Does God need us?

I’ve been reading a collection of essays edited by John Polkinghorne called The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis. It includes some pretty heavy hitters: Polkinghorne himself, Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, Jürgen Moltmann, Keith Ward, Paul Fiddes, and Sarah Coakley among others. The general theme is the “self-emptying” or self-limitation of God in relation to the created world. The collection arose out of discussions of the work of Moltmann and Anglican clergyman and theologian W.H. Vanstone (who, sadly, passed away between the conference and the publication of the essays).*

One of the essays I’ve found most stimulating is by British Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes, who argues that there are far-reaching implications to the idea that God creates “out of love.” If we take the analogy of divine and human love with full seriousness, Fiddes says, we should reject the traditional view that God doesn’t need the world.

Fiddes considers three characteristics of love that lead to this conclusion. Love as we know it is receptive: it doesn’t “refus[e] to receive anything” from the beloved. Indeed, such a “love” might be deemed unfeeling, or even pathological. Analogously, we can suppose that God delights in the gifts and praise offered by God’s creatures. Similarly, love suffers, both in solidarity with the suffering of the beloved and when it is rejected. Thus, Fiddes sides with many contemporary theologians in rejecting a strict impassibility in God. Finally, love is creative, seeking to realize new possibilities for goodness. God’s creativity is not actualized “all at once,” but over the course of history as new possibilities are actualized, the outcome of which even God does not know. Understood this way, genuine love implies a relational give-and-take between God and creation, in contrast to the deity of classical theism who is unaffected by the world.

To say that God is not self-sufficient doesn’t mean that God is not self-existent, however. God is ontologically independent of creation, but God freely chooses to be in relation to creation, which means that God can change, at least in some respects. Following Karl Barth, Fiddes suggests that God’s will is prior to God’s nature. That is to say “we might regard creation as being part of God’s self-definition, an integral factor in God’s own self-determination, since God chooses to be completed through a created universe . . . God needs the world because God freely chooses to be in need.” To use biblical language, we might say that God makes a covenant with creation, which makes the success of God’s purposes partly dependent on creaturely response.

In the final part of his essay, Fiddes considers how the God who enters into a genuine relationship of love with creation can be said to act in the world. He suggests that the manner of God’s action “cannot be coercive or manipulative but only persuasive, seeking to create response.” Creatures are “caught up” in the patterns that characterize the movements of the divine life and can come to cooperate with God in realizing states of greater goodness. This is similar to the view of process theology, though Fiddes prefers to see the conceptual categories of process thought as one set of metaphors among others for pointing to the call and response between God and creation.

But if God’s action is persuasive and attractive rather than unilaterally determinative, this implies a certain risk. God takes the risk that the divine purposes may be hindered by creatures’ failure to respond to the divine lure. This doesn’t mean that God’s purposes can totally fail, though: In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we see that God’s love works in and through suffering to reconcile all things.

Like many of the other contributors to this collection, Fiddes rejects aspects of the classical view of God, particularly the metaphysical attributes of timelessness and impassibility. But he also manages to avoid some of the pitfalls of, e.g., process theology by affirming God’s freedom and metaphysical ultimacy. He does this in part by making the analogy of love, rather than a particular metaphysical scheme, the central motif of his doctrine of God. I don’t know if I’m fully persuaded, but I was intrigued enough to order a copy of his book on the Trinity.

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*Vanstone’s best known work is Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, also published under the title The Risk of Love.

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