Vita ex nihilo

val-hammond-coeurFor a moment, think of creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) as vita ex nihilo (“living out of nothing”). It might let some light in on the what I’ve been trying to get at in exploring the Void.

In a comment intended to clarify the relation between the ‘natural’ and ‘gnomic’ will (between our ‘will’ as given and sustained by God as its ‘natural’ end, on the one hand, and its ‘deliberative’ capacity to determine itself relative to God, on the other), David Bentley Hart writes:

In the interval between these two movements [natural and gnomic] – both of which are rational – the rational soul becomes who God intends her to be or, through apostasy from her own nature, fabricates a distance between herself and God that is nothing less than the distance of dereliction. For, whatever we do, the desire of our natural will for God will be consummated; it will return to God, whether the gnomic will consents or not, and will be glorified with that glory the Son shares with the Father from eternity. And, if the gnomic will within us has not surrendered to its natural supernatural end, our own glorified nature becomes hell to us, that holy thing we cannot touch. Rejection of God becomes estrangement from ourselves, the Kingdom of God within us becomes our exile, and the transfiguring glory of God within us – through our [gnomic] refusal to submit to love – becomes the unnatural experience of reprobabtion. God fashions all rational natures for free union with himself, and all of creation as the deathless vessel of his eternal glory. To this end, he wills that the dependent freedom of the creature be joined to his absolute freedom; but an indispensable condition of what he wills is the real power of the creature’s deliberative will to resist the irresistible work of grace.” (emphasis mine)

All I want to pick out from this is its perspective on hell as the unwilling soul’s experience of God’s glory and beauty. I believe this is the standard Orthodox view of hell. What constitutes the torment of hell is not any kind of absolute absence of God to which the wicked are exiled, but rather the presence of God revealed to a heart and mind unwilling to receive him. Hell is unwelcomed intimacy. (Think of Sartre’s play “No Exit” which tells the story of three people bereft of eyelids and condemned to spend eternity together in a single room, hence Sartre’s “Hell is other people.”) Similarly, hell is how those who refuse God’s beauty in this life experience the revelation of it within themselves in the next. Their posture with respect to God, not God’s with respect to them, is their self-determined agony.

I think this is a kind of general principle true of all our struggles and difficulties throughout life. I’m not interested here in the doctrine of hell per se. I’m more interested in the idea that we create torment for ourselves by misrelating “within” a certain truth of God’s glory and beauty. I’m wondering if some of the difficulty that my passibilist friends (those who believe we are in a position to diminish and improve God’s experienced beatitude) have with the notion of an undiminished divine beatitude might be a reluctance to embrace the Void, i.e., the truth of our nothingness and contingency. It’s a very peculiar sort of self-awareness that goes beyond any academic recognition that we are not eternal, or self-sufficient, and that we depend upon God as Creator.

We want to mean something, to be something permanent. Fair enough. That’s our ‘natural’ will/desire at work. But for passibilist believers, this natural desire precedes rather than follows the truth that grounds it, and when that happens we misconstrue our ‘meaning’ as the difference we make to God rather than the difference God makes to us and so misinterpret our God-given desire to make-meaning. We may recognize that we “live and move and have our being in God” (Acts 17.28), but we live by construing our fullest meaning otherwise, partly at least, as the sense or measure in which God lives and moves and has his being in us. So to be in the presence of a beauty and delight that doesn’t need us, that isn’t improved upon or completed by us, ends up being viewed by passibilists not as the fulfillment of desire but as its denial and so as a kind of torment. Such was my own experience.

This all makes me think of hell as passibilism’s last stand, as the experience of wanting to mean something prior to and independent of what God means (to himself and to us), of wanting one’s meaning to be a meaning one introduces into the Meaning-Maker (God) who is source and giver of life, as opposed to an utterly receptive mode of meaning-making as vita ex nihilo, i.e., as accepting and celebrating one’s existence as a mode of divine self-expression. When this is thought not to be enough, glory and beauty become torment.

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Suffering and the search for meaning—Part 2

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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.

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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
or
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

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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.

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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.

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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 1

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I’m presently reading an interesting PhD dissertation by Tom Mount (well, Thomas Speed Blair Mount—not a name you want to ‘rush’ through) titled “Existential Dimensions of the Contemporary Impassibility Debate: A Pastoral Approach to the Question of Divine Suffering Within the Context of Conservative Evangelicalism” (South African Theological Seminary, 2015). What conservative evangelicals think doesn’t generally interest me. But existential arguments for or against (im)possibility? Count me in.

