures here and here.)

Divine experience of beatitude the summum bonum—Part 2

The more time I spend with struggling and suffering people in the Recovery community (in which I work), walk with close friends through difficult times, and weather my own storms as well, my view of God continues to be shaped around the growing conviction that God’s self-defining joy and delight are undiminished and undefeated in the loving concern with which he pursue us. I believe this is biblically/theologically sound and defensible, philosophically convincing, and existentially healing/transforming.

As an expression of love, sympathy and compassion cannot simply mean that we feel what a suffering person feels, for I can feel what a suffering person feels without loving the other and without doing anything to relieve him/her. There is, it seems, an additional benevolent intentionality that must accompany our attitude toward those in pain. How that variously works with us and how we’re to imagine God as intimately related to us in our pain can be a perplexing question. I suggest that in the end, this benevolent intentionality requires only that what I in fact feel motivates me to seek the relief of those who suffer, and that’s possible without having to sacrifice a measure of my own happiness as an essential motivating ground for acting.

I agree that acting in love to relieve the suffering of another must be motivated and that such acts are in response to the suffering of others. But surely it’s possible to conceive of a personal satisfaction/happiness which need not be diminished by the suffering of others before it can benevolently intend their well-being and act on their behalf or, additionally, that sympathy means one’s own happiness is diminished to a degree proportionate to the misery of those who suffer. The motivation of such beatitude would be a self-motivating fullness which need not be prodded into action either by the inconvenience of a diminished sense of well-being brought on by the lack of well-being in the world or by the prospect of increasing one’s aesthetic value by addition. A present fullness may be its own motivation to pursue the well-being of others as an expression of its own completeness.

If we suppose that one can only be motivated to act on behalf of another who suffers by suffering a loss of some measure of one’s own happiness, what sense remains for it to be the case that we (or God) can act solely with the sufferer’s interest at heart (what is typically understood properly as the ‘disinterestedness’ of love)? Part of the reason to seek the relief of others now becomes the relief of one’s own suffering incurred in the perceiving of their misery. Arguably, this reduces motivation to self-preservation and self-interest. It is ‘other’ interest in the sense that alleviating the suffering of others is the means by which one restores one’s felt quality of life or well-being, but it remains self-preserving/self-serving in the end. In such cases love comes to mean, among other things, the conditional nature of one’s happiness upon the happiness of others. Love becomes defined as a certain vulnerability, an openness of one’s well-being, to be defined by the well-being and happiness of others. I admit this makes increasingly less sense to me as an understanding of God’s love for us.

There is truth to aspects of it. Love does seem inconceivable in the absence of all interpersonal, interdependent relations. But if this obtains in God essentially and triunely, how are we to account for loving relations between God and created beings, that is, between God and created relations that do not define God essentially-necessarily? This is a fundamental question at the heart of disagreements over various understandings of (im)passibility. Must creation be free to define God’s sense or experience of well-being and happiness coincident to or co-extensively with the triune relations if it is also true that God is lovingly motivated to act on behalf of our highest good? One reason for answering ‘yes’ is that this is how we (almost universally) experience concern for the suffering of others we love. Reasons for answering ‘no’ are, arguably, the essential aesthetic nature of God’s necessary triune actuality (in contrast to the contingency of the world) and those many persons who do experience an abiding equanimity and undisturbed sense of well-being while engaged in loving concern for the world around them.

How are we then to conceive of God’s loving us and being open to experience us in our suffering? Must our suffering define God ‘without existential remainder’ (i.e., must our sufferings qualify God’s experience exhaustively) for us to be justified in affirming God’s loves of us at all? I think not. Love need not be motivated by its own suffering, experienced at the perceiving of the suffering of others, before it can be motivated to act on behalf of others. And arguably, to the extent one is motivated by one’s own suffering (suffering that is the effect of perceiving the suffering of others), one has oneself as the object of concern and not solely the interests of the other. Indeed, in this case one only acts on behalf of another when one’s own well-being and happiness are sufficiently diminished by thought of the sufferings of others, in which case one must have the restoration of one’s own happiness as the primary object of concern and interest. One would, conceived in this way, not act on behalf of suffering people without being sufficiently inconvenienced by first suffering the diminishing of one’s own experience.

And if we suppose, as many today do, that one truly loves those who suffer only to the extent one is motivated to act by suffering an appropriate loss of happiness, then have we not introduced self-interest into the act of love in a way that objectifies the sufferer to some extent? This would undermine a traditionally accepted tenet of belief regarding divine love, namely, that God can truly have us as the object of his concern without any self-preserving or self-serving interest as part of his concern for us. But what is his love for us if not self-preserving or self-serving if God can only act on our behalf if his own experience and felt quality of existence is sufficiently diminished by us?

