God’s infinite “specious present”

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This is one of those freely speculating posts where I just think out loud. I know some think that’s pretty much all I do anyhow. If that’s you, then this won’t be any different. Why I’ve chosen Bernini’s (the greatest sculptor of all time) Blessed Ludovica Albertoni is something I’ll let the post explain (or not). (Hint: it has something to do with the immediacy and ecstasy of fulfilled desire relative to temporal becoming.) Bernini dedicated this work to a wealthy Roman widow who devoted herself to the poor and who (like his The Ecstasy of St. Teresa that pursues the same theme) testified to having unusual spiritual ecstasies. Both works are a kind of perichoretic embodiment of the rapturous experience of mystical union with God. This is no doubt a strange introduction to thoughts about God and time, but let’s see where it takes us.

In Trinity & Process (a work we’ve discussed a great deal), Greg Boyd constructively critiques Process theism (PT). Much of his criticism parallels criticisms that Fr Tom Hopko made in his doctoral dissertation on PT. More interestingly, Greg’s conclusions at points end up articulating Orthodox insights without having any real knowledge of or appreciation for Orthodoxy as such. That said, one critique of PT that Greg engages is PT’s thoroughly dipolar doctrine of God with respect to divine temporal becoming. I’d like to think aloud on this aspect of Greg’s thought and make a suggestion that takes Greg’s thought in a direction that he perhaps didn’t intend.

Dipolar theism is a complicated philosophical project which has since Whitehead diverged into a variety of conflicting views. I wish only to pick up on Greg’s treatment of God and time through his use of the concept of the “specious present.” By “specious” I don’t mean “misleading” or “false” in appearance. The term “specious present” was coined in the late 19th century by E. Robert Kelly (known under the pseudonym E. R. Clay) and popularized by William James. It roughly describes the time duration wherein one’s perceptions are considered to be in the present, one’s “intuited duration” (Pringle-Pattison, 1913). It’s a concept that I think helps us imagine God as temporally immutable and open to the temporal world. By temporally immutable I mean experience having neither beginning, end, nor succession, an extended interval without becoming. Can such an experience nevertheless be open to contingent relations with the changing world?

The life and experience of finite creatures who derive their existence from God is one of irreducible “becoming.” We know that much. Our experience is temporal in the sense that it is always mediated within the given restrictions of material existence. In particular:

…we possess our life as “becoming,” as an ever-moving process in which we determine ourselves in the present by relating our perceived past (the data of past experience; i.e., memory) to perceived possibilities at which we aim ourselves in the hope of becoming what we are not (i.e., more than we are). We just are this ever-moving act of becoming, a perpetual negotiation between the perceived effects of the past and the perceived possibilities of the future.

Let me say unequivocally here that I don’t see how God can be reduced to such “becoming” even if the process is qualified by saying it occurs “necessarily.” Giving such “becoming” the status of necessity doesn’t make this concept of God fundamentally unlike that of Zeus or other members of the Greek pantheon.

clock_silhouette_by_ginnyhahaThat said, by “specious present” I am not talking about a totum simul, which is how Bill Craig takes it in his criticism of the idea. And I don’t particularly have in mind Robert Jenson’s curious description of Jesus as God’s “specious present,” but I agree with Jenson’s pursuit of a divine temporality of which he says, “God’s duration is without loss.” I say yes to this. And so I’m asking if it’s possible to conceive of an infinite “specious present,” an experience not divisible into or reducible to more fundamental experiences, having neither beginning, end, nor succession; i.e., an “experience” which is not an experience of “becoming.” Can we conceive of God’s eternity, his essential, triune plenitude, as such a “specious present” but which is not intolerant of or incompatible with the possibility of relations with the finite “specious presents” of created entities that occur within it?

An infinite “specious present” not a moment of “becoming” would encompass rather than preclude specious presents of finite duration and accommodate real relations with the world. All creation’s possibilities would be tacitly enfolded within its fullness. All our “specious presents” would have the movement of their temporal becoming—their past, present, and future as they contingently and freely unfold—within the embrace of God’s single, indivisible “specious present.” And the world’s finite becoming would freely self-determine itself within the all-encompassing fullness of God’s accomplished beatitude. Time would “flow from” God as God is present to and within the world. This would (I think) roughly parallel the sense in which Bulgakov suggested that God “posits himself outside himself.”

God’s eternity, we’re suggesting, is an infinite “specious present”—a “moment” (just to go with the analogy for now) analogous to our “moments” of experience but which, unlike our “specious presents,” does not exist as ‘memory informing a present resolve to become what one is not in light of future possibilities’. We’re thinking of a “moment” of experience as such, a simple act not composed of beginning, end, and succession (i.e., it does not “become”) because it does not possess itself as ‘memory informing a present resolve in light of future possibilities’. God’s specious present does not “take time” to “become” in this way, but it does not negate created ‘becoming’ or relations to created entities. It is becoming’s possibility and so compatible with it without being an instance of it. As such God’s specious present is the infinite ground of every created specious present of finite duration (i.e., experiences of finite perspective and surpassable beauty which have beginning, end, and succession—i.e. they ‘become’).

One specious present may contain other specious presents. To unpack this a bit, here’s Greg Boyd in TP:

Self-identity [for Hartshorne], therefore, whether at a human or sub-atomic level, is abstract, partial and relative. It is, in contrast, the present moment of becoming which is concrete, complete, and absolute, as we have seen. There can, for Hartshorne, therefore be no concrete self-identity which preserves over time. The only concrete reality is in the “specious present,” the present momentary experience of becoming. For human beings, for example, the concrete self becomes anew “every tenth of a second or so.” This alone constitutes truly concrete reality. Everything else concerning human self-identity is an abstract feature of this.

This means, clearly, that one’s self-now is not the same as the self of one’s childhood, or even one’s self an instant ago. To be sure, the self-now must relate to (prehend) the self-past. But it must also prehend other past occasions. And it is, strictly speaking, no more concretely identical with the past self than it is with any other past occasion.

a9818396559c4039e0998b5ce79f128aHartshorne defines finite, temporal “becoming” as the prehension of immediately past data via creative synthesis. One’s “identity” supervenes upon and is derived from this process. But, to disagree, this sort of becoming could not describe God’s essential-necessary actuality. God’s identity could not supervene upon a process that prehends ‘past’ data from which his actual ‘present’ is determined in light of some desire to become in the ‘future’ what he is not now. That’s very important (for Dwayne and me) to say.

