That God suffers, not just as the man Jesus of Nazareth but in his divine essence, has become dogma in modern theology. Outside the Thomistic sphere few scholars are inclined to dispute it. Just read the Bible. Is not YHWH portrayed as one who loves and grieves and suffers, who delights in the obedience of his people and becomes enraged by their wickedness, who declares doom and then changes his mind? If we take the Scriptures seriously, it seems but a small step to conceive of the Lord as a passible and mutable being, one who responds to the events of history and indeed shares a history, a deity of process and becoming–yet this step the Church Fathers and medieval doctors refused to make. Divinity, they taught, is impassible, immutable, atemporal, nonemotional, omniscient, omnipotent. These attributes must obtain if God is the transcendent Creator and not a mythological godling:
When all is said and done, the idea of a God who becomes through suffering passions, whose being is determined in a history, according to “encounters” with other realities, even realities he creates, is simply a metaphysical myth, a mere supreme being, but not the source of all being. To wax vaguely Heideggerean, he is a God on this side of the ontological difference…: one is identifying being with a being among beings; one’s God is an ontic God, who becomes what he is not, possessed of potential, receiving his being from elsewhere–from being. And, as a being, he is in some sense finite, divided between being and being this, and so cannot be the being of creatures, even though he is their cause. …
But the greatest problems with such approaches are as much moral as metaphysical, for once the interval of analogy between the immanent and economic Trinities (between God in himself and God with the world) has been collapsed into simple identity, certain very unsettling conclusions will become inevitable. Moltmann and Jüngel both, for all their differences, attempt to avoid depicting God, in his history of becoming, as merely the passive creature of his creatures: freely, they insist, he chooses his course. But this idea of God as a finite subject writ large, who elects himself as a project of self-discovery, only compounds the problem; in place of the metaphysically necessary “God” of the system, this sort of language gives us only an anthropomorphic myth, a God whose will enjoys a certain indeterminate priority over his essence, in whom possibility exceeds actuality, who is therefore composite, ontic, voluntaristic … and obviously nonexistent. More to the point, as many of the fathers would have argued, a God who can by nature experience finite affects and so be determined by them is a God whose identity is established through a commerce with evil; if the nature of God’s love can be in any sense positively shaped by sin, suffering, and death, then sin, suffering, and death will always be in some sense features of who he is. Among other things, this means that evil must enjoy a certain independent authenticity, a reality with which God must come to grips, and God’s love must–if it requires the negative pathos of history to bring it to fruition–be inherently deficient, and in itself a fundamentally reactive reality. Goodness then requires evil to be good; love must be goaded into being by pain. In brief, a God who can, in his nature as God, suffer cannot be the God who is love, even if at the end of the day he should prove to be loving, or the God who is simply good, or who is the wellspring of being and life. He, like us, is an accommodation between death and life.
Nor is it enough to say that, as God’s identity is infinite, the conditions of the finite do not determine its ultimate nature, for while a truly transcendent infinity might be able to assume the finite into itself without altering its nature, an “infinite” that realizes itself in and through finite determinations can in no sense remain untouched by the evils it passes through, even if the ultimate synthesis of its identity is, in it totality, “infinite” in the circular Hegelian sense; such can be only the infinite of total repletion, the fullness of ontic determinations in their interrelated discreteness and dialectical “yield”; only thus can being be one with becoming. Again, one simply cannot say that God finds himself in the one historical object of Jesus tout court; in specifying this one historical object, God must also specify the entire web of historical and cosmic contingencies in which this object subsists; no worldly reality can stand apart from the entire reality of the world. And so, if one pursues the logic of divine becoming to its proper end, one will find that all things are necessary aspects of God’s odyssey toward himself; every painful death of a child, every casual act of brutality, all war, famine, pestilence, disease, murder … all will turn out to be moments in the identity of God, resonances within the event of his being, aspects of the occurrence of his essence: all evil will become meaningful–speculatively meaningful and so necessary–as the crucible in which God is forged. (“No Shadow of Turning,” pp. 51-54)
The doctrine of divine impassibility of the Holy Trinity serves a critical purpose: it declares to us that evil and suffering do not belong to his eternal being and identity. The God of the gospel is not a tragic God.
* * *
In this series of “illuminations,” I quote passages from David Bentley Hart’s collection of essays The Hidden and the Manifest that I have found particularly instructive. I hope they will generate good discussion.