God’s Essence-Experience Binate
Many thoughtful believers wonder how best to talk both about God’s steadfast stability and relational flexibility. Unfortunately, even some of the best thinkers end up sacrificing one to affirm the other.
For much of history, trained theologians in the Abrahamic faiths have sacrificed God’s relational flexibility in their desire to emphasize God’s stability. They typically began with the idea that a perfect being would never change. Steadfast stability meant God was unaffected, unmoved, or pure act without potentiality.
20th century theologian Carl F.H. Henry puts it this way: “God is perfect and, if imperfect, can only change for the worse.” Perhaps the most influential theologian after the second century, Augustine, spells out what this means: “There is no modification in God, because there is nothing in him that can be changed or lost…he remains absolutely unchangeable.” I’ve written other blogs showing that Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury thought similarly.
Yet central themes of scripture and the everyday experience of believers suggest creatures affect God’s life. What creatures did could make God happy or sad, hopeful or angry, jealous or proud. God may change plans based on the faithfulness or unfaithfulness of people.
Many Christians point to the clearest revelation of God — Jesus — as the best evidence that God is affected by others. And if love is inherently relational, a God of love must not be unchanging and unaffected in all respects.
Much of the credit for finding a rational way to affirm God’s steadfast stability and relational flexibility goes to two 20th century philosophers: Alfred Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.
Whitehead’s way of doing this led him to talk about God’s “primordial” and “consequential” poles. This, in turn, led to what is now called “dipolar theism.” Whitehead’s actual writing about these “poles,” however, is confusing and sometimes apparently contradictory. If you don’t believe me, read the conclusion of his tome, Process and Reality!
Hartshorne modified Whitehead’s dipolar theism. Hartshorne spoke of God’s “existence” and “actuality” instead of two divine poles. The existence portion of Hartshorne’s scheme indicates the fact that God exists is steadfastly unchanging. But how God actually exists in each moment changes in relationship with creatures.
I find this general way of talking about this duality in God helpful. But I’ve become dissatisfied with the label “dipolar theism.” It unfortunately leads many to think God has two natures or two parts. Both of these ideas undermine the unity of God most theologians and I think important to affirm.
I’ve come to call this way of talking about two aspects in God the “divine essence-experience binate.”
I prefer this phrase, because it identifies the two aspects of God at issue: an unchanging essence and moment-by-moment experiences. Affirming both means God can be trusted to be steadfastly stable in, for instance, God’s moral dimension. And yet God also can engage us in dynamic, flexible, give-and-receiving love.
I prefer “binate” over “dipolar,” because it avoids talking about “poles.” Other words might also work, of course. But “binate” sufficiently mentions “two-ness,” without identifying obviously what the twoness describes. I can then clarify that God’s essence is simple (unified), while God’s experience is plural in an everlasting chain of moments of the divine life.
The advantages of speaking of God’s essence and experience are many. In a forthcoming article on God’s relationality, for instance, I argue that God’s essence is unmoved/impassible, while God’s experience is affected by creation/passible.
There are other advantages too. I’ve mentioned many in my books about love. I plan to explore these in future blogs.
Let me end this essay with a biblical passage I think describes God’s essence-experience binate. The writer of Lamentations says, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:22-23).
I interpret this verse as saying God’s love is steadfast, in the sense that God’s essence includes love as a necessary attribute. That fact will never change, and we can always count on God to love. But God’s mercies are new every morning, in the sense that God’s expresses relational giving-and-receiving love in new ways. Love is dynamic in that sense.
In sum, I recommend the idea of God’s essence-experience binate as a way to make sense of God’s stability and flexibility!“Essence-experience binate” identifies the two aspects of God at issue: unchanging essence and moment-by-moment experiences. Click To Tweet