Boyd (Trinity & Process) suggests that “…the person who enters into the sufferings of others with a sense of internal fullness is in a better position to genuinely enter into these sufferings than one who lacks such ‘fullness’,” or again, “a person who suffers for another because she needs the other…is more inclined to yet have herself as the object of concern, and thus more inclined to be, to that extent, shut off to the real needs of the other.” In contrast, Boyd argues, “one who enters into solidarity with a sufferer but who is self-content, who loves herself, who possesses an internal fullness which is not destroyed by the suffering, is free to have the sufferer as the sole object of her concern. She is free, in a sense, to ‘forget herself’ in devotion to another.” (emphasis mine)

What we’re aiming at is an understanding God’s existence as (a) irreducibly an experience (no great mystery there; God is not, nor can God be, an unconscious reality), and that (b) this self-constituting divine experience is irreducibly an experience of aesthetic value or beatitude, and that (c) in God’s case (as the summum bonum) this self-constituting experience of aesthetic value is unimprovable.

It’s (c) that creates problems for many. If I can’t ‘improve upon’ God’s existence/experience, then what do I mean to God? Boyd expresses this objection well in Trinity & Process:

The objection is this: it seems that if God is eternally characterized within Godself as an unsurpassable instance of aesthetic enjoyment, then the infinite compossibility of finite relations can mean nothing to God. It seems that if “God can be neither increased nor diminished by what we do,” then “our action, like our suffering, must be in the strictest sense wholly indifferent to him.” It seems that if we do not increase God’s enjoyment, then all talk about “serving God” is meaningless and “our existence is idle.” In short, it may seem that either our existences increase the value of God’s experience, or our existences are of no value to God.

Greg goes on to offer his own resolution to this objection which I’ve no room to expound upon at this time but which we fundamentally agree with. At its worst, however, this objection reflects a fundamental desire for it to be the case that God “needs” us to be happy and fulfilled and/or that if God remains untouched by us on some transcendent level then creation is entirely pointless. In the end, for Dwayne and me, apatheia is a way to say that our salvation is found precisely in the fact that God does not “need” us in this way. To suppose that he does we think has more in common with the kind of codependency we treat as a dysfunction than with healthy identity and self-possession. And it complicates how one unpacks the consequences of creation ex nihilo which, in our view, implies the kind of unimprovable/undiminishable divine existence we’ve been trying to describe.

(Picture here.)

Christ & Horrors—Part 1

9780521686006_p0_v1_s260x420Top three books read in 2013? The top read has to be David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. The second and third are Marilyn McCord Adams’ Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology and John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. I read McCord last summer and I’m starting this year off re-reading her. The first time though I was just a listener. This time through I want to move slower and take notes as I go an And I’d like as occasion permits to post relative passages from the book. So they’ll pop up occasionally as Christ & Horros—Part 1, 2, etc.

Her thesis? I’ll let her describe it:

“My topic is Christology; my thesis is the coherence of Christology; my theme, Christ as the One in Whom all things hold together. Metaphysically, Christ is the center both of Godhead and cosmos. Existentially, Christ is the integrator of individual positive personal meaning; psychologically, our inner teacher; body-politically, the organizer of Godward community. Christ saves us by virtue of being real and really present.”

She poses the human predicament:

“Western theological majority reports—as asserted in Augustine and refined by Anselm and later medieval western school theologians as well as (and perhaps most emphatically) by Protestant reformers—and late twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy of religion alike root human non-optimality problems in sin, construed as the rebellion of relatively competent agents against God, and identify our psycho-spiritual disarray, our estrangement from God, our vulnerability to a generally hostile environment, and the certainty of death as natural and/or punitive consequences of the sin of free creatures.”

No doubt (she admits), sin is a problem. However, in the book she employs a different category, that of “horror” of which “sin is a severe symptom and disastrous consequence.”

“I begin with the exitentialists’ category of personal meaning, and define “horrors” as “evils the participation in (the doing or suffering of) which constitutes prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant’s life could (given their inclusion in it) have positive meaning for him/her on the whole.”

And again:

“Participation in horrors furnishes reason to doubt whether the participant’s life can be worth living, because it engulfs the positive value of his/her life and penetrates into his/her meaning-making structures seemingly to defeat and degrade his/her value as a person….At the heart of the horrendous, what makes horrors so pernicious, is their life-ruining potential, their power prima facie to degrade the individual by destroying the possibility of positive personal meaning.”

I very much like the soteriological shift in focus from sin to horror, from acts that violate expressed commands to the degradation of personal meaning-making capacities. I think this is a right and beneficial move because sin (construed as “acts”) is itself motivated by a more fundamental misidentification of the self. This shift to the existentialist category of personal meaning opens a way to think soteriologically which, for me, confirms an already present shift motivated several years ago by exposure to Greg Boyd’s Trinity & Process and aspects of the Orthodox vision of God.