To borrow Whitehead’s language (but not how he understands it, since he rejects creatio ex nihilo): God’s essential triune act would be the “epochal immediacy of an occasion’s subjective indivisible unity.” Our suggestion is that God be understood as an infinite such occasion. Moving on with Greg in TP:

Beyond the already discussed difficulties with this understanding of the dipolarity of God, one must wonder what is intrinsically contradictory about saying that a being can be actual in different respects? Why cannot one aspect of the divine actuality be necessary and eternal, and another aspect of God’s actuality contingent? It seems that, in at least one sense, even Process thought must admit that this is possible in terms of its own categories.

According to Process thought, any given “society of actual occasions” can be made up of entities whose “living immediacy” and “specious present” varies from one another considerably. A “specious present,” according to Hartshorne, can vary about as far as the imagination can stretch: from less than one millionth of a second to more than a century is one suggestion Hartshorne toys with.

Now it seems that there is no a priori reason why a “specious moment” may not be eternal, though the society which it “dominates over” includes occasions whose “specious present” is finite. Just as the mind, the dominate occasion of the human person, consists of “specious presents” whose durations vary from those occasions which it rules over, so too we might conceive of God’s essential self as an eternal specious present which encompasses other “specious presents” of finite duration within itself. (emphasis mine)

…So far as I can see, then, there are no grounds for supposing a priori that the “specious present” of an experiencing actuality could not be both definite and actual, while being, at the same time, endless in its duration.

After some discussion, Greg continues:

The only remaining question, then, is whether or not one subject could be both infinitely and finitely, both necessarily and contingently, actual at the same time. Here again I see no reason to deny this. One subject can, in Process terms, be constituted by numerous occasions of varying duration of subjective immediacy, as we have said. But then what in principle is there from disallowing the possibility of a subject who is necessarily constituted by an everlasting…experience, on the one hand, and yet who has finite contingent experiences on the other?

We can render this point clearer by appealing to the analogy of human experiences. We have, it seems, the ability (however limited) to be aware of different things in relatively different modes of consciousness at the same time. If, for example, I go to the art museum and become absorbed in (say) Munck’s painting “The Scream,” I do not completely block out the noise around me; I am not completely oblivious to the people around me. If a person next to me faints, I will no doubt notice it and turn to help him or her. But clearly my awareness of my surroundings is relatively tacit in relation to my awareness of the painting.

I thus pick up, in a relatively tacit manner, the moment by moment changes in my environment, but my dominant sense of time is measured not by these changes, but by my experience of the work of art. What constitutes my consciousness-now are many experiences had at differing levels of distinctness, but all are now conditioned by the dominant experience of Munck’s painting.

My “specious present,” then, is in one respect very long—hence my “ordinary” sense of time is distorted in such experiences. Yet the fact that I am at least tacitly conscious of the bustle around me shows that I also have, at the same time, occasions whose “specious present” is much shorter. Every sensed alteration in my environment is, in Hartshorne’s view, a new “specious present” for some actual occasion(s) I am composed of.

Or again, when listening to a symphony, one is aware of the minute moment by moment tonal changes of the many different instruments, and yet it is the over-all musical piece, not the individual contributions, which is enjoyed. One could not enjoy the wholeness of the piece without, in some sense, attending to each of the individual instruments, and indeed to each tonal change that was made every fraction of a second or so. But the “mode of consciousness” is quite different with respect to the individual changes than it is with respect to our appreciation of the whole.

Thus experience, including the experience of consciousness, can be multifarious and multidimensional. Indeed, at a human level it always is. Hartshorne, of course, argues that it is only the “lowest” dimension of consciousness the minute alterations in our experience, which are “truly concrete.” Our experience of wholes, whether they be of art, music, or the world around us, is “abstract.” But this supposition we have already shown to be the result of an arbitrary reductionistic presupposition. Once the definition of “concrete” and “abstract” are recognized are being perspectivally contingent, the actuality (concreteness) of our phenomenological experiences, as well as (from a different perspective) the actuality of the minute alterations which, in one sense, comprise these experiences, can be admitted. To say that our normal sense of consciousness is multifarious is thus to say that our dominant perspective always encompasses relatively tacit perspectives.

Prima facie, then, no obvious absurdity is committed in maintaining that God can be, in one sense, necessarily actually infinite while further maintaining that God can also be, at the same time but in another sense, contingently actually infinite. This is, from another angle, simply to say that God can have a necessary eternal perspective on Godself which may include a perspective which encompasses non-divine perspectives. God is eternally and necessarily defined by this one’s eternal experience of Godself, and this experience may encompass, and find expression in, the interaction of non-divine creatures.

When we say that God might be actually eternal and actually contingent, therefore, we do not mean to suggest that God is essentially defined by both an eternal and contingent actuality. God is essentially defined only by this One’s necessary actuality. Thus we have not in the preceding said simply that “God’s essence is God’s existence,” but rather, “God’s essence is God’s essential existence.” For if there can be contingency in God, then God’s existence can encompass more than what this One essentially and necessarily is. God can be “more than necessary.” (emphasis mine)

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www-St-Takla-org--Moses-Prophet-05-Burning-Bush-CopticThere is much to question in Greg’s project when it comes to how theological language functions, and I don’t mean to endorse every point he makes. But I don’t think our differences undermine the helpfulness of his main thought here. We believe it’s possible to conceive of God’s essential-necessary triune fullness as the living immediacy of a ‘specious present’, an experienced plenitude which is not an instance of temporal becoming (i.e., it has neither past nor future). But neither is it the negation of such becoming. On the contrary, it is free and able to open itself to ‘specious presents’ of finite duration which aim at contingently expressing (not constituting) the beatitude of God’s abiding present.

An immutable temporal interval that does not “become” (i.e., has no past or future or the kind of present which negotiates the two)? I think so, yes. It’s the temporal equivalent of a ‘burning bush’. I call it a ‘temporal’ interval because I believe it has living-loving content and that leads me to default analogically to ‘temporal’ (as opposed to ‘atemporal’). I’d rather say ‘temporal’ and then qualify it (i.e., it isn’t an instance of temporal becoming). That is—it’s a bush. And it’s on fire without being consumed. Doesn’t make sense, but there it is. At the same time it’s is not the experience of a “becoming” subject (viz., a subject in temporal pursuit of personal realization). We have to say this also, because it’s fire that does not need the bush for fuel. It’s an off-the-map sort of experience.

