This month Eclectic Orthodoxy celebrates its two year anniversary. The blog has been a great blessing to me. I hope it’s been interesting, at least occasionally, to others.
To help me celebrate I’ve asked Tom Belt of An Open Orthodoxy blog fame to write an article on a topic of his choice. He chose the topic of divine apatheia. Given that apatheia means something very different than the English word apathy, we are going to stick with the Greek word. Thank you, Tom, for sharing this article with us.
by Thomas Belt
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 passibilism/impassibilism 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….”
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 intentionally embracing the truth of 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.
Just 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 to possess what we do not have. 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 (1 Pet. 1.8), ‘receiving the salvation of our souls’.”