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.
The doctrine of divine impassibility does not stand alone. We will not learn what it means by reading Aristotle’s presentation of the unmoved mover. We must enter into the ecstatic life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
Of course, an understanding of divine apatheia as the absolutely inextinguishable vehemence of infinite love, what the Pseudo-Dionysius calls divine ecstasy or divine eros, which therefore–precisely as impassibility–is ceaselessly active and engaged in creatures, was unimaginable for pagan philosophy. This image of God’s immutability as semper agens rather than semper quietus would obviously have made no sense within a tradition that understood divine purity as a cold, remote, perfectly immobile simplicity, not mindful of us at all, even if–in some sense–it is a wellspring of being, bliss, and beauty for us. But not only did Christian theologians have it on scriptural authority that God is love, as doctrine developed they had an ever richer and more concrete way of understanding this truth: the doctrine of the Trinity. That is to say, for Christians even the simplicity of the divine nature is the simplicity of utter fullness, including the fullness of relation and differentiation: the interior life of God, so to speak, is also an infinite openness, for in his eternal being he is God always as an infinite gesture of self-outpouring love, the Father’s entire gift of his being in the generation of the Son and the breathing forth of the Spirit. This is, so to speak, the eternal event that is God’s being, and so he is never a purity of essence withdrawn from every other, but is entirely the utter generosity and joy of self-giving. This is why, also, God creates. According to the Pseudo-Dionysius, the flowing forth of God’s goodness in finite beings is not simply the irrepressible ebullition of sheer divine power (as it is for, say, Plotinian neoplatonism), but is the act of one who lovingly shares himself with all, who in his transcendence over all beings leads all things into being, and who is full within his self-emptying act of individuation.
More than that, God’s is a life of real pleasure in the other, always already full of delight, fellowship, feasting, responsiveness, and love. … God is the fullness of an infinitely completed, and yet infinitely dynamic, life of love, in which there is regard, knowledge, and felicity. (“No Shadow of Turning,” pp. 59-60)
Hence it would be a grievous error to think of divine impassibility as indifference or immobility. Rather it bespeaks the plenitude and love, the fecundity, joy, and ecstasy that is the eternal being of the Holy Trinity. It cannot be diminished by creaturely suffering nor rendered impotent by death. Just as God does not need a world to be Love, so he is not threatened by the privations and agonies of a world that has fallen into wickedness and alienation. The apatheia of the Father, Son, and Spirit is nothing less than our hope and salvation:
This, again, is why God’s love is called apatheia. For us, of course, as finite beings, our every expression of ourselves and sense of what we are–in word and will, knowledge and love, form and recognition–is fragmentary, the frail emanation of a confined subjectivity, present to itself only as a play of presence and absence, light and darkness; but as God is not a finite being, but infinite being, his expression of himself and knowledge of and delight in that expression are, in each moment, completely and infinitely God: God’s Word is the perfect expression of God and so is God; the living Spirit of God is God’s life and joy, and so is God. An infinite and infinitely full distance is here, an infinite capacity, that is also infinite unity; in God, in these hypostatic distinctions, there opens up that infinite “place” that is the possibility of every place–of creation and in creation (as Hilary of Poitiers says, there is no place but is in God).
No created inverval could possibly add to or subtract from that distance, which is the distance of an eternally accomplished act. And in that distance there is always more than mere difference: there is the infinite longing of desire and the infinite peace of satiation, for the Spirit–the desire, love, power of the Father–comes to rest in the Son, there finding all the delight he seeks. As the light and joy of the Trinity’s knowledge and love, the Spirit re-inflects the distance between Father and Son not just as bare cognizance, but as perfected love, the whole rapture of the divine essence. To call this infinite act of love apatheia, then, is to affirm its plenitude and its transcendence of every evil, every interval of sin, every finite rupture, disappointment of longing, shadow of sadness, or failure of love—in short, every pathos. … God has—indeed is—only one act: the single ardent movement of this infinite love, delight, and peace. (pp. 61-62)
Yet this seems insufficient to us. We need God to grieve when we grieve, to suffer when we suffer. Our misery loves company, and we would bring the Creator into the thick of it. How else may we save him?