The controversial claim we make here is that God’s infinite specious present would not preclude real relations with finite creatures and changing states of knowledge with respect to the world. Created realities do indeed come to be and pass out of being. These are possibilities immutably contained in God. However, which particular possibilities come to be the actual world (and, for my Orthodox friends, the relevant point here is that not all possibilities pre-contained in God come to be) is not something immutably pre-contained in God. God would know the ‘actually contingent’ contingently, i.e., in its contingent actuality, without suffering any negation of the living immediacy of his immutable specious present. That is to say, the world “lives and moves and has its being” in God. It is then not the case that God lives and moves and has his being in the world (viz., PT).

Does this make God just another finite subject of “becoming,” one who possesses his identity and full beatitude in the realizing of possibilities given him under the constraints of past experience negotiating his way toward some unfulfilled desire? I don’t see that it does. If God were to know the changing contingencies of the actual world with a knowledge that changes as well, this “as well” needn’t be understood as introducing “loss” into God’s special present. God’s duration is without loss (Jenson).Surely we are not confined to an occasionalism in which God’s sustaining of the world reduces the world to divine will, nor to an opposite occasionalism which views God as reduced to the world’s becoming (viz., Process theism) simply for holding that God’s knowledge of the changing world changes.

Prayer

Always fulfilled, always at rest,
You never wait to be your best;
And yet you can take time to be,
To stoop in partnership with me.
You know me within my own time,
And yet remain wholly sublime.
Give me a heart to give myself
In poverty to your great wealth.

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An open apatheia?

16_Dorrien_FIG1Back on Oct 5th I posted a link to a guest post I made to Fr Aidan’s Eclectic Orthodoxy. As a shared blog post the entirety of the post wasn’t available here. And since I’m trying to gather together all the content of our posts for a ‘save’, I’ve removed that Oct 5th ‘shared link’ and am reposting it here in its entirety. It appears at Eclectic Orthodoxy as The Good News of Apatheia, or Why God Doesn’t Need to be Unhappy Just Because We Are. Nothing new or changed. It’s just readable in its entirety here now as well. (Comments also reposted).

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The Good News of Apatheia, or Why God Doesn’t Need to be Unhappy Just Because We Are
I’m delighted to be invited to celebrate two years of Fr Aidan’s very fine blog contributions to the life and theology of Christian believers far and wide. Fr Aidan and I met online a few years back discussing theological issues. We remain friends today, and I’m grateful for the wonderful way the Internet has enlarged the circle of conversations like these.

I’ve been asked to describe some of the journey that led me to embrace divine apatheia (as I view it at least). Now, if I were Orthodox you might stop reading right here because there’s nothing unusual about an Orthodox believer thinking God’s essential happiness is neither improved upon nor diminished by anything that happens in the world. But I’m not Orthodox. I’m Evangelical. And worse still, I’m an open theist. Quite the fish out of water over here! And I’m well aware of the complexities involved in the (im)passibilism debate, but I don’t intend here to enter into anything like a detailed defense of my position. I can only summarize the thinking that has over the past few years focused my interests eastward upon the debated notion of apatheia and why I’ve come to value it as I do.

I was drawn to open theism from day one (more than twenty years ago now). I became acquainted with several of its prominent writers and engaged in regular and extensive conversation. I didn’t embrace it immediately but gave myself several years to explore the pro’s and con’s. Eventually the pro’s won out. I won’t unpack these here since this post isn’t about open theism, but given the strongly passibilist view of divine vulnerability open theists are known for, you can appreciate where I’m coming from and why coming to embrace apatheia is so surprising.

I remember the moment I decided in earnest to explore the Fathers. I was in the first chapter of Denys Turner’s Silence and the Word, especially interested in his comments on Pseudo-Denys. I recall the appearance of a question that seemed to announce its arrival without invitation: “What if?” What if there’s something to this? I can summarize the positive effect this question has had upon my life in a single word — apatheia. No doubt this is an unusual claim for an open theist to make. It’s clear that I don’t endorse as essential to open theism the passibilism popularly associated with the view. But this may also raise questions for Orthodox readers, because there are features of classical theism I reject (e.g., actus purus as absolute immutability void of all unrealized potential) which I don’t view as essential to apatheia in spite of their being popularly associated with the view.

Several years into this now, I’m more invested in a vision of the fullness of God’s triune being as undiminished delight and joy than I am in open theism’s defining claim about God’s knowledge and future contingents (as important as open theism is to me). I do not mean to say I find apatheia to be ‘more true’ than open theism. I only mean that I find apatheia to be ‘more fundamental’ in the sense that it impinges most directly and immediately upon my deepest experience and perception of myself in God’s presence, upon the most intimate act by which I fundamentally ‘am’ at all. Open theism on the other hand follows only as an observation of the kind of world I believe we must be living in if this experience of God is truly the case. I’m close to believing, however, that if something very like apatheia isn’t true, we’re all screwed anyhow (pardon my French) and it wouldn’t matter what sort of world we lived in – open, closed, determined; take your pick.

For the record, I’m not particularly hung up on the word apatheia. I’d be happy to give it up if the consensus was that the term entails those features of classical theism I reject. “Equanimity” works equally well. As you read this you’ll see that what I’m describing doesn’t entail the view that God is either unfeeling or insensitive, that he doesn’t experience changing states of mind (as he knows the changing truth about the temporal world) or isn’t open to his will for us being frustrated. Let me emphasize also that it was not through any conversation with Greek philosophical commitments that I came to appreciate God’s triune life as unimprovable and undiminished beatitude. I found all I needed elsewhere and independent of the Orthodox sources that I came to appreciate later. One helpful source in this regard was (Christian philosopher and open theist) Richard Creel’s Divine Impassibility (1986). His chapter on impassibility of feeling helped tremendously. I can’t recommend it enough. The five principles of Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy were instrumental as well. But by far the more decisive source of my convictions along this line has been Gregory Boyd. He was hugely instrumental in my journey eastward. As passionately as Boyd promotes a fully passibilist view of God today, it was his earlier work (Trinity & Process, 1992), critically engaging Charles Hartshorne’s Process metaphysics, that gave me contemporary categories for conceiving of God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” (quite a mouthful) and confirmed what I eventually saw in Orthodoxy. Take for example a few of Boyd’s conclusions in Trinity & Process:

