Notes on Divine Emotions

“There is no movement because His action (which is Himself) is timeless. You might, if you wished, call it movement at an infinite speed, which is the same thing as rest, but reached by a different—perhaps a less misleading—way of approach.” CS Lewis Miracles

I have been at pains in the past couple posts to explain why ancient thinkers have supposed that God is Timeless, Changeless, and Pure Act. They arrived at this conclusion mainly through their own inability to conceive of God as a being “receiving” different states of reality from other things. If he is the Ultimate Fact and First Reality, who or what is he receiving such new states from? On the other hand, if he is not receiving them but already has them in himself, then in what sense could he be “taking on” such new states?

However, there has always been a worry about how to reconcile a being who is Pure Action that does not properly “receive” from his creation with the God of the Bible who grieves, endures, implores, and suffers. If God is Actus Purus how can he really have any of these attributes? If the creation does not move him, in what sense can he really be grieved by it or endure it or have compassion on it? There has been a tendency in some to say that God in himself simply does not really have these emotions. God “ad intra” does not suffer – indeed cannot – and has nothing which denotes any sorrowful or painful emotion in him at all. Such a view, however, seems to me not only wholly arbitrary (why select just this set of emotions?) but it also seems impossible given both Scriptural depictions of God and the revelation that he came into his creation as Christ. If God has told us to think about him in the terms he gives us in the Bible and if Christ really is the “image” of the very essence of God, it just doesn’t make sense to turn around and say that in God himself there exists no “receptive” sort of emotions. The one who grieves over Israel and who hung on the cross for sin certainly received the effects of sin and rebellion.

But how do we explain how a being who is Pure Act could possess emotions which only seem to be possible by being acted upon by things outside oneself? It seems to me the way out of this difficulty is to realize that unlike us finite beings, with God there really is no such thing as something existing “outside” Him – for where would it be? He contains all places and times: they all exist in Him. What we should say is that what happens in us only by being acted on actually exists in God in a purely active way. Thus even his receptive emotions are themselves actively receptive. He is actively being sorrowful in his creating a rebellious people, just as he is actively relishing in his saving them from their sin. In my last post I tried to articulate just how God’s creative causal power extended to the creation itself in such a way that it didn’t destroy its freedom and individuality but rather established it. It seems to me if we take this idea of God as Ultimate Author of all the characters in the drama of creation, we can say something like this that may be helpful. God’s emotions and attributes – such as his love, compassion, justice, patience, etc. – when we contemplate them, all presuppose an object appropriate to them. That is, God cannot be compassionate unless there is something to be compassionate about or patient unless there is something to be patient about. Therefore, God’s emotions, even the ones that appear to us receptive, are what they are in his very creation of the conditions that give rise to them. God just is compassionate in his actively creating beings who rebelliously resist him; he just is sorrowful in his creating beings who hate and destroy one another; he just is forgiving in wiping away sin and no longer holding it against us; he just is just in destroying wickedness and giving some exactly what they insist on having; he just is dying on the cross as his human consciousness suffers and fades into darkness; he just is rejoicing in that defeat of death as he raises his Son from the grave and ultimately destroys the enemies death and sin altogether.

God’s emotions, therefore, are not something that come upon him or “happen to him.” Again, since he is not in time he does not pass from one mood to the next, nor do creatures arouse in him states of mind that were not there before. It is just that God’s full being simply IS his emotions and relations to creation – which he possesses fully and eternally – in a completely active experience.

Thus all the recent debate about how an immutable God cannot be related to the creation or effected by it are in one sense true but another false. It is true that God is not moved by the creation in the sense that God starts to possess some mental reality or experience that he did not have before. In that sense God is not actualized by creation any more than the Pool Player is actualized by the billiard ball. But it is false to infer from this that God does not therefore possess real relations to the world or that he is careless of it. The Pool Player is not moved by the ball, but nevertheless his whole action is directed towards the ball imparting all the form and movement that exist in it by his own active intention.

Any idea that arises in the mind which suggests that an God must therefore be careless of the creation really smuggles in the notion of God not as purely active but of God as purely inactive. After all, all emotion is really just some mental experience. God, then, being the author and fountain of all goodness, must in himself possess all good emotions and all their appropriate manifestation toward their various objects. Thus if you think compassion is a good emotion, then God, from whom all goodness flows, must also have it – otherwise you are proposing some good that can exist in the creation itself which does not come from God, which is absurd.

The truth is that the theologians who want to put God’s inner life above suffering and consisting only in undisturbed bliss have failed to see that even “undisturbed bliss” is simply one finite, human emotive-experience. In itself it only captures a sliver of human life, let alone the wholeness that is the full Life of God. To fix on any single human experience and to set that up as the totality of God’s inner plenitude of being is both bad metaphysics and exegesis. Each of our descriptions of God is really just the taking of a single image and trying to slap it on an infinite reality which cannot be defined by any single image. We are much better off trying to juggle all the images, to hold on to each not at the expense of the rest but at the same time as them, than we are in setting up only one as the ultimate. Of course it is much easier to do the former than the latter, and some times we will no no doubt feel a tension in doing latter that isn’t present in the former. But it is only by doing it, I think, that we can approach even the beginnings of an adequate understanding of God.


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