Is God happy?

Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski:

The question is not absurd. Our conventional view of happiness is as an emotional state of mind. But is God subject to emotion? Certainly, we are told that God loves His creatures, and love, at least in the human world, is an emotion. But love is a source of happiness when it is reciprocated, and God’s love is reciprocated only by some of His subjects, by no means all: some do not believe that He exists, some do not care whether He exists or not, and others hate Him, accusing Him of indifference in the face of human pain and misery. If He is not indifferent, but subject to emotion like us, He must live in a constant state of sorrow when He witnesses human suffering. He did not cause it or want it, but He is helpless in the face of all the misery, the horrors and atrocities that nature brings down on people or people inflict on each other.

If, on the other hand, He is perfectly immutable, He cannot be perturbed by our misery; He must therefore be indifferent. But if He is indifferent, how can He be a loving father? And if He is not immutable, then He takes part in our suffering, and feels sorrow. In either case, God is not happy in any sense we can understand.

We are forced to admit that we cannot understand the divine being—omnipotent, omniscient, knowing everything in Himself and through Himself, not as something external to Him, and unaffected by pain and evil.

The true God of the Christians, Jesus Christ, was not happy in any recognizable sense. He was embodied and suffered pain, he shared the suffering of his fellow men, and he died on the cross.

In short, the word “happiness” does not seem applicable to divine life. But nor is it applicable to human beings. This is not just because we experience suffering. It is also because, even if we are not suffering at a given moment, even if we are able to experience physical and spiritual pleasure and moments beyond time, in the “eternal present” of love, we can never forget the existence of evil and the misery of the human condition. We participate in the suffering of others; we cannot eliminate the anticipation of death or the sorrows of life.

Must we, then, accept Schopenhauer’s dismal doctrine that all pleasant feelings are purely negative, namely the absence of pain? Not necessarily. There is no reason to maintain that the things we experience as good—aesthetic delight, erotic bliss, physical and intellectual pleasure of all kinds, enriching conversation, and the love of friends—must all be seen as pure negation. Such experiences strengthen us; they make us spiritually healthier. But they cannot do anything about either malum culpae or malum poenae—evil or suffering.

There are, of course, people who consider themselves happy because they are successful: healthy and rich, lacking nothing, respected (or feared) by their neighbors. Such people might believe that their life is what happiness is. But this is merely self-deception; and even they, from time to time at least, realize the truth. And the truth is that they are failures like the rest of us.

An objection could be raised here. If we have absorbed true wisdom of the higher sort, we might believe, like Alexander Pope, that whatever is, is right; or, like Leibniz, that we dwell in the best of all logically possible worlds. And if in addition to accepting something like this intellectually, in addition, that is, to simply believing that all must be right with the world because it is under the constant guidance of God, we also feel in our hearts that this is so, and experience the splendor, goodness, and beauty of the universe in our daily life, then can we not be said to be happy? The answer is: no, we cannot.

Happiness is something we can imagine but not experience. If we imagine that hell and purgatory are no longer in operation and that all human beings, every single one without exception, have been saved by God and are now enjoying celestial bliss, lacking nothing, perfectly satisfied, without pain or death, then we can imagine that their happiness is real and that the sorrows and suffering of the past have been forgotten. Such a condition can be imagined, but it has never been seen. It has never been seen.

“Is God Happy?” (New York Review of Books)


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