Eternal Kenosis

God cannot acquire some virtue – some mode of goodness – simply because he created. Otherwise God would depend on creation for his own being, in which case he would be just as contingent as the world. And then we would have either two contingent principles – the world and God – or two necessary principles, and neither one of these metaphysics is satisfactory. We must have a God who is necessary and a creation which is contingent.

But then, every mode of goodness must pre-exist in God, apart from the world, since he cannot get some new good in virtue of what need not itself exist (the world.) On a purely Platonic conception of God, in which he is “goodness” or “being” as such, abstractly, we have the old classical idea of an impassible God, experiencing nothing but bliss, an unwavering “joyous” psychological experience. But on a Christian conception – or rather on an Incarnational one – in which the human Jesus shows us the father, we have something different. We have a God who, in himself, experiences a full array of human emotions – some quite other than joy. In other words, in Jesus, we have a person who experiences things that a Platonic God could never experience.

In fact, we do not need even the Incarnation to prove this point. Take any human, and consider various virtues or goods, which would not be possible for a Platonic God to have: self-sacrifice, courage, patience, vulnerability, spontaneity, surprise. Now ask yourself: how could a created person have virtues or moral goods that God himself does not have?

It seems to me there are only two ways to go here. We can either say such things are really Good Things for a personal being to possess, or they are not. If they are not – if a person can be just as good and have just as full a life without ever experiencing them – then we have no problem saying that God, in his inner Trinitarian being apart from creation, does not experience them. But if such things are good – if, that is, we can all agree that, if we were given the choice of living a life in which these emotions were present in various ways, or a life in which they were absent, but we were in full orgasmic bliss constantly – if then we really think such things are good, then they must pre-exist in God’s very essence itself.

Consider which being you find the “greatest possible being.” Is it a being who cannot in any way experience any painful psychological experience; a being who, necessarily, is not even able to feel anything other than joyous bliss? Or is it a being who has a multitude of emotions – none of them with evil intent – some of which involve real suffering and pain, perhaps even courage and vulnerability, for the sake of another?

If God is, to borrow from Balthasar, “essentially kenotic” this does not mean his timeless experience is somehow a negative thing. Thinking that way looks at God’s experience atomistically. What is more accurate, I think, is to imagine the whole drama of human existence, and all its emotions, minus those which have an evil intention, as being themselves a sort of diagram for the inner life of God. A timeless God experiences all his life “at once.” This is the famous dictum from Boethius, God’s timelessness involves “the full possession of illimitable life.” Therefore, any mention of kenosis is not an event for God that comes to him, and that he experiences, and that passes away. Neither is it something that in itself dominates his whole experience such as to be his primary existential feeling. It is, rather, a note in the divine and timeless Song – a theme in the eternal and Triune drama.

God experiences self-sacrifice and emptying, true. But he also rises from the dead afterwards. The pain does not have the last word, but it does serve as fertilizer for the blessed fruit that is eventually borne.


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