Flowers in Auschwitz—Part 1

Flowers_in_Auschwitz_by_kallioWe place flowers in Auschwitz. Why? Just to pay respect? Or to express hope? Perhaps hope in what David Hart calls an ontology of peace — that ‘being’ is itself an indestructible joy, a repose of self-existent peace in which no evil or suffering can fabricate a moment of negation. This belief—that God’s life is illimitable in its beauty and joy—fell on hard times outside of Orthodoxy for, well, centuries, but it has recently been enjoying (no pun intended) a revival.

Might placing flowers in Auschwitz reflect an innate hope that before, during, and since the occasion of every evil there is an all-encompassing and transcendent joy which cannot be disturbed by whatever evils abound? Might it be that our pain and suffering have defined us so completely that we insist our salvation be purchased by God at the expense of his own joy? Have we come to believe that God has no right to be happy when there is sadness in the earth, that our salvation is in knowing that our suffering hurts not only ourselves but God as well? Somehow we think that our joy in suffering is increased if God’s joy in suffering is diminished. Something just seems terribly off with that.

Discussing with Jeff whether and how God ‘experiences’ the world in aesthetic terms (i.e., whether and how God ‘feels’ the world) got me thinking again about analogies of (a rapprochement of sorts with?) the doctrine of apatheia, which we take to mean not that God is unfeeling or without all emotion or aesthetic appreciation, but rather (as I understand the Orthodox the more I read and talk to them) that the fullness of his aesthetic appreciation (his joy, his delight, his sense of well-being) cannot conceivably be diminished or improved upon. This view of God is rejected with peculiar passion by open theists, but the necessity of this rejection to open theism is something Dwayne and I have been questioning for some time.

Let me mention two convictions (one here and one in an upcoming post) I’ve come to share, as an open theist, with the Orthodox on this. One seems to follow from ‘divine unity’ and the other from the ‘freedom’ implicit in necessary being.

The FIRST conviction regards the integrity or unity of God’s experience, however we’re to express it. I’m having a difficult time conceiving of (Jeff’s suggestion of) fully distinct experiences of contrary emotions in God such that God fully grieves and sorrows over our suffering and simultaneously rejoices over good.

I used to argue something like this myself. I once thought that what was true of God intellectually was true of God emotionally in that just as God’s intellectual powers are not divided among the all the distinct facts or states of affairs he knows, so God’s emotional powers are not divided among all the distinct occasions of evil and good which he feels. The more facts I have to attend to the more my cognitive powers are divided among them. I can give all my attention to a single matter of fact, but as I attend to two, five or more facts my intellectual capacities are divided among them. So each one gets a bit less attention the more I have to attend to. But with God this doesn’t occur. God can attend to any number of matters of fact without having to divide his intellectual capacity between them. If God perceives a million facts, each fact gets 100% of his attention, as if it were the only thing he had to attend to. This is pretty non-controversial I should think.

Auschwitz-064-940x705I once explored thinking about God’s emotional capacity in this way and supposed that God can experience a perfectly appropriate sorrow or grief or anger over occasions of evil or suffering while experiencing a separate and perfectly appropriate joy over some occasion of goodness. I’m still unsure how to articulate exactly why this doesn’t appear to work for me, but among the reasons is the fact that while knowing different matters of fact without deprivation of intellectual capacity is conceivable (because no contradiction exists between any two actual states of affairs), it seems to me having independent experiences of contrary emotions does generate a contradiction. Just can’t put my finger on it.

Later I sought an analogy for God’s feeling the world’s joys and sufferings in the concept of an infinite set. Take the set of all numbers—an infinite set. It’s ‘infinitely intense’; its membership is unsurpassably ‘intense’. But we can also imagine making ‘withdrawals’ from this set. I can remove all odd numbers, for example, and we’d still have an infinite set. Similarly, I often imagine God’s ‘aesthetic satisfaction’ (his joy, his sense of well-being and bliss) in this way, God being infinitely satisfied with the unchanging perfections of his own necessary being and yet able to accommodate real withdrawals which the world’s suffering makes without himself suffering the loss or deprivation of the any intensity of joy. I’m not sure this works. As I mentioned in a previous note, God’s unity presupposes “an integrated experience, a consummate feeling of the whole, which ‘integrates’ without ‘negotiating’, and the only way I can presently do that is to interject into the negotiation an ‘infinite’ variable [God’s experience of his own essential, triune beauty unconditioned in the intensity of bliss it produces by the world] which by virtue of being infinite can be added to and subtracted from without either ‘being improved upon’ or ‘deprived/diminished’.” If such ‘withdrawals’ are conceivable, then we may have a way forward.

Conviction TWO to come.

(Pictures here and here.)

