God & Love – May 2000

Question: “God is love,” says the author of 1 John. How does process thought generally answer the issue at the basis of two questions: “Is love an abstract standard outside of Godself that God embodies perfectly?” or “Is love whatever God does, simply because God does it?”

Publication Month: May 2000

Dr. Cobb’s Response

This question harks back to the Realist-Nominalist debates of the later Middle Ages. The Realists, such as Thomas Aquinas, believed that human beings have some knowledge of the distinction between good and evil. God, they argued, is purely good. The Nominalists taught that good and evil have no existence in themselves. Such distinctions depend entirely on the point of view. We cannot place our preferences as absolute, and then judge God by them. On the contrary it is God’s judgment that establishes what is good and evil. 

Calvin was a Nominalist. He depicted God as condemning most people to Hell from all eternity. To a Realist this does not seem good. But to a Nominalist, if this is God’s will, then it is good by definition. The good is what God wills.

Actually, of course, a Nominalist like Calvin tries to help us understand why this punishment of most people is just. Practically, thus there is some concession to normal human understanding of goodness and justice. But when this explanation reaches its limits, the appeal is to the Nominalist principle. People should accept God’s will rather than protest against it.

Process theology is on the Realist side. It goes farther than the Medieval Realists in adjusting Christian doctrines to the central importance of God’s goodness. For example, our denial that God has controlling power over events is partly for the purpose of showing that God’s working in every event is for the good. The good is understood here as that which benefits creatures. And although we know there can be debates about exactly what that is, we believe that human beings can reach considerable consensus on ideas of what is better or worse for them.

The question is posed here in terms of love. The influence of the Christ event has lifted up this way of conceiving goodness and established it as central. Most Christians believe that for God to be good is for God to be love, that is, to aim at the good of creation and empathize with all that creatures experience.

Although thinking of goodness in just this way is deeply influenced by the life and teachings and death of Jesus, we are not told that love is good because God happens to love or that love is whatever God happens to do. On the contrary, we are given examples of love in human relationships and told that the qualities exemplified there are far more fully embodied in God.

We are shown love in Jesus’ acts and told that those acts give us the finest clue to what God is like.  Now if we probe further as process theologians, we may conclude that our deepest intuitions about goodness and love derive from our primarily nonconscious experience of God. There may be a circularity between our understanding of what is good and loving and our understanding of God’s purposes. The dichotomy assumed in the formulation of the question in the late Middle Ages may be exaggerated.

But for practical purposes, we side strongly with the Realists. We use what understanding of love we have in ordinary life, especially our experience of healthy parental love, and we affirm that we discern the perfect embodiment of this in God.

Other theologies, recognizing that words gain their primary meaning in creaturely relations, suggest that the application of these terms to God is analogical. Charles Hartshorne reversed this in an interesting way. He argued that the only strictly literal use of “love” is in its application to God. Our feelings toward one another are always mixed and impure.

Hence to say that we love one another is never quite literally true. But God does, literally, love us. In short, we can derive ideas from observing creaturely relations that are not purely exemplified in those relations. Some of those we are warranted in applying literally to God.