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.

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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!

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?

Picture-N81991-960x711
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.)