“God’s being is defined by God’s eternal disposition to delight in Godself and the eternal actualization of this disposition within the triune life of God. It is the unsurpassable intensity of the beauty of the divine sociality – their shared love ‘to an infinite degree’….” (my emphasis)

“God’s infinite and complete antecedent actuality can be understood most fundamentally as the unsurpassable intensity of an aesthetic satisfaction. [W]e can conceive of this One’s antecedent actual existence—viz., God’s self-defining aesthetic delight—as being unsurpassable, self-sufficient, and as being ‘unconditioned’ and independent of the world.” (my emphasis)

“…God’s essential and necessary existence is…most basically defined by the unsurpassable intensity of aesthetic enjoyment which characterizes the triune sociality of God. God experiences Godself with an intensity which can under no circumstances conceivably be improved upon. As with Hartshorne, we are here most fundamentally defining God’s transcendence in terms of God’s aesthetic satisfaction.” (my emphasis)

These are not statements you will hear from Boyd these days, but you can hardly mistake the Orthodoxy of his essential point. Interestingly, he didn’t abandon this view of God’s necessary-essential fullness to become an open theist. He was an open theist when he made these statements. Consider this as well:

“The metaphysical necessity of God’s self-relationality means, I believe, that it is not possible to conceive of the death of the Son as anything other than an expression of the intense love of God’s inner life….[T]his means that all talk about a ‘breakdown of the relationship that constitutes the very life of the Trinity’ such as we find (for example) in Moltmann is, if taken literally, strictly impossible….”

The smelling salts are in the cabinet.treasure_in_jars_of_clay_by_saireba-d4pjkw2

If you follow Boyd at all (perhaps most here do not), you’ll know how very contrary these earlier (1992) statements of his are to his present position (which on this question is indistinguishable from that of Moltmann). In any case, for me the similarities between Trinity & Process and Orthodoxy (without ignoring their differences) were uncanny. Greg’s “…the unsurpassable intensity of the beauty of the divine sociality” sounded awfully like Augustine’s perfectissima pulchritude et beatissima delectatio (“the most perfect beauty and the most blessed delight”). And for both of these God’s self-constituting triune delight is fully actual and unconditioned by the world. Without engaging the Fathers at all, Boyd had confirmed an essential insight of the Church’s traditional view of God — not only is God essentially and fully triune and the world radically contingent and unnecessary, but what accounts for this is the infinite delight (or, unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction) of God’s triune actuality, a satisfaction Boyd argued “is neither increased nor diminished by the contingent and temporal affairs of this world.” What Boyd went on to miss entirely were the Christological and soteriological implications, but that’s another story, and unfortunately Boyd has not continued to view transcendence in these terms.

Be that as it may, I stepped into the wider patristic conversation and became familiar with testimonies of saints and others whose sufferings were defined by this transcendent joy. Eventually I chose (alas, one must choose) to relate to myself and relate myself to God within the truth of God’s delight. I can’t recommend the experience highly enough. I do find this, however, to be particularly difficult for those with a more analytic disposition (like me) to accept. Its truth isn’t exactly propositionally demonstrable, though it generates no contradiction. No syllogism will get you there. One must choose to relate to God and one’s self within a framework of meaning shaped by a delight that does not depend upon us for its fulfillment. And the choice to define myself in terms of God’s infinite delight continues to be painful work, at least for me, because every false self in me demands a recognition and significance which divine freedom of this sort will not provide.

Some have objected to imagining God to be “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” on grounds that it turns God into the worst kind of narcissist. I can’t take this criticism seriously because the kind of delight I’m describing is too easily conceived in emotionally healthy terms. God’s beatitude does not preoccupy him or leave him so self-absorbed with his own beauty that he either doesn’t notice us or, if he notices, he has no regard for our well-being. Quite the opposite. Another objection to imagining God as unimprovably happy is summarized by Ronald Goetz (Christian Century, 1986): “My own view is that the death of God’s Christ is in part God’s atonement to his creatures for evil.” God suffers our pain and evil to pay a debt he owes for creating a world that became so hideously overrun with evil and suffering. In a real sense it is God who is redeemed, God who gets reconciled to us. Here passibilism becomes a cure worse than the disease.

Not long ago I was asked to imagine one of my children screaming out in the night, something most parents experience. You run to your daughter’s side and find her half-awake, trapped inside a nightmare. She cries out, “Daddy! There’s a monster chasing me!” What do you say? Do you say, “Run faster, Hunny! Faster!” or perhaps “Hide behind a tree or under the staircase!”? Do you confirm the reality of her nightmare in this way? Of course not. But perhaps you begin to pace the floor believing that you are threatened and alone as well. Will that help her? Certainly not. Here’s what you do. You hold her in your arms and say, “It’s alright my love. Daddy is here! Don’t be afraid,” and you gently rock her in your arms until her reality conforms to your reality, until your reality defines her reality by putting the lie to her nightmare. And even if you had to enter her nightmare (one way to imagine the Incarnation), you still save her from her nightmare by exposing it as false, not by letting it falsify in you the very experience she needs to awaken from her nightmare.

IMG_3515Just this last weekend I observed a young family enjoying a picnic. I watched one of the toddlers, a daughter, fall and scrape her knee. Unable to world-construct outside her pain, she let the entire park know of her suffering. Her father? As you might expect, his response didn’t include the slightest discomfort or loss of happiness. He turned to his daughter, moved in her direction, and with a big smile called her name and held out his arms. Why not meet her level of experienced suffering with some measure of suffering of his own? After all, love suffers when those loved suffer, right? Where’s the father’s suffering here? Shouldn’t he feel some slight dip in happiness? Some measurable loss of “aesthetic satisfaction”? We all know the answer is no, and we know why. He doesn’t suffer in the slightest because of his perspective on her suffering (assessing its consequences relative to what he believes to be her highest good and well-being).

