Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fourth New Book Excerpt: God's Love of His Own Majesty

I've been tinkering with a section of the chapter on "Species of Universalism," and it occurred to me that this section may be of interest to readers of this blog. Hence, I'm including it here. It has to do with God's love of His own majesty--a "holiness" that is often invoked as a divine motive for damning some sinners. We argue, on the contrary, that while there is a way of understanding God's love for His own majesty that is entirely consistent with a vision of God as defined essentially in terms of an agapic love or benevolence that wills the good of the other, this divine self-love would not serve as a motive for God willing that anyone be damned. On the contrary, it would favor universal salvation.

…on much traditional Christian theology, God’s love consists in more than benevolence, that is, in more than the sheer agapic love that is directed to creatures irrespective of their intrinsic worth, desiring to create good out of evil. God also has what has traditionally been called a “love of complacency”—that is, a love that is directly responsive to the merits of its object and that delights in what is intrinsically good. In other words, in addition to being a bestower of value, God is also a respecter of it. He recognizes and honors the intrinsic worth that something possesses because of what it is, because of its nature.

And while God’s benevolence is entirely directed outward, creatively bringing goods into existence and bestowing further goods on what He has created, His complacent love is directed to anything which has intrinsic worth. And while created things have such worth once they exist, the most intrinsically valuable thing of all is God Himself.

Let us briefly pause here to consider a possible misunderstanding concerning God’s complacent love of Himself. Specifically, there is nothing self-seeking, nothing egotistical, about complacent love. If God loves and delights in His own essence, it is not out of some sort of narcissism but because it is objectively right to do so. Part of what it means to be morally perfect is that one responds to that which is intrinsically valuable in the appropriate way—namely, by valuing it in proportion to its objective worth. But insofar as God’s objective worth is infinite, this means that it would be a moral failure on the part of God to fail to love Himself (with the love of complacency) with anything less than the most perfect delight and profoundest respect for His own merit.

We are convinced that all of this is consistent with holding that what renders God worthy of being the object of such limitless respect is, above all else, His boundless agapic love—that is, His perfect and unwavering benevolence, an overflowing, life-giving love that does not wait on worth. It seems to us that God would not be benevolent unless He valued benevolence itself. By implication, God could not be benevolent above all else unless He valued benevolence above all else, and hence valued its most perfect embodiment (Himself) higher than any flawed or restricted expressions of it. Hence, if God’s complacent love for Himself exceeds His complacent love for anything else, it is precisely because He values agapic love above all other things, and because it is God Himself who most perfectly embodies and expresses such love.

And to value something means, in part, standing up for it, insisting that its value be acknowledged and appreciated. Those who show disdain for or indifference to God (at least if they have anything approaching a proper understanding of God’s essence) are showing disdain for or indifference to benevolent love itself. God cannot be perfectly benevolent without being angered by such disdain or indifference to perfected benevolence.

These considerations lead us to the importance of including in a complete Christian account of DU some reference to God’s love of complacency for Himself. This love for His own perfection has been—and, we think, justifiably should be—considered a fundamental basis for God’s opposition to all sinfulness, insofar as sin involves a failure to value God as He ought to be valued. In fact, if God’s value is infinite, then any shortfall in the creature’s love of God must be an infinite shortfall. The failure to love God as one should is the failure to appreciate and value the ground of all love, all benevolence, all goodness. And it is a shortfall that is inevitably infinite in degree.

This offers, we think, the most plausible understanding of the traditional claim that sin is an affront to God’s majesty—not in the way that disobedience is an affront to the pretensions of a tyrant, but in the way enslavement is an affront to the real objective worth of a human person. To be in the presence of God while persisting in a state of sin is comparable to being in the presence of another human being, and yet to treat that person as if he or she were a mere thing to be used. It involves a failure to respond appropriately to the objective worth of the person with whom one is confronted.

This is something that a morally perfect being cannot tolerate. Hence, just as a morally good person becomes rightly angry when a human being is treated like a thing (just as I become angry when my child is teased or belittled; and just as I think my child ought to become angry on her own behalf when this happens), God becomes rightly angry when He is treated in a manner that falls short of what is fitting with respect to the ultimate source of all good and value. This may be the philosophical idea behind the ancient Jewish notion, captured in the following passage from Isaiah, that God will not allow the sinful creature to come into His presence until He Himself purifies the creature:

In the year that king Uz-zi’ah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a
throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the
seraphims: each one had six wings: with twain he covered his face, and with
twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto
another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is
full of his glory.

And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the
house was filled with smoke.
Then said I, Woe is me! For I am undone: because
I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean
lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.

Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand,
which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my
mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken
away, and thy sin purged. (Isaiah 6:1-7)

This passage from Isaiah helps to highlight the key point we want to make in this section: While God’s complacent love for His own essence is often put forward as a reason God might be so wrathful at sin as to cast sinners into hell, we think it is more coherently invoked as a divine motive for responding to sin by purging it, by taking away the iniquity of sinners and so making them suitable for union with God--and it would be such a motive for each and every sinner, and so would be a motive for universal salvation.

We suspect that one reason why this implication is so frequently overlooked is because the notion of divine wrath is so often misconstrued in terms of our own confused relationship with human anger. Anger is a much maligned emotion, in part because it is so often associated with acts of violence. Those who abhor violence therefore will frequently extend their condemnation to anger itself--and, conversely, those who find their anger legitimate will often treat violence towards the object of their anger as justified.

But anger is not violent as such and need not be paired with violence. It is, instead, the emotional correlate of recognizing that a wrong has been done to someone (oneself or another). In ordinary human life anger also provides an impetus to respond to injustice. But the response need not be violent. That is, one can strongly say no to evil without doing violence to the agents of evil.

In fact, as Walter Wink has argued more than once, Jesus’ famous injunction to turn the other cheek can be understood as an example of how to take a firm stand against moral affronts to one’s person without striking back in kind. In other words, it is an example of how to express anger at injustice without doing violence. Wink thinks it is no accident that Jesus specifies that when one is struck on the right cheek (not the left one), one should present the other. The right cheek was the one that would, in Jesus’ day, be struck by a back-handed blow—the kind a master would deliver to a slave. To turn the other cheek would be to assert one’s dignity in the face of an insult to it, but without doing violence in kind.

Part of the point of responding to wrongs in this way is that this kind of response is more apt to work on the inner character of the wrongdoer. If I attack you and you attack me back, your counter-attack only tends to fuel my aggressive impulses, perhaps even causing me to see them as justified. If I attack you and you put up with it without complaint, or crumble before me, then I am inclined to experience contempt for you. My aggressive act presupposes that you lack the value of a person, and your response reinforces this false presupposition. But if I attack you and you take a strong, creative stand in defense of your dignity and worth, one that I cannot help but notice but which is not a counter-attack, my aggressiveness and contempt are challenged. I am called to question myself and how I am treating you.

Turning the other cheek, rather than striking out against the wrongdoer, strikes out against the wrong and the ideas and attitudes that lie behind it. And this, if we are to believe Jesus’ words, is the truly moral response to affronts to one’s dignity. We should neither let them stand unchallenged nor strike back in kind. Instead, we should repudiate the wrong clearly and powerfully and in a way that has the potential to jolt the wrongdoer into recognizing what he or she is doing as the wrong that it is. The aim is not to beat the wrongdoer down but to move the wrongdoer into a psychological place in which repentance and remorse become possible.

And if we think about it carefully, this aim only makes sense. If someone behaves towards me in a way that fails to show respect for my real value, this is a serious wrong against me, and I should feel justifiably angry about not being valued as I should. But if I respond by beating the wrongdoer to a bloody pulp, what will be the effect? Among other things, the wrongdoer will most likely become entrenched in a hateful or resentful attitude towards me that fails to show respect for my inherent dignity and worth. I have responded to the crime of someone failing to value me as I deserve by ensuring that this crime continues unabated in the wrongdoer’s heart. Such a response is incoherent—but the incoherence lies not with my initial anger at having been wronged, but in my violent response.

So what does all of this entail with respect to God and His complacent love for Himself?

If God loves His own essence, then He loves the love of it and hates the hatred of it (or even indifference to it). As such, God would have a powerful motive to expunge all hatred of His essence and replace it with love. That is, He would have a powerful motive to respond to affronts to His dignity in ways that inspire repentance and remorse—in other words, that bring about conversion. If God has a complacent love for Himself that stands opposed to all disdain for His value, then it seems God would want to convert every sinner, especially those who most flagrantly offend His majesty. As Thomas Talbott has pointed out, insofar as DH implies that the damned never repent and forever reject God, DH commits one to the view that hatred of God is never fully stamped out, but persists forever in the souls of the damned. This outcome would seem to be an intolerable affront to God’s love for His own majesty. That very love can therefore be thought to be a motive for His willing the salvation of all. Only when all are saved is God’s majesty respected as it ought to be.


  1. Hi, Eric-

    "If God loves and delights in His own essence, it is not out of some sort of narcissism but because it is objectively right to do so. Part of what it means to be morally perfect is that one responds to that which is intrinsically valuable in the appropriate way—namely, by valuing it in proportion to its objective worth."

    Not a shred of this is objective. You are simply asserting that goodness is objective and building your house of cards from there on the phantasm of god, asserted to be good and like good because that is what you like and are interested in.

