The more time I spend with struggling and suffering people in the Recovery community (in which I work), walk with close friends through difficult times, and weather my own storms as well, my view of God continues to be shaped around the growing conviction that God’s self-defining joy and delight are undiminished and undefeated in the loving concern with which he pursue us. I believe this is biblically/theologically sound and defensible, philosophically convincing, and existentially healing/transforming.
As an expression of love, sympathy and compassion cannot simply mean that we feel what a suffering person feels, for I can feel what a suffering person feels without loving the other and without doing anything to relieve him/her. There is, it seems, an additional benevolent intentionality that must accompany our attitude toward those in pain. How that variously works with us and how we’re to imagine God as intimately related to us in our pain can be a perplexing question. I suggest that in the end, this benevolent intentionality requires only that what I in fact feel motivates me to seek the relief of those who suffer, and that’s possible without having to sacrifice a measure of my own happiness as an essential motivating ground for acting.
I agree that acting in love to relieve the suffering of another must be motivated and that such acts are in response to the suffering of others. But surely it’s possible to conceive of a personal satisfaction/happiness which need not be diminished by the suffering of others before it can benevolently intend their well-being and act on their behalf or, additionally, that sympathy means one’s own happiness is diminished to a degree proportionate to the misery of those who suffer. The motivation of such beatitude would be a self-motivating fullness which need not be prodded into action either by the inconvenience of a diminished sense of well-being brought on by the lack of well-being in the world or by the prospect of increasing one’s aesthetic value by addition. A present fullness may be its own motivation to pursue the well-being of others as an expression of its own completeness.
If we suppose that one can only be motivated to act on behalf of another who suffers by suffering a loss of some measure of one’s own happiness, what sense remains for it to be the case that we (or God) can act solely with the sufferer’s interest at heart (what is typically understood properly as the ‘disinterestedness’ of love)? Part of the reason to seek the relief of others now becomes the relief of one’s own suffering incurred in the perceiving of their misery. Arguably, this reduces motivation to self-preservation and self-interest. It is ‘other’ interest in the sense that alleviating the suffering of others is the means by which one restores one’s felt quality of life or well-being, but it remains self-preserving/self-serving in the end. In such cases love comes to mean, among other things, the conditional nature of one’s happiness upon the happiness of others. Love becomes defined as a certain vulnerability, an openness of one’s well-being, to be defined by the well-being and happiness of others. I admit this makes increasingly less sense to me as an understanding of God’s love for us.
There is truth to aspects of it. Love does seem inconceivable in the absence of all interpersonal, interdependent relations. But if this obtains in God essentially and triunely, how are we to account for loving relations between God and created beings, that is, between God and created relations that do not define God essentially-necessarily? This is a fundamental question at the heart of disagreements over various understandings of (im)passibility. Must creation be free to define God’s sense or experience of well-being and happiness coincident to or co-extensively with the triune relations if it is also true that God is lovingly motivated to act on behalf of our highest good? One reason for answering ‘yes’ is that this is how we (almost universally) experience concern for the suffering of others we love. Reasons for answering ‘no’ are, arguably, the essential aesthetic nature of God’s necessary triune actuality (in contrast to the contingency of the world) and those many persons who do experience an abiding equanimity and undisturbed sense of well-being while engaged in loving concern for the world around them.
How are we then to conceive of God’s loving us and being open to experience us in our suffering? Must our suffering define God ‘without existential remainder’ (i.e., must our sufferings qualify God’s experience exhaustively) for us to be justified in affirming God’s loves of us at all? I think not. Love need not be motivated by its own suffering, experienced at the perceiving of the suffering of others, before it can be motivated to act on behalf of others. And arguably, to the extent one is motivated by one’s own suffering (suffering that is the effect of perceiving the suffering of others), one has oneself as the object of concern and not solely the interests of the other. Indeed, in this case one only acts on behalf of another when one’s own well-being and happiness are sufficiently diminished by thought of the sufferings of others, in which case one must have the restoration of one’s own happiness as the primary object of concern and interest. One would, conceived in this way, not act on behalf of suffering people without being sufficiently inconvenienced by first suffering the diminishing of one’s own experience.
And if we suppose, as many today do, that one truly loves those who suffer only to the extent one is motivated to act by suffering an appropriate loss of happiness, then have we not introduced self-interest into the act of love in a way that objectifies the sufferer to some extent? This would undermine a traditionally accepted tenet of belief regarding divine love, namely, that God can truly have us as the object of his concern without any self-preserving or self-serving interest as part of his concern for us. But what is his love for us if not self-preserving or self-serving if God can only act on our behalf if his own experience and felt quality of existence is sufficiently diminished by us?
Boyd (Trinity & Process) suggests that “…the person who enters into the sufferings of others with a sense of internal fullness is in a better position to genuinely enter into these sufferings than one who lacks such ‘fullness’,” or again, “a person who suffers for another because she needs the other…is more inclined to yet have herself as the object of concern, and thus more inclined to be, to that extent, shut off to the real needs of the other.” In contrast, Boyd argues, “one who enters into solidarity with a sufferer but who is self-content, who loves herself, who possesses an internal fullness which is not destroyed by the suffering, is free to have the sufferer as the sole object of her concern. She is free, in a sense, to ‘forget herself’ in devotion to another.” (emphasis mine)
What we’re aiming at is an understanding God’s existence as (a) irreducibly an experience (no great mystery there; God is not, nor can God be, an unconscious reality), and that (b) this self-constituting divine experience is irreducibly an experience of aesthetic value or beatitude, and that (c) in God’s case (as the summum bonum) this self-constituting experience of aesthetic value is unimprovable.
It’s (c) that creates problems for many. If I can’t ‘improve upon’ God’s existence/experience, then what do I mean to God? Boyd expresses this objection well in Trinity & Process:
The objection is this: it seems that if God is eternally characterized within Godself as an unsurpassable instance of aesthetic enjoyment, then the infinite compossibility of finite relations can mean nothing to God. It seems that if “God can be neither increased nor diminished by what we do,” then “our action, like our suffering, must be in the strictest sense wholly indifferent to him.” It seems that if we do not increase God’s enjoyment, then all talk about “serving God” is meaningless and “our existence is idle.” In short, it may seem that either our existences increase the value of God’s experience, or our existences are of no value to God.
Greg goes on to offer his own resolution to this objection which I’ve no room to expound upon at this time but which we fundamentally agree with. At its worst, however, this objection reflects a fundamental desire for it to be the case that God “needs” us to be happy and fulfilled and/or that if God remains untouched by us on some transcendent level then creation is entirely pointless. In the end, for Dwayne and me, apatheia is a way to say that our salvation is found precisely in the fact that God does not “need” us in this way. To suppose that he does we think has more in common with the kind of codependency we treat as a dysfunction than with healthy identity and self-possession. And it complicates how one unpacks the consequences of creation ex nihilo which, in our view, implies the kind of unimprovable/undiminishable divine existence we’ve been trying to describe.