What about other more serious instances of suffering? What about permanent disability? What happens with betrayal or torture? What happens with the chronic pain of a losing battle with cancer? What happens is that what we believe to be our highest good and well-being gets revealed. Let’s at least grant that much. And it’s precisely here where I invite myself to examine what I believe to be the highest good and well-being of creation and to consider what it would mean to world-construct within the framework of its truth. The question is, What do we identify as our ‘highest good’? More to the point, What is the summum bonum, that supreme and absolute good/value by which all other relative goods and values are measured? I suggest that passibilists are committed to locating the summum bonum outside the beatitude of God’s triune actuality since they admit this very actuality suffers deprivation, and it is good and beautiful and right that it suffer. But what makes it good and beautiful and right? What actual good measures the loss of divine beatitude to be good and beautiful? Indeed, what actual good can be the absolute value which establishes the relative value and goodness of all contingent experiences? It can only be the non-contingent beatitude of God’s own triune actuality (as Boyd had argued on his own over 20 years ago). This is precisely where passibilist kenoticists redefine the summum bonum as something other than God’s own triune actuality, and that is a position I’m unable to embrace. In what do they suppose this absolute value to obtain? I can’t say, but my guess is they would insist it include them.

Let me wind things down. In the end the philosophical problems of a fully reciprocal passibilism, widespread within open theism, in which God’s happiness is a ‘negotiated happiness’, the difference of an equation (‘reasons for rejoicing’ minus ‘reasons for grieving’ = God’s state of mind), proved to be too much. At the same time, the biblical plausibility of such a view of transcendence strengthened my confidence as well. Transcendence as apatheia (as David Hart has expressed it) or as God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” (as Boyd earlier defined it) is no mere philosophical construct. It can be biblically discerned. Whatever evils we suffer, God remains that which one day shall render all worldly sufferings comparatively meaningless (Rom 8:18’s “sufferings not worth comparing to the glory that shall be revealed in us”). But I urge you to ponder what it is about God to which earthly sufferings are not comparable. If no present suffering can possibly compare to the joy that shall be ours upon seeing God, what joy must presently be God’s who always perceives his own glorious beauty? And if the glory which God now is shall transcend all our sufferings in our experience of him in resurrection, what can these sufferings presently be to God who always and already is this glory in its fullness? Pondering Rom 8, I asked myself, “Is the divine nature itself subject to ‘decay’ and ‘groaning’ as well? Does God ‘await glorification’ along with us?” If not, then what must God’s present experience be? And must not this experience be that about God which renders the entirety of the world’s suffering comparatively meaningless? Passibilism just stopped making sense to me — biblically, philosophically, and existentially. I came to the conclusion that God is our eschatological hope because God is the eschaton.

To me this is the Good News. Others may wish or feel they need it to be otherwise, or they may feel the Cross a charade unless divinity is reduced to its horror. But I suspect this perspective is a nightmare from which we need desperately to be awoken. And the truth that has the power to awaken us is revealed in the Cross: Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ because nothing can separate God from himself in Christ. The Cross doesn’t establish our separation and abandonment as a truth which God is or which he becomes. Rather, it exposes our separation and abandonment as myths, phantoms of the night, mere nightmares from which we awake to find (to possess) ourselves in the embrace of a delight that has always been the truest thing about us. Thank you Athanasius. Thank you Cyril. Thank you Chalcedon.

I have overstayed my welcome. Forgive the length, and let me thank Fr Aidan for the undeserved invitation to share a bit of my story and wish Eclectic Orthodoxy a very apathetic (!) second birthday. I leave you (shamelessly) with some final thoughts of my own adapted from elsewhere:

“The gratuity of creation is the grace of the gospel. But you only get that kind of absolute gratuity if God is, correspondingly, absolutely full. And grace that is this gracious, absolutely gracious, is hard because we want to be needed, not just wanted. But the only kind of wanting we know (despairing creatures that we are) is that wanting which is needing. That’s how we want. Imagine the existential rush that follows from believing that God wants you this way, i.e., because your existence fulfills him. Your existence can’t mean anything better than that. And so we weave into our narratives of redemption the fiction that God must be lonely without us, or diminished by our sorrow, or injured by our rejection, or ultimately perfected by our final glorification. But in recognizing God as a delighting love we can neither diminish nor improve, these self-serving dysfunctions and narratives are deconstructed and in their place we experience ‘his joy as our strength’ (Neh. 8.10) and come to possess ourselves in ‘an unspeakable and glorious joy’ as Peter wrote (1Pet. 1.8), ‘receiving the salvation of our souls’.”

(Pictures here and here.)

Is annihilationism possible?

void_of_non_existence_by_PeterioWe’re not a theological paparazzi endlessly pursuing commentary on Greg Boyd. But of all open theist thinkers/writers, Greg’s growing published works, blog entries and public speaking mean his views and positions are presented to thousands of readers and listeners around the world. There is hardly a more popular, more regularly followed, more influential open theist thinker on the planet. Plus we just have more fun engaging his ideas!

In this post we’d like to bring Greg’s present position on hell into conversation with arguments made in — you guessed it — his own (earlier) Trinity & Process (T&P). We’re not here to argue for or against specific views of hell or for or against the specific claims Greg makes in T&P which we’ll argue make his annihilationism impossible. We just thought it would be interesting to set the two side by side. If we’re very lucky, Greg might (somewhere, sometime) unpack his present position on annihilation in terms of arguments he makes in T&P which, as we will show, make his annihilationism (metaphysically speaking) an impossibility. But apart from any specific engagement from him, hey, it’s still educational to consider the similarities and differences.

Greg’s position(s) on hell have appeared variously in Satan and the Problem of Evil, in several podcast sermons, in the film/documentary Hellbound? and more recently on radio. He is “inclined” to annihilationism. Generally speaking this is the view that the condemned wicked who finally reject Christ cease to exist. There are a couple of qualifications to Greg’s version of this view which are worth noting. First, the annihilation of the lost is not a positive act on God’s part. God doesn’t exterminate people. That would be the ultimate violence. All the violence of the Old Testament combined wouldn’t compare to the violence of pushing the metaphysical button on somebody and positively exterminating them. Greg is absolute in his rejection of the belief that God ever does violence. Even in the case of annihilation as judgment, the consequence in question (passing into non-existence) has to be “organic” to creaturely choice. Existence being what it is (dependent upon God as “ground” of being), it simply follows naturally/organically that if we irrevocably sever ourselves from that ground, we have no being. We pass into non-existence.