    All this "appropriateness" is simple anthropomorphization. We judge people to be good based on our cultivated and inborn values, then value those we judge good in what we can see as setting a general example. And then, if we are imaginative, we conjure super-heros of super-goodness (though also of super-powers and often super-evil, but we may downplay that bit). You would do as much good analyzing the benevolence of Ninja turtles.

    Those who show disdain for or indifference to God (at least if they have anything approaching a proper understanding of God’s essence) are showing disdain for or indifference to benevolent love itself.

    Oh, that is rich. This gets you right into suicide bomber territory. Don't love my god? Then off with your head! I think that you need to take an epistemic step backward and show that god exists and "expresses such love" in any way whatsoever. Tsunamis and the like are a funny way of expressing one's love. He's just loving us to death, it seems.

    "God cannot be perfectly benevolent without being angered ..."

    One would think that god, being god, would be above such pettiness. But no, and thankfully, it has you to stand up for it, fists at the ready. Delightful! And benevolent!

    "... it seems God would want to convert every sinner, especially those who most flagrantly offend His majesty.

    Being god, one would think this would be easy, and not left to the pathetic instruments of, say, the Catholic church. Apparently, we will all get a second whack at the pinata after death, and that is plenty time enough for me! Indeed it would be philosophical malpractice to convert to these sorts of fantasies in the absence of evidence.

  2. Burk,

    Part of what I need to do to properly understand something I read is ascertain the target audience. To whom is this written? What premises are taken for granted because they are shared by members of this target audience? What aims does the author have with respect to this target audience?

    The current book is an internal critique of a worldview--that is, one which operates from within a Christian framework of assumptions to demonstrate that the doctrine of hell (which is widely ascribed to by Christians) does not fit well within that framework of assumptions. That sort of project has value on a number of fronts, even if we can all agree that many people do not share the framework of assumptions in question and think the basis for believing in Christianity is dubious at best. But that kind of project cannot be pursued at all if one is called upon first to establish the truth of the framework of assumptions in question. That is a different project with a different audience and different aims.

    In fact, for reasons related in posts you've read before, I think it is impossible to avoid making assumptions, and that the only way to critically assess worldviews overall is by adopting them provisionally, critiquing and refining them from within, and seeing where that takes you. So, in a sense, the current internal critique of the Christian doctrine of hell might be a small part of the larger project of assessing the merits of the entire worldview. But if so, it is a part of a larger project that, methodologically, cannot proceed without adopting a set of assumptions that, for the sake of the immediate goals, are taken as given.

    That said, I do want to comment on one concern you raise, because it is based on a misunderstanding. Disdain for God shows disdain for benevolent love if and only if God is understood to BE benevolent love.

    In other words, if a person attaches to the term "God" the meaning "Crazy fantasy about some nutty superman in the sky that no one has any good reason to believe in," and then disdains that idea, the person is decidedly NOT disdaining benevolent love and thus NOT exhibiting the sort of disdain that we should be angry about.

    We might disagree with their views about God, but given those views, their disdain is entirely appropriate. Since disdain for what ought to be disdained is not a moral offense, a morally perfect God would not take offense at it...and neither should anyone else.

    Let me put it another way. It is pretty clear to me that what is in your head when you think about God, religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is something that I disdain as much as you do. I have so far rather consistently failed to communicate to you what is in my head when I think about these things--and while much of this failure is surely mine, I must also confess to being repeatedly frustrated with what I see as a deliberately maintained brick wall designed to deflect accurate understanding of my words and arguments.

    I do find fault with THESE intellectual habits, and I do get angry about them. But these intellectual vices are decidedly NOT the same as the vice of seeing the inherent value of something, recognizing its worth, and disdaining it in the face of the recognition that love rather than disdain is the appropriate response to it.

    It is this last vice--taken to be expressed towards God--that some theists have put forward as a justification for damnation. Our argument in this passage is that, on the contrary, this vice would demand the opposite response.

  3. Eric,

    You say that God’s value is infinite, and I agree, but not in the mathematical sense of “infinite” but in the pragmatical sense of “boundless”. The former meaning is useful in abstract thought, but becomes paradoxical when applied to actual reality.[1] An analogy is the current understanding about physical space: it has no bounds for one can move in any direction without encountering any limit, but is also finite in size. A simpler analogy would be the surface of a sphere: one can move in any direction without encountering any limit, but the surface itself has a finite size.

