I mentioned in a previous post that I’d been reading the volume The Work of Love—a collection of essays edited by John Polkinghorne that explore the idea of divine “kenosis” or self-limitation.
Keith Ward, in his essay “Cosmos and Kenosis,” provides what I think is a helpful nuance to the concept of kenosis. He notes that the Lutheran theologians who pioneered a “kenotic” Christology understood it in terms of the divine Word divesting itself of its divine properties in the Incarnation. Appeal in this case was often made to Paul’s “hymn” in Philippians 2. However, Ward says, it’s just as natural, if not moreso, to interpret kenosis here in a moral rather than a metaphysical sense. Moreover, we can see kenosis as characterizing not just the incarnation or the life of Christ, but how God creates and interacts with the entire world.
In particular, Ward argues that kenosis is not just a self-limitation on God’s part, but a means of actualizing certain potentialities in the divine being that would otherwise remain un-realized. How so? First, by creating finite creatures, God is able to attain “affective knowledge” of their joys and sufferings. This goes beyond simple propositional knowledge that a creature is, for instance, suffering; it encompasses an empathetic experience on God’s part. This is a limitation for God—God gives up the perfect, undisturbed bliss God enjoyed in eternity. But it also adds something genuinely new to God’s knowledge and experience. Similarly, by creating a world with its own relative autonomy and creativity, God permits new forms of value to come into existence, which God delights in, even though this limits God’s power and knowledge.
Thus, on Ward’s account, kenosis—God’s self-limitation in giving up perfect bliss, as well as total omniscience and omnipotence—is not sheer self-abnegation. Rather it is for the sake of genuinely new values and experiences that would have been unavailable to God otherwise (scandalous as that may sound). In Ward’s terms, kenosis (self-emptying) leads to “pleroma,” or greater fulfillment:
God limits the divine properties in order that a cosmos of free finite agents should exist. But God thereby realizes new aspects of the divine nature as God enters into real relationship with creatures. God not only suffers new things. God also enjoys and delights in new things. And in the end all those good things are to be conserved in God, and perhaps shared with creatures, for ever. There is an addition to the divine being as well as a limitation of it, and the two are essentially bound together. So if we can speak of a kenosis in God, a renunciation of his absolute and unmixed perfection, we must also speak of a pleroma, or fulfillment, in God, by which new forms of perfection are added by creatures to the divine being. (p. 160)
This is obviously at odds with the classical view of God, in which God cannot be changed or affected by what creatures do, and nothing can be added to or taken away from the divine bliss. It could be argued, however, that what Ward calls this “more relational and participative view of God” is supported by certain passages in the Bible which portray God in more relational and passionate terms.
In fact, I’ve sometimes wondered if God’s love should necessarily be portrayed strictly in terms of disinterested agape without a trace of eros. Does God not long to be united with God’s creatures? Does the existence of creation really add nothing to God’s happiness? As Ward says, it would be presumptions to claim certainty about what is essential to the divine nature, but on the face of it this movement of divine kenosis and pleroma seems to resonate with large parts of the biblical portrait of God.
It can be—and has been–argued that God’s love can only be truly self-giving if creation is utterly gratuitous and God gains nothing by the existence of creatures. However, this isn’t how we usually think about love between humans. If I claim to love you but remain totally unaffected by you and get nothing out of our relationship, you might reasonably infer that my love was less than genuine. Of course, God’s love should not be thought of as exactly like human love. But if our language is to point–however metaphorically or analogously–to God, we may well wonder if God can be said to truly love creation without being affected by it in some way.