Michael Rea on Love and Divine Personality

February 2nd, 2017 by

Many believe that a God of perfect love guides human history. But this raises a problem. If God is perfectly loving, wouldn’t God do whatever he can to actualize loving relationships with every human? And if so, wouldn’t God at the very least ensure that each non-resistant person capable of relationship with him would have a reasonable belief that he exists? But here we are, in a world filled with smart, virtuous, non-resistant non-believers. Perhaps, then, a God of love does not exist. This is but one version of the problem of divine hiddenness.

Recently, Michael Rea, a very gifted and respected philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, joined us at Fuller Theological Seminary to provide a theistic response to this problem. He noted that those who discuss the problem of divine hiddenness often tacitly assume that God could only be justified in permitting hiddenness if it serves greater human goods; and Rea explained that this assumption is often based upon a particular understanding of God’s love, namely, that divine love is an idealized version of the best kind of human love—the kind of love one human person would have for another if she were to have it in its most ideal manner. Rea spent the majority of his time making the case that there are good a priori reasons for thinking that God’s love, though no doubt perfect, would not be idealized human love.

To make that case, Rea had us consider what it means to have an attribute in an idealized way. Typically, having such an attribute includes having this attribute in a way that is free from any (relevant) limitations as well as having the defining features of that attribute to the maximal degree. For example, suppose that the best kind of human love just is, or contains, the desire for the loved one’s good. If so, then a person who loves another in an idealized way would have an unlimited desire for her loved one’s good, where an unlimited desire is one that eclipses in priority and strength any desire focused on anyone or anything else, including one’s own good. Given all of this, if God loves you in an idealized way, God would be maximally oriented toward your good. He would desire your good with a strength that eclipses in priority and intensity any desire focused on anyone or anyone else, including himself. There could not possibly be a being more devoted to you!

Though that might initially sound nice, Rea argued that such a view of God is beneath divine perfection. The main reason Rea offered for thinking this has do with what Susan Wolf calls a (loving) moral saint: someone who is maximally committed to promoting the welfare of others, to the exclusion of the promotion of any other goods, including her own interests or welfare. Wolf contends that it would not be rational or good for a human to be a moral saint. Such a human person would miss out on a whole host of goods, including the cultivation of a love for art, excellent food and drink, the joy of leisure, many kinds of relationships, and so on. This is because the good life unfortunately involves a balance of other-centered and self-centered goods. But, plausibly, sometimes it is perfectly respectable, even preferable, for a human to choose to promote her own interests rather than—even at the cost of—the interests of others. The moral saint overlooks this need for balance, and, as a result, she is without a genuine personality in the sense that she doesn’t have her own interests and desires that are not exclusively oriented around others.

Rea contends that what is true of the human moral saint is also true of God. If God is maximally fixated on you, he would not have his own personality in the described sense. And surely it would be beneath divine perfection to be without a personality. But once we grant that God has his own personality, his own interests and projects, it could well be that God must occasionally choose between his own interests and projects and yours. If such a clash were to occur, it would be perfectly reasonable to think that your interests and projects should give way to God’s—at least sometimes. Even though you might be pretty spectacular, you’re worth is far surpassed by God’s. And it only seems right for God to respect his own tremendous worth by at least sometimes choosing his ways over your welfare. From this Rea draws a significant moral: If it is right that God should sometimes choose his own ways at the expense of human goods, then, Rea concludes, “there is no incoherence in supposing that God loves human beings perfectly but nevertheless permits divine hiddenness for reasons that have nothing to do with the promotion of human goods. Perhaps such things are permitted instead for the realization of legitimate and worthwhile divine goods, or perhaps other goods wholly beyond our ken.”

One might think that Rea’s argument, if successful, shows that God’s love is so radically different than human love that we can’t in any measure judge God’s ways by the best standards of human love. But that would be a mistake. Though Rea may have shown that God’s love is not idealized human love in his specific sense, he hasn’t shown that God’s love isn’t significantly related or even identical to ideal or perfect human love (or better: that perfect human love is not identical or significantly similar to its source, God’s love). On the contrary, Rea’s use of Wolf’s moral saint example only underscores an unnoticed way in which human and divine love are similar: it wouldn’t be good for either God or a human to be a moral saint. But, as I’m sure Rea would agree, since Rea hasn’t severed the similarity between divine and human love, there is still cause for thinking that a perfectly loving God wouldn’t permit the kinds of hiddenness that pervades our world. For even if one grants that God should not be a moral saint, this does not mean that a God of perfect love can systematically overlook the basic needs of humans, whom he intentionally created and is responsible for. And, as the Christian sees things, humans need God in a very profound sense, more than they need food or drink. So, it seems that God must make himself available to humans, if the term “love” is to be meaningfully applied to God. (Consider a relevantly analogous case were a human accumulates twenty cats, knowing full well that he cannot care for them. We would fault him not for occasionally choosing his own interests over the cats but for taking them into his care when he knows he hasn’t the resources to meet their most basic needs. Such a person hardly loves the cats.) Yet here we are, in a world filled with people who seek God with no response. Doesn’t this provide some evidence against the existence of a loving God? It’s difficult to confidently answer “no.”

Don’t be distressed, however. The talk Rea gave at Fuller is just one small part of a book project dealing with the problem of divine hiddenness. He thus has much more to say on the topic. For now, Rea has presented a fascinating case for rethinking the kinds of candidate goods that might factor into why God hides his face.


Jordan Wessling (PhD, University of Bristol) is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary. He holds a PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol and was the Frederick J. Crosson Fellow at Center for Philosophy of Religion, University of Notre Dame.

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