    The theistic premise about God’s perfection strikes me as qualitative rather than quantitative, and it seems to me does not entail any requirement about infinite properties in the mathematical quantitative sense. Clearly, God’s perfection is exhaustive as nothing actual or imaginable is of greater perfection. On the other hand, and I think this is very significant, God’s perfection *entails* the capacity of self-transcendence. If God is perfect then God cannot be subject to any bounds, including the bound of His/Her current state of perfection. In other words if God is perfect then God is capable of creative growth, of becoming greater still.[2]

    Now how are we to understand the process by which God becomes greater? If the nature of God represents the greatest value there is, then one excellent possibility would be for God to create other persons capable of freely assuming the same nature and thus becoming similar to God, up to the point of being united in God. It is in that final union, in the atonement of all creation, that God becomes greater.

    One more observation on the same theme. You say that to value something means, in part, insisting that its value be acknowledged and appreciated. Right, and this perhaps is one more reason for God to create other persons. But there is another important factor: To value something also means wanting this value increased. So, for example, I happen to be a good painter and highly value my talent in this field. It is precisely because of this reason that I wish to become a better painter still. I highly value the paintings I have done in the past, and for this reason I desire to make even better paintings in the future. The will for transcending excellence is I think a fundamental property of personhood, it is an intrinsic part of what to be a person means.

    [1] And God of course is not an abstract object, but is as real as it possibly gets.

    [2] In my judgment perhaps the single gravest error that philosophers have made concerning God is to assume that His/Her perfection entails immutability. It’s exactly the other way around: an immutable being cannot be the greatest conceivable being precisely because it is incapable of growth.

  4. Dianelos--Some thought-provoking comments. I share your suspicion of the doctrine of divine immutability (as does my co-author and his spiritual guru, the 19th Century Protestant theologian Isaak Dorner, who wrote an extensive and scathing treatise on the doctrine).

  5. Eric,

    I have a problem with the idea of God’s wrath when observing sin, because the idea of God experiencing any kind of anger strikes me as incoherent. The greatest being I can conceive would never become angry, simply because anger is not a good emotion to experience, independently of whether it moves one to aggression or not. On the other hand the traditional saying that only the perfect can come into God’s presence does make sense to me, for closeness to God means spiritual closeness to God, i.e. how similar one has become to God in perfection. Therefore, to say that only the perfect can come close to God is to say something that is tautologically true, and has nothing to do with the idea of God being angry and not tolerating sinners close to Him/Her. On the contrary, both our ingrained sense of perfection and several of Christ’s parables point to the idea that God cares more about the sinners than about the virtuous. So the sinners may be far from God, but God’s attention is close to them, and God’s spirit is over them.

    So what is the emotional correlate of recognizing that a wrong has been done to someone? I’d say it depends on how close one to God is. I think that the recognition of a wrong will move the good person to sadness rather than anger, and will move the better person to compassion, not less for the aggressor than for the victim. And it won’t move the better person to try to stop that evil from being perpetrated. Rather, I think, the right response to recognizing that an evil is being done (by somebody else or by ourselves, to somebody else or to ourselves) is to motivate and empower *us* to do become better persons and do less evil ourselves. This, I think, is the meaning of Christ’s injunction to not return evil. It is a difficult ethical principle to accept, because it would appear that by not resisting evil one plays along with it and even helps it to succeed. But this commonsensical, externally consequentialist ethics, strikes me as illusory: For we are not asked by Christ to overcome the evil that exists outside of us, nor are we asked to perfect the external world (“the poor you have with you always”). If that were the issue then God would have annihilated all evil in an instant with a flick of His/Her small finger. Rather, the point is that we perfect ourselves. Given God’s goodness and providence in creation we may safely trust that by perfecting ourselves and eliminating evildoing from ourselves, we also do what is best for helping other people and decreasing external evil. In other words, it is by no returning, not resisting, and not fighting evil, that one defeats it. And it is by returning, resisting, and fighting evil, that one makes it more powerful. As this is a counterintuitive idea, an image I try to keep in mind is this: The existence of moral evil is like a river of dirty hands; if you put your hands in this river trying to clean it up, you will only succeed in increasing its size. Another image that may be helpful is to think that nothing annoys and dispirits the spirit of deception more than to ignore it and its works. Another is that we all, in our true nature of being God’s children, cannot really be wronged or harmed in any way by somebody or something else, but only by ourselves. So, I say, let’s love unconditionally and do good with abandon, while entirely ignoring evil as if it weren’t there.

    Incidentally, the idea that one should not give any attention to evil, but rather be impassive in the face of it, is perhaps most unambiguously expressed in Buddhist ethics. One needs a lot of faith, a lot of trust in the intrinsic goodness of reality, to interiorize this marvelous ethical principle, but I think deep in our spiritual bones we sense that it is true: Evil is absolutely devoid of worth and hence not worthy of our least attention. After all, consider that God Him/Herself does not return, does not resist, and does not fight evil.