How happy is God?

Golden buddha handsWe’d like to focus our admiration of Orthodoxy on what is believed by open theists to be perhaps the most egregious disfigurement of the biblical portrayal of God, the Orthodox doctrine of apatheia (pronounced [ap-uh-thee-uh], from the negating a- [“without”] + pathos [“passion”] and most often translated into English with ‘impassibility’). Open theists all (with the exception of this blog and perhaps John Sanders) understand apatheia to be the denial of emotions in God. “After all,” one prominent open theist told me, “That’s what the word means—‘a’ negates ‘pathos’. No feeling. No emotions in God.”

We’d like to go on record as saying that if the Orthodox doctrine means what open theists generally understand it to mean, namely, that God is void of all emotion, bereft of all enjoyment whatsoever, then we won’t be defending Orthodoxy on this point. But our understanding is that by apatheia the Orthodox do not refer in any simplistic sense to a denial of emotion in God. Things really are a bit more complicated and nuanced than that. Our suspicions that apatheia may not be contrary to open theism’s core convictions as open theists assume were confirmed when we read open theist John Sanders’ clarification on his own understanding of the Fathers on apatheia. John writes:

“…it is clear that when the fathers said God was impassible they did not intend to rule out that he has emotions or that he is affected by and responds to us.”

Sanders feels this is good news, for “it enhances the degree to which the openness model agrees with more of the tradition.” We’d like to explore the nature and extent of that agreement in this and future posts.
Our conviction is that the Orthodox doctrine of apatheia is far better understood as “equanimity.” But it’s not difficult to understand why the Fathers, given their challenges would want to express this in negative terms as a- followed by the dysfunction or abuse they wished to dissociate with God. But a wider reading of these same Fathers (which we’ll have occasion to review in future posts) shows they attributed emotions to God with great conviction and consolation.

Open theism has built its case (rightly) on the view that God is love — fundamentally and essentially. But what this entails involves us in some disagreement. Open theists virtually all agree that as ‘love’ God is believed to be emotionally open or ‘vulnerable’ to a suffering world. So God’s—if you’ll permit us to use the phrase—‘emotional life’ is in a state of constant flux between fulfillment and diminishment depending partly upon the well-being of the world. God’s overall “aesthetic satisfaction” (to borrow a phrase from Greg Boyd which we’ll use a lot here) is understood to be the difference of an equation involving both God and world; that is, reasons God has to be joyful and ecstatic minus reasons God has to be sad or diminished. To open theists (with virtually no exceptions) then, ‘vulnerability’ essentially means we get to decide how happy God is. In our view, however, open theism need not adopt this understanding of divine love, and there are good reasons to urge open theists not to move in this direction.

To anticipate many posts to come, let us say that we believe Greg Boyd’s Trinity and Process describes a balanced approach to the excesses of Process theism on the one hand and objectionable aspects of traditional “classical” theism on the other. Take for example a few statements from Trinity and Process (italics ours):

“God experiences Godself with an intensity of aesthetic satisfaction which can under no circumstances conceivably be improved upon.”

“…this God-defining zenith of aesthetic intensity has been constituted in the triune sociality of God from eternity. This is necessary, and as such it is neither increased nor diminished by the contingent and temporal affairs of the world.”

“…this aesthetic satisfaction is the same whether or not there is a non-divine world for God to enjoy. God is no ‘greater’ for fellowshipping with the world, for it is God’s fellowship with Godself, not the world, which constitutes and characterizes the necessary unsurpassability of God’s aesthetic satisfaction. God’s gracious fellowship with the non-divine world simply expresses this primordial eternal fellowship.”

We suspect some will find this surprising given recent statements by Greg (preached and published in various forms) regarding God’s suffering love. The most recent summary of his views are expressed in a ReKnew video blog where at minute 3:50 he says, “The love that unites the triune God is greater than their own enjoyment of that unity” and moments later “The separation of God from God on the Cross represents the perfect unity of God with God.” We hope to show why this ought not to be our view of love.

Obviously there are contexts that qualify everything one says, and in our upcoming treatment of Greg’s work in Trinity and Process we’ll be careful to examine Boyd both then and now, but for now it should be clear that his present position and views on the Trinity (with respect to divine suffering in/with the world) are not what they were when he authored Trinity and Process.

Stay tuned!
(Pictures from here and here.)