Negotiated happiness

dramaWhat are the implications of God’s happiness (the felt quality of his experience, his “aesthetic satisfaction”) being the difference of an equation, that is, of its being the case that God’s happiness is the difference between his reasons to be happy and his reasons to be sad? Let me suggest that if this be the case then the integrity of the sense in which God is believed (by this view) to be happy and to rejoice over righteousness is undermined. The same righteous act would meet with various degrees of joyous response on God’s part depending on the level to which God’s joy is diminished by evils in the world. Were the evils in the world less (and God’s experience less diminished by them), God would experience greater joy over my loving act. His ability to rejoice over an unselfish act of sacrificial love performed at Christmas 2004 was diminished by the death toll of the 2004 Christmas Day Tsunami in the Indian Ocean. God could be happier about your selfless act of love, but he has the victims of a tsunami to grieve for in addition, and he has only so much emotional wherewithal to divide among them.

Similarly, as I follow this view, God’s compassionate suffering with the victims of that same tsunami could not be as deeply felt as it might have been were it not for all the reasons God had to rejoice in the world. God would have felt worse for the tsunami victims had some loving person elsewhere not loved his neighbor sacrificially and provided God a reason to rejoice. But this is what one gets with defining divine happiness as the difference of an equation — reasons to rejoice minus reasons to sorrow. It means that…

“…how joyous God finds himself in the face of any particular good as well as how grievous he is in relation to any particular evil are not a measure or reflection of the good or the evil relative to anything absolute about God; rather they are a measure of God’s sense of well-being distributed among competing demands, each demand determining a ‘share’ of the divine.”

Something is desperately wrong here.

What to do? Well, one might suggest that there’s no need to do anything. This is just the way things are. God really would feel better than he does over your goodness were it not for some evil in the world that diminishes the joy God would otherwise feel on your account, just as he would be sadder for victims of evil than he actually is were it not for the presence of some goodness in the world.

If this seems unacceptable, one could suppose that God has a self-generated reason to rejoice which, though finite because diminishable by worldly evils, is nevertheless greater than all combined imaginable reasons to sorrow. In this case God is never in danger of (as Marilyn McCord Adams describes it) “having his mind blown” by overwhelming worldly sorrows. God can’t have an emotional break down because he has a supply of reasons to rejoice that derive from his own being and identity which can never be exhaustively spent on worldly suffering even if they can be diminished.

This is definitely a move in the right direction. However, it leaves unaddressed the objection to God’s being too sad (on account of some actual evil) to rejoice as he might over the salvation of a single sinner, and also too happy (due to salvation of the sinner) to grieve as deeply as he might over the actual evil. Something seems amiss with this consequence.

True to our feelings

9780195368536I’ve just finished a 12 week spring session (in our Recovery meetings) entitled “Feelings and Faith: Exploring our Emotions.” I found a lot of inspirational support in Robert Solomon’s True to Our Feelings: What Our Emotions Are Really Telling Us (Oxford, 2007). I like a lot about Solomon’s take on emotions. He writes against reductionist theories that view emotions as mere chemical reactions which occur in the brain, as based in physiological disturbances (William James), or which displace responsibility for emotions by transferring determination of them away from ourselves and in external influences (whether in terms of Skinner’s ‘Behaviorism’ or some other mechanism). He views emotions as “evaluative judgments” which are purposive strategies the self adopts for living in the world. Emotions are neither irrational nor do they happen to us. They are ultimately strategies adopted by the self for the maximization and management of the self’s well-being.

This worked really well with my main point in the series (in pursuit of exploring how apatheia is realized in our own experience and faith) which was that since emotions are some ‘self’ interpreting the events of life in terms of that self’s perceived well-being (either as an expression of well-being or an attempt to secure it), the ‘self’ is at the heart of our emotional health. That is, “who” we believe we most fundamentally are is what shapes and directs the emotional life, not the other way around. This is a fundamental Stoic insight (as well as that of Eastern philosophical/religious traditions) and we think it reflects biblical truth (as we shared previously).

If one’s ‘self’ is defined most truly in terms of relationship to/in the risen Christ, then one is as transcendent of the world as is Christ, meaning nothing in or of this world can define who we are and what we most fundamentally mean. No worldly event (neither height nor depth, life nor death, sword nor sickness, etc.) can threaten the Christ-centered self. And you can’t fear or be angry at or anxious about or depressed over what cannot possibly harm or diminish you. In Romans 8:15 Paul tells us that we are not given a spirit which makes us again slaves to fear but are instead given the Spirit of Sonship “by whom we cry ‘Abba’, Father.” There it is. God’s own self-talk. The Son’s own sense of self. It is ours. We are given it to step into. And so it is that “not I but Christ” or who I am is on the inside of who Christ is (the “new self, created to be like God….” (Eph. 4) As Paul asks, “If God be for us, who and what can be against us?” Who or what indeed! What would happen to our emotional and psychological turmoil if we chose never to view ourselves or step outside the truth of this relation?