Perfect Love – March 2001

Question: Is God’s love perfect?

Publication Month: March 2001

Dr. Cobb’s Response

The questioner notes that his or her way of thinking of God is farther from the tradition than is that of standard process thought. That is true. The reality of evil requires adjustment in either the thought of God’s love or that of God’s power. The questioner proposes that both should be modified. Just in terms of adjusting our thought of God to the reality of evil, that is a reasonable solution.

If the positive approach to God is primarily cosmological, and if one is led to think of God chiefly by the gradual increase of complexity in the organization of things and of richness in the subjectivity of things, then, again, this speculation about God’s finitude and imperfection is reasonable, although it is not required by the evidence.

The questioner seems to be thinking of God as one being alongside others, that being that exerts a particular kind of influence on the course of events. This is certainly a process view. But it is not that of Hartshorne or Whitehead.

Furthermore, the point that God did not love human beings until there were human beings to love is surely correct. If we speak of God’s loving human beings before that, it can only mean that God aimed to bring into being creatures with the rich complexity embodied in human beings.

There are several considerations, however, that lead most process theologians to a different conclusion. The questioner seems to make a sharper distinction between human beings and other creatures than we like.  God loves not just human beings but all creatures. Of course, the love of creatures does not mean that God protects them from suffering and premature death. This does not happen with human beings either. The perfection of love consists in calling them to whatever actualization is best for the situations in which they find themselves. Although that best is often far from good, and God’s call is often poorly heeded, there is no evidence that God is doing this better now than many thousands of years ago. Similarly both Hartshorne and Whitehead taught that all that happens in the world is received into the life of God. There is no reason to suppose that God does this better now than in earlier epochs.

The notion that God is perfect has both religious and philosophical grounds. We understand that no creature will be perfect, because our perspectives are so particular and our experience so selective and fragmentary. But if there is a complete and inclusive standpoint, why deny perfection to the experience and activity that take place from there? Where are we standing when we make such judgments? What idea of perfection are we employing?

The affirmation of divine perfection leaves many questions unsolved.  Hartshorne, who emphasizes this concept, also extensively criticizes the way it has been traditionally understood. God’s power is perfect, but for Hartshorne that certainly does not mean that God has all the power, or that God’s power is coercive or controlling. God is perfect love, but that does not mean that we are protected from evil or that God favors us over other creatures.

None of this refutes the speculations of the questioner. It simply raises questions as to what is gained by departing so far from the tradition and the reasons given in support of the tradition. Hartshorne called his position neo-classical. He believed that when the idea of perfection is properly formulated, it applies to God and can even be used to establish the reality of God. Not all process theologians share that confidence. But we do share with Hartshorne the belief that what is fragmentary in us is complete in God and that what we are called by God to do and be is indeed what it would be best to do and be. We cannot think of some higher standard by which to judge God’s call.