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.)