This leads to the second important feature of Greg’s annihilationism. While some annihilationists believe the extermination of the wicked is judgment for a lifetime of sin (regardless of the actual dispositional state of the wicked — and we’ll get to ‘dispositions’ in just a sec), Greg insists that annihilation follows only on the condition that a person become irrevocably solidified against God. That is, one’s very being (will, character, disposition) must have become irrevocably fixed against God, rendering all future prospects of Godward movement impossible, for annihilation even to be possible. Greg is clear that so long as there is any possibility of Godward movement, God (being unconditional love) would not withdrawal himself and so foreclose upon that possibility. Annihilation only follows when the person in question irrevocably solidifies in their rejection of God. God then removes himself absolutely (from any role in sustaining a person’s existence). Final irrevocability is simply coterminous with a person’s passing into non-existence.

Of all versions of annihilation on the market, Greg’s has definite advantages. It avoids the problem of supposing that an unconditional divine love would ever cease pursuing the well-being and good of anyone, even those in hell, so long as there was hope. It also emphasizes the organic nature of (in Greg’s view, all) divine judgment. God doesn’t positively pull the plug on creaturely existence. He merely withdrawals himself from creaturely existence and let’s the consequence of his withdrawal follow naturally (never mind for the moment whether or not this really absolves God from the doing of violence). And it also denies that finite sins committed in this life can in themselves be just grounds for annihilation. One has to be irrevocably fixed in one’s disposition against God. At that point, divine withdrawal resulting in a persons’s non-existence is an act of mercy and love.

However, we’d like to suggest that the irrevocable solidification (by whatever terms it’s defined) Greg’s view requires is, given Greg’s own arguments in T&P, impossible. We’re not here renewing our objections to Greg’s passibilism or his view of the dissolution of God’s triune actuality on the Cross. All that aside, this is an entirely different issue about arguments he makes in T&P regarding what invariantly constitutes human existence per se and how that in turn makes irrevocable solidification against God impossible. It is Greg’s dispositional ontology, viewed in aesthetic terms as an irreducible appetite for aesthetic satisfaction, which makes irrevocable solidification against God a metaphysical impossibility.

In Ch. 3 of T&P Greg introduces the concept of ‘dispositions’ as a central feature of his response to Hartshorne’s Process metaphysics. Dispositions are those ‘powers’ or ‘capacities’ that define us essentially. It would take too much space to unpack all that Greg has to say about dispositions, but essentially he argues that all created subjects are irreducibly dispositions toward some aesthetic satisfaction. Greg also understands dispositions in terms of Whitehead’s “divine subjective aims” (which aims are God, present in the created subject, offering that subject her telos, which itself is understood as an experience of value or aesthetic satisfaction).

“It is the insight of Whitehead and Hartshorne that there is an aesthetic dimension to all experience which, I believe, can furnish us with another very fruitful model of dispositions. If beauty is indeed a priori, and if becoming is, therefore, essentially a becoming towards ‘aesthetic satisfaction’, then it is reasonable to construct a model of dispositions which reflects this dimension of reality. I believe that the Process concept of a ‘subjective aim towards aesthetic satisfaction’ furnishes us with just such a model.”

These subjective aims as well are the “eschatological essence” (a phrase Greg appropriates from Pannenberg) of created entities, and they’re defined as aesthetic in nature. That is, the divine subjective aim for subjects is their divinely intended aesthetic enjoyment grounded in a dispositional appetite for such enjoyment. This dispositional appetite (a) is the creature’s “essence,” and (b) defines what a thing ought to be or what its God intended telos is, its possibility for being (and in this sense is equivalent to Maximus the Confessor’s notion of the logoi of created things). There is a great deal of argument Greg goes into to establish the need for positing such dispositions which we can’t mention here. Simply said, in terms of Greg’s arguments, human being (indeed, all subjective experience) already possesses a certain irrevocability, i.e., it is irrevocably a dispositional appetite for some measure of aesthetic enjoyment. This is Greg’s dispositional-ordinal interpretation of autonomy.

“Thus, we may say that what all beings, experiential or non-experiential, have in common is not that they are experiential centers, but that they are essentially dispositions towards an actualization which is defined by a generally determinate aesthetic role to play in relation to other actualizations. This role may, from the perspective of aesthetic experience, be strictly contributive (“matter”), or both contributive and receptive (experiencing subjects).”

Butterflies_Becoming_Fire_2The dispositional essence of humanity just is its openness to becoming with respect to God’s subjective aim. This openness is our essential existence, and this is what makes Greg’s annihilationism impossible. Given our dispositional essence, there simply is no mechanism by which we can dispose ourselves out of our groundedness in God’s subjective aims, out of our logos, out of the dispositional openness to our God-defined possibilities. And the reason is simple: We don’t determine the dispositional ground of our openness to God. It is God’s gracious gift to us, the act of his unconditional love of us and the very expression of his positive regard for us, his “image in us.” As our ‘ground’, our dispositional essence precedes any free exercise of its capacities by us and thus already is the possibility of our becoming. Dispositional subjects that we are, we are aysemmetrically related to our ground. There simply is no way, given Greg’s arguments in T&P, for Greg to suppose we can ever dispositionally foreclose upon such becoming in an irrevocable way. Annihilationism, understood as involving an irrevocable dispositional foreclosure, is a metaphysical impossibility. The creature may remain free (dispositionally) to say no to God on occasion, and even to solidify to a great degree. But she is not capable of uttering an irrevocable ‘no’, that is, to use her God-given and God-sustained capacities to render those same capacities permanently incapable of responding positively to God. We cannot irrevocably foreclose upon the very dispositional capacities that define our essential freedom and choice to begin with. So the irrevocability Greg’s annihilationism requires is not, given his own work, a metaphysical possibility.

In what is the irrevocability of our openness to Godward becoming grounded? Good question. The only answer can be that it is grounded in the unconditional love of God’s subjective aims for us. So long as we are loved unconditionally, we are unconditionally open (to whatever minimal measure) to Godward becoming. For God’s love of us is the possibility of our freedom to move in his direction. “Wherever the Spirit is, there is freedom.” To exist at all is to be invited Godward, and God’s invitations constitute our freedom to respond. In short, existence is invariantly an invitation to Godward becoming independent of any response on our part. To suppose then (as Greg now does) that a person can employ her dispositional God-given essence to irrevocably remove herself from the empowering reach of God’s invitation is utter metaphysical nonsense (given his own T&P that is).

(Pictures here and here.)

