Should We Partner with God? Yes, But Only if He Cares About Us
By R. T. Mullins
If God cannot possibly care about us, then I see no reason why I should care about Him,
and thus no reason to partner with God.
There are different conceptions of God that impact decisions that we have to make about whether to partner with God. I would argue that some conceptions of God make God the sort of being that is not worth partnering with. One crucial question is, “Can God possibly care about me?” In my mind, if God cannot possibly care about me, then I see no reason why I should care about Him, and thus no reason to partner with God. In my recent book, God and Emotion, I investigate different conceptions of God’s emotional life in order to figure out if God can care about us. Here is a bit of my personal story about how I decided to investigate the emotional life of God, and how I concluded that the only God worth partnering with is a God who cares.
The story begins in the Fall of 2012. The Scottish weather was just beginning to grow cold on this lovely Tuesday afternoon. In the capital of Scotland, there is a terraced home on the outskirts of Edinburgh city center. Inside this home I sat in a well-worn comfy armchair. It was a place I had sat so many times before. Gary sat across from me and spoke the now familiar words, “So, what shall we work on today?” I had been seeing Gary for about a year and a half. Gary was counseling me through the turmoil of a broken relationship.
As I pondered Gary’s question, my mind raced over the work we had done up to this point. When I first started seeing Gary, I struggled to feel anything at all. I knew intellectually that I had emotions, but I could not feel them. They were alien thoughts that scarcely felt a part of me. It was as if these emotions did not belong to me at all. Amid suffering I had somehow turned my emotions off. It was a handy defense mechanism, but it had its drawbacks. It prevented me from feeling pain, but it also prevented me from enjoying day-to-day activities. Instead, I only experienced a cool, calm stoicism with no joy or pain. This inability to connect with my emotions ultimately made it difficult to relate to others.
As I reflected on this, an answer to Gary’s question came to mind. I looked at Gary and said, “Over the past year, you have helped me get in touch with my emotions. And this has really helped me develop meaningful relationships. However, there is one relationship that I could not work on—and that is my relationship with God.”
This was an odd topic to discuss with Gary. As an atheist, he is not exactly the ideal candidate to help me draw closer to God. Yet he found the idea exciting. Normally Gary had been hesitant to discuss religion with me during our counselling sessions. He said he found it intimidating to talk about such things with a philosopher. He was always willing to listen, but was not comfortable laying out his own beliefs for fear that I would raise an objection that he couldn’t answer. At the time, I was working on my PhD dissertation on God and time. Gary would often joke that my job was to destroy traditional Christian doctrine. He would say, “I just imagine you planting time bombs, and sitting back to watch them go off.” There was some truth in this I suppose, but I prefer to think of myself as clearing the ground for the gospel to be heard. But explaining that to an atheist didn’t seem to matter at the moment.
Though Gary was usually hesitant to discuss God with me, today was different. The idea of discussing the relationship between God and emotions was somewhat intriguing to him.
Gary said, “I had never really thought before about this one relationship. We have focused so much on you getting connected to your emotions, and learning how to relate to others. I had not really thought about this in connection with God. But I suppose this should be easy since religion is all about emotions.”
When I heard Gary say this, I sank in my chair a bit, feeling somewhat defeated. I looked back at Gary and said, “Well, not exactly. There is the doctrine of divine impassibility. Traditionally, Christians have said that God does not experience any emotions. Or, at most, God experiences nothing but undisturbed happiness. Either way, nothing can affect or change God’s emotional state. God is completely unaffected by anything that happens. Christians have even seen this as an ideal state humans should strive towards.”
Gary was shocked to hear this. His jaw literally dropped. The idea that God should lack emotions, or that the world could have no impact on God, disturbed him. In his mind, it meant that God cannot care about any of us. It is difficult to describe the look of audacity on an atheist’s face who wants to shout, “No! God cannot be like that!” What Gary found to be even more disturbing is that one should think that a life without emotional vulnerability towards others was one worth striving for. I could see on his face that he was thinking, “No, no, no. This just cannot be!” After a long pause, Gary looked at me with a glimmer in his eye and said, “It looks like you have another doctrine to destroy.”
On that day, God spoke to me through an atheist to let me know that He still cared. Not only that, God had a clear project for me if I was willing to partner with Him. I wasn’t ready to accept this after everything that I had gone through. Yet this counseling session with Gary stayed with me. About a year after this encounter with Gary, I decided to investigate the topic of God’s emotional life further and develop arguments against the doctrine of impassibility. I wasn’t sure exactly where this project was going, but at least one atheist seemed to think it was deeply important. So I decided to partner with God a little longer in order to investigate these questions.
As I continued my research on God’s emotional life, I didn’t speak to many Christians about the topic at first. It was apparent to me that the church and academic theology did not care about me or my research. So instead of conversing with Christians, many of my early interactions with people about this research topic were atheists and agnostics. It was an odd experience to speak with atheists and agnostics about God and emotion. The reactions from people were often quite visceral when I would tell them about the traditional doctrine of impassibility. After I would describe the traditional doctrine, people would sometimes find it downright offensive that God could be like that. I even had an atheist friend say, “Ryan, you have to tell these people that their view of God is wrong. God cannot be like that!” To which I said, “Why do you care? You don’t even believe that God exists.”
But the thing is, my friend does care. We all do. Part of what it means to be human is that we have this deep desire to be understood. According to Francis McConnell, humans “want to feel that their suffering means something at the center of the universe. It means that they crave at least to be understood through the understanding which comes out of sympathetic sharing.” For my atheist friend, hearing that even if God exists, that God could not be emotionally affected by his life was just unacceptable. It left him feeling cold and alone in the universe.
Another one of my friends is an agnostic. At first, she was very interested to hear about the different views on God’s emotional life. She wanted to hear the arguments for and against each view. Yet there was one night where we were chatting about this, and she came to this realization about God. She decided that there must be a God, but she had serious doubts that it was worth pursuing a relationship with God. She said, “What I am really struggling with right now is if God cares. Why would I bother with a God who could not possibly give two shits about me?”
Her statement really stuck with me. This topic of God’s emotional life cannot be so easily left in the realm of abstract theoretical debate. It digs deeply into every single one of our hearts. It really does matter to us mere mortals on the pale blue dot if God cares about us. If God cannot care about us, why should we bother partnering with Him? But if God can care about us, that changes everything. We have to decide. We have to dig deep into our hearts and decide if we want to partner with God.
Question: Is God the kind of being that we should partner with?
R. T. Mullins (PhD, University of St Andrews) is a senior research fellow at the University of Helsinki’s Collegium for Advanced Study. He is the author of The End of the Timeless God (Oxford University Press, 2016), and God and Emotion (Cambridge University Press, 2020). You can follow his work and The Reluctant Theologian Podcast at rtmullins.com.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.