Mount provides a typology of these arguments which I’d like to reproduce here as briefly as possible. I may get into the impassibilist responses he discusses, but I’m more likely to just think through my own responses. Mount’s categories provide a helpful organization of the kind of existential reasons put forward in favor of passibilism. They fall under five categories (including supporting reasons):

(1) Devotional considerations (arguments related to how one’s beliefs enhance one’s relationship with God). Passibilism:
– Gives a clearer, more compelling account of God’s love (as empathetic).
– Makes it easier to understand God as personal.
– Better explains God’s goodness (i.e., if God is not troubled by evil his goodness is            called into question).
– Renders the imago dei more intelligible.
– Facilitates a deeper intimacy with God.
– Renders God more attractive and worthy of greater affection.
(2) Psychological considerations (arguments respecting how one’s beliefs promote psychological advantages such as optimism, hope, and consolation in suffering). Passibilism:
– Provides consolation to those who suffer.
– Helps those who suffer adjust to the reality of suffering as a normative             experience in a fallen world.
– Helps ameliorate human suffering by situating it in the larger story of God’s own            struggle against suffering, sin, and death.
– Promises a future free of suffering.
– Makes it easier for Christians to understand and experience God’s empathy.
(3) Ethical considerations (arguments concerning how one’s beliefs improve the way one relates to the needs and sufferings of others). Passibilism:
– Prevents Christians from becoming apathetic to the suffering of the world.
– Provides greater incentive to protests the causes of suffering in the world.
– Gives Christians more reason to share the sufferings of others.
– Helps deter Christians from sin.
(*Perhaps under ethical considerations one could add Robert Sirvent’s argument for the immorality of impassibility (that is, an impassible God is not worth imitating).)
(4) Apologetic considerations (arguments related to how one’s beliefs strengthen the case for faith made to non-believers). Passibilism:
– Makes God more attractive and compelling than one incapable of sharing human            pain.
– Provides a more convincing theodicy.
(5) Missional considerations (arguments concerning how one’s beliefs motivate one to evangelize and engage in other aspects of Christian witness). Passibilism:
– Provides greater incentive for missionary engagement insofar as it portrays God              as grieving over the state of unredeemed humanity.

There is obvious overlap here. Some of the arguments he categorizes as devotional seem as easily viewed as psychological. In the end, existential arguments are open-ended and rarely win the day on paper. Because they’re existential, they often take time to resonate within people as this or that perspective or belief is tried on for size (which I think we’re all basically able to do and which makes existential arguments so fascinating). Some people are unable or unwilling to conceptually test-drive perspectives other than their own. It can be unsettling to do.

The “existential fit” was a major argument offered (by David Basinger’s chapter 5) in The Openness of God (1994) for embracing open theism. In my own master’s thesis I explored petitionary prayer as the primary existential stage upon which the religious adequacy of theological claims could be measured and applied this to open theism. But as fascinating as pragmatic, existential arguments are, they’re notoriously difficult to assess. One doesn’t want such arguments to reduce simply to disagreements between preferences in taste. There is no objective existential argument to demonstrate that chocolate ice-cream provides a more existentially fulfilling experience than vanilla. “The proof is in the pudding” has a certain popular appeal, but we’re not talking about “taste” (sugar is more enjoyable than kale). We’re speaking about experiencing health and well-being (for which kale provides a clearly better “existential fit”).

This is the first conviction I’d offer:

Any argument for the existential fit of theological claims has to fit the claims in question first to specific ends (e.g., What is the end for which we are created and fitted by God?) and then demonstrate (rationally and through personal testimony) the ability of the belief in question to inform and empower the process of human transformation toward those God-given ends. So as I dive into some of Mount’s arguments, I’ll bare this in mind.

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.

The immorality of impassibility—Part 1

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Roberto Sirvent, Assistant Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University, has written a provocative book on the immorality of impassibility. The book, Embracing Vulnerability Human and Divine (2014), is the published version of Sirvent’s PhD thesis (London School of Theology). It’s clearly argued, thoughtful, and irenic. I was especially interested in this thesis, having begun (and having been unable to finish, alas) a PhD track of my own at the same school pursuing precisely the opposite thesis as Sirvent here argues. Sirvent is of interest to open theists as well, given their debate over the relationship between divine (im)passibilism (understood broadly) and divine epistemic openness with respect to future contingents (i.e., the ‘open view’ of the future). No doubt he offers open theists a new, more sophisticated, line of approach in arguing for a strong version of divine passibilism. I believe John Sanders is working on a review of sorts. I’d love to see Sirvent’s arguments engaged at length, and to encourage that along, as well as for my own sake, I thought I’d review Sirvent’s main arguments and offer some responses. It’s not a long book (177 pages), but it is compact and to the point.