God’s triune actuality the only metaphysical necessity

16_Dorrien_FIG1It’s no secret here that Dwayne and I are big fans of Greg Boyd’s early work on the Trinity (Trinity & Process | TP) and that we think positions he presently holds essentially abandon that work. I thought of a series of posts boiling down the arguments of TP, but this week I was thumbing through Trinity in Process (Bracken/Suchoki, 1997) in which Greg contributes a chapter summarizing TP quite nicely. I may just upload that chapter, but for now let me share a passage from that chapter that express well that earlier view of God which Greg held and which we’ve argued his kenoticism essentially denies. Greg’s chapter is “The Self-Sufficient Sociality of God: A Trinitarian Revision of Hartshorne’s Metaphysics.” Nearing the end of his essay he writes (p. 86f):

God’s Actuality as the Only Metaphysical Necessity. We might point out that Hartshorne faces this very same problem in relationship to God’s abstract nature, because, in his view, it is only the abstract nature of God that is necessary. On a concrete level (God’s Consequent Nature), God is wholly contingent. But how is the abstract necessity of God to be rendered intelligible if everything concrete about God is contingent, while abstractions are held to be derivative from concreteness? How can an abstraction from the concrete possess a quality (viz., necessity) which the concrete it abstracts from altogether lacks? What, in other words, renders intelligible the necessity of God if God’s actuality is altogether contingent?

I certainly agree with Hartshorne’s arguments concerning the necessity of God, but for just this reason, I maintain that God must be essentially constituted by a necessary actuality. The abstract necessity of God, I argue, is not rendered intelligible if God’s actuality is wholly contingent. Once we locate the necessary experiential, social, and aesthetic features of being within the one necessary being, however, this problem is solved. For what is abstractly necessary is, in God, also concretely necessary. [my emphasis]

If my case against Hartshorne’s analysis of the principle of contrast is correct, then there are, again, no longer any grounds for maintaining that the supreme Being must eternally contrast with an actually non-supreme world. Indeed, there are, we have seen, good metaphysical grounds to deny that God must do so. The nature of metaphysical necessity is intelligible only as applied to a necessary actuality and, hence, not as applied to a world of contingencies.

Finally, to bring this essay full circle, what I have been arguing is that the nature of this sole necessary actuality is intelligible only on the supposition that God satisfies within Godself all the a priori conditions of being; namely, as being self-sufficient and unsurpassable in sociality and aesthetic satisfaction. By metaphysical necessity, then, God must exist as a plurality of experiential centers, socially related in an unsurpassably intense aesthetic satisfaction by virtue of the unsurpassable openness and availability each center has toward the others. Among all the available theistic options, I submit, only the classical trinitarian understanding of God articulates this conception unambiguously. [my emphasis]

By ‘sociality’ is simply meant the ‘communion’ of the divine persons, the essentially relational nature of divine triune being. There are other interesting questions to pursue here (What is meant by “centers”?), but the point I want to bring up is Greg’s identifying God’s necessary concrete actuality with God’s triune sociality as such. That’s the material point. God’s essential, necessary concrete actuality just is the experienced sociality/relationality of the Father, Son and Spirit. But it is also this which makes impossible kenotic models (like Greg’s present position) of the Incarnation which posit a real cessation of this experienced actuality. To go kenotic in this sense one has to construe (as Greg explicitly does today) God’s experienced sociality/relationality as contingent and not necessary.

One could maintain that God is essentially triune even in the absence of God’s concrete triune experienced sociality, but one would be affirming a mere abstraction, and this would be open to the same criticism Greg levels against Hartshorne, namely, that what is abstractly necessary is also concretely necessary (in the sense that abstractions are by definition abstractions ‘of’ or ‘upon’ or ‘relative to’ concrete realities). Hence, if one then says that the experienced loving sociality of the divine persons ever fails concretely (say, upon the Cross), it follows that it fails abstractly as well as a necessary feature of God’s existence. To be a kenoticist, then, one has to abandon the necessity of the One God’s essentially triune ‘concrete’ existence.

To explore a bit of Greg’s reasoning along these lines, check out TP (pp. 212-217), a portion of which I present here:

Whitehead thus correctly saw that the intelligibility of God’s relationship to the world (and hence the intelligibility of the world process itself) requires that the necessary self-defining features of God be identified with a “reality,” a reality which is more than an abstraction and which, in fact, is “complete” and “unconditioned” in relation to the contingent temporal process. The categories of his system, however, did not allow him to carry this insight through to its end. Likewise Hartshorne, therefore, the full actuality of God must here be viewed as being constituted as a prehension of antecedent (non-divine) data…[emphasis mine]

The perfection of God, that which defines God’s self apart from all interaction with a non-divine reality (viz., is “unconditioned”) must be identical with a necessary and actually abiding reality. As to God’s necessary existence, God does not have the abstract features of goodness, love, awareness, etc. God is—actually—goodness, love, awareness, etc.

To use traditional terminology, God’s “abstract” essence is God’s necessary concrete existence. The a priori features which “abstractly” identify God as God constitute God’s essential actuality. God’s actuality is not, therefore, simply a contingent exemplification of divine attributes.

The “abstract” attributes of God are, on this account, given an intelligible normative status over all of God’s contingent activity. The “absolutely fixed” and “ungenerated style” of God, the “law” of God’s concrete contingent activity, is simply the aseity of God’s eternal actuality. God’s necessary character is not paradoxically “contained in” God’s contingent actuality: it is, rather, identical with God’s eternal actuality. [emphasis mine]

It is not difficult to see how a kenotic Christology abandons this reasoning, for the necessary divine actuality which must be “complete” and “unconditioned” antecedent to all created contingencies is, as is argued here (in TP) by Greg (with Orthodoxy), the full and unconditioned actuality of the Father, Son and Spirit in their full and reciprocal knowledge of, love for and enjoyment of each other.

(Picture, “Freedom” by Rafael Lopez)

Divine experience of beatitude the summum bonum—Part 2

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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.

(Picture here.)

Divine experience of beatitude the summum bonum—Part 1

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Just thinking out loud. Chime in if you want. God, all theists would agree, is the summum bonum—the greatest good, the highest value. I’m going to assume that here. What I’d like to suggest in addition to this (though it is nothing new) is that this highest value is God’s experience, more precisely his experience of “beatitude” or “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” (to employ Greg’s expression from Trinity & Process). You might be thinking that I’ve said this all before and wonder what’s new here? Just this: God’s experience of his own beatitude is that about God which constitutes God as the summum bonum and that from which all created experiences derive their value. This is something we think one ought to say about God and something which seems impossible for a passibilist to say.

