Sunday, April 15, 2018
Does God have emotions?
An accusation sometimes leveled by theistic personalists against the classical theism of thinkers like Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas is that their position makes God out to be “unemotional” or “unfeeling” and thus less than personal. Is the charge just? It is not, as I’ve argued many times. So, does God have emotions? It depends on what you mean. On the one hand, as Aquinas argues in Summa Contra Gentiles I.89, it is not correct to attribute to God what he calls “the passions of the appetites.” For passions involve changeability, and since God is purely actual and without passive potentiality, he cannot change. Hence it makes no sense to think of God becoming agitated or calming down, feeling a sudden pang of sadness or a surge of excitement, or undergoing any of the other shifts in affect that we often have in mind when we talk of the emotions. On the other hand, no sooner does Aquinas say this than he immediately goes on in SCG I.90-91 to argue that there is in God delight, joy, and love. And of course, delight, joy, and love are also among the things we have in mind when we talk of the emotions.
I have discussed the sense in which God can be said to love in Five Proofs of the Existence of God (at pp. 228-29), and I won’t repeat here what I already said there. But let’s talk about Aquinas’s arguments for attributing delight and joy to God.
Delight and joy both essentially involve the actual possession of some perceived good that one wills, with the difference, in Aquinas’s view, being that in delight the good in question is “really conjoined” to the one who is delighted whereas in joy it need not be. Hence, suppose you and your child are both looking forward to some ice cream you have ordered on a hot summer’s day. When you actually get it and start eating it you take delight in it insofar as it is sweet, cool, and refreshing. Your child also delights in it, for the same reasons. Now, as Aquinas uses the term, you don’t, strictly speaking, delight in your child’s ice cream, precisely because he (and not you) is the one who is eating and enjoying it (and is thus “conjoined” to that good). However, you do take joy in his having the ice cream, insofar you take his possession and enjoyment of his ice cream to be good in just the way your possession and enjoyment of your own ice cream is good.
In God’s case, Aquinas says, “it is apparent that God properly delights in Himself, but He takes joy both in Himself and in other things.” However, there are aspects of joy and delight as they exist in us that cannot be attributed to God. Most obviously, in us joy and delight wax and wane. We might go from being miserable to merely feeling blah to being in a moderately good mood to feeling deliriously happy and then back again to misery, or blah-ness, or mere moderately good spirits. Since God is immutable, no such transitions can occur in him.
Another difference derives from the fact that while there are intellect and will in God, there are no sense organs in him, since he is incorporeal and impassible. Go back to your enjoyment of the ice cream. It occurs because certain sense organs are altered by the ice cream, and this occurs at a particular time and place. It is this particular sweetness of this particular object that affects you and that you enjoy here and now. And the enjoyment is associated with certain sensations in particular parts of the body. These material, spatial, and temporal limitations do not apply to God. His delight and joy in a thing does not have anything to do with his being altered by it, or with him having sensations in body parts, or with some particular need being satisfied in a particular way on a particular occasion.
Critics of classical theism are apt to judge that such qualifications must entail that delight and joy can exist in God only in some thin and disappointing manner. They are likely to suppose that God, as the classical theist conceives of him, lacks the rich delight and joy of which we are capable, and can possess only some bloodless, machine-like ersatz. But that is exactly the opposite of the lesson they should be drawing. In fact, our delight and joy are much less than God’s, and precisely because they are limited by the body and the senses. God’s delight and joy never wane, and they are not limited to a succession of fleeting experiences of particular finite goods at specific times and places. Rather, they involve the eternal and metaphysically necessary possession of an infinite good. It is preposterous to think of that as somehow inferior to the piddling pleasures of which we poor rational animals are capable.
The theological imaginations of critics of classical theism are limited precisely because they rely on imagination, in the sense of forming mental imagery – on exercises like considering what things would seem like for them if they remained conscious and able to think but lost their sense organs and viscera, and concluding, absurdly, that that must be the kind of thing the classical theist has in mind. In effect, they start conceiving of God as a kind of defective human being. They are so lost in anthropomorphism that even when they think they are avoiding it they are in fact only sinking deeper into it. Tell them that God lacks our bodily limitations and they conclude that what he has must be something less than what we have, when in fact the whole point is that it is something more than what we have.
Even these critics of classical theism seem not to make this mistake where the divine intellect is concerned, or at least not to make it as badly. If you tell them that God’s intellect is not limited by having to take in information through sense organs or by having to process it through neural activity, they don’t conclude from this that God must therefore be dumber than us. Yet for some reason they suppose that if God lacks experiential episodes like ours, then he must be less capable of joy, delight, and the like than we are!
(At pp. 215-16 of Five Proofs, I proposed a series of analogies – the conjunction of all true propositions, the way that colors are contained in a beam of white light, and the way that a variety of shapes are contained virtually in a lump of dough – as means by which to get a handle on what it means to say that there is in God all knowledge. It might be a useful exercise for the reader to try to apply such analogies to the attempt to get a better handle on what it means to say that there is in God unlimited delight and joy.)