Sirvent’s essential argument is simple: divine impassibilism is incompatible with the imitation of God ethic (imitatio Dei). An impassible God is, to put it simply, “not worth imitating.” Imitatio Dei is, Sirvent argues, a biblically derived ethic that asserts that “the most virtuous way of life comes by imitating the divine moral nature.” As such it offers a normative methodology for thinking through moral questions. Because human beings are created in the divine image, we and God are accountable to one and the same moral standard. On the basis of the essential similarity between us and God, “we should therefore look to normative accounts of love and justice as humans experience them for evidence of the way God experiences them.”

Sirvent is clear on the particular understanding of impassibility he’s means. Impassibilism is “immutability with regard to one’s feelings, and the incapacity of being acted upon and having one’s emotional experience changed by an external force.” Fair enough. I think this definition is worth discussing a bit, but we’ll go with it since that’s what he’s working with. I thought at first Sirvent might be working with a strongly classical understanding of impassibility that held to an unqualified immutability entailed in a view of actus purus as holding there to be no conceivable unrealized potential in God. I don’t espouse impassibility in this strong sense. But Sirvent also means to rule out as immoral understandings of God’s existential fullness and beatitude that do not argue along such an understanding of actus purus (i.e., what some appear to be calling ‘weak’ impassibilism).

While some theories of divine impassibility refuse to attribute any emotion to the divine realm, many modern accounts argue powerfully for a “healthy emotional life” in God. Where these accounts still fall short—normatively speaking—is by systemically rejecting that God is capable of being acted upon and having his emotional experience changed by an external force. If in fact God cannot experience emotional vulnerability in this fashion, I argue, then he is not worth imitating. To develop this idea, I argue that a constitutive element of love and justice is vulnerability to the other. No matter what modern account we subscribe to, love necessarily involves a concern for the other person, a bestowal or recognition of value for the relationship, recognition of a union with one another, or an intimate identification with the beloved. Indeed, none of these foundations for love are [sic] compatible with impassibility. Similarly, an impassible being would be unable to possess the virtue of justice since emotional vulnerability is also constitutive of its corollaries: compassion, empathy, and forgiveness.

So even if one were to claim (with careful qualifications) that God temporally engages and knows the changing, temporal world (and so is not immutable in every conceivable sense), so long as one were to view the experienced fullness of the triune relations as fully accomplished and thus undiminishable existentially speaking, one would still possess a view of God that Sirvent considers morally bankrupt and so incapable of providing justifiable grounds for thinking God worth imitating.

As such Sirvent is offering imitatio Dei as the “chief instrument by which we perform this ‘moral diagnosis’ on our theological commitment.” The doctrine of impassibility, however sound its philosophical or metaphysical support may be, is illegitimate from a moral point of view. Without emotional vulnerability we simply cannot live fully virtuous lives, lives worth living. Impassibility is “morally bankrupt,” or as his ch. 6 words it, impassibility is immoral. Now, to claim that believing God to be unimprovable and undiminishable beatitude is “morally bankrupt” is huge, and though I think in the end he’s unsuccessful, I have to applaud Sirvent’s boldness.

The book builds a cumulative case. It begins with the univocal nature of theological language (Introduction), lays out a biblical case for imitatio Dei involving a shared (and independent) moral standard between God and human beings (ch. 3), presents reasons for thinking that emotional vulnerability is constitutive of love and justice per se (ch. 4), illustrates these claims with various Old Testament passages (ch. 5), and lastly treats Christology (briefly) and further evaluates how impassibility is incompatible with imitatio Dei (ch. 6).

I’ll devote a second post to summarizing the flow of his arguments in more detail and then move on to some responses.

Prayer: Triune God of love—always here, always at work, always pursuing, always inviting, always giving, always loving, always reaching; never lonely, never in despair, never afraid, never anxious, never empty-handed, never hateful, never resentful, never bereft of love. I’m so glad this is how you are!