What would follow if God’s beatitude (God’s self-constituting experience of ‘beatitude’, ‘bliss’ or ‘aesthetic satisfaction’) were to suffer diminishment? Would not God’s value as the summum bonum be diminished? But God’s value, theists have traditionally believed, is infinite. So just what is it about God that makes God infinitely valuable? Just the mere fact that he exists (necessarily)? That’s hard to see. Perhaps the fact that God loves us is what makes God so valuable. Also unlikely, since that writes contingent created beings into the self-constituting value of necessary existence per se. While it’s true that God loves us, and that we conclude many things about God as the highest good and supreme value from our experience of his love, it seems more true to say that God gives value to us rather than derives value from us.

I suggest (as others have) that it is the experience of being God which is God’s infinite value. And while many of the traditional attributes that get associated with this are important, they do not in themselves constitute God’s value per se. That value, rather, is the sheer beatitude of God’s experience, his own necessary actuality as triune, loving experienced beatitude. One might express this by saying that the greatest value in the universe is the greatest beatitude. And an infinite value would be an infinite(ly intense) experience of aesthetic satisfaction (or experience of loving beatitude), just as Greg Boyd argued in Trinity & Process.

All this is argued elsewhere by thinkers more capable than I, though we’ve discussed much of this here. What I’m curious about is bringing this into conversation with passibilist claims that construe divine suffering as God suffering the diminishment of experienced beatitude. If God is the summum bonum — the highest good and supreme value — and if this is understood in terms of the supreme experience of value as loving, personal existence, then all created values are relative to (not determinative of) the value of God’s experienced beatitude. The question for passibilists then becomes: If God’s experience of beatitude suffers diminishment, does it not follow that in some sense God’s value suffers diminishment? And if so, what happens to the value of all created experience which is derived from the value of God? Would not all values suffer diminishment?

The catch here is understanding the ‘absolute value’ or the summum bonum (from which all things derive their value) first as an ‘experience’ of value and thus as God’s experience of beatitude; i.e., God’s value as God’s experience of beatitude. I’m inclined to agree (with Orthodoxy) that there are no ‘parts’ to God from which God is assembled or constructed and (with Boyd in Trinity & Process) that there is nothing to, or more fundamentally constitutive of, God than his own triune experience of Godself. If this be the case, then this divine experience of beauty just is the infinite value of God and in turn is that from which all created experiences consistently derive their value (as good or evil). They are more or less valuable, more or less privated, to the degree to which they approximate that experience of infinite and absolute beatitude which is God’s existence. If I were pressed for a definition of apatheia as I understand and employ it, I’d say it is just the infinite value of the beatitude of God’s triune experience.

My struggle extends to further questions: How can the summum bonum (God’s experience of beatitude) as the absolute value of all created values rise and fall like a barometer (rise and fall with the fluctuating success and failure of created experiences to approximate the divine beatitude)? Against what metaphysical reality would it be measured? What experience could then measure God’s experience in aesthetic terms? By asserting that God’s beatitude (God’s actual experience of aesthethic satisfaction) rises and falls as the world’s fortunes rise and fall, do passibilists not in effect deny the absolute value of God’s experience? Or are they not committed to ground such value in something other than God’s own experience? What would that something be?

Lastly, I also suggest that God’s goodness toward us (the predictably loving character of his actions) is best understood as a function of his self-constituting triune experience of beatitude. God is good because God’s experience is beautiful, beatific. God is as good as he is to us because he is as beautiful as he is to himself. God’s ad intra beatitude (his experience of his own triune beauty) grounds the predictably loving and gracious nature of his acts ad extra. Diminish the ad intra experience of beatitude and what do you get? What do we do as passibilists if we agree that God’s essential self-constituting ‘experience’ (the act by which God is the self-existent triune God he is) is the summum bonum and that this summum bonum is infinite beauty and beatitude?

(Picture from here.)

Trinity and Process

Video1 Now is as good a time as any to throw up some more quotes from Greg Boyd’s Trinity and Process to demonstrate how incompatible this work is with his present belief in the dissolution (on the Cross and in the womb of Mary) of God’s triune experience. Enjoy.

“…this modification of Hartshorne’s system shall allow us to conceive of God as essentially constituted by an unsurpassable aesthetic experience of God’s own self-relationality….God is best conceived as being at once unsurpassable in God’s definitional aesthetic disposition and actual eternal enjoyment of what this disposition produces within Godself….” (p. 176, emphasis ours)

“Once we have determined that God is to be conceived of as antecedently actual, internally relational, and ‘more than’ self-sufficient, there is no longer any need to postulate an eternal world to provide the ground and the material for God’s concrete experience of goodness. God is, in this view, good within Godself, and this means that God can experience goodness within Godself—apart from the world…. In contrast to all possible and actual evil, God experiences God’s own triune sociality as unsurpassably good.” (p. 375, emphasis ours)

“…God’s essential and necessary existence is…most basically defined by the unsurpassable intensity of aesthetic enjoyment which characterizes the triune sociality of God. God experiences Godself with an intensity which can under no circumstances conceivably be improved upon. As with Hartshorne, we are here most fundamentally defining God’s transcendence in terms of God’s aesthetic satisfaction.” (p. 377, emphasis ours) [Tom here: Draw a line from “existence” to “enjoyment” in the first sentence of this quote and ask yourself what Greg might mean now by suggesting that this “enjoyment” ceases while God’s essential and necessary “existence” does not.]

“If we may now utilize the language of Scripture, we may, in light of our reconstruction, view God’s essential being as eternally consisting in the event of the perfect knowing and loving of the Father and Son in the power of the Spirit.”

“The One whose power is this One’s love, and whose love is this One’s knowledge, is the necessary and eternal divine event which structures and internally satisfies, in and of itself, all rationality and which further grounds all contingent being.”

“But, we further hold, this God-defining zenith of aesthetic intensity has been constituted in the triune sociality of God from eternity. This is necessary, and as such it is neither increased nor diminished by the contingent and temporal affairs of the world.” (p. 378, emphasis ours)

We say “Amen” to all this. It’s in line with Orthodoxy in expressing the infinite beauty of God’s triune experience of knowing and loving as Father, Son and Spirit. This is what’s leaving people confused about Greg’s present position that this very God-definining experience is now no longer necessary to God.

(Picture here.)